Are you sure?

Earth Day dilemma: is life, in fact, better in a green office?

In a word, yes. While some think that making offices greener is just greenwash, those who work in a more energy-conscious work environment say that developing or renting green offices really is more than just a clever marketing trick.  And research underpins the concept, too.

Actually, in terms of being green, simple things are enough to make employees happy. Large windows let enough natural light into the office space, which is a simple solution that is not only cost and energy-efficient but is also more comfortable for people’s eyes. “Our office is a little bit like sitting in the jungle,” one person working in a certificated green office building told the BBJ, referring to the almost extreme amount of plants enjoying the sunshine.

In such a green environment, employees are more eager to implement green solutions themselves, too, for example participating in the selective collection of trash.

According to some, a green workplace allows one to learn how to live more environmentally consciously in his or her private life as well. As our interviewee points out, doing something for the environment with your work – or at least not damaging it as much – is able to increase work satisfaction in itself.

The experience of being closer to nature can be further boosted by working in an office building that was originally designed “green” from basement to attic. In such buildings, huge green terraces and closed inner gardens make the “second home” more livable.

Small things such as a smart LED-based parking garage also contribute by making parking easier and faster. Making the cafeteria greener is also a common practice, which means not only more plants in the canteen, but also a menu that is richer in fruits and vegetables that have been grown somewhere relatively near.

And with environmental concerns weighing down on most of us, for many, the experience of working in a green office is also one of relief from climate guilt. This is how a US environmental action group, the National Resource Defense Council  writes about its green offices: “Sunny, airy spaces. Sleek, contemporary design. Comfortable furniture made from recycled materials. The relief of knowing that your energy, water and paper use is as efficient and sustainable as possible. These are some of the extra benefits our staff members enjoy thanks to the organization’s commitment to green building.”

Good atmosphere and good statistics

In addition to a subjective experience of a better atmosphere that comes from a nicer work environment and the satisfaction of leaving a reduced economic footprint through daily work, the academic research community has also made an effort to study the impact of green buildings on rents, values and more, focusing mostly on ENERGY STAR and LEED standard buildings.

Studies using data from 2005 through late 2009 have consistently found that green buildings on average have higher rental premiums, higher occupancy levels, and higher values than buildings with otherwise similar characteristics, a 2010 study on the operations and management of green buildings in the United States points out.

Low-carbon, high occupancy rates

A recent study published by RICS showed that green office buildings in the US performed better during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 than their comparable non-green high-quality property investments. The findings, which are based on North American data for buildings certified by the EOA’s Energy Star Program, illustrate that rents and occupancy rates for green office buildings were higher during the 2007 to 2009 period than for properties that have not had energy-efficiency measures incorporated into their structures.

“The potential contribution of the real estate sector to a low-carbon economy is immense.  Investments into more sustainable business practices and technologies are not only beneficial for humans and the environment, but also for creating long-term value and competitiveness,” said Ursula Hartenberger, RICS’ Global Head of Sustainability in a press release.

This tendency has also appeared on the Hungarian real estate market, Bianka Kepes, project manager of iroda.hu, an office rental website, told the BBJ. Due to the lower operational costs and healthier working environment, green offices are popular among both decision makers and their employees, she said.

As several other studies point out, building green is not even necessarily more expensive than traditional high-quality office buildings, which means that higher green rents make it a good investment. A report prepared for the US Urban Green Council looks at the construction costs for 38 high-rise multifamily buildings and 25 commercial interiors in New York City. It finds that the cost differential is less than 1% for new buildings, and for commercial interiors, the cost for LEED construction is actually 6% lower than for non-LEED.

True health benefits

However, even more surprising is that those working in green offices seem to fall ill less frequently than those sweating in regular offices. Research on a sample of 33 green building projects has revealed benefits of $37 to $55 US dollars per square foot as a result of productivity gains from less sick time and greater worker productivity. These resulted primarily from better ventilation, lighting and general environment.

Of course, green buildings tend to be newer and more modern than traditional buildings, which means that the best companies – that is, the ones who can afford to switch to the newest buildings every couple of years  – tend to occupy their floors. So, you could say, green buildings get good statistics simply because they have the tenants with the best statistics. However, in a 2010 study an Australian law firm tracked its before and after sick days after a move to a five Green Star-rated building. It found that sick days were reduced by 39% overall to 0.28 days per month.