Bring the Outside In
How to use the natural world to create a great indoors.
Awe-inspiring views of majestic mountain ranges, sunsets over the sea, and sky-scraping forests have the power to stop us in our tracks. Business office scenery, with its maze of cubicles, endless rows of cabinets, and acres of bland carpeting, elicits a very different (and significantly less inspiring) emotional reaction. And yet we often underestimate or ignore the impact indoor environments have on us. Given that people in developed countries like the United States spend as much as 90 percent of their lives indoors, isn’t it time we paid more attention to how the spaces we inhabit influence our wellbeing?
Exposure to nature reduces our stress.
Much of this influence manifests itself in subtle ways. We can’t see the invisible air particles that can cause headaches or nausea, and not many of us would connect too-bright lighting with trouble concentrating. Becoming conscious of the types of problems inherent in homes and offices marks the first step down the road toward making our living and working spaces healthier and more productive. One way to do that is to make them more like the natural world.
The dense cloud of smog hovering over many city centers makes the level of outdoor pollution easy to notice, and daily smog alerts can help us decide whether or not to venture out. No such evidence or warnings exist for the great indoors, however, where polluted air can have an even greater impact on our health. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that indoor air contains five to 10 times more toxins than outside air, simply because pollutants concentrate in the too-stagnant air. Ironically, as we’ve improved air quality outdoors, indoor air has only grown worse as we’ve made buildings more energy-efficient and purposefully minimized the exchange of indoor and outdoor air.
In the 1970s, this phenomenon, along with the use of new, untested building materials, led to an outbreak of “Sick Building Syndrome,” a condition that includes symptoms like headaches, throat irritation, and fatigue, which dissipate after the patient leaves the offending room or structure. This era also saw an alarming increase in chemical sensitivity and asthma cases. While building construction has improved since then, up to 90 percent of our daily pesticide exposure still occurs indoors. The indoor levels of the toxic chemical benzene, for example, average three times those outdoors.
“Open a window!” I fairly hear you shout. Simple, yes, but depending on the weather, not always feasible or desirable. Instead, to keep our efforts at protecting the environment and cutting our utility bills from negatively impacting our health, we need to find ways to bring more fresh air indoors. As Berkeley National Laboratory scientist and building expert Dr. Max Sherman so snappily put it, “If you build tight, you must ventilate right.”
Bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans work well at removing some contaminated air, but they’re not designed to bring fresh air in, and they can’t remove pollutants in every room in the house unless they run all the time. A better solution? A ventilation unit that removes pollution and pumps in fresh air. If you live in a hot, humid climate, consider investing in an energy-recovery ventilator, which dries the incoming air so the air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard to cool it. In colder climes, a heat-recovery ventilator warms incoming fresh air using an exchange system that captures the heat in the stale air before it’s lost outside. These units cost about $500 to $600, and install as a part of a home’s current heating and cooling system.
The Power of Plants
The easiest way to clean up indoor air is to add houseplants to your décor.
One of the easiest, most cost-efficient ways to clean up indoor air is to add a few key houseplants to your home. Not only do plants transform carbon dioxide into human-friendly oxygen, they also remove a number of other indoor pollutants. In the 1980s, NASA conducted a number of experiments that determined certain plants could effectively absorb common toxic gases like formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene. Some plants removed as much as 70 percent of the chemical they were exposed to in just 24 hours.
Real-world experience reinforces NASA’s results. For instance, owners of a 50,000-square-foot office building in New Delhi brought in over 1,200 plants—Areca palm, snake plant, and devil’s ivy—and found that the incidence of eye irritation, respiratory problems, and headaches was significantly lower than in other buildings in Delhi, and people who entered the building had a 42 percent chance of raising their blood oxygen level by a percentage point in 10 hours. The Indian government named it the healthiest building in Delhi.
