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Impaired Decision Making in Conference Rooms

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  • By Pan Chaoyang
  • Date October 27th, 2016 12:46
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  • Impaired Decision Making in Conference Rooms

    During the first half of 2016, Gensler embarked on a study to measure the impact of plants on indoor air quality. Led by Kyle Mertensmeyer, the study included the participation of PureLiving, Green Fortune, Qlear and GIGA. The study was part of a three year Gensler research project on indoor and outdoor air quality.

    Although many of the findings are ground-breaking, producing enough graphs and statistics to fill a 100 page report that reads like a Malcolm Gladwell book, one graph has been getting more attention than any other. What’s surprising about the graph is that it isn’t anything special (see below). Yet, within a few hours of being shared it had already traveled around the world. Within days and weeks it had affected the decision making process of some of the world’s largest developers and design firms.

    For the purpose of the 2016 study, two identical conference rooms were used, one fitted out with a green wall and one without. Both rooms were monitored 24/7 for several months, tracking the impact that plants have on CO2, PM2.5, VOCs, temperature and humidity. Of all the results that were documented, the impact plants have on PM2.5 were the most eye opening - a subject we’ll keep for another post. Meanwhile, the least surprising results - those which turned out exactly as expected - have been getting the most attention: the impact plants have on CO2.

    During the testing period the same three people were periodically rotated in and out of the conference rooms for several hours at a time. Prior to the study, we had expected the conference room with plants to have noticeably lower CO2 levels than the conference room without. We also expected CO2 levels produced by occupants in the conference room with plants to reduce at a faster rate once the occupants had left. This is of course what happened.

    Graph comparing CO2 results in both conference rooms over a 5 month period: green being the one with plants and grey being the one without. Data from Qlear. Image provided by Gensler.

    However, the point of interest was something else entirely: three people quietly sitting in a mid-size conference room produced CO2 levels that within 60 minutes, reached concentrations high enough to impair their ability to make the right decisions. In a corporate world where Directors regularly pile into closed-door conference rooms for hours on end, making the most important planning decisions for their companies, this was a disturbing realization.

    As expected, the conference room with plants (green) has lower overall levels of CO2 than the one without. The CO2 level in the conference room without plants reached 1600ppm at it's peak - impairing the ability of occupants to make the right decisions. Data from Qlear. Image provided by Gensler.

    The human brain evolved in an environment where CO2 levels have always hovered around 300 ppm. Over the past 100 years or so, average outdoor CO2 levels have shot past 400 and continue to rise. ASHRAE defines the human comfort level for CO2 exposure to be 1,000 ppm. At CO2 levels of 1,400 ppm, the ability of the brain to take the right decisions begins to be impaired, with cognitive performance dropping by an average of 50% compared to optimal indoor levels of 600ppm. At 2,500 cognitive dysfunction kicks in.

    Gensler’s ‘completely ordinary’ CO2 graph reminds us that levels of ~1,400 ppm are extremely common in boardrooms, as are levels of 2,500 ppm. At these concentrations productivity is significantly reduced and perhaps more importantly, poor decisions are made. One can only guess what the financial impact of decisions taken within these conditions has been - and continues to be.
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