Gongol.com Archives: January 2023

Brian Gongol

January 30, 2023

Science and Technology Greener spaces

National Houseplant Day (January 10th each year) doesn't have the same cachet as most holidays. It's not even a close second to Arbor Day, which is big enough to have its own foundation. But it might be time to consider not just appreciating houseplants for their aesthetics, but expecting a little more work from them, too. ■ While it appears true that plants are capable of extracting volatile organic compounds from the air, their capacity is limited. Most of the successful experiments with using plants to improve indoor air quality have been just that: Experiments. And while the evidence has pointed in the right direction, the problem is one of scale. The houseplants we have now just don't work through enough air to act as indoor air purifiers. ■ Yet a few other things are clear: Trees are big enough to do the job of phytoremediation, removing hazardous chemicals from the soil and water. Lots of people already are predisposed to believe that houseplants can purify indoor air. And it appears possible to genetically engineer plants to do more detoxification than they might without human help. ■ Perhaps what we really need is some innovation to bring together some of that genetic engineering along with interior design and architecture. Green walls aren't particularly commonplace, but there's no reason they couldn't be, if given the right aesthetic and maintenance characteristics. And what about ceilings? What if, in place of popcorn ceilings, builders installed green ceilings composed of plants that would require minimal maintenance? ■ Ceiling space is mostly wasted today, and usually have to be treated so that they perform some acoustic deadening. Tiny houseplants -- or maybe even their rootless cousins, the mosses -- could, hypothetically, be optimized through hybridization or genetic modification to perform always-on, energy-free air purification. ■ Maybe it seems unlikely now -- but it also would have seemed unlikely just a short decade or two ago that we would be building our indoor habitats to feature giant, feather-light televisions and gigabit-speed wireless Internet connections. Some of the same energy and creativity that has gone into making consumer technology better might be put to good use making consumer biotechnology better, too. If walls and ceilings could be making life healthier, shouldn't someone be thinking about trying?

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