By Sue Minichiello
Going green is taking a literal turn in countless office buildings and commercial spaces. With multiple benefits—including a remarkable return on investment (ROI)—the inclusion of plants and interior landscapes is proving to be a valuable business asset. Nearly 30 years of research has shown that increasing the number of plants improves indoor air quality, reduces absenteeism, boosts productivity, lowers energy costs and more.
In the mid 1960s, when the interior landscape (AKA interiorscape) industry began in earnest, it was largely about aesthetics. Business owners wanted to add plants to make their buildings, restaurants and other commercial spaces more visually appealing. But today, the industry offers building and facility owners and managers a whole lot more.
“We’re not just a pretty face anymore. We’re a solid ROI,” said Bruce Crowle, co-owner of Atria, Inc., a corporate horticultural service company in Connecticut. “Paying for professional plant maintenance is a drop in the budget bucket, but it produces a lot of benefits, all of which boost the bottom line. One benefit is better air quality, which helps keep employees healthy and on the job.”
Cleaning the Air
As buildings continue to be tightened up to increase energy efficiency, chemical contaminants have nowhere to go. They linger in the air, largely recirculated by HVAC systems. The top three culprits are trichloroethylene, benzene and formaldehyde. These Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can be found in carpeting, furniture and building materials, like paints and varnishes. Other substances like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide also can be prevalent indoors. The presence of such toxins led to what became known as “sick building syndrome.” They exacerbate conditions like asthma, allergies and even symptoms of the common cold.
“The more airtight we make buildings, the more VOCs increase. If we can reduce VOCs in a building environment, we reduce problems for workers like itchy eyes, sneezing, colds and respiratory distress, which lowers absenteeism,” Crowle said.
One of the most profound benefits of plants in indoor environments is their role as natural air filters. The entire plant system—foliage, soil and roots—detoxifies the air. According to Green Plants for Green Buildings (GPGB), “When plants transpire water vapor from their leaves, they pull air down around their roots. … The root microbes convert substances in the air, such as toxic chemicals, into a source of food and energy … and they become more effective at converting toxic chemicals into food the longer they are exposed to the chemicals.” Basically, plants take in harmful substances and churn out oxygen. What’s more, plants can reduce particle pollution like dust and pollen.
Increasing Employee Productivity, Health & Creativity
Here are just a few more ways that plants make for a happier, healthier and more productive workforce:
- Biophilia is the natural human affinity for nature. A study underway at the eastern headquarters for Bank of America in mid-town Manhattan is examining the biophilia hypothesis in terms of the degree to which direct exposure to natural elements impacts employees. Participants in the study are displaying significant productivity gains, less absenteeism, fewer health problems and a better sense of well-being.
- Elevated levels of carbon dioxide indoors negatively affect employee concentration and productivity. This is one of the reasons that when many people are working within a well-sealed building, they can become drowsy over the course of the day. According to GPGB, “Based on modest estimates of existing and emerging data, it has been calculated that a minimum of 300g (10 oz) of carbon dioxide can be eliminated from an enclosed environment for every square meter of leaf surface in the area per year. Over a year’s time, this amounts to a removal of six cubic feet of Co2 gas.”
- Stress also decreases productivity. Multiple studies have shown that the presence of plants lowers employee workplace stress. In one such study at Washington State University, participants working in an environment with plants proved 12 percent more productive than those in an environment without plants.
- A recent Texas A&M University study explored the impact of plants on creativity in the workplace. The study included male and female participants. All participants in the office environment with plants demonstrated more innovative thinking. The men generated 15 percent more ideas overall, while the women generated more creative and flexible solutions.
With every square foot of office space at a premium, horticulture service professionals have developed a solution that allows for plant life in the workplace without sacrificing valuable floor space.
“A typical plant takes up two to four square feet, and in today’s office buildings, owners and managers need to maximize space for employees and essential equipment and furniture,” said Crowle. “That’s why the newest trend in our industry is to go vertical, creating green walls, also called vertical gardens or living walls.”
Interior green walls are, as the name suggests, wall-like structures that are covered in live vegetation. There are different types. Some include integrated hydroponics technology. Some are attached to the building air-return so the plants directly purify the air as it passes through the wall. Some designs are 100 percent water efficient, meaning there is zero water waste.
Green walls can produce significant savings on energy costs. Through transpiration, plants cool their surroundings. Studies have shown that a green wall filled with hundreds of plants can reduce room temperatures by up to 45 degrees and cut electric costs by 20 percent. In winter, the extra layer of air between the wall of plants and the building wall acts as insulation and reduces escaping heat and incoming cold air.
“You can do wonderful things with plants inside buildings, and have amazing and often unexpected results,” Crowle said. “And you don’t have to spend and arm and a leg to reap the benefits. There are simple, low-cost options that can fit just about any budget and that still provide real advantages.”