Exploring energy and biology inside the built environment

Science Friday chases bugs with look at UO research

Ever since the UO began combining the science of sustainable buildings with the biology of indoor environments, it has been a path breaker in understanding and improving the world of enclosed human habitats.

That’s probably why National Public Radio’s popular Science Friday program asked to visit the UO’s building research labs for a pair of programs delving into the evolving science of the indoor microbiome and the creation of more comfortable, efficient and healthy living spaces. The first of those programs will air Jan. 29 at 11 a.m. on Portland station KOPB at 550 AM and 1600 AM in Eugene or online at sciencefriday.com.

An air date for the second segment has not been set.

A crew from Science Friday spent a couple of days visiting the UO’s Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratories and the Biology and the Built Environment Center and interviewing key faculty members. They talked about recent UO research into the human “microbial cloud” that surrounds individuals with a unique mix of microorganisms; the microbial populations found inside homes, offices and other buildings; and reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in dust.

The Jan. 29 segment will focus on the microbial cloud research. The second piece will look at investigations by research associate Erica Hartmann into antimicrobial resistance found in reservoirs of dust.

The UO provided a rich environment for the NPR reports. The Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory has been around more than 30 years, and its faculty have pulled in more than $40 million in externally funded research. Researchers have helped the owners of more than 22 million square feet of building space reduce energy use and improve designs.

The more recent Biology and the Built Environment Center was among the first of its kind in the world, focusing on the microbiome — the sum of all microbial life in a given environment — of building interiors. The lab and its faculty have conducted groundbreaking research on the types of microbes commonly found in homes, offices and buildings of all types, with an eye toward their effect on human health and comfort.

Using the latest tools, both labs are adding to the growing pool of knowledge about indoor environments. The Energy Studies in Buildings Lab, known as the ESBL, has its own climate chamber, an enclosed space with highly controlled temperature, humidity and lighting conditions. It also serves as a controlled microbiome cloud analysis chamber for experiments on the biology of indoor environments.

Until recently, the ESBL was led by professor and founder G.Z. “Charlie” Brown, Philip H. Knight Professor of Architecture in the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts. Brown stepped down in September with the arrival of associate professor Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg as the new director.

The Biology and the Built Environment Center, or BioBE, is directed by Jessica Green, the Alec and Kay Keith Professor of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Green also is a member of the UO’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution and is part of a national effort to launch a Unified Microbiome Initiative to better understand the Earth’s microbial systems.

Green and the BioBE Center recently received a $1.3 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to study the relationship between architectural design and the indoor microbiome. And the ESBL and BioBE labs together received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the effects of home weatherization projects on indoor air quality.

Green, Brown and Van Den Wymelenberg were among the faculty interviewed by Science Friday, along with Hartman and fellow researchers Roxy Hickey, Ashley Bateman, Jason Stenson and Jeff Kline.

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications