Friday, October 29, 2010

Turning Office Spaces into Greener Places

The modern office is generally a product of strict efficiency and economic design. Lines are straight, wall-coverings are bland, windows are sealed shut, lights fluorescent, and cubicles ubiquitous. And this is where many of us spend the better part of our lives. Perhaps it’s time to consider personalizing – and naturalizing – these uninviting spaces. And the best place to start might be with a favorite houseplant brought from home.

It’s amazing what a welcome addition a plant can be in the workplace. It’s just a simple little living thing, and yet, perched amid the photocopied reports, Post-it notes, and tangled telephone cord, it has the power to transform even the most cluttered of desktops into something uniquely you -- and special.

Even if you have only one African violet by your elbow, it might be enough to distract you from your spreadsheet for a few moments to examine whether a new batch of flowering buds is forming. Perhaps an office mate will wander over to ask you how often you feed your plant, or where you got it. In a sterile environment, that humble plant is an oasis of life. Your spreadsheet can wait.

And if one plant can work such wonders, what about an office-full of them? Truly, plants can enhance the modern office in ways that most people can barely imagine.

Aesthetically, plants can add color and texture to almost any space, however plain. Taller plants or groupings of larger plants can become living architecture to help direct foot traffic, soften harsh corners, create privacy in seating areas, or add verticality in an unending sea of cubicles. Hanging or elevated planters can create a sense of movement when filled with hanging grape ivy or trailing philodendron vines.

Using similar plants throughout a larger space can also provide a unifying or cohesive element, tying and blending together a disparate array of desks, copying machines, doorways, cabinets, and partitions. The final impression is calming and ordered, rather than chaotic.

Plants can function as eye-catching focal points, or discretely mute or camouflage unattractive features. Above all, they add a sense of vitality to an interior landscape of metal and machines.
They can also play a substantial role in promoting physical and psychological health. Clinical studies in Britain and Northern Europe have shown that plants in the workplace reduced stress levels and fatigue by more than 30 percent, along with the symptoms associated with colds and flu, such as coughing and sore throats.

These green allies can also promote good health by cleaning a host of potentially dangerous pollutants from indoor air. Those veneer-and-laminate bookcases, formica-clad desks, carpets, painted walls, and computers, printers, and fax machines are off-gassing a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. All-in-all, it’s a nasty stew of bad air, generally trapped – along with you – in a closed loop ventilation system.

Fortunately, there’s Mother-in-law’s tongue. I don’t mean my mother-in-law, Melva, who’s also very helpful and health-conscious, but the plant, also known as snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata). This popular and sturdy plant grows elegantly tall, and sometimes flowers, even in low-light, and it is an absolute whiz at snatching pollutants from the air.

But Sansevieria are not alone in this ability. NASA studies in the late 1970s identified a large number of common indoor plants capable of filtering VOCs from the air. They ranged from aloe vera, which needs bright light, but is easy to divide and share with office mates – and serves as a nifty balm for paper-cut fingers, to magenta-striped dracaena, peace lily, and golden pothos, perhaps the toughest indoor plant around.

Simply put, most of the plants best suited to indoor conditions can help clean indoor air. Moreover, ongoing studies show that plants clean the air not only through the stomata or microscopic pores on the leaf surface, much like the filters in home furnaces and HVAC systems, but also through the action of bacteria in the potting soil, which normally make nutrients available for the plant’s root system.

In controlled environments, the soil microorganisms were capable of removing and absorbing up to 20 percent of the air contaminants. Together with the plants themselves, these invisible colonies represent an indoor living system functioning much like the trees, grasses, and algae found outdoors.

But the real value of introducing plants probably goes deeper than stress-busting, filtration, and d├ęcor. In a world that keeps us indoors far-too-long, bringing a bit of the outdoors inside keeps us connected with a larger living world. And beyond the momentary distraction of looking at a blooming bromeliad, the plants also require watering, feeding, and care. They require a time apart from the routine of databases and spam-deletion – a time to actually nurture another living thing. Surely that’s a simple enough bit of occupational therapy.

And then there’s the issue of community – human, not plant. In a world of passwords and name badges, your salmon-budded kalanchoe is a bridge to fellow workers. Perhaps you might divide up one of your succulents for them, or share the decades-old history of your mother’s braided willow-leaf ficus, now thriving by your window. They in turn might bring in a rooted cutting for you, or ask to share a window ledge for their Christmas cactus. That’s how friendships – and communities -- start.

Your office plant can stretch forth your personality, invite a much-needed compliment, and allow you to share and connect with others. It shows, quite humbly, as Shakespeare noted, that “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

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