Article - December 2003
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Engineered Solutions for Modern Buildings
Decorative, Interior Plantscapes and Automated Management Systems

Stuart D. Snyder, Principal 
S. D. Snyder & Associates
and Boca Automation, Inc.

There is today, a matrix of intelligence that determines how a building will look and perform. Those issues used to be much simpler, but in the modern world function has been found to be of critical importance. Project imagineers who deal with it must work as an interdisciplinary task force, each participant bringing to the table a unique viewpoint and expertise. Today building economics, occupant performance, environmental integrity, energy management, occupant safety and communication access, are among the factors that architects and engineers must consider in shelter design. Technologies are currently available with others coming on-stream, to implement the vision of forward thinking designers, developers, owners and managers. That is the promise of the Building Automation Industry. We have much to offer beyond information technology, security and energy management. This discussion will illuminate some misunderstood concepts and a new facility management technology that broadens the industry's potential.

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The serious use of living plants in the built environment is a sadly neglected issue. We take plants for granted and overlook the fact that they are environmental powerhouses that keep us alive and provide other important benefits few become aware of. Every breath we take has been filtered and purified through a marvelous network of bio-chemical and bio-physical systems, miniaturized within tiny plant components. Collectively they form a key element in the life-support system God provided for aerobic life on earth. Since the beginning of time, green plants have generated oxygen and cleared the air of harmful gases through their incredible powers of photosynthesis. Along the way, the laws of evolution have made the human body dependent on green plants for our survival. Daily they have a profound influence on our physical as well as our emotional well being.

Recently university research centers have confirmed what Frederick Law Olmsted knew when he advocated for Central Park...that being around plants rests the soul and is a restorative factor helping to overcome the effects of daily stress. Other research demonstrates the planted environment's capacity to improve office efficiency, stimulate human creativity and innovation, and confirms the healing capacity of horticultural therapies for the injured and diseased. The value of living greenery is undeniable, with a long history of validating research.

These positive influences find their way into the American corporate boardroom all too infrequently, for live plant functional performance is seldom understood and thus taken for granted. Greenery and flowering horticulture in the built environment are prized for their beauty, but quickly become expendable when times are tough. European and Asian executives have a more enlightened viewpoint, and use plants in various ways to improve office performance. In Europe for example, they become an important element in the concept of Bürolandschaft (office landscaping) which uses plants to provide greater workspace privacy, corporate identity, decorative beauty, employee status identification, sound attenuation, traffic flow patterns, employee health maintenance, satisfaction and efficiency, as well as other influences. The latter has enormous import, for studies have found that investing in the work environment can provide corporate benefits far greater than investment in factors related to building operation. They point out that facility operating costs typically account for only about 8% to 12% of a structure's financial burden. The rest is primarily occupant payroll. A 10% improvement in office efficiency can have a much greater impact on the bottom line than similar reductions in facility operating expenses. Put another way, to make buildings truly sustainable, designers, builders and managers must consider and cater to tenant needs...primarily the health, safety, comfort, satisfaction and efficiency of occupants.

'Green' design is a complex subject with a variety of viewpoints. In its most common usage, the 'Green Building' concept is primarily concerned with energy efficiency, with its motivation rooted in preserving natural resources and reducing the impact of power-plant air pollution. Other factors, such as use of environmentally-friendly construction and decorative materials are equally important for they minimize human health risks inherent in the built environment. EPA studies from the1980s show indoor air pollution (IAP) is consistently much greater than outdoor air pollution, even in highly polluted industrial areas. The effects of IAP go far beyond 'sick building syndrome'. Medical research confirms the permanent harm being done to us by this toxic soup we live and work in. Among the primary strategies used for IAP remediation is ventilation, the exhausting of foul air to the outside, replacing it with 'fresh' outdoor air which then must be conditioned to make it useful, adding to the cost of building operation. Many feel this is misguided and should be used only as a temporary, short-term measure. The reason, buildings were sealed beginning in the 1970s to keep air out and to make them more energy-efficient. Ventilation policies are a reversal. Secondly, pumping polluted air into an already fouled global environment greatly increases the problems we already face. Collectively, the billions of homes and commercial buildings around the world with an exploding growth rate, represent an enormous pollution source the consequences of which the earth can sustain for only so long. Many critics feel that air cleaning is the better way to go, but that too has problems. Air cleaning involves removal and destruction of pollutants at their source so they don't have to be 'swept under the rug' to infect some other part of the environment, as does ventilation.

contemporary Filtering out dust, pollen and other particulates is a relatively simple matter, but comprehensive air cleaning also involves ridding the space of hundreds of toxic gases that surround us, and that's much more difficult. 

