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Thursday Complexity PostMarch 7, 2013

Learning to Tend Our Microbial Gardens


Ecologist Jessica Green thinks of indoor air as a microbial garden, and she thinks architects and biologists can collaborate to make our indoor environments much healthier for humans.


In a TEDx talk, Green describes what we are doing to indoor air now. She calls it "microbial genocide." . We seal the buildings and use air conditioning and filtration systems to make sure outdoor microbes don't get in. People come in bringing millions of microbes shedding from their bodies and they stir up the microbial dust languishing every surface. We keep the temperature and humidity in the same narrow range. And then, she says, we regularly kill every organism we can with antimicrobial cleaning products. "If you had a garden," she says, "you'd never kill everything in it to get rid of one weed."


Microbes-bacteria, viruses and archaea-are the most abundant organisms on earth, and while some make us sick, our bodies need many of them to protect us from pathogens, and boost our immune systems. They even influence our moods. "When you clean the organisms from an ecosystem," she explains, "you make space for the weedy and fast growing organisms to come in and colonize those spaces."


Green  is an associate professor at the University of Oregon, and a co-founder of the university's Biology and Built Environment Center. She began her career researching microbes in the Arctic and other exotic places. She also had background in civil and environmental engineering and she realized examining the built environment where we spend 90 percent of our time would make her research relevant to issues surrounding sustainability, design and human health. A Discover Magazine story by Bruce Barcott reports that G.Z. "Charlie" Brown, a colleague at the University of Oregon and an expert in sustainable buildings, wanted research data to influence a new generation of hospitals on how energy-saving ventilation systems could also produce healthier hospital air. Green persuaded the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to put up the money and the BioBE Center was born.


The Discover story describes Green as an adventurous scientist and a fearless athlete. She was known as Thumper Biscuit in her Roller Derby competition days. A Forbes magazine storyby Bruce Upbin explains she and her colleagues have worked with architectural modeling software, genetic sequencing, and microbial ecology to map the microbiomes of the built environment. "We've learned that architects are impacting what microbes live where," she told Forbes. "It's a new dimension of their work." Surfaces of desks, for example, foster microbial colonies that differ from the colonies living on walls near air conditioning vents.


In research relevant to hospitals, Green and colleagues compared microbial environments in rooms with open windows and sealed rooms with mechanical ventilation systems. In a TED talk, she says green buildings, designed to let outside air in, fostered a diverse microbial mix that included organisms one finds outdoors in plants and soil, and a higher likelihood of organisms that promote health. In rooms with mechanically ventilated air, the microbial populations were less diverse, and more akin to the populations associated with humans, and had a higher probability of carrying pathogens.


In microbial populations, as in agriculture, monocultures tend to be unhealthy. People eat probiotic yogurt for health, and the same principle may apply to interior spaces. The Forbes story says Ford has contacted Green about design to foster health-promotion organisms inside its cars and trucks. "There are organisms that make our skin more supple and smooth," Green told Forbes. "I can totally see it: the probiotic steering wheel."





Remember PlexusCalls

Friday, March 8, 2013 - 1-2 PM ET

Space, Neighborhood and Community
Guests: Ross Chapin, Peter Block and Ron Smith



Space and the ways it is designed impact the way we gather, work, play and interact. This is one of several calls that will explore how the built environment in our homes, communities and professional environments exert a profound and complex influence on our lives.


Ross Chapin is an architect who is the leader in defining and designing pocket neighborhoods. His work and his 2011 book Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World have inspired news stories in dozens of major U.S. newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and his projects have won numerous design awards, including the American Institute of Architects Housing Awards for 2005, 2007 and 2009. Chapin leads an architectural and planning firm near Seattle, WA, and has been a development partner on six pocket neighborhood projects. He believes scale and design impact the quality of our conversations, relationships, and our sense of community.


Peter Block is a pioneer of organizational development who founded a consulting firm with Tony Petrella, which was later joined by Marvin Weisbord.   In 1980, Block started Designed Learning, a training company that offers workshops designed to help staff people in organizations to have more influence and impact. Community work is now centered in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Block has been a citizen since 1998. He is engaged in developing a civic engagement network called A Small Group, plus a series of other projects working on building the capacity of this urban community to value its gifts and see its own possibility. Block is the author of eight books, including Flawless Consulting, The Empowered Manager, Stewardship, Freedom and Accountability (with Peter Koestenbaum),The Answer to How Is Yes, and Community: The Structure of Belonging and The Abundant community(with John McKnight).


Ron Smith, AIA, ACHA, EDACis a Board Certified Healthcare Architect and past president of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, his work has received AIA Design Awards and been published in Healthcare Design Magazine. Ron is the author/editor of an on-line Therapeutic Environments resource page and he's been a co-investigator in research on the relationship between hospital design elements, and Patient/Staff perceptions of Quality of Care, Anxiety, Communication and Stress. He founded Design At The Intersection, LLCin 2011 to be a catalyst for more effective, value-based health care design. Read Ron's blog "at the intersection".








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Plexus ACTION 2013: Tales, Tools, and Tactics
April 18-20, 2013, Silver Spring, MD
Plexus ACTION 2013 is a conference for people who want to take ideas off the white board and into the world. Hear first hand TALES from the field about innovative approaches to solving big problems. Experience TOOLS fellow practitioners are using now. Design TACTICS for your own work you can take home and apply immediately. Plexus ACTION 2013 is for anyone working to promote action and bring about change in organizations or communities, large or small. Also this year, choose from two great pre-conference workshops. Plexus ACTION 2013: Tales, Tools, and Tactics takes place April 18-20, 2013 in Silver Spring, MD (just outside DC). 
Remember PlexusCalls!


Visit the Plexus Institute Calendar for a detailed schedule of PlexusCalls, Healthcare PlexusCalls, Nursing Network PlexusCalls and other upcoming events from Plexus Institute and others.  


Audio from all PlexusCall series are available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last 60 years or so have we spent most of our time in hermetically sealed indoor environments, Green observes. She among the scientists pioneering the research to learn what that means. One possibility she speculates, is that "We are growing a microbial monoculture, and our bodies probably have not evolved to function well in this microbial environment." Some evidence suggests indoor living may be associated with antibiotic resistance and auto immune disorders such as asthma and allergies. Research by Green and others may lead to new floor plans, new ventilation systems, and new ways to grow robust, diverse and healthy microbial gardens inside our buildings. Green coauthored the paper Architectural Design Influences the Diversity and Structure of the Built Environment Microbiome.


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