Thankfully, you won’t need 1,200 plants to get similar results at home. Just one Janet Craig dracaena, one of the easiest plants to care for (see “Picking the Perfect Plant” below for a full-list of toxin-purging plants), can purify the air in a 10' x 15' room. For an 1,800-square-foot house, NASA recommends about 15 to 18 plants in 6- to 8-inch pots. Mulching with activated carbon increases the purifying power of the plants by drawing in surrounding toxins. Dusting the leaves and keeping the soil free of mold and fungus will also ensure that the plants don’t contribute to the problem they’re meant to resolve.
Back to Nature
The more we can bring the outdoors in, through plants, windows, and pictures of nature, the happier and healthier we’ll be.
Bringing plants inside has positive psychological effects as well. No matter how many improvements we make to our indoor spaces, humans will always be drawn to the natural world, so the more we can bring the outdoors in, through plants, windows, and pictures of nature, the happier and healthier we’ll be.
“Exposure to nature reduces our stress,” says Sally Augustin, founder of Design With Science (www.designwithscience.com) and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She says she often incorporates natural elements in her interior designs because “sunlight boosts our mood and our cognitive performance, and views of nature help us restore mental energy depleted by knowledge work.” Studies show that sunlight improves performance in both school children and office workers and that office workers who have desks near windows tend to be happier and more on-task.
Leading environmental researchers have gotten encouraging results when they’ve tested how the ability to see the natural world impacts classroom performance. A study of 101 high schools in Michigan concluded that test scores, graduation rates, and the percentage of students planning to attend college ranked higher at schools where classrooms and cafeterias had window views of natural features like trees and shrubs, even when controlled for socio-economic status, race, and enrollment size.
And where windows views and indoor plants aren’t options, such as in hospital rooms, studies show that pictures of nature have a therapeutic effect. Research at Clemson University found that patients who looked at images of a nature refuge reported significantly less pain than those who viewed nothing. A similar study conducted at a Swedish university hospital determined that heart surgery patients who had landscape pictures in their ICU reported less anxiety and stress and needed less pain medication than the control group.
Maintaining a connection between the natural and indoor worlds can benefit more than just our physical and mental health. It can actually help preserve the outdoor spaces we treasure. “When humans bond with nature,” says Augustin, “it is more likely that they will live their lives in an environmentally sustainable way. The more we blur the lines between the indoor and outdoor spaces, the more we strengthen our connection to the living spaces we inhabit on a day-to-day basis. With that comes the resolve and responsibility to keep all our environments clean and comfortable for years to come.
Picking the Perfect Plant
Not all plants are created equal. Here’s how to pick the right combination of indoor plants for ease of care and chemical-cleaning power.
Best at Removing
Benzene: found in detergents, dyes, plastics, tobacco smoke, and synthetic fibers
English Ivy grows quickly so it’s easy to start new plants, but it is toxic for pets and children; Janet Craig Dracaena is poisonous for pets.
Formaldehyde: emitted from carpeting, cleaners, particle-board products, and furniture
Devil’s Ivy is one of the easiest plants to grow, but all parts are poisonous for pets and children; Snake plant also tolerates neglect, but it is toxic to dogs and cats. Spider plants grow quickly and are non-toxic.
Trichloroethylene: found in glues, dry cleaning chemicals, paints and varnishes
Pot mums, or florist mums, remove many indoor toxins and offer a colorful complement to other greenery, but need to be fertilized every two weeks when in bud.
Common Houseplant Care Notes
Take care of six common houseplants with the following tips for everyday maintenance (and in the case of pets and children, safety), below.
- English Ivy grows quickly so it’s easy to start new plants, but it is toxic for pets and children.
- Janet Craig Dracaena is poisonous for pets.
- Devil’s Ivy is one of the easiest plants to grow, but all parts are poisonous for pets and children.
- Snake plant also tolerates neglect, but it is toxic to dogs and cats.
- Spider plants grow quickly and are non-toxic.
- Pot mums, or florist mums, remove many indoor toxins and offer a colorful complement to other greenery, but need to be fertilized every two weeks when in bud.
Author: Lindsey Galloway