Living Walls: As Green as It Gets

Spring 2020 Issue
  • By:
  • Richard Kincaid
Biophilic designs such as living walls are popping up in an increasing number of corporate offices. Research indicates that they can provide cleaner air and quieter work spaces. Getty Images

They can improve the air, cut down on noise and drive productivity — as well as profitability.

As society embraces an expanded definition of what constitutes a healthy environment, more organizations are creating welcoming workspaces that appeal to a new generation of employees. These workers bring with them not only increased sensitivity around wellness issues, but also heightened expectations around work/life balance, job satisfaction and well-being.

The concept of a “healthy” workplace has grown beyond the proven benefits of flextime, on-site fitness centers and nutritious food options. Now, it includes the built environment itself. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as trichloroethylene, benzene and formaldehyde are often found in carpeting, furniture, paints and varnishes. They can emit harmful byproducts that contribute to lethargy and headaches and exacerbate respiratory conditions, including asthma, allergies and colds.

Environmental pollutants can lead to higher stress levels, more sick days and lowered productivity. Over time, that can have a real impact on a company’s bottom line. There is, however, an effective solution that is literally green.

The Growth of Biophilic Design

Biophilic design reconnects workplaces with nature and contributes to a healthier workforce. The concept has spread through the architecture and design communities, driving creators of large-scale commercial projects and public spaces toward seamless integration between nature and the built environment. Companies that have incorporated large green spaces into their corporate environments include Etsy, TedTalks, Google and Amazon.

More architects, designers and space planners are incorporating living walls, also called green walls, into the workplace. These are walls of living, green plants that improve the aesthetics and atmosphere of the workspace, and the well-being of the workforce.

Similar to art and décor, living walls can transform an environment — and for a similar price. Much like specifying art, the size, medium and degree of customization of a living wall factor into the cost. Depending on the supplier, custom wall prices range between $90 and $150 per square foot, with stand-alone units beginning at $5,000.

Additionally, living walls can help building owners earn LEED and WELL points in several credit categories, including Energy and Atmosphere.

With an experienced manufacturer and vendor, the installation process is fairly straightforward. Plants are grown offsite at nurseries and then assembled onsite, yielding a green façade, entryway or statement wall. For companies such as Sagegreenlife, the process of building a project’s base and irrigation system takes a few days. Plants are installed in a few hours. Many biophilic-design companies also offer maintenance services after living walls are put in place.

Clearing the Air

study by NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) suggests that plants, in addition to absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen through photosynthesis, may also remove other toxic agents such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from the air. And, according to Green Plants for Green Buildings (GPGB), a nonprofit that promotes the economic benefits of nature in the built environment, the plants in approximately three square feet of a living wall can remove a minimum of 10 ounces of carbon dioxide from the air. That equals six cubic feet of carbon dioxide over a year’s time.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor air quality leads to numerous health issues ranging from headaches and fatigue to dizziness and eye irritation. These seemingly minor symptoms have significant consequences for employers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that poor indoor air quality costs companies an estimated $15 billion in sick leave and poor work performance each year.

Lowering the Volume

According to a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, a lack of sound privacy is far and away the biggest drain on employee morale, and a study by Steelcase and Ipsos found that workers lost as much as 86 minutes per day from noise distractions. A 2015 article from Harvard Business Review notes that “similar to planting trees along a loud highway, plants boast sound-absorbing capabilities that can work just as effectively in an indoor environment as an outdoor setting.”

Steelcase reports that the level of acceptable noise within a work environment is linked to the type of work happening within that space. The German Association of Engineers sets noise standards of 70 decibels (dB) for simple office work and 55 dB for what it identifies as “mainly intellectual work.” This includes complex creative thinking, decision-making, problem-solving and effective communication.

In 2015, a study conducted in Spain explored how living walls might cut the amount of noise within a building. Researchers placed approximately eight square feet of living wall between two rooms. It then measured the degree to which noises emitted in one room filtered through to a neighboring room. The study found that the living wall cut the noise by an average of 15 dB. When the portion of the wall dedicated to living plants was expanded to 32 square feet, it absorbed 40% of the sound.

Green Pays

In April 2019, Fast Company reported on Norwegian research showing that people performing attention-based tasks surrounded by greenery work more efficiently than those who do not. This has led companies like Google, Etsy and others to embrace biophilic design for happier, more creative and productive employees.

The International Handbook of the Economics of Energy states that labor costs in today’s workplace are 25 times greater than energy costs. There is overwhelming evidence that stress reduces productivity, and research has shown that plants can lower stress levels. A study at Washington State University found that productivity increased 12% among participants in a plant-enhanced environment.

It’s even possible to attach dollar amounts to lower levels of productivity.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the absentee rate in the U.S. is 3% per employee in the private sector and 4% in the public. That costs organizations more than $2,000 per employee per year. And a 2011 study at the University of Oregon showed that 10% of employee absences can be directly linked to workspaces with no connection to nature.

Business will always be driven to increase productivity and profits. With research and results documenting the benefits of incorporating plant life into work life, it follows that an investment in biophilic design presents a real opportunity for measurable ROI.

Richard Kincaid

Richard Kincaid is the CEO and founder of Sagegreenlife, which provides living walls for workplaces.