Fresh air has a direct impact on productivity

Cigarette smokers huddled on street corners or leaning over balconies are common with commercial office spaces now-days, following the belief that the main pollutants (that of secondary smoke inhalation), are taken care of. Ironically, many pollution culprits are less visible and often even more toxic than passive smoking. Like the fable of the frog left in a pot of boiling water, many office workers have simply acclimatised to working in poorly ventilated office spaces.

Most office workers will be alarmed to know that they may be spending most of their working day breathing in air that is at best compromised, not to mention the fact that a lot of it is recycled air. All too often, especially in older office buildings, only 30% of the air inside an office can be considered fresh, the rest is all recycled.

This stale air is often loaded with biological and chemical contaminants which could include dust and dust mites, pollen, mould and bacteria. Office air condition ducts also circulate air contaminated by gases emitted by building materials, detergents, glues, carpets and indoor paints. These chemical contaminants are produced by materials and products used routinely in office environments. In low doses the products’ toxicity go undetected, but over time they do have a direct impact on office workers’ well-being and productivity, and can lead to hypersensitivity in some people.

The effects of long-term exposure to these contaminants have led health practitioners to call these difficult-to-define symptoms as “sick building syndrome”.  People suffering from sick building syndrome will often complain of vague flu-like symptoms, poor motivation and listlessness. More serious complaints would include:

  • Irritation of the eyes
  • Skin rashes and outbreaks
  • Allergies
  • Respiratory illnesses such as asthma
  • Persistent coughs
  • Hay fever-like symptoms

Chronic symptoms caused by poor air quality not only affect office workers’ health, but also their psychological well-being and productivity. Lower individual and organisational productivity and absenteeism in turn have a direct impact on a business’ cost structure.

Research studies show that workers transferred from old poorly ventilated office buildings to new “green” offices, all reported a significant increases in general well-being. Workers also noted that they generally felt healthier and more productive. Companies’ human resources departments found a significant drop in man-hours lost due to absenteeism, stress and depression.

The trend towards greening office environments is not simply based on ethical and environmental considerations. It also makes good business sense. Businesses that have opted for sustainable green office spaces also find they have a lower turnover in staff, and find it easier to attract and hold onto talented people.

The Green Building Council

In South Africa green buildings are rated and accredited by the Green Building Council SA (GBCSA). The GBCSA was formed in 2007 and is part of an international initiative to promote sustainable green building practices. To date the GBCSA has issued more than fifty certificates, and has recently given the new Portside building on Cape Town’s foreshore a prestigious 5-star rating. This 5-star rating means that all the air circulating in the Portside building is equivalent to clean fresh air.

Portside is a prime office and retail building in Cape Town’s CBD looking onto Table Bay and Table Mountain. The 32-floor building is bounded by Buitengracht, Hans Strijdom and Bree Streets and adds more than 52 000 m2 office space and 1 200 m2 retail space to the city’s CBD. Portside, designed by DHK and Louis Karol Architects, is a joint venture between Old Mutual and First Rand Bank.

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