Ventilation Rates and Office Work Performance

The influence of ventilation rates on objective (measured) office work performance has been assessed experimentally in call centers and laboratory settings representative of real offices. In call center studies [1-5], the time required to interact with clients via the telephone and perform related information processing via a computer was used as the performance outcome. The laboratory studies [6-10] had participants perform tasks representative of office work, such as proof reading of text, text typing, and simple arithmetic operations. Speed and accuracy in these simulated work tasks were measured. These studies experimentally manipulated ventilation rates while holding other factors constant to investigate the influence of ventilation rate on performance. The subjects were uninformed of the ventilation rates provided.

As an example, Figure 1 shows results from controlled laboratory studies [7, 9, 10] performed using a section of well-used 20-year old carpet (pollutant source) removed from a complaint building. Performance was improved by increasing the ventilation rate per person or by removing the carpet. For this figure, the relative performance was based on the combination of performance in typing, addition, and proof reading tests. Other data from the same research demonstrated an improvement on a test of creative thinking when the ventilation rate was increased from 6 to 20 cfm per person.

Figure 1. Controlled laboratory studies performed in Denmark show that performance, based on typing, addition, and proof reading tests, improved when an indoor pollutant source was removed (left sets of bars) or when the ventilation rate per person was increased with the pollution source present. The pollution source was a carpet taken from a complaint building. [Figure 1 reproduced with permission.]

Seppänen et al. [11] conducted a statistical analysis of data available from studies of how ventilation rate affected office work performance (which included call center work and simulated office work), plus one study of how ventilation rate in schools affected concentration and vigilance, to assess the average relationship between ventilation rate and performance of work. Figure 2 illustrates estimates of how office work performance varies with ventilation rate derived from the results of the statistical analyses of Seppänen et al. [11]. Performance (speed and accuracy) of typical office tasks improves with increased ventilation rate. For initial ventilation rates between 14 and 30 cfm per person, the average performance increases by approximately 0.8% per 10 cfm per person increase in ventilation rate. At higher ventilation rates, the average performance increase is smaller, approximately 0.3% per 10 cfm per person increase in ventilation rate. For ventilation rates less than 14 cfm per person, performance increases with ventilation rate seem likely; however, sufficient data are not yet available to confirm this hypothesis.

Figure 2. Predicted performance of office work at various ventilation rates relative to performance at the indicated reference ventilation rates. The curves in Figure 2 are derived from equations representing the best fit composite weighted curve shown in Figure 2 of Seppänen et al. [11]. For ventilation rates less than 28 cfm per person, the increased performance with ventilation rate have a 10% or smaller probability of being the result of chance (i.e., the 90% confidence interval excluded unity).

Values of relative performance (RP) can be estimated with the following equations.


where X is the new ventilation rate in cfm per person and y0 equals 5.8127, 11.9260, and 20.1553 for reference (i.e., initial) ventilation rates of 15, 20, and 30 cfm per person, respectively. For other values of reference ventilation rate, y0 can be calculated as follows


where XR is the reference (i.e., initial) ventilation rate in cfm per person. The equations should not be used for ventilation rates smaller than 13.8 cfm per person or larger than 80 cfm per person. The "Supporting Information" section of this document includes tabulated values of RP for convenient use in cost-benefit calculations.

Figure 2 and equations 1 and 2 are based on only nine studies and 26 data points. These studies involved only call center work and work tasks for which speed and accuracy could be readily quantified. While the predicted performance increases with ventilation rate increases are statistically significant over much of the range shown, there remains a high uncertainty about the magnitude of performance increases one should expect in actual practice. It is possible that the effects of ventilation rate on work performance may vary substantially with type of work, with outdoor air quality, and with indoor pollutant emission rates or other building features that affect indoor environmental quality.

More recently, the performance of 24 young adults was evaluated at ventilation rates of 10.6, 21.2, and 42.4 cfm per person [8]. The study was performed in a laboratory resembling an office with new finishing materials that are sources of volatile organic compounds. Each subject worked for eight hours under each of the three ventilation rates. Conditions other than ventilation rates were maintained constant. As ventilation rate increased from 10.6 to 42.4 cfm per person, performance in addition, text typing, and memorization tests increased 4.7%, 5.2%, and 8.0%, respectively. These performance increases were statistically significant, i.e., unlikely to be chance findings and larger than projected with Equation 1, possibly because of the presence of new sources of volatile organic compounds. In judgment, comparison, searching, and initiative tests, performance increases were smaller and not statistically significant.

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