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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Demitor



Intrusive verb

: to draw air into and expel it from the lungs

: to pause and rest before continuing

Breathe Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster

When our team thinks of health and wellness in architecture, the Paimio Sanitorium by Alvar Aalto always comes to the forefront of discussion as an amazing use of sun and fresh air to create a healing environment for tuberculosis patients. Aalto designed everything within that building to help facilitate that care, all the way down to doorknobs that won’t catch sleeves or breathing tubes when moving between rooms and sinks angled to create less sound in order to not wake other occupants. With our submission to SHIFT, we wanted to look at those small but important architectural interventions designed to make a difference in the lives of those living within the structures they create. We look to refocus this idea that Architects don’t just design buildings but design more holistically, down to the door knobs and quality of air we breathe.

As human health and wellness increasingly becomes a focus in our built environment, we need to look at how we address retrofitting existing spaces in a scalable and economical way. Air quality is an important factor in the healthiness* (an index of the impact of a structure on the user’s health) of the building. However, many of our existing spaces, whether they are schools, offices, heritage buildings or homes, don’t have a means to deal with air quality such as mechanical ventilation. And although the general public is slowly becoming aware of things like Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s), a comprehensive understanding of the air pollutants we have or create in our spaces isn’t common knowledge. Any cooking, not only with natural gas, raises the PM (Particulate Matter), Nitrous Oxide (NO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO) within the home. Laser printers produce ozone, particulate matter and VOC’s. Household cleaners, personal care products and even candles have an impact on air quality. Over time, these compounds can have a significant impact on our health ranging from Eye irritation, headaches, asthma, kidney and liver damage to cancer. (reference 1-2). As we spend approximately 90% of our time indoors (reference 3), a shift toward taking a more active role in our indoor air quality is necessary. We need how we are polluting the air where we live and how to mitigate it.

On a larger scale, as a society, we’ve begun to take responsibility of the destructive and impactful way we obtain energy, and how to minimize the waste water we create, but what about prioritizing our air quality?. During our research into creating breathable environments, one concept from the Biosphere 2 really stuck with us. Why would it be okay to expel the polluted air we create in our spaces into the environment? And how do we start combatting that?

Breathe looks to engage people with their own air quality conditions in a scalable, digestible way. Presented as a single, contained, hexagonal ceramic planter, Breathe works as a mini air filtration system that uses the soil and roots of its plants to filter out pollutants and essentially clean the air. The flexibility and scalability of the design encourages engagement and self expression, with the ability to be as simple as one unit in an office cubicle to a green wall of edible plantings for the advanced users. As a small but scaleable unit, Breathe aims to be an inclusive way to not only filter the air around us but to start conversations about the importance of air quality and our health.

How it Works.

Breathe uses phytoremediation to remove contaminants from the air. This concept is based on NASA research using plants and soil microbes to purify air and water. It is also based on the research conducted on Biosphere 2, which uses the same concept but mechanically pushes air through the soils. The leaves, soil and roots filtered out particulate matter, VOC’s such as formaldehyde, benzene, trimethylamine, and xylene as well as CO2 while also increasing oxygen levels (Reference 4). These concepts are currently being further researched for applications in the real world and more general reviews as published in the Journal of Environmental Management (reference 5) and specific studies such as the 2002 Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Common Indoor Plants in Improving the Indoor Air Quality of Studio Apartments (reference 6).

It is important to note that the NASA and Biosphere studies occurred in closed systems in comparison to environments with a high turnover of air like mechanically ventilated spaces. In mechanically ventilated spaces, the influx of fresh air into the spaces lowers the impact on the immediate environment as most of the filtered air is being expelled. Most older unventilated buildings do have some air exchange but it’s at a much slower rate and where a plant/soil based filtration system is likely to have more of an impact. However, Breathe would still be filtering the air in mechanically ventilated systems, helping reduce the pollutants that are released outside into the air.

