• Designed by Boston-based Howeler + Yoon Architecture, Hanley Wood's new office space in Washington, DC, aims to turn rows of dark, private offices into a light-filled collaborative space.

    Credit: Howeler + Yoon Architecture

    Designed by Boston-based Howeler + Yoon Architecture, Hanley Wood's new office space in Washington, DC, aims to turn rows of dark, private offices into a light-filled collaborative space.

Recently, I learned the value of good indoor environmental quality (IEQ) the hard way. I can tell you without reservation that a dip in IEQ—in the form of air quality, privacy, and acoustics, all of which are components of IEQ—has had a profound effect on my sense of well-being and productivity.

For the past four weeks, I’ve been working in a construction zone, as our parent company, Hanley Wood, gut-renovates a portion of our floor, turning a sea of private offices into an open-plan workspace, with an emphasis on collaboration. My old office fell within the demo boundaries, so in mid-January I relocated to a cubicle in another corner of the floor.

This is not my first time working in a cubicle. Before joining ecostructure, I had spent my entire career in cubicles—some of them shared. Yet during the course of four years in our Washington, D.C., offices, I’d grown accustomed to having control over my space: Its four walls and door allowed me to close myself off from my surroundings and do heads-down work with limited distractions.

In my new space I feel acoustically and visually exposed. I worry that I will give myself whiplash from popping my head up at every sound and passerby. I feel like a spastic dog looking for a squirrel in the forest, alert to the sound of the slightest leaf rustle. I am self-conscious about talking too loudly on the phone or to colleagues, given how much I can now overhear from everyone else around me. I find myself often unable to concentrate, and I’m not only often exhausted, but straight-up cranky.

And now it smells. During the first week in my new cube, the construction team demolished the old space, and while they had sealed off the area with temporary partitions, dust managed to escape. At the same time, I was battling the tail-end of a nasty cough that was not contagious, but was certainly annoying to both me and my cubicle neighbors. While I’d been feeling much better in the days beforehand and had nearly stopped coughing completely, just a few hours of dusty air put me back on my couch for several days.

After my cough cleared for good, I headed back to the office and have fared better, although many of us on the construction floor have taken to working at home when the construction team is sealing or painting in the new space. And I’m still struggling with the noise and visual distractions. Fortunately I can work from home when I need prolonged quiet time, but being separated from my team leads to a communication disconnect that can slow things down and seems to create unnecessary complications. And frankly, I get lonely.

It seems fitting, then, that I was digging into this issue of ecostructure—with a healthcare case study as its anchor—when I was made to be so attuned to IEQ and its effects on my mental and physical health. My experience, which was in no way life threatening, hammered home the criticality of good IEQ (healthy air, visual and acoustic privacy, control over one’s environment) in spaces, such as the Indiana University Health Neuroscience Center, where an occupant’s immune system is severely compromised.

IEQ is trickier to quantify than, say, energy or water use, which have hard metrics that can be collected and compared. Likewise, the calculations linking acoustical privacy to employee happiness to productivity to company revenue are not as straightforward. But the research on IEQ is out there—and it’s growing. One good place to start searching for it is the new Building Research Information Knowledgebase (brikbase.org), launched this year by the AIA and the National Institute of Building Sciences.

As for me, I’ve done plenty of Googling on noise-reduction headphones, and I am now training myself to refocus amid visual distractions. It’s a work in progress, but a good lesson on the value of IEQ.