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Scientific Journey To Probe Indoor Environment
September 2010

Two University of Oregon (UO) biologists and a professor of architecture will lead a scientific journey into what may be the most underexplored frontier on the planet – the closed, indoor environment where people in industrialized countries spend an estimated 90 percent of their time.

Their vision, part of a national research center funded by a $1.8 million grant from the New York City-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is to develop a new science that focuses on the microbial ecology of indoor environments. The research effort, which will involve students studying the interface of biology and architecture, will be done under the umbrella of the new Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE) Center at the UO.

“One of the most exciting things we’ll be doing is collaborating across biology and architecture to answer questions that have never been raised before,” said BioBE Center Director Jessica Green, a UO professor of biology who also holds three degrees in civil and nuclear engineering.

The big question, said Prof. Green and BioBE Center co-investigators G.Z. “Charlie” Brown and Brendan Bohannan, is how is human health is impacted by both pathogenic and beneficial microorganisms inside of buildings.

“This center will boost the use of evidence-based design in architecture in our decision-making,” said Brown, the Philip H. Knight Professor or Architecture and director of the UO Energy Studies in Building Laboratory. “Every single thing in a building affects the biology inside. Radiation, ventilation, building materials, lighting, temperatures, humidity, really everything, all are important. Of crucial importance is our understanding of the link between sustainable, or green, design practices and indoor microbial diversity.”

The center, he added, will launch a new scientific field, providing new applications for architecture that will improve indoor habitats. Following up on existing work, researchers will expand their sampling of indoor environments from hospitals to schools, applying molecular and genetic analyses to gather new information about microorganisms living throughout buildings. Center activities also will lead to new interdisciplinary courses that link biology and architecture.

“This center will bring together people who rarely interact — engineers, architects and biologists — to ask questions about the indoor, or built, environment,” said Bohannan, director of the UO Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and member of the UO’s Environmental Studies program. “Even though this is the environment where we spend most of our time in, the one over which we have the most control, we know the least about the biology of the indoors.”

The BioBE Center will build on the UO’s existing reputation in sustainable design for which the architecture department holds the nation’s top ranking, said Terry Blomquist of the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory. It also is part of the UO’s Sustainable Cities Initiative.

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