A health check-up is not an activity I associate with Head Office. But here I am, in a conference room with Kamal Meattle, CEO of the Paharpur Business Centre (PBC), a serviced office building in Delhi. One of corporate India’s most long-standing green evangelists, Meattle is also a workplace-wellness pioneer. He produces a pulse oximeter, which instantly measures oxygen levels and pulse rate, and invites my photographer and I to a test. “Your lungs are working fine," he says, looking at my scores. My colleague does not fare as well, however. “Do you know what the size of the lungs are in terms of covered area? It’s the size of a tennis court. Air that we breathe in gets spread over this huge surface area. That’s why it is important to maintain oxygen levels," says Meattle.

A cafe at PBC
A cafe at PBC

‘Growing’ green air

Oxygen levels are a business metric at the PBC, which, quite literally, sprouts oxygen-producing plants. They dangle from ceilings, grow vertically up walls, line corridors and windows, and dominate the greenhouse on the rooftop of the building. Meattle’s compact cabin is an exception, with only a couple of plants, alongside a cabinet, a meeting table and a desk. Elsewhere in the building, a forest blooms.

Like most innovations, the PBC emerged from necessity. In the mid-1990s, Meattle was advised by his doctors to leave Delhi when he became allergic to the city’s toxic air. Through a mix of trial and error, he arrived at a formula by which a curated selection of house plants helped to improve indoor air quality (IAQ). Meattle reels off figures from a three-year study, conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) with the help of the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute, Kolkata—and published in September 2008: 34% fewer respiratory ailments, 12% fewer headaches, 52% fewer cases of eye irritation, and 9% fewer cases of asthma.

Yet, the building breeds sceptics as profusely as it grows plants.

Plants under observation
Plants under observation

The approval ratings

Green rating systems have been quick to applaud his efforts. A clutch of placards and awards decorate a wall at the reception. PBC was India’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum-rated building, in the category for Building Operations and Maintenance of Existing Buildings. It was certified as Delhi’s healthiest building by the CPCB. It is one of the few buildings to comply with IAQ, or indoor air quality, guidelines from global bodies such as the World Health Organisation, and meets American and Australian green building standards.

PBC has, in fact, become something of a local urban legend. Meattle has a TED talk on growing fresh air and is a trustee of former US vice-president Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project.

The oxygen tests represent the latest frontier in his ongoing scientific quest to evangelize the health benefits of clean air. Meattle’s conviction is fortified by industry research. He hands me a summary of an academic study outlining a causal link between green environments and better cognitive functioning. The study, by the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, says that improved indoor air quality helps office occupants make better strategic decisions or respond better to crises.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Tackling critics

Sceptics remain unconvinced. “A critical review of the results of both laboratory chamber studies and field studies leads to the conclusion that indoor plants have little, if any, benefit for removing indoor air of VOC (volatile organic compounds) in residential and commercial buildings (which are major air pollutants)," writes Hal Levin, a US-based indoor air quality expert who has studied the issue for 25 years, in a paper titled How Well Do House Plants Perform As Indoor Air Cleaners?

Meattle is undeterred. “Look at today’s readings," he says, handing me a sheaf of paper on air quality at key locations in the office. “If the plants are not increasing oxygen, who is? The VOCs would be much higher if plants were not there."

Part of the problem could be that growing clean air is not as straightforward as it might sound. PBC’s patented process explains why researchers might struggle to replicate it. “We use several technologies in PBC, other than plants, to clean the air that include electrostatic precipitators, activated carbon filters, air washers, UV lights, high-efficiency cooling tower and more," Meattle says. Phew. That is just an abbreviated list—it is clearly more than a matter of placing house plants across an office.

More than the science of sustainability, Meattle’s workspace reflects the zeitgeist of wellness. Sustainability experts have concluded it is not enough to build sustainable buildings; human health, well-being and comfort matter just as much. New rating systems, such as the WELL building standard, promote seven categories of wellness in the built environment—air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. It identifies as many as 100 performance metrics, strategies and policies to enhance workplace wellness.

Unsurprisingly, PBC has applied to be a pilot project for the standard. “A green building which uses less energy is good for owners, but what about occupants? If I am an employee, how am I benefiting? Is the light ok? Is my back better?" Meattle questions. He is currently grappling with the WELL standard’s fine print.

Over the years, I have noticed that offices are many things to many people. In some cases, clearly, they seem to thrive as pioneering experiments.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Growing a forest inside a building

Sceptics consider Meattle to be a kooky experimenter, but to wellness advocates he is a pioneer. Less controversial and more significant is his problem-solving mindset, which underlines his strand of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs are known by the problems they choose to solve, and the Paharpur Business Centre (PBC) exemplifies this axiom. It reflects Meattle’s decades-long preoccupation with environmental issues. He has tried to draw political attention to melting Himalayan glaciers, argued with local government for the right to plant trees in Delhi’s Nehru Place and lobbied with the relevant stakeholders to reduce benzene in petrol, amongst many such initiatives.

His tactics are emblematic of his personality. He is happy to jump into situations with limited knowledge, and learn on the job. “PBC was built not knowing what we are doing. I would have lunch every week with the CEOs (renting our space) and ask them to teach me about technology," he says.

He is also quite unequivocal about another entrepreneurial trait: pursuing networks, cultivating contacts, and gaining access. “Once you know somebody who is an important person, access becomes easy," he emphasizes, sharing the names of the good and the great with whom he has interacted over the years.

Mettle’s flagship project, building the world’s most energy-efficient office, remains a pipe-dream owing to procedural setbacks. But, at 74, Meattle remains an optimist—perhaps the most important entrepreneurial trait of all.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs.

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