Scientists have long known that plants clean the atmosphere by absorbing carbon dioxide. It wasn't until recent years when space science investigated plant use for regenerating used air and water in sealed environments that we became aware of green plants' other remarkable characteristics. They were shown to absorb and destroy a wide variety of toxic organic gases through photosynthetic and microbial activity. Both Russian and U.S. space programs went so far as to prove their effectiveness by sealing technicians in capsules serviced primarily by living plants to renew used air and water, and of course, to provide sustenance. One Russian experiment lasted six months with no adverse effects on subjects' well-being. That's what plants can do for us as well; help keep the built environment clean and healthy. This is advanced shelter ecology. Planter bio-systems can take some of the burden off of HVAC systems and do some of the things they aren't capable of, reducing energy use in the bargain. NASA programs developed devices called bio-filters, or bio-reactors, which maximize planter toxin removal. Versions are currently being developed for civilian use. Critics will point out the lack of studies that prove plant usefulness for IAP remediation, and they tend to make invalid apples-to-oranges comparisons with ventilation, which doesn't destroy pollutant gases and is therefore not air cleaning. NASA, the USSR Academy of Sciences/Institute of Bio-Physics and independent research centers have generated gobs of scientific evidence, and the fact that plants have been cleaning the air on earth for eons should be evidence enough.

Using living plants indoors for environmental purposes is not as simple as placing a few here and there. Larger plant installations are necessary, properly located and utilized, and that normally involves extra maintenance costs, mainly for watering (irrigation). Technology is available however, to minimize that burden and makes the concept highly practical. It must be understood that about 95% of containerized indoor plants installed in buildings are currently hand watered. Planter boxes and beds of open common areas are frequently watered by automated drip-irrigation systems and sometimes by sprinklers, but potted plants in the rest of the building are done by hand, generally through contractors. Office managers, restaurateurs, store managers and other tenants in these buildings negotiate contracts for decorative plant leasing and maintenance, and the cost of irrigation is a significant component.

micro-irrigation system

Drip irrigation is useful for large groupings of decorative plants in planter boxes or beds, such as around building lobbies and shopping malls where leaks and mismanagement doesn't cause the same damage as when used in furnished environments. It is among the broad class of technologies known as micro-irrigation. The term micro-irrigation refers to systems capable of small dose applications of water, and which can be done by various means. Drip systems were designed primarily for agricultural and outdoor landscape use but as mentioned, does get some use indoors. In large buildings, most decorative tropical plants are potted and are installed in office suites, restaurants, lounges, banks, hotel suites, shops and other furnished, sensitive locations where coarse irrigation technologies cannot be tolerated.

A newer, more refined technology overcomes the deficiencies of drip and sprinkler irrigation indoors, and permits automated service of decorative plants throughout a structure. Automated, Precision Micro-Irrigation (APM) Systems were developed primarily for use in the furnished areas of building interiors. APM technology is based on very short irrigation flow cycles (10 to 20 seconds) at low pressure, providing superior control and safety. Drip systems on the other hand, operate for much longer periods, 10 to 15 minutes or more, during which time tiny emitters reduce water pressure and volume so that only slow drips issue from the distribution tubing. Common micro-irrigation uses piping and tubing generally not accepted by building codes for installation inside of sealed partitions. Long irrigation cycles, unreliable controls and poly tubing problems can be potentially very damaging, and is why we seldom find drip irrigation installed into furnished areas of homes and offices. It is very risky.

APM systems APM systems provide a more compatible integrated technology for indoor building use beyond the lobbies and large common areas, although APM systems have found use there as well. They are employed primarily for container (potted) plants on file cabinets, bookshelves, desks and work stations, for free-standing potted plants in the corners of offices, in residential living rooms and bedrooms, on bathroom vanity tops, atop kitchen cabinets and all the other places where individual decorative plants can be used. This patented technology involves electro-mechanically controlled hydraulic systems using unique concepts such as mini-cycles for water flow control, and multi-tiered power control for operational integrity. Although APM systems can stand alone, in their most versatile installations they are easily interfaced with all types of building control technologies and become peripherals to the master system, using it for partial control. Plumbing-grade plastic tubing networks are installed into the building infrastructure to channel irrigation water from the remote APM control center to areas where plants will be installed. Special irrigation receptacles mounted in the walls of rooms access water lines hidden within partitions. Small gauge tubing plugs into these receptacles to service nearby plants, with adjustable flow control at each plant to meet individual moisture needs. Additional flow control devices are used at strategic points in the water distribution network.

