The Greening of Chinese Office Spaces

Installing a green wall. Photo credits: Nathan O. Tylor
Installing a green wall. Photo credits: Nathan O. Tylor

Installing a green wall. Photo credits: Nathan O. Taylor

In the last few years there has been a huge movement to make working environments more “green”. You can barely get on line without coming across a story about an office that has just installed a vertical garden to create an enhanced working environment. There are endless reasons behind this growing green trend. Some want to create a space more conducive to creativity or reap the benefits of a healthier working environment. Others, like Anken in Shanghai, have created a whole green philosophy around their newly designed business space. But for most companies following these trends means setting themselves apart by drawing the attention of potential clients and customers. In this case that means ‘going green.’

Just like many new architecture trends and building materials, China has become a testing ground for innovation and in doing so, the Chinese market for vertical gardens and green roofs have skyrocketed from completely nonexistent to a budding new niche in the field of architecture and interior design. But are these new trends really reaching their green potential or are they just for show?

Ronald Lu & Partners Green Wall, Hong Kong 2010

Ronald Lu & Partners Green Wall, Hong Kong 2010

Vertical gardens are innovative; they are visually appealing, help clean the air and they are a popular trend across China. Unfortunately, they are rarely personal. Most offices that install a green wall want to show that they are doing their part to fight bad air quality, an issue that is plaguing the Chinese people, especially in the large urban centers. The idea that they are improving the working environment for their employees is powerful motivator. However, it is hard to make that logic stick. Over 90% of the green wall projects I have worked on in China are nothing more than a vertical green spans, installed behind the front desk or as a backdrop people will see as they come in the front door of the company. They look wonderful but the only person who is really gaining anything from the newly greened wall is the person working at the front desk and they usually have their back to that beautiful new garden. Of course it is wonderful that companies are making the great green leap but it is just as important to understand the green systems they are looking to install.

When first visiting companies to discuss the installation of a vertical garden, it is always important to look at possible locations and it’s best to have more than one wall. That vertical garden in the lobby (often with the company logo in the middle of it) will certainly catch a client’s eye but it is also important to look for an open wall somewhere in the middle of the working area, a wall that if made green will be enjoyed by all the employees. The people who spend all day in the office are the ones who are really going to appreciate the benefits of that green wall. Employers who are really looking to reap the benefits of a greener working environment usually understand this right away. Having two walls also creates a visual continuity, you pass one as you come in and see the other near your destination. That bright green visual link really draws people from the main door and leads them into the office, which is also a positive in the case of customers.

Renovated office in China by Vector Architects. Taoyuanju Office, Tianjin, 2012.

Renovated office in China by Vector Architects. Taoyuanju Office, Tianjin, 2012.

It is also important that employees have their own potted plants. Thankfully, the ‘mini-garden’ trend is pretty popular in China already. Almost everyone has a small ornamental plant on his or her desk these days. Having greenery that is yours is far more important than just having more green in the office. For example, it is better to care for potted plants on your desk or around your work area than it is to have a green wall installed in the lobby. It’s the time you use to take to care of those plants, the day-to-day cycle of watering and caring for your own green island that builds up awareness for what is green. It is also because you are in close quarters with that green environment that you are able to gain from it. Vibrant and dark green leaves give your eyes something soft to look at, a break from the harsh light of a computer screen. They also provide a calming effect in your work environment, something that many of us need. If that green is on the other side of the office, it really isn’t doing you much good.

The most successful vertical garden installations are the ones that follow a few simple rules. First, they are designed to better the employee’s work environments, not just a lobby instillation. Secondly, they are installed in more than one location to ensure a visual flow of green and to better balance the benefits those vertical green spaces provide. Finally, the vertical gardens are balanced by the personal green that the employees care for themselves. This could be that potted plant on their desk or that they help prune and water the main vertical garden in the office.

I hope to see more and more Chinese companies going green in the future but more importantly I hope that they make good decisions about maximizing the green potential in their offices. Putting that green to good use will not only make the working environment a more enjoyable and healthy place to be but also more conducive to getting things done and that is something every employer wants to see. If you are thinking about making green innovative changes at your company, you may want to check out the Shanghai International Green Building and Energy Efficiency Expo.