How Architecture Could Shape Your Microbiome

Architecture could play a key role in exposing us to the good bacteria, and keeping us away from the bad.

How Architecture Could Shape Your Microbiome
[Gif made from the video by Cosmocyte]

Scientists are only just beginning to understand how important germs are to our well-being. Our microbiome, the huge collection of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that our bodies host, plays a vital role in keeping us healthy. The microbes floating around in the buildings we spend most of our lives inhabiting may be just as important.


Architecture influences the bacterial communities that form indoors, according to a new study from scientists and architects from the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon. “Spaces differing in their architectural design characteristics contained distinctive bacterial communities,” the authors write.

Biologists and architects both look at the world in terms of networks: How do people move through and interact with a building? How do microbes move and interact in a space? The study analyzed bacteria in dust in 155 places in a building on the University of Oregon’s campus in Eugene. Most obviously, bathrooms had different bacteria than the rest of the building, (namely a lot of bacteria associated with the human gut and skin microbiome).

For other spaces, the type of bacteria associated with the dust had a lot to do with the type of ventilation. This, too, seems a little obvious: Places with natural air ventilation, like windows, tended to have bacteria associated with soil and leaves, stuff that gets brought in by outdoor air. However, these spaces had much fewer microbes associated with humans. Mechanically ventilated offices had more human associated microbes, and fewer outdoor-type bacteria. Overall, how close two spaces were–side-by-side versus on the other opposite sides of the building–was a better predictor of how similar their bacterial communities were than what type of space it was or how many people were cycling in and out all day.

“We’re just finding out there are a lot of bacteria that are really good for us,” co-author James Meadow, a post doctoral research associate at the University of Oregon, tells Co.Design. Yet, he says, “we just don’t know much about what’s going on inside a building” in terms of these bacteria.

Photo by Jessica Green

Scientists haven’t yet begun to pinpoint exactly which types of bacteria are good for our health, but when they do, architecture could play a key role in exposing us to the good bacteria, and keeping us away from the bad, by using natural or mechanical ventilation to cultivate certain types of bacterial communities, or placing certain rooms far away from each other (like the bathroom and the kitchen, where you probably don’t want too much germ overlap). “What our study does is makes it clear that we can design buildings to influence the types of bacteria,” we come into contact with, Meadow says. “Instead of just sterilizing the environment, we’ll actually manage our buildings in a more sensible way.”

[H/T: Popular Science]

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.