The possibilities are enormous. These are facility management tools, so entire buildings may be fitted with APM systems to service environmentally-friendly plantscapes throughout, or smaller, select areas can be serviced independently. Connected to cold water lines in mechanical rooms as sources, control centers distribute irrigation water at low pressure for a few seconds throughout its zone to planter locations. This is generally repeated every 12 hours or so. Indoor container plants require very little water from each irrigation cycle. Long experience with this technology shows it to be capable of sustaining soil moisture levels closest to that found in nature, conserving water in the bargain. Nodes installed at convenient locations in the network become connection points leading to potted greenery on nearby work stations, file banks, shelves, partitions, floor-standing planters, etc. Furnishings can be adapted with secondary tubing networks to receive this irrigation connection. Live container plants on or around these workstations can then be automatically serviced daily. This technical scenario can be repeated floor after floor in multi-level buildings. Power control for APM systems is typically networked through a building's master control system. The actual irrigation cycle however, is manipulated by an APM solenoid valve controller providing fail-safe, multi-tiered control. Single-level power control is very risky when sensitive indoor environments are involved. Feedback from sensors can initiate fine-tuning of soil moisture levels in select areas where necessary. Inter-disciplinary cooperation between master control system and APM irrigation system designers is imperative for proper coordination of irrigation control center activity and zone control devices.

Labor saved through the use of such systems is considerable, for the 'smart' building automatically performs tasks normally requiring human labor. These systems do not completely replace human effort, for there are other planter maintenance tasks required beside watering. Manual watering however, is the task requiring most labor in mainstream planter service today, and is the determining factor in maintenance cycle frequency. APM systems significantly reduce labor content in this facet of facility management. Instead of contractors having to visit to water every week, maintenance cycles are stretched to every second or third week. Recognizing that most commercial facilities lease plants and planter maintenance services, building owners and managers with integral APM systems, as well as their tenants, gain considerable leverage in negotiating plant leasing/maintenance contracts with service firms. Between 30% and 60% can be saved on contracts in these situations, and the technology can typically pay for itself within a year or two. Management may also consider developing in-house interiorscape maintenance capability for tasks become simpler, with fewer training requirements when automation is employed. Building managers are also able to use APM installations as new profit centers, leasing the automated plant watering service to tenants, or it can be offered simply as an additional amenity to gain a competitive market advantage. Automated technologies such as this augment real estate value, for the integrated services are available for the life of the building, saving untold maintenance expenses along the way, and the functional sophistication adds to a building's image. Improving maintenance efficiency is important to corporate bottom lines, as costs rise and margins shrink. APM systems permit use of beautifying, healthy plantscapes even during tough economic times.

Mirage III™ * APM systems are installed very economically in new or renovated buildings. Pre-leased space is fully installed with irrigation service while simplified, skeleton systems are employed on unimproved floors, ready for future expansion to tenant suites when the space is leased.

Retrofit installations involve threading tubing from control center locations, through suspended-ceiling or raised floor plenums, then down through partitions into office suites, hallways, eateries, banks, etc.

There are benefits for plant leasing/maintenance firms as well. Most contractors are small with a limited labor force. Work is difficult, industry pay is low, fringe benefits are tough to come by, and so labor is hard to keep. Training for manual watering tasks is time consuming, and high turnover rates depress their bottom line. Automation reduces the level of expertise and the physical effort required for watering tasks, for the 'smart' structure takes care of most of this. It gives the maintenance company a chance to concentrate their efforts on other more meaningful horticultural tasks, such as pest and disease control, rotation of plants, etc. On-site time and frequency at each location is reduced, so more clients can be serviced with a given labor force.

'Smart' buildings should utilize natural bio-systems for a variety of reasons, and technologies such as automated, precision micro-irrigation (APM) are available to cement the practicality of those installations. NASA acclaimed the technical and social value of APM systems in five of their publications, including two annual reports. It represents space-age technology, servicing one of the most basic of our life-support systems and beautification tools. 

* Mirage III is a trade name used by S. D. Snyder & Assoc. and Boca Automation, Inc.

About the Author

Stuart D. Snyder is a principal of S. D. Snyder & Assoc,. which consults, designs, engineers and supplies specialized automated systems for residential and commercial management. He founded Boca Automation, Inc. and pioneered APM system technology. His books, Building Interiors, Plants and Automation (Prentice Hall, 1990) and Environmental Interiorscapes (Whitney Library of Design, 1995) are definitive works on the subject. Further information can be obtained by e-mail at: or visit their website at

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