Improve the ventilation, even spread some good germs. If you want people to be healthy and productive, tend the microbiome. By Caroline Winter
Four years ago, a doctoral student in architecture asked Luke Leung to help him come up with a thesis topic. Leung, an engineer whose projects include the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, proposed the question: What is heaven?
“The student did a lot of research and found that no matter the faith—Islam, Judaism, Christianity—heaven is always a place with a garden and running water,” recalls Leung, director of the sustainable engineering studio of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the architectural behemoth better known as SOM. “So then we started questioning, ‘If that is heaven, what exactly is the place we are living in?’ ” In the Western world, humans spend 90% of their time indoors.
For years scientists have sounded the alarm that our disconnect from the outdoors is linked to a host of chronic health problems, including allergies, asthma, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and obesity. More recently, experts in various fields have begun studying why buildings, even those designed to be as germ-free as possible, are vectors for disease, not the least Covid-19.
A “misalignment with nature” in building design is partly to blame for our scourge of chronic diseases and the current pandemic. The relative lack of air flow and sunlight is an obvious issue; temperature, humidity, and indoor air pollution also play a role. But there’s another, less discussed factor: the microbiome of the built environment, which encompasses trillions of microbes including bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
The term “microbiome” is most often used to refer to the population of microbes that inhabit our body, many of which help produce vitamins, hormones, and other chemicals vital to our immune system, metabolism, mood, and much more. Like our bodies, the buildings we inhabit are also teeming with microbes. In recent decades our personal microbiomes have been altered by factors such as poor dietary habits, a rise in caesarean-section births, over prescription of antibiotics, overuse of disinfectants and other germ fighters, and dwindling contact with beneficial microbes on animals and in nature.
With each breath you bring oxygen deep into the alveoli of your lungs, along with hundreds or thousands of species.
Each place you sit you are surrounded by a floating, leaping, crawling circus of thousands of species. Over time these many microbes have adapted to survive, and even thrive, everywhere from our pillowcases and toothbrushes to the more extreme climates of our dishwashers, showerheads, ovens, and freezers. Many are derived from humans, or likely feed off human debris. More species of bacteria have been found in homes than there are species of birds and mammals on Earth.
The most urgent microbe-related question is SARS-CoV-2 and how to kill it. Beyond that, there are also long-term questions. How can we promote indoor microbe populations that don’t make us chronically ill or harbor deadly pathogens? Can we actually cultivate beneficial microbes in our buildings the way a farmer cultivates a field ? Experts including Kevin Van den Wymelenberg director of the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the
University of Oregon, are confident all this is possible. A more serious risk is that attempts to sterilize our surroundings can kill off bacteria critical for human health—or, even worse, inadvertently promote the survival and evolution of more dangerous bugs, including antibiotic-resistant superbugs. A study from the Department of Homeland Security found that the coronavirus can hang around indoors in the dark for hours. Facing an invisible and potentially deadly virus, the understandable impulse has been to whip out
some Clorox and go to battle. But indiscriminate bleach-bombing could backfire.