BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JUNE 5, 2000 ISSUE
COVER STORY

Why the Air and Light Are So Much Better in Paris


When the world-renowned architect Jean-Paul Viguier recently won a contract to build a 30-floor Sofitel Hotel in Chicago and a 40-floor office building at La Defense in Paris, the contrast between tough French standards and lax U.S. ones shocked him. French regulations required three times as much ventilation for his Paris tower and twice as much soundproofing as in Chicago--all the while slashing energy consumption to half American levels. By law, each workstation in France needed access to natural light--a scarcity in most U.S. offices. ''Europeans are far ahead of Americans in building technology and concern for the environment,'' Viguier says.

As Americans face an epidemic of sick buildings, they could learn a lot by looking across the ocean. The high cost of energy and tough government regulations have forced European architects and office developers to tackle the problems of bad air and toxic materials. Such improvements aren't uniform throughout the Continent, and they come at a high price: Construction in Europe costs an average 50% more per square foot than in the U.S. But healthier work environments increase productivity and can actually save money in the long run. A recent Danish study showed that typists increased their output by 6% in offices with cleaner air.

European building regulations begin by stressing the need for fresh air. ''In the U.S., most buildings depend on central air-conditioning and sealed windows,'' says Dan Wood, an American architect working in Rotterdam. Windows open in most European skyscrapers because air-conditioning is controlled room by room. Even if the top floors are sealed, huge ventilation ducts circulate fresh air. And though it's still the case that lots of Europeans puff away in the office, architects are starting to design rooms for smokers that prevent the smoke from infiltrating the entire building. Plus, Europeans use powerful air filters and usually circulate the air three times as frequently as in the U.S.

This helps fight off dangerous bacteria--and keeps deskbound workers from getting sleepy. ''Artificial air causes great fatigue for desk workers,'' says Pekka Littow, a Paris-based architect. Since artificial light tires people just as much as artificial air, most European building rules require all workers to have access to a window. Because Europeans insist on private offices over cubicles, they usually get superior soundproofing, too.

Cultural differences may prevent U.S. builders from adopting European techniques wholesale. Americans tend to tear down and replace buildings more often than Europeans, who expect them to last generations. But U.S. attitudes may be changing, perhaps because of the wave of anxiety about poor quality and dangerous construction. When he recently won a contract for a Los Angeles-based building, architect Wood, who usually works in Paris and the Netherlands, says he was able to persuade his clients to install individual-room air conditioners. Unfortunately, most U.S. office workers can't even count on that.

By William Echikson in Brussels

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