Commentary: Touches of Nature

April 1, 2006
By Jeff Mariola
Can a building really be green without plants?

When you think about what constitutes a "green building," does the presence of interior plants factor prominently in the definition? In fact, while most people assume that a green building houses a lot of greenery, how the term is defined by a burgeoning non-profit industry is far less black and white.

In 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) developed its increasingly popular LEED® (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating system to provide a guideline for the design and construction of sustainable, environmentally friendly buildings. The LEED rating system offers four certification levels for new construction: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Each level corresponds with the number of credits accrued in five green design categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality. LEED standards cover new commercial construction and major renovation projects, interiors projects and existing building operations.

Green Buildings Require GreeneryThe incorporation of indoor plants is not factored into the five primary green design categories. While outdoor plants can earn points for native vegetation on the landscape, interior plants are not part of the scoring system. Australia already recognizes the importance of interior plants in their designations of green building status. The rating system for the Australian Green Star specifically includes credits for the provision and maintenance of interior plants.

As president of Initial Tropical Plants, North America's largest provider of interior landscaping, design installation and maintenance services, I see the restorative power of plants in action each and every day. Plants are installed in buildings because they look attractive and help to provide a tranquil environment in which to work or relax.

As plants are natural born air filters that absorb impurities in the air and transfer toxins to the soil, it's only natural to assume that plants should be a primary component of a truly green building. A myriad of studies confirm that plants reduce stress levels and make people happier overall. It has been proven that plants help people in demanding environmental situations by reducing their blood pressure, recovering from stress, and improving their overall health and well-being. Even the plants on your desk, in your conference room or lobby, can help with the dry air you're breathing. In the summer, office workers who have interior plants notice a reduction in air temperature. Plants continually spin off moisture into the air as they take in oxygen, which lowers cooling costs. In the winter, plants act as a humidifier and increase the level of moisture in the dry air.

Plants are natural born multi-taskers that are able to organically take on roles traditionally performed by engineered processes or manufactured items such as office partitions, sign posts and acoustic sound absorption barriers.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that green building practices offer an opportunity to create environmentally sound and resource-efficient buildings by using an integrated design approach. Green buildings create a healthy and comfortable environment and support resource conservation, including energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation features. Green buildings take into account environment impacts and waste minimization; reduce operation and maintenance costs; and address issues such as historical preservation, access to public transportation and other community infrastructure systems. The entire lifestyle of the building and its components is considered as well as the economic and environmental impact and performance.

Last year, Dow Jones created a "Sustainability Index" for North American companies that grades a company, not just on its fiscal worth, but on environmental and social factors including the amount of energy the firm uses and the level of pollution it generates. While the green building movement is clearly still in its infancy, more and more companies are realizing the benefits to going green have bottom-line economic benefits along with profound environmental ones.

Benefits of Green BuildingAlong with impassioned environmentalists, bastions of big business including PNC Bank and Goldman Sachs, are now building with recycled materials, conserving energy, and keeping toxic chemicals out of the floors, walls and furnishings. Both companies received a USGBC "green" rating for offices they opened in New Jersey in the past two years. Many businesses resist the green label, referring to their practices as "high-performance building" and achieving "sustainable design." Their reasons for joining the movement focus on bottom- line considerations including reduced operating costs, improved employee productivity and satisfaction, and lowered absenteeism. Others worry about "sick building syndrome" and the potential hazard of offices with poor indoor air quality.

Nationally, most of the green buildings to date are commercial or public buildings, consisting of projects that are hefty enough for accountants to grasp the long-term benefit of spending 3 percent to 5 percent more in construction costs to achieve lower overall costs in the future.

People in the United States spend an average of about 90 percent of their time indoors. EPA studies indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times higher—sometimes more than 100 times higher—than outdoor levels. The EPA also found a high correlation between low ventilation levels and higher carbon dioxide concentrations, which is a common factor in facilities with sick building syndrome. Environmentally conscious green buildings result in happier and healthier employees who are more productive.

The savings generated by averting sick building syndrome has the power to revolutionize the building industry. Employers lose millions of dollars each year through sick leave and reduced effectiveness of staff with colds, flu, and other diseases caught and spread at work. Healthy green buildings with clean, fresh air and non-toxic finishes help staff stay healthy, alert and effective at work. Offices that haven't been built to green building standards are often hard to ventilate. With limited access to natural light, these office structures are ideal candidates for "greening" with plants. As people have become aware of the negative impact that our current building practices have on the environment, as well as our health and our future, they are becoming more determined to see things change.

Many barriers exist to building green. Within the property industry, there are many challenges and inherent obstacles that result in green building measures not being adopted despite strong evidence to support their implementation. The biggest hurdle is the perceived cost. Other challenges are cost and availability of green products and materials, the cheap pricing of water and energy and a universal understanding of the true value of going green.

Should government offer financial or other incentives for green design or should government require the private sector to meet certain sustainable standards for new construction? Should governmental entities adopt LEED as a universal standard, or should they modify LEED for local use? Or would they do better to forget LEED altogether and develop their own system? While these green building programs are less than six years old, and there's little quantifiable data available yet, we do know that green buildings deliver a host of financial and environmental benefits that conventional buildings do not.

Until governments here and abroad offer significant incentives to build green (lowering property taxes for green buildings or providing easier planning consents), the road to a healthier green building world will be riddled with potholes. The Canadian Government's Commercial Buildings Incentive Scheme provides fiscal compensation for developers who satisfy certain green building standards. The government of South Australia requires that all new office buildings that they lease meet their green building or 'Green Star' rating standards. Perhaps the United States will someday offer its own governmental incentives. Until then it is up to each individual to listen to his or her conscience, as well as their customers, and proactively incorporate green building standards. In the United States, adding plants to the interior office mix is a very important, low-cost, first step in making one's building green. We urge A&D professionals to work with LEED rating officials to insist that credits be awarded for the use of interior plants in green-sanctioned buildings. The environmental benefits indoor plants provide result in bottom-line savings and are a vital component of a truly green building.
  • Jeff Mariola is the president of Initial Tropical Plants, a provider of interior landscaping, design installation and maintenance services in North America. Initial Tropical Plants is a subsidiary of Rentokil Initial plc, a publicly traded international business- to-business service organization based in the UK. For more information, go to Initial Tropical Plants is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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