Shaping Healthy Indoor Microbiomes through Design

Opinion

August 2020

What are microbes? Why do they matter? And how can we harness the power of natural systems to support more diverse indoor microbial ecosystems?

 

Collaboration between Science and Design has always been an important part of architecture, but now more so than ever. Design decisions are based on sound scientific evidence which is why we decided to delve a little deeper into the concept of bio-informed design, and more specifically, how design affects indoor microbial ecosystems.

 

What are microbes?

 

Microbes are microscopic single-celled organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. Although microbes are often associated with disease and dirt, we rely on our symbiotic relationship with them and the benefits of them to survive!Some are harmful, others beneficial- either way, Microbes are essential to our livelihood, playing a significant role in our digestion and overall health.The more diverse our microbiome is, the better, for example, low levels of diversity are associated with diseases such as diabetes and chronic gut inflammation. It's clear that these microscopic creatures play a vital role in our day-to-day health.

 

Numerous factors that determine our unique microbial makeup. Some examples include: what we eat, our genetic makeup, and the microbes that we encounter in our daily environment (including the buildings where we spend most of our time).

 

 

“The main thing people typically want to know about microbes is how to kill them. But in fact, the vast majority of microbes help humans more than they hurt us”.

 

(https://www.greenbiz.com/article/were-striving-make-buildings-and-their-microbiomes-healthy-places)

 

Because we rely on microbes, killing them all would be detrimental to our health. We must find ways to create healthy, thriving microbial environments to reduce the abundance of pathogens, particularly in the face of COVID-19.

 

How design affects our microbial environment

 

Before antibiotics and vaccines were developed, building design was a key strategy for maintaining public health. People now spend the majority of our time inside buildings, and much of our architectural designs have been informed by these historic public health practices. An example of strategic design to reduce the spread of pathogens is a hospital in Rwanda built with hallways on the exterior and increased natural ventilation, to dramatically decrease the spread of disease.

 

With the public health threat of COVID-19, reducing the spread of disease is once again central to the design of our built environment. Architectural design paired with human occupancy makes up the complex microbial biodiversity in buildings. Architects have the ability to utilise the following design features and can enhance the microbial environment while keeping to architectural best practices.

 

Design Features

 

Daylight

Harness the power of natural light through the placement of windows. Not only will this increase natural light, but it allows for easy natural ventilation.

Read more here

 

Natural ventilation

Introduce more outside air using natural ventilation. This will expose occupants to good bacteria from the outside air and prevent harmful bacteria from circulating.Not only will this enhance the microbial diversity, it is also a greener alternative to mechanical equipment.

Read more here

 

Natural unfinished surfaces

Incorporate natural unfinished wood surfaces into interior design. These surfaces are known to reduce the abundance of some viruses faster than materials such as stainless steel or plastic!

Read more here

 

Space configuration

Ensure that areas where bad bacteria are present, such as bathrooms, are away from areas like the kitchen so that the bacteria is unable to spread and transfer to food.

Read more here

 

Bio-design is continuously developing and COVID-19 has shed light on the importance of this science within our complex communities where we are often indoors and inclose proximity to others. When making changes to our built environments decisions should be grounded in scientific research. Having a solid basis of research and sound knowledge will help to ensure that we are avoiding making changes which could have negative effects on our microbial environment.

 

We will eagerly watch on as scientists in this space begin working on ideas such as cultivating beneficial microbes into cleaning products, and UV lighting tech that eliminates only harmful microbes. We recognise the importance of our microbial environment and it’s direct relationship with design. We aim to continue to educate ourselves on how we can incorporate bio-informed research and design into our work as architectural designers.

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