Poor air quality is not limited to the smog shadowing the tops of tall buildings in metropolitan areas; it persists inside buildings, too. The CDC reports that indoor spaces are likely to be more seriously polluted than even the largest cities in the world. And considering that the CDC estimates people spend roughly 90% of their time inside, that should be cause for alarm. But knowing what’s in the air you breathe can help you find ways to avoid or deter toxins, whether you’re thinking about healthy office design or spending more time working from home.

Enter biophilic design. Biophilic design is an increasingly popular practice undertaken by architects and interior designers to bring people closer to nature to promote the health of both the environment and people. Companies like Sagegreenlife define biophilic design as an architectural framework that weaves the patterns and forms of nature into the built environment to strengthen connections between humans and nature. As a design term, we know from working with Ambius that biophilic design has only been around since Edward O. Wilson’s 1984 publication Biophilia, but the innate desire for getting back to nature has existed for a long time.

Consider the common preference of being seated at a window when dining in a restaurant, or the unyielding pleasure experienced from sunlight streaming through a window. These are just a couple of the signs showing how biophilic design is at the core of our architectural needs, according to Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Beyond hearsay or your own personal preferences, plenty of tangible evidence also shows that people experience a better physical sense of well-being, lower cholesterol, and lower turnover rates in the workplace with the inclusion of biophilic design.

Before you get too excited and knock down all of the walls in your office, though, know that biophilic design is not limited to the study of architects and engineers. Anyone can adopt biophilic design strategies to enhance personal and environmental health indoors. All you need is a few plants.

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital

Rendering: Courtesy of International Living Future Institute

Potted Plants to Improve Your Space

Studies show adding plants to the workplace has positive physiological effects, including reduced stress and increased productivity, according to Kenneth Freeman, the head of innovation at Ambius, a prominent company in sustainable commercial interior and exterior design. In general indoor plants have many benefits for the brain and body’s connectivity. Depending on the work or home environment, different plants can directly respond to specific indoor toxins, leading to the overall improved indoor air quality. Below are some of the most versatile potted plants to consider when renovating an indoor space, followed by more information on the toxins themselves.

The Dracaena genus is home to about 40 species. When considering a fairly low-maintenance option for a home or office, Dracena plants are a good choice. These plants prefer indirect light and room temperatures, which make them great for indoors. Red-Edged Dracaena directly fight a multitude of toxins, including Trichloroethylene, Formaldehyde, Benzene, and Xylene.

Weeping Fig, or Ficus Benjaminas, is another fairly low-maintenance indoor plant. While originally from the southeastern region of the world, these plants make for a great indoor companion as long as they aren’t overwatered and kept around 65 degrees. This common species directly targets Formaldehyde and Xylene.

Bamboo Palm, or Chamaedorea Seifrizii, is native to Central and South America but prefers medium temperatures, making it a great indoor option. Bamboo Palm also directly counters the toxins Formaldehyde and Xylene.

Broadleaf Lady Palm, or Rhapis Excelsa, is a smaller option that’s often considered elegant in appearance. It grows natively in Japan and the southern regions of China. The Broadleaf Lady Palm is a good option for fighting off Formaldehyde, Xylene, and Ammonia.

Chrysanthemums are an ideal option for adding color to the office or home. Since they can be found in a variety of colors—like red, yellow, white, and violet—they are flexible to go along with your decorating needs. They’re also particularly good at countering Trichloroethylene, Formaldehyde, Benzene, Xylene, and Ammonia.

English Ivy, scientifically known as Hedera Helix, is another example of a basic plant that is skilled in fighting off many toxins, including Trichloroethylene, Formaldehyde, Benzene, and Xylene. They too prefer room temperature conditions and can be found in a variety of sizes.

Photo: Claude-Simon Langlois

Photo by Claude-Simon Langlois

Common Indoor Air Toxins

Some of the most common toxins found indoors to look out for include:

  • Trichloroethylene, found most commonly in paint removers, adhesives, and spot removers. It can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Formaldehyde, which can be found in glues, dyes, papers, and textiles. It can cause mild to severe irritation of the nose, mouth, and throat.
  • Benzene, which can be found in lubricants, plastics, rubbers, and dye. It can damage the nervous system and in severe cases lead to leukemia.
  • Xylene, found in paint removers and thinners. It can cause irritation to the mouth and throat, potential heart problems, headaches and dizziness.
  • Ammonia can be found in most environments but is specifically hazardous when found in cleaners, plastics, and fertilizers. The effects of concentrated exposure to ammonia can lead to irritation in the eyes, a cough and sore throat.

When Should I Incorporate a Green Wall? 

Photo: Nic Lehoux

Photo by Nic Lehoux

If you’re looking to do even more in your space, consider green, or “living,” walls. Companies like Ambius are leaders in biophilic design and offer services to convert an entire wall space into an indoor plant sanctuary, also known as vertical gardens, living walls, or eco walls. Green walls often help businesses achieve LEED.

At Sagegreenlife, the green wall process begins with Rockwool-based Biotiles. The stone fibers help to secure the root and increase the plants’ life expectancy. When the Biotiles are ready, they are mounted to a panel box with support beams, drainage, and a waterproof backing. Some green walls have self-watering technology, while others require manual watering.

Green walls have unique advantages due to their high plant capacity (up to 16 at Sagegreenlife) and the benefit of reaching using typically unused or underutilized wall space in offices or homes. More plants in a smaller vicinity allows them to take in more carbon dioxide and offset indoor toxins at an even greater rate than potted plants.

Green walls, like potted plants, have a variety of plants, which can offer a mix of benefits, too. Dracaena compacta and Creeping Fig plants are options available for selection by Sagegreen life for lower lit areas. Some plants are harder to maintain than others—for example, implementing a wall of herbs could cause the wall to become bushy and require more upkeep, according to Sagegreenlife COO Darren Mende.

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These living walls add beauty and wellness to offices, universities, restaurants, and more all across North America. Photo courtesy of Sagegreenlife

Custom green walls can be made to fit inside any building or home, but they aren’t limited to the indoors. In fact, green walls on building exteriors are great at reducing outside pollution as well. “The biggest way to make a difference and change communities is by integrating these into the built environment inside and outside,” says Mende. When implemented in between buildings, green walls can reduce nitrogen dioxide by 40% and particulate matter by 60%, according to reports from Ambius.

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