Among the calls for accountability, affordability, sustainability and transparency at the 2016 Green Cities conference in Sydney, the wide-angle focus was also on humanity and community. Let’s get disruptive appealed to our most human instincts.

You walked into a room to meet a crowd standing up at the back (a topical option that also let late-comers blend in). Public transport was extolled by most delegates with an impassioned plea from Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore to reappraise the need for WestConnex, a motorway when other countries are shying away from them.

KPMG Banarra’s managing director Richard Boele noted that even award-winning buildings are not fully accessible and urged respect for human rights. Dr Cheong Koon Hean, Chief Executive of Singapore’s impressive Housing and Development Board said it annually adapts plans for the housing of 82 per cent of the population and takes into account housing needs at each age. The jury award for Weapons of Mass Creation (unofficially renamed Weapons of Disruption) went to Fairwater, Frasers Property’s Fairwater community in Sydney’s west, the first project in New South Wales to achieve a 6 Star Green Star Communities rating, with its geothermal heating and cooling, materials and waste recycling focus and open spaces for the healthy, active lifestyles we are all urged to pursue these days. The people’s prize went to Sydney City Council’s bicycle program.

An important partnership announced during the conference was in similar vein, that between the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). IWBI administers the WELL Building Standard, a performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features “that impact human health through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind”. The two organisations will work collaboratively to promote health and wellbeing in the design, construction and operation of buildings, fitouts and communities in Australia.

Targeting the same concerns, John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer at United Technologies, the first company, he says, to join the US Green Building Council in 1993, talked with about a lab-based Harvard University study the company funded into The Impact Of Green Buildings On Cognitive Function, which also leads to higher productivity (see 

Initial research showed there had been little to no scientific research in that field, Mandyck says. Harvard’s study sample of 24 came into laboratories for six days over two weeks, and took standard cognitive tests administered for the first time in a controlled indoor environment. The air was varied day by day for different levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within different areas of ventilation. “The participants were their own control measuring how they performed against themselves. That is why the data set is so rich,” he says. The sample also was very broad ­in age, male to female, background, education, though mostly knowledge workers such as architects and office workers, from a range of companies within the Syracuse (New York) business community.

Nine cognitive domains were tested including task orientation, basic activity levels, and, most tellingly,

  • crisis response, where scores were 97 per cent higher for the green environment and 131 per cent higher for the green environment with enhanced ventilation and lower carbon dioxide levels compared to the conventional environment;
  • information usage, where scores for green and enhanced green environments were 172 and 299 percent higher than in the conventional environment, respectively; and
  • strategy, green and enhanced green scores were 183 and 288 percent higher than the conventional environment.

“The main revelation from this research was that CO2, which was thought to be benign, at these levels, was found to have a significant impact on cognitive function, so we think it has potential to accelerate the green building movement around the world,” Mandyck says.

“Rather than focus on energy efficiency we now can start to chase the 90 per cent of the cost of buildings, the operating costs, to deliver a product that improves the heath and productivity of people inside the buildings.”

As a member of the Dose of Disruption: The Healthy Building Prescription conference panel, Mandyck was later optimistic that the connection of health and productivity in buildings is gaining momentum. The UT/Harvard study is now being carried out in 10 real office buildings in five cities in US in different climate zones with a mix of green and non-green buildings; results are expected in November.

A Dodge Data & Analytics Smart Market report into world green building trends in 2016 found that the main challenge for green building growth in Australia is the perception that green building is not affordable and is for high-end buildings only. It also found that one of the top triggers driving future green building activity in Australia is healthier neighbourhooods, at twice the percentage of the global market.

Climate Works chief executive Anna Skarbek said at the conference, “The market leaders have done a fantastic job of lifting their own performance and moving the frontier forward. But what hasn’t happened is that the rump of the market – which by volume is greater – has come with it at that pace,” she said.

“So the big question for existing buildings… is how do you take the best practice with the higher rated buildings and make that universal across the lower-rated buildings?”

In our increasingly knowledge-based economy showing scientifically that improved indoor environment quality has impact on cognitive functions might be the kick up the backside industry needs to bring it along.

Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma