Plants - the Real Green Revolution! - Building Biology
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Plants – the Real Green Revolution!

Plants – the Real Green Revolution!

The push to seal our buildings in the name of energy efficiency is synonomous to living and working in a plastic bag; it shouldn’t come at the cost of our health.

Despite the fact we spend over 90% of our time inside a building, indoor air quality is ranked in the top five environmental health risks affecting human health (US EPA, 2012).  Concerns were first raised in the 1970s as a result of an oil embargo which created a shift towards energy efficient buildings – sick buildings were consequently created. In addition the reliance on artificial air conditioning and heating systems dries out the air and may introduce hazards if they are not regularly maintained. Building energy efficient and green homes should not come at the cost of our health; we can achieve both with a bit of foresight and commonsense.

So what can we do to create healthy indoor air?

Mimic nature! The earth has a remarkable capacity to produce and sustain clean air – up to a point. Clean air is primarily achieved through the use of plants as NASA discovered in their quest to create a sustainable, closed ecological life support system.

Plants are the lungs and kidneys of the planet. The real green revolution should be the ability to mimic nature and bring it back into our buildings.

How plants improve indoor air

  1. Absorb carbon dioxide (we exhale 40,000 parts per million of CO2 with every breath) and release oxygen
  2. Balance humidity levels through evaporation of moisture from the soil and dishes as well as via transpiration of water from their leaves
  3. Reduce chemical emissions by pulling contaminants out of the air through the tiny openings in their leaves. The boston fern can remove up to 1.8mg of formaldehyde per hour (a carcinogen found in particle board and furnishings)
  4. Reduce airborne mould and bacteria
  5. Psychological benefits of being with nature

Plants that increase humidity levels (air conditioners and heaters dry out the air) are:

  • Palms: Areca palm, Bamboo palm, Lady palm, Dwarf date palm
  • Bostern Fern, Gerbera daisy, Warneckei, Dwarf banana, Rubber plant.

Plants that reduce formaldehyde levels (ideal for newly renovated homes/workplaces):

  • peace lily (what a legend!)
  • bamboo palm
  • Mother-in-law’s tongue
  • dracaena warneckei
  • dracaena marginata
  • golden pathos
  • green spider plant
One plant per square metre is recommended in a home and office

How to improve indoor air quality

  1. Service the heating and air conditioning systems on a regular basis
  2. Avoid perfume: insist on a no perfume/aftershave policy in the office, avoid air fresheners
  3. Research the type of building materials, paints and furnishings you bring into the office and home. Low or no VOCs are recommended and definitely no vinyl (PVC). Stick with natural materials such as stone, timber, hemp, organic cotton, wool… If you have already bought the furniture, air it in the sun for as long as you can
  4. Promote passive ventilation – open windows if you can
  5. Use microfibre cloths and cleaning products that don’t contain fragrances or nasty solvents
  6. Use a vacuum cleaner that is fitted with a HEPA filter and motorised head so it digs into the pile.
  7. Wet dust using microfibre cloths
  8. Implement an integrated pest management system that does not use chemicals to get rid of pests (refer to my book Healthy Home Healthy Family for tips)
  9. Take your shoes off before you enter the building. If it is a workplace, buy a good door mat that people use before they come in
  10. Use plants: see below (one plant per metre square is recommended)


  • Liew et al. (2008). Signature Optical Cues: Emerging Technologies for Monitoring Plant Health. Sensors. 8, 3205-3239.
  • Wolverton, B. (2008). How to grow fresh air book.