In the last 30 years, in the interior plant design, installation and maintenance business, there have been no less than three cycles whereby clients shifted from living to artificial foliage and then back again. Somewhere around the second cycle there began to be a greater a mixture of the two. Since then, custom artificial plants have been used in areas too harsh for living plants to be maintained in a healthy fashion.

Although clients continue to be provided with custom artificial plants, there is an upsurge in live plant installations. This is in part due to the fact that the United States is in the middle of the greatest environmental awareness movement ever seen.

With the advent of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system and now with LEED for homes and hospitals coming on in a strong way, the awareness of the need and desire for indoor air quality improvement and control is greater than ever. Due to this greater awareness, the public no longer trusts the health and quality of food, clothing, hair-care products, cleaning products, carpeting and paint. Many are harmful, plenty of data exists that has proven the toxicity of these items, and these chemicals can no longer be kept near us in any form without eventually becoming irritated and sick behind their use. When it comes to living and working environments, the best, healthiest options possible are wanted.

According to the ASID study, “The impact of interior design and the bottom line,�? and The American Journal of Medicine, businesses pay $15 billion a year in direct medical costs due to problems related to poor indoor air quality.

More than 900 VOC (volatile organic compounds) can be present in indoor environmental air.Not all VOC are harmful, but the harsh ones, like formaldehyde, xylene, benzene, chloroform, ammonia and acetone, are used in items like paint, carpeting, construction supplies, glues, ceiling tiles, furniture and finishes.

This poor indoor air quality has an adverse affect on our health. Outgassing, or emissions of these VOC, cause problems such as nausea, headache, coughs, fatigue, dry skin and sore throats. These are just some of the results of poor indoor air quality.

How Living Indoor Plants Help
Live indoor plants convert harmful VOC into carbon-based materials that they then use in the photosynthesis process to make their own food. The resulting byproduct is oxygen. This is actually a biomimetic action.There is no other known way to convert these compounds into something harmless. It is as nature designed and intended. Air filter devices and HVAC systems can capture some of these VOC, but they are still there, they haven’t changed.

Plants can do something even our most complicated HVAC systems can’t and are a terrific way to supplement the HVAC system in a building Scientists have found that there is a microcosm, an ecosystem of sorts, that exists in planting media consisting of plant roots and microbes. The VOC are broken down during this microbial action. Plants absorb the newly converted compounds and use them in the photosynthesis process for food, energy and growth.

In a two-year study by Norwegian Professor Tove Fjeld, in 51 offices with living indoor plants, fatigue was reduced by 20 percent, headaches and sore throats by 30 percent, coughs by a whopping 40 percent and dry skin irritations by 25 percent.

In yet another study by Texas A&M Professor Dr. Roger Ulrich, he showed that when plants are present in hospitals, patients are ready to go home after surgery in less time, they require less pain medication, and nurses report that they are less likely to become upset or despondent from their illness or surgery. Ulrich’s study also showed that plants improved problem solving skills, ideation and creative performance. So research definitely shows that plants improve health.

How Many Plants?
Research by NASA, as well as Australian Scientist Margaret Burchett, have shown that one plant per 100 to 160 square feet of indoor space is sufficient to have an effect and improve indoor air quality. They found that the plant size did not matter as long as they were of the 8-inch nursery pot size or larger. The studies have shown that upon initial installation, VOC were removed within four to five days, and any added VOC (by addition of furniture etc.) are removed within 24 hours. This shows that plants get better at processing VOC.

What are the Costs?
There have been many return on investment studies done which show anywhere from 30 to 300 percent ROI depending on the environment. The typical return in the office environment shows 12 percent improvement in productivity along with 60 percent reduction in absenteeism rates. This translates to a $24 ROI per day per employee commercially for costs of about $200 per year per employee including maintenance.

When most want to relax andunwind, they go for a walk in nature, take dogs to the park or go camping or fishing. This biophilic need for plants, life and nature is an archetypical one which is innate in everyone. Designers and managers are educating and reconnecting with clients to this need by providing them with the highest quality of décor, design and environmental quality as possible. Now, more than ever, live indoor plants are part of that design.

Joe Zazzera

Joe Zazzera is a LEED Accredited Professional and Accredited Green Roof Professional. His company is Plant Solutions Indoor Plant Design based in Phoenix.