Despite the documented benefits of getting outside and experiencing nature firsthand, students spend most of the day indoors and a growing proportion of that time is spent staring at a computer screen. This reality reinforces the value of applying biophilic design principles to a new school building or campus renovation to create a better learning environment for students.
Biophilic Design Defined
Biophilic design has received growing attention in recent years. The idea that nature connections help to inspire, calm and nurture us almost seems like common sense. Biologist Edward O. Wilson, who literally wrote the book “Biophilia,” describes our innate tendency to affiliate with nature.
Biophilic design acknowledges this reality and focuses on strategies to increase occupant connections to the natural environment. This is achieved through a combination of direct connections, simulated nature, and space and place conditions.
Since March is the time of year when we start thinking green, whether four leaf clovers or the advent of spring, this month’s focus is on embracing your inner (as in interior) green. Most of us can agree that greening our indoor spaces is a good idea—for the earth, for future generations and for own health and well-being. Therefore our interior design team is continually looking for green design strategies and product options that are readily available, cost-competitive and perhaps most importantly, do not require compromises regarding style, comfort or durability. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that there’s no “one size fits all” option, but instead a balance of pros and cons to determine the best solution for each space. The myriad of opportunities for greening your interiors are far too many to cover here, so for this month’s topic we’ve focused on wall coverings and flooring.
Wall Coverings: Paints and Wallpaper
Today, most of us recognize that the smells of new vinyl, carpets and fresh paint are actually chemicals “off-gassing” or evaporating from the products we’ve applied or installed in our buildings. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, furniture, paint, adhesives, composite woods, carpet and cleaning supplies contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can result in a number of negative health effects. The good news is that low or no VOC products are now readily available and competitively priced. When selecting a paint or adhesive product it’s important to look beyond terms like eco or green in the name and specifically review the VOC level. The lower the VOCs, the better. Generally, a low-VOC paint contains less than 50 g/L before tinting; zero-VOC paint has less than 5 g/L before tinting.
And did you know that latex paint is a recyclable item? Latex paint can be turned in to collection facilities which ship it to paint-recycling facilities such as Amazon Environmental. Similarly, Global Paint for Charity, a nonprofit organization based in Georgia, collects leftover paint from residents and businesses nationwide and uses it for global rehabilitation projects including homes, schools, hospitals, jails and churches for families in developing countries.
Wallpaper is enjoying a return to its former glory, not only for its decorative value but also for its acoustic properties and durability. Digitally-customized wallcoverings are especially popular for today’s commercial applications. Like paints, wallpaper options include products with low VOCs, recycled content and equally important, 100 percent recyclability after use. Many of today’s products are also 100 percent vinyl (PVC)-free. To help make the selection of sustainable wallcoverings easier, the Wallcoverings Association developed Standard NSF/ANSI 342, a third-party certification program which measures the environmental impact of both the manufacturing and distribution of a product, from raw material extraction through disposal.
Other available wall covering options include reclaimed wood or rapidly renewable cork and natural fiber wallcoverings, such as grass cloths which degrade naturally when removed from the wall and thrown away. Arguably the “greenest” option is a green wall, also known as a living wall system. A green wall is comprised of hydroponic plants grown on screen structures attached to the wall. A great example of regenerative design, green walls go beyond sustainable design strategies to limit VOC emissions and instead create a positive impact by actually improving indoor air quality as the plants go through photosynthesis and cleanse the air as they grow.
Flooring: Carpeting and Beyond
Flooring materials, and particularly carpeting, are another potential source of VOCs in our interior spaces. Not too long ago, there were few alternatives to carpeting made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers containing VOCs. Fortunately today there are better options for carpeting as well as other types of flooring. Wool is a natural, beautiful and renewable carpet option that also works well for rug pads, as it reduces noise, inhibits mold and provides insulation. These benefits do come at a price however, since wool is typically more expensive than synthetic alternatives. Other natural options, such as sisal, coir and sea grass, tend to be rougher and less durable than other alternatives to manmade carpet materials.
Polyester (P.E.T) Berber is a durable, spill resistant and economical product that is made of recycled plastic bottles and comes in a variety of colors and patterns. However, it’s important to note that berber can be easily snagged causing it to unravel if not repaired promptly; and it is not as soft to walk on as conventional carpet options. There are a number of carpet tile product options made with renewable, recycled and recyclable content. One of the most appealing benefits of carpet tiles is the ability to easily replace small sections when stains or other problems occur. Carpet tiles still include some synthetic materials, but look for options that meet or exceed the Carpet and Rug Institute’s “Green Label Plus” standards for low VOCs. One carpet company, Bolyu Contract, has also developed Puralex®, a self-renewing, non-toxic fragrance-free odor reducer made from a salt compound which contains no harmful chemical ingredients. According to the company’s website, Puralex reduces odors and room VOCs by breaking down most organic molecules in the air into inert material.
While carpeting in one form or another is definitely the softest “underfoot” option, there are a number of alternatives to consider. Cork, a relatively new flooring option, is an easily-maintainable, fire retardant material that’s warmer and softer than wood, has anti-microbial properties and acts as a natural insect repellent. Cork is harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree, without having to cut down the tree, and grows back every three years. Like wood, cork can be finished in a variety of paints or stains (preferably low or no VOC options) and can last up to 30 years.
When people hear the term linoleum, synthetic vinyl made of chlorinated petrochemicals often comes to mind, but the two are actually very different. Linoleum is made from linseed oil, cork dust, tree resins, recycled wood flour, pigments and ground limestone and is naturally anti-bacterial and biodegradable. Like cork, it is fire retardant and water resistant. Linoleum fell out of favor with the introduction of vinyl in the 1940s, but has reemerged with new vibrant and natural color options and is valued for its easy maintainability and durability. For a really unique option, rubber flooring made from recycled tires is making its way from gymnasiums and playgrounds into kitchens, sunrooms and bathrooms. This versatile, water-resistant option comes in many colors and patterns and provides a comfortable walking surface.
Hopefully we’ve given you some ideas for embracing your inner green. The good news is new products and design concepts are constantly being developed to help make the various indoor spaces where we live, work and play better for us and for generations to come.
An RLPS employees since 1997, Deb Kimmet, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, focuses on commercial interiors. Sustainable design has been her passion for many years and she loves to share her ideas for greening interior spaces.