Living walls are a new building design trend that helps to create healthy workplaces. Sometimes known as bio walls, they are stand-alone vertical gardens attached to the exterior or interior of a building. They improve indoor air quality by digesting toxins in the air and increasing its oxygen content — not to mention their visual appeal.

Research has shown that the more toxic the air, the better the plants filter out the toxins. How exactly do plants do all that heavy lifting while they are literally hanging out at the office? Plants release a water vapor that creates a pumping action to draw in the toxins, according to Dr. Bill Wolverton, an environmental scientist formerly with NASA. Once delivered to its microbe-rich root system, the toxins are then digested by the plant; in the process, oxygen is released back into the room.

One of the largest living walls in the world is located at Saint Mary’s University’s Atrium Building in Halifax, NS. Three stories high and filled with 1,100 lush, hard-working plants, this bio-filtration system was designed by Dr. Alan Darlington, the president of Nedlaw Living Walls. It is integrated directly into the building’s ventilation system, processing 538 cubic metres of air per minute.

Healthy workplaces need living breathing walls. People working in buildings of manmade materials inhale an estimated 300 contaminants every day. Given that the average person spends 90% of his time indoors, it is not surprising that indoor air quality-related illnesses are on the rise. As many as one third of employees working in a new or remodeled building suffer from health or comfort complaints that are directly related to indoor air quality.

So, where are all the toxins coming from? Volatile Organic Compounds are found in petroleum-based products which cause them to “off-gas” toxins into the environment. Other common toxins include trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde. Flooring adhesives for carpets and hardwoods, foam insulation, paint, furniture, cleaning products, photocopiers and printers, appliances, plastics, electronic equipment and even clothes and air fresheners all contribute toxins to the air.

Symptoms of poor indoor air quality include dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin, headache, fatigue, and shortness of breath, hypersensitivity and allergies, sinus congestion, coughing and sneezing, dizziness, and nausea. If you suspect that you may have a health issue arising from indoor air quality, talk with your health professional and bring your concerns to your workplace’s Occupational Health and Safety Officer.

Perhaps in the not too distant future, the gold standard for a healthy workplace will be one where the walls are not barriers, but are living, breathing ecosystems that contribute to our physical and mental health while connecting us back to our sense of who we are, naturally, in the world.

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