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Design Choices Affect Our Germs

Friday, February 7, 2014

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The mix of bacteria living around us—on our desks, our bodies, our computers—is influenced by the design of our buildings, according to a new study.

The research suggests that aspects of design and function—such as building arrangement, the number of doors per room, the ventilation source and average occupancy—not only affect people, but also the types of microbial communities sharing the space.

Lillis Hall
Visitor7 / Wikimedia Commons

The study is based on a survey of bacteria living in Lillis Hall, a building with classrooms and offices on the University of Oregon campus.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Oregon’s Biology and the Built Environment Center, was open-accessed published in Plos One Jan. 29.

The microbes in and around our bodies influence our health. The composition, arrangement and even the interaction of the species have been connected to a plethora of issues, such as obesity and eczema, according to a Popular Science report on the research.

Do We Have Control?

“What we did in our paper was ask this really fundamental question,” center director Jessica Green told Popular Science.  

“Given this hypothesis that is becoming more and more actualized—that the indoor microbiome is important to health—do we have any control over what kind of microbes are indoors or out?”


Jessica Green, director of University of Oregon Biology and Built Environment Center, spoke about designing microbial ecosystems through architecture in this TED Talk from February 2013.

To find out, the team, working with the building’s designers, surveyed bacteria living in Lillis Hall, a building with classrooms and offices on the University of Oregon campus. The team used vacuums to collect dust from 155 unique spaces in the building and sequenced the DNA of the bacteria they found.

The team found about 33,000 different major groups of bacteria in its study; different room types contained unique microbial compositions.

Different Rooms, Different Ecosystems

For example, the dominant types of bacteria in bathrooms, which typically have one door, are those associated with the human gut, the research found. Hallways and other areas with many access points had more diverse microbial environments.

University of Oregon
University of Oregon

Offices with windows, as opposed to those with mechanical ventilation, had more soil- and plant-based bacterial species, the researchers found.

Offices with windows, as opposed to those with mechanical ventilation, had more soil- and plant-based bacterial species, the researchers found. Adjacent offices possessed more similar ecosystems than those far apart.

What Next?

While the study found that design characteristics of a room influence its microbiome, it did not indicate what affect the bacterial mix may have on human health.

“The next step is to understand how humans contribute to this indoor microbiome, as well as how different ecosystems may influence human health,” according to Popular Science.

Green told the news outlet that the team was working a project to understand which types of microbes humans shed indoors.

She predicts that microbial surveys will become more common—and that someday, public buildings may even be subject to an indoor microbiome certification or grade.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Building design; Design; Designers; Durability; Interior design; Research

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