Monday, April 1, 2013

Germs in and around us!

Our bodies and homes are covered in microbes -- some good for us, some bad for us. As we learn more about the germs and microbes who share our living spaces, TED Fellow Jessica Green asks: Can we design buildings that encourage happy, healthy microbial environments?
Jessica Green wants people to understand the important role microbes play in every facet of our lives: climate change, building ecosystems, human health, even roller derby -- using nontraditional tools like art, animation and film to help people visualize the invisible world

This perspective is a really powerful one for designers, because you can bring on principles of ecology, and a really important principle of ecology is dispersal, the way organisms move around. We know that microbes are dispersed around by people and by air. So the very first thing we wanted to do in this building was look at the air system. Mechanical engineers design air handling units to make sure that people are comfortable, that the air flow and temperature is just right. They do this using principles of physics and chemistry, but they could also be using biology. If you look at the microbes in one of the air handling units in this building, you'll see that they're all very similar to one another. And if you compare this to the microbes in a different air handling unit, you'll see that they're fundamentally different.The rooms in this building are like islands in an archipelago, and what that means is that mechanical engineers are like eco-engineers, and they have the ability to structure biomes in this building the way that they want to.
Another facet of how microbes get around is by people, and designers often cluster rooms together to facilitate interactions among people, or the sharing of ideas, like in labs and in offices. Given that microbes travel around with people, you might expect to see rooms that are close together have really similar biomes. And that is exactly what we found. If you look at classrooms right adjacent to one another, they have very similar ecosystems, but if you go to an office that is a farther walking distance away, the ecosystem is fundamentally different. And when I see the power that dispersal has on these biogeographic patterns, it makes me think that it's possible to tackle really challenging problems, like hospital-acquired infections. I believe this has got to be, in part, a building ecology problem.
So what I'm first going to show you is air that we sampled outside of the building. What you're looking at is a signature of bacterial communities in the outdoor air, and how they vary over time. Next I'm going to show you what happened when we experimentally manipulated classrooms. We blocked them off at night so that they got no ventilation. A lot of buildings are operated this way, probably where you work, and companies do this to save money on their energy bill. What we found is that these rooms remained relatively stagnantuntil Saturday, when we opened the vents up again. When you walked into those rooms,they smelled really bad, and our data suggests that it had something to do with leaving behind the airborne bacterial soup from people the day before. Contrast this to rooms that were designed using a sustainable passive design strategy where air came in from the outside through louvers. In these rooms, the air tracked the outdoor air relatively well, and when Charlie saw this, he got really excited. He felt like he had made a good choice with the design process because it was both energy efficient and it washed away the building's resident microbial landscape.

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