Have you ever felt a little unwell at work but were not able to put your finger on what is actually wrong? It just might be that nothing is the matter with you at all, and rather your office building is sick. This vague feeling of malaise can come about as a result of Sick Building Syndrome. We know your work is important to you, so here’s a solution for how to make your building a little less sick…green walls!

What is Sick Building Syndrome?


The Environmental Protection Agency defines Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.”

Complaints of those affected by poor office conditions include headaches, itchiness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and throat irritation, none of which make for a successful workday. The symptoms often cease upon exiting the building. Aside from health-related reactions, Sick Building Syndrome can also contribute to an increase in absenteeism and stress and a reduction in work efficiency.

The History of SBS and Poor Indoor Air Quality


In the early to mid-1900s, when many buildings were originally constructed, ventilation standards were put in place for a much different reason than they are now. It was a time of substandard hygiene, and ventilation requirements were 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air per person, mostly to weaken the prevalent body odors.

The 1973 oil embargo soon came about and demanded stricter energy conservation regulations, reducing the ventilation standard to only 5 cfm. With less ventilation came much poorer air quality in buildings. Luckily, things have improved slightly in recent years. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers revised the standards to require 20 cfm of outside air in office spaces, and though that doesn’t solve all of our air quality problems, it certainly helps.

Sick Building Syndrome Causes

Sick Building Syndrome can stem from a number of various causes, but there are four main groups. Studies done by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) measured how often these sources contribute to poor air quality indoors.

  • Inadequate ventilation (52% of cases)
    • This is often an HVAC issue, as the system fails to distribute air properly throughout the building.
  • Chemical toxins originating from indoors (16% of cases)
    • Indoor sources are actually to blame for a large majority of the air pollution in a building. Adhesives, manufactured wood, and even emissions from equipment such as copy machines can contain dangerous toxins including formaldehyde.
  • Chemical toxins originating from outdoors (10% of cases)
    • Outdoor toxins include anything from automobile exhaust to plumbing vents. If your office’s intake vents are improperly positioned, they could be taking in this pollution from the outdoors and mixing it in with the air you breathe.
  • Biological pollutants (5%)
    • Biological pollutants encompass some of the things you may already associate with sickness and allergies, such as bacteria, mold, and viruses. These toxins often breed in collections of stagnant water in insulation and ducts, underneath tiles, and more.

By bringing a green wall into your office, you are not only making it more visually appealing but also helping to combat all of these toxins in the air, creating a much healthier workspace.

How can green walls help?

Within a period of 24 hours, the plants in a green wall can remove up to 87% of toxins in the air. Green walls (also commonly referred to as vertical gardens or living walls) metabolize the aforementioned toxins in the air, and release oxygen at a much higher rate than indoor plants alone, which is pretty great because we need it.

Additionally, green walls help to reduce the energy costs incurred to adequately ventilate and control building temperature. Cooling the building by reducing wall surface temperatures in the summer, and insulating buildings in the winter cold, green walls help keep air conditioning and heating costs low.

Health benefits aside, green walls provide a connection to nature that is often missing from a traditional, sterile work environment. It is important for employees who are stuck at their desks or in conference rooms for eight hours per day to maintain this connection. This desire for a connection to nature is called biophilia, and you can learn more about it here.

Our Green Walls in Offices

AAR Corporation Project Gallery

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The world headquarters of the AAR Corporation, located in Wood Dale, IL, in the Chicago suburbs had little space to spare but needed a change. After discussing solutions with AAR, the Ambius team began installation of the vertical garden, the most practical option for the AAR Corporation communal break area. The 45’ x 20’ wall contains almost 4,300 plants and brings a breath of fresh air to a space to which employees go for stress relief.

American Family Corporate Office Project Gallery

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This green wall stands in the employee cafeteria at the American Family Corporate Office in Madison, WI. The design connects a more traditional green wall type to a spread of wooden planters with a stair-step pattern. The idea behind the image of the stairs was to bring the employees from their stressful work environment into a place of relaxation.

GREE Project Gallery


This San Francisco gaming company had little floor space, but wanted to bring life to their walls. At 240 square feet, the GREE green wall is comprised of approximately 850 plants. Its use of color, juxtaposed against the graphite grey walls, really helps the plants to pop and brings excitement and energy to the space.

Segment Project Gallery

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Segment, another San Francisco-based company, wanted to bring about a focus on sustainability and biophilia within their office. Not only did Ambius install a large (branded) wall in the lobby area, but they also put in green walls to create separation between office spaces to aid in noise reduction and privacy.

Our Ambius team members are the experts in interior landscapes. Find out how Ambius can improve your space by contacting one of our consultants. To learn more about what green walls can do for your office, visit our Green Walls page.