Using Plants to Naturally Improve Indoor Environmental Quality

Using Plants to Naturally Improve Indoor Environmental Quality

By Daniel Overbey, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Indoor environmental quality is typically the beginning and end of any holistic discussion about “green” building interiors. Human health is paramount and, generally speaking, both designers and clients understand that many building materials off-gas toxic compounds.

Indeed, that “new building” smell we’ve all become conditioned to associate with a fresh, new facility is actually your body’s sensory response to the intake of toxic microscopic particulates.

Common toxins found in building interiors include:

  • Trichloroethylene – typically found in varnishes, paints, and inks.
  • Formaldehyde – a very common compound found in particle board, carpet, and some furniture.
  • Benzene – which is often present in detergents, plastics, and synthetic fibers.

While LEED has taught us that a whole building flush-out prior to occupancy can effectively reduce the levels of indoor environmental pollutants from new materials, a certain degree of off-gassing persists for quite some time after an interior has been occupied. Moreover, our interiors often exhibit indoor environmental pollution sources such as the equipment and materials found in print rooms, storage closets, art rooms, and laundry areas.

To address these persistent indoor pollutants that slowly permeate an environment over time, some designers are turning to plants.  See infographic.

Plants have a lot to offer to interiors. Research has demonstrated the psychological and physiological virtues of connecting humans to nature within the built environment. Plants can introduce a softer, more natural pallet to an interior. However, plans can also “scrub” the air of certain contaminants.

Research from Wolverton Environmental Services and Green Plants for Green Buildings suggests that certain species of plants are adept to sequestering specific toxins. Thomas Porostocky has created a great infographic to serve as the “CliffsNotes” of the research findings.

Keep in mind that this process occurs slowly. In most cases, the notion that a dense array of plants can act as a filter for passing air is unrealistic. However, a cluster of Gerbera Daisies and Chrysanthemums near the office printers could significantly curtail the persistent build-up of benzene and trichloroethylene in the surrounding indoor environment.


Daniel Overbey, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is the Director of Sustainable Design Practices for Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Architects in Indianapolis. Daniel’s work focuses on high-performance building design and construction, environmental systems research, LEED-related services, and energy modeling. Daniel is a regular contributor to Environmental Design + Construction (EDC) magazine. He can be reached at doverbey@bdmd.com or 317-635-5030.

Photos and graphics: © Thomas Porostocky. Used by permission.

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