Revitalizing Student Wellness at York University

INTRODUCTION

The Bennett Centre for Student Services at York University is home to the Student Counseling, Health, and Well-Being (SCHW) department. This department plays a pivotal role in offering essential mental health and wellness resources to both students and faculty. It is dedicated to promoting academic success, personal growth, and community engagement. With all of the wonderful work that the SCHW department provides, it only makes sense that its physical environment reflects its commitment to wellness. To this end, they sought out New Earth Solutions to install an automated biofilter living wall system within the department’s office space. This initiative not only created a tranquil waiting area that aligns with the SCHW’s mission of fostering student wellness but also enhanced the overall air quality further contributing to the well-being of the office occupants. 

York University Living Wall Biofilter Highlights

BACKGROUND

Student Counselling, Health & Well-Being is a student service department within the Division of Students at York University. Their dynamic team of healthcare professionals, peer health educators, and support staff collaborate to provide a range of health and well-being services that encourage student and faculty success, wellness, and growth. The primary aim of SCHW is to support students in realizing and developing their personal potential and managing the demands of university life.

Constructed in 2004, the Bennett Centre – which houses the SCHW offices – stood as a beacon of progress and support for both staff and students. Over the years, this structure gradually became outdated and lost its initial luster. The dullness of the interior did not reflect the vibrant individuals that work there nor did it foster an environment conducive to the goals of nurturing growth and success. Recognizing this disconnect, it became evident that revitalizing the SCHW office is not just about aesthetic enhancements but about realigning the physical space with its mission to inspire and support staff and students.

The Bennett Centre

The SCHW team has already implemented numerous measures to help re-align the interior environment with the goals of their team. Upon entering the Student Counseling, Health, and Well-Being department, students are immediately enveloped in an environment designed to promote tranquillity and well-being. The carefully curated background of soothing opera music, the warm, gentle lighting, and the strategic addition of potted plants all contribute to a welcoming environment that puts people in a better headspace even before any formal interaction occurs.

OBJECTIVES:

The goal of this project was to enhance the overall health and ambiance of the space by significantly improving air quality and enriching the student experience.

Embracing a holistic view towards the health of the built environment, the client aspired to establish a living wall that not only embodied their commitment to wellness and growth but to also act as a tangible manifestation of these values. Their key goals encompassed elevating indoor air quality to nurture a healthier atmosphere, augmenting the student experience through the incorporation of biophilic design principles, and fostering a deeper connection between their community and nature in order to support mental health.

CHALLENGES:

Lack of Water Line Access: The most significant challenge faced at the outset was the absence of a water line in the designated space for the living wall. This limitation demanded a creative and efficient solution to ensure the wall’s longevity and the health of its plants without direct access to traditional water sources.

Insufficient Natural Lighting: The second major challenge stemmed from the location’s lack of natural light. During a site consultation, New Earth Solutions determined that the intended space for the living wall did not receive adequate sunlight, necessitating an alternative lighting solution that could replicate the spectrum of sunlight. This solution needed to be compact, given the small space, and flexible enough to allow for the living wall’s potential relocation within the space.

SOLUTION

New Earth Solutions presented the option of an autonomous biofilter living wall which included an integrated lighting solution and an automated watering system for reduced maintenance requirements.

The living wall’s irrigation system features a 67-gallon water basin that only needs to be refilled once every fourteen days. By adopting a hydroponic approach, the need for soil is eliminated, enhancing water efficiency and uptake compared to traditional soil-based (geoponic) systems.

The integrated lighting system consists of four sections, with each section measuring 2 feet in length and consuming 12 watts of power. These lights emit a spectrum specifically optimized for plant growth, offering an efficient and cost-effective lighting solution for the project. A significant advantage of this integrated lighting is its incorporation directly into the living wall structure, rather than being mounted on the ceiling or adjacent walls. This design choice significantly increases flexibility for the client, facilitating easier relocation of the living wall within their office space if desired.

Living wall plants growing towards light

IMPLEMENTATION

Spanning dimensions of 6.5 ft by 9.5 ft, the living wall was installed over a period of two days. The initial phase involved the preparation of the installation site, which included the mounting of plywood onto the designated wall area, followed by the installation of a waterproof membrane to ensure the longevity and durability of the structure against moisture. The setup also included the installation of air plenums and light mounting brackets, laying the groundwork for the subsequent installations necessary for the operation of the pump, fans, and lighting systems.

Electrical components, including the pump, fans, and lights, were then installed, ensuring the system’s functionality was thoroughly tested. The irrigation line, pre-measured and drilled for the upper row of planter panels, was installed, followed by the planter panels themselves. After preparing the basin and filling it with water, the irrigation system was tested to confirm proper flow through all panels.

The living wall is comprised of 260 plants of various species including Philodendrons, Dracaena, Monstera, and Ficus. The living plants not only transformed the space aesthetically but also created an autonomous biofilter that enhances the indoor air through the seamless integration of technology and nature.

The hydroponic nature of this system fosters the growth of beneficial microbes around the root zone of the plants, which play a crucial role in breaking down volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants. The additional benefit of active air circulation enhances this purifying process, dramatically increasing its efficiency.

Installing the biofilter

RESULTS

IMPROVING INDOOR AIR QUALITY:

The introduction of the living wall in the SCHW department has definitively elevated the quality of the indoor environment. By maintaining relative humidity levels within the optimal range of 40-60%, the installation helps create conditions that are not only comfortable but also conducive to good health. Additionally, the reduction in CO2 levels, VOC levels and particulate matter contributes to cleaner indoor air, essential for cognitive function and overall well-being. Poor indoor air quality can lead to a myriad of health issues, including headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. By addressing these concerns, the living wall significantly enhances the health of the built environment for the SCHW department, making it a healthier place for students and staff.

Air quality improvements
BIOPHILIC DESIGN BENEFITS:

The benefits of integrating biophilic design principles, such as those employed in the living wall installation, extend beyond mere aesthetics and air quality improvements. Biophilic design taps into the innate human connection to nature, creating spaces that are not only physically healthier but also more emotionally supportive and invigorating. The presence of natural elements within the SCHW department has transformed the space into a sanctuary of serenity, contributing to a reduction in stress levels and an improvement in mental clarity and emotional equilibrium. This qualitative enhancement of the environment is integral to fostering an atmosphere where mental and physical health can flourish.

Biophilic design bennefits

The living wall serves as a visible commitment by the SCHW staff to the well-being of York University’s students, underlining the importance of a holistic approach to health that encompasses academic, emotional, and environmental factors. By offering a more engaging and refreshing space, the living wall encourages students and educators to thrive, emphasizing the critical role that a well-designed environment plays in educational and personal development.

 

The living wall serves as a visible commitment by the SCHW staff to the well-being of York University’s students, underlining the importance of a holistic approach to health that encompasses academic, emotional, and environmental factors. By offering a more engaging and refreshing space, the living wall encourages students and educators to thrive, emphasizing the critical role that a well-designed environment plays in educational and personal development.

To the astute asset manager seeking not just financial returns but also the creation of enduring value, consider the living wall biofilter. It is a powerful testament to the possibilities that arise when environmental consciousness converges with strategic decision-making. In the face of burgeoning environmental challenges, the real estate industry stands at the forefront of change. The living wall biofilter at 1042 Paisley Road is not just a case study—it is a call to action. It beckons asset managers and property owners to embrace the green future, where sustainable initiatives drive environmental benefits and enhance asset value and occupant satisfaction.