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Vol. 6 No. 1 - Millennium Issue - January 2000

Interiorscapes - A Step Forward

By: Nandini Mukherjee

Today, the role of design professionals is infinitely more complex. Economic, social and political forces have changed the way we live and work. Social research states that we spend over 90% of our lives indoors; either at the workplace or at home. That makes the indoor environment an extremely important factor in the quality of our lives and one which requires close scrutiny and sensitive planning.

Modern technology has brought with it innumerable advances and breakthroughs that have undoubtedly improved the quality of our lives. Concurrent to this technological advancement, however, is the growing awareness that as we innovate, we also foul the natural world that created and sustained us. Most of the machines, methods and materials used by us today have been developed with little or no regard for their impact on the environment-particularly the micro-environments we create indoors. Indoor pollution is one of the more serious consequences, and it is only now that we’re gradually becoming aware of it’s environmental impacts. Interior designers are central to this dilemma, for each project they shape the conditions within which generations of people will live and work. Interior landscaping or interiorscaping is a specialized field in which plants are carefully selected to create healthy and beautiful environments. To examine in detail the need for interiorscaping, we have to understand the impact of indoor air pollution on our daily lives and the role of plants in counterbalancing its effects.

Until the earlier part of the century, materials used for construction and decor were naturally occurring products like wood, plaster, bricks, stone, ceramics and steel. Then chemical manufacturers developed and introduced the plastics for furnishings and construction. No one could have foreseen the impact these synthetic products would have on our lives. VOCs (volatile organic compounds), gaseous by-products of synthetic materials, pollute the air we breathe and are toxic to our systems. Our unconscious exposure to them in low concentrations, continuously and over a period of time causes toxins to accumulate in our bodies and interfere with immune functions and normal metabolism. The cases which are highlighted are those involving acute exposure, like Sick Building Syndrome and Building Related Illnesses. These situations get most of the attention; though they represent just part of the complex indoor air quality problems - probably the minor part; for long-term chronic exposure is the most insiduous and potentially damaging. A broad range of health problems from chronic headaches to cancer and other degenerative diseases, birth and genetic defects, and allergic and emotional disorders are the result of air pollution in it’s various forms.

The sources of indoor toxins are not exotic or rare. They are, infact, everyday materials like carpeting, high-pressure laminates (formica-type products), paints, wall papers, furniture finishes, fabric dyes, cleaning chemicals, artificial plants, copy machine solvents, air freshners, ……… the list is endless. Evidence of products releasing toxins into the surrounding environment can sometimes be seen in carpet sections located in close proximity to mica furniture for long periods. When the furniture is finally removed, a unique discolouration can be seen around the junction where furniture met carpet, different in colour or shade from any fading the rest of the carpet might exhibit. Mica furniture is made of formaldehyde compounds (hence the name FORM-ica) which can attack and destroy organic dyes. Highly toxic to humans, these compounds can cause nausea, respiratory problems and cancer.

Having explored the impact of indoor air pollution on our systems, we realise the urgency of finding a remedy for this problem. Though one solution could be removal of pollution sources; which is not practical for immediate implementation. This is where the role of plants come into the picture. A simplified version of the plant filter system which can be used at residences, it incorporates an exhaust fan which circulates air through the planter system.

Activated carbon is used as a part of the growing media to adsorb gaseous molecules to be acted on by the leaves and root/microbial components. The self-contained exhaust system draws stale air through the planter at an accelerated rate, greatly speeding up the purification process. Cleaner air is returned to the room environment. In case of offices and commercial interiors, it would be beneficial to use a group of plants placed together in planter boxes. The working of the planter system is the same as that of the single plant filter system. As a thumb rule, atleast one tropical foliage plant should be used for every 10 square metres of room area.

Some plants that are recommended for ‘Indoor Air Pollution Abatement’ are Azalea, Philodendron and Boston Fern (for formaldehyde), Green spider plant (formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene), Chrysanthemum (formaldehyde benzene, trichloroethylene), Gerbera, Daisy (benzene, trichloroethylene) and Orchids (formaldehyde, methyl alcohol, xylene, ammonia).

Although much of the research on the causes and effects of indoor air pollution is incomplete - for science has only a moderate grasp of the problems and solutions, and much more is yet to be learned - designers must take advantage of the information currently available and incorporate the knowledge into designing healthier interiors.

Ms. Nandini Mukherjee is a practising architect and an environmental activist at 70, Rajendra Nagar, Sakchi, Jamshedpur 831 001 (India).

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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