Creating healthy indoor living spaces

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The average American home contains approximately 2000 different microorganisms, mostly invisible and benign, some are even beneficial. Unlike the great outdoors, relatively little is known about the indoor world in which we live but in her latest book The Great Indoors; The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness” science journalist Emily Anthes explores our great indoors with a fresh perspective. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Emily Antes about the little known facts of living indoors. How does room temperature impact our cognitive performance? And do those tiny microbes hiding in our homes benefit our immune systems?  

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: What inspired you to write about this topic? 

Emily Anthes: “I'm a science writer, I'm not an architect or a designer, so I spend a lot of time reading the scientific literature and trying to keep track of studies that are coming out. Seven or eight years ago, I noticed this small surge of studies being published on what people were calling the indoor microbiome. We have all sorts of microorganisms that live on our bodies, but scientists were beginning to document all the microbes that live in our homes and our buildings and their findings astonished me. 

One study found that the average American home had something like 2000 different species of microorganisms in it. I thought that was fascinating in its own right, but it also got my brain churning and thinking there's all this stuff going on in my one bedroom apartment that’s invisible to me and that I don't even know about, so what else is happening indoors that I don't think about? It got me thinking about our indoor environments as these rich, complex environments. It was a perspective shift for me, that caused me to look at all sorts of other fields and how they related to our indoor lives.”

What are these microorganisms and where do they come from? 

Anthes: “One of the interesting things that researchers have found is that the microorganisms in our home are actually even more diverse than the microorganisms that are outside and that's because they're coming from a couple of different sources. A lot of the bacteria are coming from us and scientists have really elaborated in the last decade or two, that our bodies are roughly half human cells have microbial cells, that we are just loaded with microorganisms and that these microbes are really important. They help us digest food, they help us regulate our immune systems. These maintain our health and as we move about our homes we shoved them into our environment. So that's one reason that a lot of the stuff we're surrounded with isn't bad for us, because it's literally coming from us in the first place.”

When it comes to sharing space and specifically office space, what did you learn about room temperature and productivity? 

Anthes: “I knew that temperature makes an impact on comfort. I'm someone that tends to be cold in a lot of spaces and air conditioned offices. But it turns out it's not just a matter of comfort. In general, women are more sensitive to temperature changes than men are and they tend to prefer slightly warmer temperatures. But the really interesting part is that studies now show that women also perform better on cognitive tasks in warmer air temperature than men do. 

The other interesting corollary is that an office space is tough to design and operate, because you have competing needs from a lot of people. But the research suggests that nudging the temperature up just a little bit to make it warmer, has less of a negative effect on men than it does having it too cold for women. So the takeaway is that we should be keeping our office spaces a little bit warmer in the summer.”




Andrea Brody