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April 20, 2020

How architects can stop COVID-19 from spreading indoors

Architects and building engineers strive to create safe, productive places where humans can live and work. We have developed complex codes, regulations, and guidelines to achieve goals such as structural safety, fire safety, adequate ventilation, and energy efficiency, and to anticipate extreme scenarios such as 100-year floods. The question for our profession now is whether and how the 100-year viral pandemic will change architectural design and building operations.

How can societies safeguard buildings or homes from a viral pathogen during an epidemic? What would it take to redesign public and institutional buildings so they could help “flatten the curve,” instead of simply evacuating occupants? What if people could shape and modify the microbial communities present inside buildings to minimize exposure to harmful pathogens?

At the University of Oregon’s Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE) Center, we study interactions between humans, buildings, and microorganisms. We believe that architecture needs to adapt and evolve in ways that help people manage indoor microbiomes to support health. In a new paper, we combine research on how microbes function indoors with knowledge about the novel coronavirus to outline ways of minimizing COVID-19 transmission in buildings.


Even in good times, and certainly during pandemics, the main thing people typically want to know about microbes is how to kill them. But in fact, the vast majority of microbes help humans more than they hurt us. The idea that microbes around us play an important role in our lives is known as the Old Friends Hypothesis or the Hygiene Hypothesis.

Each of us has our own microbiome—a collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa that inhabit our skin and body and may be as unique as our fingerprints. Some of these microbes help keep us healthy, while others may cause us to become ill.

These organisms help regulate our digestion and impact our mood and our weight. Skin microbes can have immunoprotective effects.

There are also surprisingly complex microbial ecosystems within indoor spaces. Removing all microbial life from these settings can create problems. For example, irritable bowel diseaseasthma, and some mood disorders have been linked to overall decreases in our microbial exposure. Lack of exposure during childhood is thought to spark overreactive immune function later in life, potentially leading to increased inflammation and contributing to these afflictions.

Focusing solely on murdering microbes can have unintended consequences. For example, our lab recently discovered a correlation between concentrations of antimicrobial compounds and abundance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria indoors. This finding has led our team to reexamine indoor cleaning practices more broadly.

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