UC Berkeley press release


Sick-building syndrome to be tackled by new UC Berkeley center and a robot named Monika

by Kathleen Scalise

Berkeley -- A tall, blue-eyed robot named Monika is the most unusual partner in UC Berkeley's new center to study the work environment. Loaded with sensors from head to toe, Monika's mission is to masquerade as an office worker and report on what working conditions in commercial buildings are really like.

With the use of Monika and other sophisticated instrumentation, researchers in the new Center for the Built Environment will investigate how to make office workers most comfortable and productive.

"Basically we're interested in improving the way buildings function for their occupants, for people," said Edward Arens, professor of architecture and director of the new center at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Buildings are designed and built and then there is no feedback on how well they are working," he said. "The usual practice is to take pretty pictures before a building is operating and then forget about it."

This is a problem, said Arens, since the average American spends 90 percent of his time indoors.

To understand what makes workers comfortable indoors, Arens and his colleagues in the new UC Berkeley center, who are drawn from disciplines as diverse as epidemiology, real estate finance, engineering and architecture, need data.

Enter Monika and her assorted kin. Imported from Denmark, Monika looks similar to a store mannequin, but is packed with wires and computer circuitry. She is composed of 16 different parts, which all respond separately to changes in the environment. Custom-made and expensive, there are only a few such robots in the U.S.

"Monica is designed to represent both men and women in terms of her size, and has a variety of wigs and clothing to simulate people's different dress habits," said Arens.

Though she's "really just an instrument, she lets us see if her legs are too cold or her face is too warm or maybe there is too much difference between her left and her right side," said Arens. "If we sit her near a window with the sun coming in, it will heat her up just the way it would heat you up."

Environmental conditions to be studied with Monika and other instrumentation include temperature, humidity, sound and light levels, energy conservation, air quality and pollution, and sick-building syndrome.

At work, "if the building causes people to be distracted or sleepy, or if people feel sick and are not coming to work, it reduces their productivity," Arens said. "Sickness can be related to air quality and the amount of 'dirt' in the building."

Although clear-cut changes in worker productivity are hard to measure, even a 1 percent decline caused by sickness or distraction will cost a company "as much money as all their maintenance, energy bills and financing of that space combined," Arens said.

Workers in buildings with sealed windows, for instance, complain of sick-building syndrome at twice the rate of those with windows that open and close.

"This could be air-quality related or it could be partly psychological, with people feeling less control over their environment," he said.

Since jobs today call for an increasingly skilled workforce, employers find they must invest money in attractive, comfortable buildings to keep valuable workers, said Arens.

"The effort that Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics expend on their offices to help retain their employees is phenomenal and a very good sign for the future," said Arens.

Arens and others at UC Berkeley have studied building quality in many parts of the world, with projects from California -- San Francisco, Walnut Creek and Sacramento -- to Bangkok, Hawaii and Australia.

"If they are air-conditioned buildings, their problems are the same everywhere," he said. "It's too cold in summer, too hot in winter and there's often not enough air flow."

The new UC Berkeley center is funded in large part by corporate partners including Bank of America Corporate Real Estate; Johnson Controls, Inc.; Herman Miller, Inc; Tate Access Floors, Inc; and local design firm Ove Arup & Partners Ltd. The center will meet for the first time May 15.

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