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How houseplants could save us from toxic buildings

Scientists think that plants could help us monitor our buildings for everything from mold and radon to volatile organic compounds.

How houseplants could save us from toxic buildings
[Photo: Nielsen Ramon/Unsplash]

Biophilia—the act of fostering human connections to nature through design—is touted to boost wellness and encourage deeper care for the environment, a conciliatory remedy for the artificial world we’ve created around us. The argument is that we are evolutionarily predisposed to enjoy Mother Nature, whether it is constructed or natural. Indoor plants are also natural air purifiers, regulating levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Increasingly, they’ve also become signifiers of a trendy interior and even a millennial lifestyle devoid of children.

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Beyond the aesthetic and feel-good zen, though, there could soon be another case for designing plant life into buildings. A team of scientists at the University of Tennessee suggests that plants could be easily engineered with biosensors to function as home health detectors–acting like the canaries in the coal mine for human inhabitants that could be harmed by toxic materials and pollution.

[Photo: Mike Marquez/Unsplash]

Detailed in a recent abstract in Science, the team thinks that houseplants could be genetically engineered to react to variances—changing the color or fluorescence of its leaves, for example, upon detecting changes in toxic gases, molds, or emissions—and effectively alert residents of unseen dangers.

With growing awareness of the harmful effects of VOCs in building materials, and how off-gassing can be a serious problem in architecture, their vision offers a helpful salve for the problems of industrial manufacturing. The houseplants of our future, they suggest, would act as our first line of defense.

The coauthors of the article–Neal Stewart, a plant sciences professor; his wife, Susan; and Rana Abudayyeh, an interior architecture professor–think that while the concept of synthetic biology is not new, it has been explored for potential uses in commercial farming. But it could be especially apt in a domestic setting. Houseplants are nonintrusive and already commonplace, available in a wide range of varieties that could be used to signify specific metrics within a space.

[Photo: Mike Marquez/Unsplash]

“Houseplants are ubiquitous in our home environments,” says Stewart. “Through the tools of synthetic biology, it’s possible for us to engineer houseplants that can serve as architectural design elements that are both pleasing to our senses and that function as early sensors of environmental agents that could harm our health, like mold, radon gas or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds.”

While the concept remains under development—Stewart and Abudayyeh are actively pursuing grants to bring these types of “smart” plants to schools, offices, and homes—it promises a wide range of possibilities for interior environments, from individual plants to whole architectural systems, like dense plant walls. In the not-so-distant future, engineered plants might even replace the function of something like a Nest gadget, without the fuss or threat of cybersecurity.

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[Photo: Mike Marquez/Unsplash]

If successful, the team’s development could usher in a new way for designers and architects to create healthy, safe spaces. In the future, including living things in our homes and offices won’t just make us happier, lower our blood pressure, and boost our immune levels, as we already know they do. It could become a necessary aspect of interior design–along with a better understanding of botany and biochemistry.

“[The plants] can do a lot more than just sit there and look pretty,” adds Stewart. “They could alert us to the presence of hazards in our environment.”

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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