Engineering buildings to promote good bacteria

Green is Director of the Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE)  Center, which is busy training a new generation of innovators and practitioners at an architecture-biology level. Studies by the Center and Green has shown that by trying to keep our buildings clean and sealed, we may just have been making them worse for our health.

Green is advocating that architects design structures with not only people in mind, but also microbes. She sees a unique opportunity to promote the diverse microbe communities we want in our buildings, the kind that keep us healthy, while monitoring species dangerous to human health. To explain this a little better, if you had a house in Marloth Park (which shares the Southern border of the Kruger National Park) animals such as various buck and smaller mammals would still able to roam freely around the houses while the Park monitors the movements of the predatory animals like lions. They however do not restrict those harmless animals from entering Marloth Park, this means the area is in complete symbiosis with its surroundings.

It used to be that doctors would prescribe fresh air as a cure, but today’s nearly hermetic hospitals deliver exactly the opposite. The buildings rely heavily on extensive mechanical ventilation systems. What is the problem you ask? The problem is that the microflora in many buildings (those invisible bacteria, viruses, and other microbes around us) is dominated by human-linked bacteria and pathogens, compared to the relatively harmless microbe communities in well-aired buildings or the outdoors, made up mostly of benign bacteria from plants and dirt.

This is all based on the findings of Green’s study which compared the microflora of mechanically ventilated hospital rooms to those in rooms with open windows, and the microbes outside. According to this study, people without the benefit of direct outside ventilation were more likely to encounter human pathogens.

“Humans in the developed world spend more than 90% of their lives indoors, where they breath in and come into contact with trillions of lifeforms invisible to the naked eye,” says Green in a 2011 TEDtalk (a conference that brings together Technology, Entertainment and Design). “Buildings are complex ecosystems that are an important source of microbes that are good for us, and some that are bad for us.”

Isn’t it time that we re-evaluate how buildings not only interact with its surroundings but also with those occupying it?

BioBE’s “hypothesis-driven, evidence-based approach to understand the built environement” could lead to new kinds of buildings - ones that give us healthier microscopic neighbours.

Image via ColourLovers

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