Each Breathe unit draws air through the top of the planter and expels the filtered air through the bottom. Each ceramic hexagonal structure has 6 holes, 1 hole on each flat side that can serve as ports to either provide water, circulate air, or connect to another unit.. The top two side holes provide access to the slim water tank. The top hole provides a space for air intake and the bottom hole houses the solar powered fan that draws air through the unit. The water tank is attached to a valve that regulates the water egress into the soil which has a high composition of perlite, peat moss and vermiculite for better air filtration. Each unit has its own watering system that is fillable at the two side top access points. Each watering system has a secondary connection point that could be hooked into a central watering node in larger installations. Each hole is either kept open, capped with filter fabric or plugged depending on the orientation and function of the hole.

The units were designed with economy in mind as a means of making the units and thereby air filtration more accessible. The fan and solar panel system used is a readily available and cheap system used for ventilating chicken coops. Moving parts and systems were kept to a minimum for the single unit with the idea that more extensive watering and pump systems could be utilized in larger scales. Ceramic was used as the base material as something that is available everywhere, but also with the intent that it could be craftable by anyone with access to clay and a kiln or mass produced like terracotta pots.

Scalability and Higher Impact

Breathe is intended to be scalable and easily digestible. When people think about sustainability and health, they think solar panels, high tech air systems with MERV filters, and using organic cleaners. With Breathe, they can start with something more tactile, immediate and economical. A single unit is a start, a step in the right direction. And even though a single unit won’t have the same effect as an entire wall, it’s a starting point that can be expanded upon.

A single ceramic planter that filters your air is digestible both conceptually and economically. Each hexagonal planter is designed to fit together to expand and become a larger more impactful air filter but also a biophilic installation.

Breathe can function as its own standalone unit, but it is intended to grow. More units not only increase the amount of filtration and create a more lush space to connect with; if stacked vertically, it can create displacement ventilation. Through COVID, air movement and contaminants within spaces have become a highly studied subject. In various reference studies it has become apparent that although mechanical air filtration systems help remove pollutants they also have a flaw, as they mix the air (reference 7). The new fresh air helps dilute the pollutants but it also mixes sources of pollutants with the new air. Studies have shown higher air quality for occupants when using displacement ventilation (reference 7-8).

Displacement ventilation uses the stack effect to push polluted air up out of the breathing zone. A low velocity system slowly expels cooler air at floor level. This cool air pushes up the warmer, more polluted air towards the ceiling creating stratas in the air. Cool air at the bottom, warmer air in the middle (breathing zone) and the hotter more polluted air at the ceiling. The hot polluted air at the ceiling is collected and expelled. This system takes into consideration that there are points of contamination. Instead of mixing that air with new air, these contaminants are pushed up, only affecting a localized area for a short amount of time. In a multi-unit Breathe system the units are designed to be installed to create a vertical axis, the polluted air is taken in the top and pushed through the soil and root system, where it is filtered and cooled (through the water in the soil). The air is then expelled at the cooler temperature at the bottom to help create the displacement ventilation. In effect, Breathe was initially conceived as a unit in a system designed to create displacement ventilation, but functions independently as a filtration medium for polluted air.

Restorative Spaces

We understand that scalable air filtration units could have been conceived and presented in a multitude of ways. However, we wanted to approach this more holistically. Breathe not only looks to address air filtration and quality, but also the need for restorative spaces. Biophilia has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety. (reference 9) Breathe is a way to add natural elements, and to create your own restorative space in a productive way. Its scalability means it can be more than just a planter. It can be an entire wall, a room or an entire atrium. Part of our research also looked at what plants best worked for filtration. Lettuces, and various herbs can not only filter your air but give you the satisfaction of growing your own food.

Breathe is a catalyst to begin thinking about and taking an active role in the health and well being of our surroundings. In an utopian world, Breathe is spreading over classroom walls, becoming talking points to engage users in air filtration, restorative spaces, food growth, and creating minds that better understand the impacts of their surroundings on their health and wellbeing.

Team Fabricae's Submission to SHIFT 2022