Decoding Design

Ecologists, designers explore new 'architecture-biology interface'

Posting in Architecture

Jessica Green and her colleagues at the University of Oregon are exploring how microbiologists can work with architects and designers to improve healthcare environments. She explains in a new TED Talk video.

What if architects designed structures with not only people in mind, but also the microbes that inhabit buildings, too? Is there a way to design environments, namely in the healthcare arena, that are conducive to keeping a beneficial mix of microbes thriving, while also remaining clean? How can biologists and ecologists contribute to the field of sustainable design, by studying and helping to develop new materials?

These are all questions that are central to the research of Jessica Green, an ecologist, engineer, and professor at both the University of Oregon and the Santa Fe Institute. She's also a TED 2011 Senior Fellow; last year, she was a TED Fellow. Green co-founded and directs a lab at the University of Oregon known as the Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE) Center, where she and her colleagues are exploring a new area of design that they call the "architecture-biology interface." They are currently looking to partner with healthcare facility designers to measure and study how design and microbes affect each other, the environment (both natural and man-made), and humans, of course. She recently presented her work at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in July. The curators of TED just released the video of Green's TED Talk to the public on August 6. The clip includes the debut of a visualization from scientific animation designers XVIVO that they created with Green to help viewers understand how microbes enter, exist, and interact in the human world from a microbe's point of view.

Here are some key points from Green's presentation (paraphrased here):

  • The BioBE Center conducted a study in a hospital to compare the microbial make-up of air in a typical room, with mechanical ventilation; air in a room with windows opened for the BioBE study; and the outdoor air near the hospital. They found that the air in the hospital room with mechanical ventilation had less microbial diversity that the other two, but that people had a higher probability of encountering a pathogen in that controlled environment.
  • Hospitals use two-and-a-half times the amount of energy than office buildings do. There exists an opportunity, also a challenge, to create more eco-friendly healthcare environments that are healthier for patients and staff as well, in terms of microbial diversity, than existing hospitals.
  • Designers, architects, and biologists working together to solve this challenge could look to the U.S. National Park model to promote a mix of desirable microbes indoors, parallel to how National Parks allow for ecosystems of wild animals to thrive, but carefully monitor those species known to be dangerous to humans (for example, bears, coyotes)

Here's the video of Jessica Green's TED Talk, including the microbe animation:

Photo: Muntasir Alam/Wikimedia Commons

Share this

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure