The missing link between sustainability and green buildings

By: Kayleen Glaser, LEED Tools, Processes, and University Standards Intern

Here at the Office of Sustainability, we define sustainability as “thriving within our means to achieve balance between environmental health, economic prosperity, and social equity.”  In context of the built environment, sustainability most often translates into green building practices.   As an intern working on streamlining the university’s LEED certification procedures, I initially wondered, “How could green buildings help improve environmental health?”  It doesn’t take much stretching of the imagination to see how green building could be connected to economic prosperity — I won’t drone on too long with phrases like “stimulating economic growth,” “reducing overhead costs,” or “creating new job markets.”  How green buildings affect social equity is a topic too large to be discussed in one blog post.

The US Green Building Council’s LEED seal; Source:

First, for those unfamiliar with LEED, let me give you a quick run-down:  LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a framework the US Green Building Council developed to help building owners identify and implement green building solutions.  There are 100 possible points a building may receive on its path to certification; these points can be accumulated from five main credit categories: (1) Sustainable Sites; (2) Water Efficiency; (3) Energy and Atmosphere; (4) Materials and Resources; and (5) Indoor Environmental Quality.  Perhaps this is the missing link between environmental health and green building practices!  The Indoor Environmental Quality(IEQ) category’s purpose is to help promote occupant comfort, well-being, and productivity.  IEQ addresses environmental health by suggesting that building owners implement better ventilation systems (get the good air in, and the bad air out!) and use low-emitting materials to construct the building (no odorous, irritating, harmful or toxic chemicals!), among many other things.

While I would be happy to tell you more about LEED’s requirements for the Indoor Environmental Quality category… because believe me, there are more…I had one more question on my soul search for the connection between environmental health and green building practices: how do I extend this to my own home?  I believe that there are many, if not an infinite, number of ways to answer this question; however, my favorite way to incorporate sustainable principles into my own built environment is by opening my home to as many plants as possible. It’s a low-tech solution to a very high-tech problem.

An up-close shot of my snake plant (also called mother-in-law's tongue). Neat fact: Place these on your night stand -- they release the most oxygen at night!
An up-close shot of my snake plant (also called mother-in-law’s tongue). Neat fact: Place these on your night stand — they release the most oxygen at night!

In the eighties, NASA was looking for ways to keep air quality high while astronauts spent time in outer space.  During the process, they discovered plants that could filter harmful contaminants like formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene.  Formaldehyde can be found in OSB/particle board, for example.  What’s next? Benzene? Trichloroethylene? Both found in many paints. The ironic news is that as homes become more energy efficient, they are sealed more tightly, essentially keeping toxins trapped inside.

A buildup of these toxins results,called “Sick Building Syndrome,” is described as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health problems and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.”   In other words, it’s that mysterious cough, headache, or attention difficulties that you may experience throughout the day while stationed indoors for many hours at a time.  This is exactly what LEED, the Indoor Environmental Quality category, and many others, are fighting against.

NASA discovered plants like heartleaf philodendron and elephant philodendron top the list of air cleaners.  Other notables include english ivy, peace lilies, dracaena varietals, and snake plants. Some plants target specific contaminants; for example, gerbera daisies and pot mums filter out benzene better than other plants while peace lilies target trichloroethylene.  For homes around 2,000 square feet, 15 plants in 6 inch or larger pots would sufficiently do the job.  That’s approximately 1 plant for every 100 square feet (check out more at ).

5 thoughts on “The missing link between sustainability and green buildings

  1. Green architecture is particularly salient in cities given that there is a real dearth of plants and nature in general in such landscapes. The designs that I’ve seen for such landscapes in Singapore for instance are quite stunning and it is also heartening that the government ensures a re-certification (Green Mark) every 3 years. Current legislation also mandates that newly built buildings must comply with the Building Control (Sustainability) Regulations. Of course the trick is to make sure that older buildings are also audited since this is just as vital!

  2. Sick Building Syndrome is an interesting concept. Do LEED specifications make mention of plants as natural filters? Or are the LEED standards more about structure and outdoor specifications?

    1. LEED 2009 (the version I am most familiar with) does not make a specific mention of plants as natural filters. The LEED Indoor Environmental Quality credit category focuses on installing air flow monitoring systems, providing outdoor air ventilation, developing an air quality plan for during construction, flushing out trapped toxins before occupancy, using low-emitting materials (paints, coatings, flooring, wood, agrifiber products, etc.). If the LEED vision/requirements were executed perfectly, I think that the building would not have trapped toxins for the plants to filter out.

      Having said that, I think plants are a good band-aid for at home use (where total renovation is impossible/unlikely) and also great reminders to be aware of all of the ways that toxins can enter into our environment!

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