In This Issue
Microbiomes of the Built Environment
September 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 3
The covid-19 pandemic suddenly directed awareness to potential health impacts of the built environment of everyday living – schools, dwellings, offices, public buildings, and other spaces. This issue explores the “microbiome” of the built environment in the postpandemic reality in terms of ventilation performance, filtration, understanding and quantification of transmission risk, protection of “benign” microbes, and the important role of equity, among others.

Editor's Note: Thoughts on the Future of the Building Microbiome

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Author: Ronald M. Latanision

The global covid-19 pandemic has not only imposed immediate changes on daily life, work, education, and commerce but also ushered in new thinking about the ways—and places—we work, study, and live. While some buildings are upgrading their HVAC systems to reduce risks of airborne transmission in the wake of the pandemic, buildings of all kinds (offices, apartments, schools, hotels, hospitals, etc.) face a public that is concerned about its health and the capacity of buildings to reduce risks and assess health conditions.

I sense that the public’s concern will change buildings for the long term. That sense is the product of having served a few years ago on a NASEM study committee tasked with assessing (i) the state of knowledge regarding microbial communities (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.)—the “microbiomes” of the built environment—and, importantly, (ii) the implications for human health, sustainability, security, and the design and construction of physical infrastructure systems and other elements of the built environment. The committee’s consensus report, Microbiomes of the Built Environment: From Research to Application, was published in 2017.

In many ways this committee anticipated the current state of affairs on our small planet in terms of the covid-19 pandemic that followed. Among the committee members—who included civil engineers, architects, microbiologists, pathologists, bioinformatics experts, and a materials engineer (yours truly[1])—were this issue’s guest editors Chuck Haas and Vivian Loftness as well as contributing authors Jack Gilbert, Diane Gold, and Andrew Persily.

In this issue of The Bridge a postpandemic sense of the future, near and long term, is presented by an outstanding collection of authors. Going forward, both new and existing buildings must and will respond to the events of the past 2-plus years. A number of questions need to be addressed:

What developments in engineering and technology are needed to ensure public health in enclosed public or high-occupancy private spaces, whether for work, residence, education, transportation, sports, entertainment…?

What changes are being implemented?

How will approaches differ for existing vs. new structures?

What are the technical and/or policy challenges?

I also expect that buildings will require new materials—for detectors and sensors of all kinds, for example—and that discussions will evolve between building designers who identify a materials need and materials researchers who can design and engineer the materials to meet that need.

The Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) provides the basis for such conversation. MGI was launched in 2011 during the Obama presidency by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to help (i) accelerate the design, discovery, development, and deployment of advanced materials and (ii) reduce costs through the integration of advanced computation and data management with experimental synthesis and characterization. The vision is to design materials with required properties from first principles in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of traditional empirical materials development. MGI is reshaping materials education and practice, in service to societal and national needs.

The built environment is fundamental to life all over the world, and my hope and expectation is that, with public will and political will as the drivers, safe and healthy buildings will become the norm in architecture and construction.

[1]  For me, this experience was a proverbial drink from a firehose. I have a PhD microbiologist daughter, but almost no personal research or engineering experience with biology.

About the Author:Ronald M. Latanision (NAE) is a senior fellow at Exponent.