Using plants to improve office air quality

Do you remember sick building syndrome (SBS)? The term was coined in the seventies and used to describe a group of symptoms that would make office workers feel unwell as a result of being in a certain building. It's thought that, as buildings at this time became more energy efficient – effectively becoming more insulated, air-tight spaces – various illnesses started to appear, due to the lack of natural ventilation and fresh air.

The term ‘sick building syndrome’ is rarely used these days, but it is still listed on the NHS website, and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) notes that there is often a particularly high incidence of SBS in ‘certain types of buildings, especially offices which are sealed and mechanically ventilated or air-conditioned’.

Aspirational building standards
Air quality is now something many employers are very conscious of in office environments, and the pandemic further intensified a focus on improved ventilation and air quality. It is not surprising that it's one of the tenets of progressive and aspirational building standards, such as Fitwel, WELL and SKA. Whilst each standard has different criteria, all aim to improve building health and wellbeing, and all measure and monitor air quality. For instance, the WELL Building Standard, ‘establishes requirements in buildings that promote clean air and reduce or minimise the sources of indoor air pollution.’

Illustration by MOSS

Good business practice

Standards such as Fitwel, WELL and SKA are becoming ‘must-haves’ for employers who want to attract and retain the best talent. And in a post-pandemic world, where hybrid working often means employees ‘choosing’ whether to come into work, making a workspace as pleasant as possible has become paramount. But some of the principles of these standards can be applied regardless of whether a certification process is being followed. For example, a quick look at accredited buildings will reveal that plants are widely incorporated in all these schemes, not just because they are beautiful to look at, but because they have undeniable air purifying properties.

Take a look at one of our latest projects for Montagu, which achieved a SKA gold rating.

Plants as air purifiers

The concept of plants being air purifiers is, of course, not new. In 1989, NASA investigated the use of the naturally filtering properties of plant life to clean the air in sealed environments such as space stations. The study found that, in addition to absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen through photosynthesis, certain common indoor plants may also provide a natural way of removing volatile organic pollutants (benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene were tested). You can view the top 18 plants that NASA determined to be the most effective at naturally filtering out indoor air pollutants here.

We may not work on space stations, but modern air-conditioned offices are often effectively ‘sealed’ environments. And whilst one might not expect to encounter formaldehyde in an office, the accoutrements of office life expose us to a surprising number of pollutants, as shown in the list below.

Common office pollutants:
+ Benzene (commonly found in varnishes, detergents, rubber, paints, plastics, inks, oils, detergents, dyes and floor finishes)

+ Trichloroethylene (commonly found in printing inks, varnishes, adhesive, and lacquer)

+ Formaldehyde (commonly found in paper towels, facial tissues, adhesive binders in floor coverings, carpet backing, and grocery bags)

+ Ammonia (commonly found in cleaning products)

+ Toluene (commonly found in stain removers, oils, paints, paint thinner, paint brush cleaner, nail polish, and inks)

+ Carbon monoxide (commonly found in vehicle and heating fumes)

+ Styrene (commonly found in carpet backing, fiberglass, packaging, home insulation, wiring insulation, and drinking cups)

Bring nature inside

Trees are the perfect way to bring a bit of the outside in for a more subtle welcome. Use a pair to frame an entrance, or go for a single large tree to create a focal point. It’s a gentle nod to nature that’s bound to catch the eye.

Architects and designers embrace biophilia

In recent years, architects and designers of office spaces have switched on to the benefits of optimising health and wellbeing principles throughout projects, and greenery is often at the top of the list. Increasingly, interior landscaping is being factored in at an early stage of a project and used to soften the overall design and give a finished look. As well as improving air quality, well designed planting can break up bleak spaces, give people a sense of wellbeing and make spaces look welcoming. For any business seeking to improve the air quality, and more, within their work environment, consulting a specialist biophilic design company is a good place to start.

We love talking plants

At Vantage, we work closely with clients to plan, source, install and maintain everything from the perfect office plants to living walls suitable for every space. We also love talking about plants, so feel free to get in touch to discuss what biophilia can do for your workspace.