If you're in a modern building with an HVAC system, you probably think of it as a controlled environment: air, relatively clean, either warm or cold depending on the setting, is pumped in for your respiratory benefit. Yet hospitals and schools are some of the worst places to go if you don't want to get sick, even if you never touch a single surface. That's because the air is full of trillions of microbes, and buildings (any buildings) host their own complex ecosystems which we're just now starting to study. Researchers in this relatively new field include biologists as well as architects who are working together to understand the "built environment microbiome." The University of Oregon's BIOBE Center (Biology and the Built Environment) is a hub for this research into what makes a building good for human health, or not.
Within BIOBE is the Green Lab of University of Oregon engineer and ecologist Jessica Green, who gave the following lecture on the quality of hospital air at a recent TED Talk titled "Are We Filtering the Wrong Microbes?"
The Green Lab study on hospital air looked at three air samples: from inside a hospital room receiving air only through the central HVAC system; from inside a hospital room with outside ventilation (i.e. a window); and air from outside the hospital. They looked at the DNA makeup of the microbes in each sample, which told them:
- Air inside the hospital had lots of human-related microbes in it
- Air outside had more plant and dirt-related microbes
- Air inside had a smaller variety of microbes
- Ventilation systems were doing a good job of keeping outside air out and inside air in
The central question posed by Dr. Green and other BIOBE researchers is whether keeping outside air out is necessarily good for human health. A greater variety of microbes does not mean "more germs" (or bad microbes) but may in fact mean "healthier, more biodiverse environment." Hospitals use a lot of energy on ventilation -- about 2.5 times as much as an office building -- but we still have a high incidence of nosocomial infections, which are sicknesses you get at the hospital.
Another point that Dr. Green comes to in the conclusion of her talk is that not all microbes are bad. Building structures that keep us healthy may not be about keeping air out so much as making sure what's in supports our well-being. And architects are paying more and more attention to the ways that buildings move air and the biosystems they ultimately establish.
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