BY BRIAN LIBBY
In the early 2000s, the University of Oregon Department of Architecture partnered with nonprofit BetterBricks and other universities to create a series of what were called Daylighting Labs in Portland, Eugene, Seattle and Boise, each devoted to helping architects study the use of natural illumination to reduce a building’s dependence on electric light.
Reporting on the Daylighting Labs for a 2003 Metropolis article, I remember visiting the Seattle facility as an architectural model of a new library by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was being hoisted onto what's called a heliodon, a flat plane that can be tilted in different directions to correspond with any time of day or year, allowing designers to study the effects of sun orientation, glare, and window placement on their building. In Portland I saw architects from SRG Partnership and many other firms eagerly making use of the tool.
Both the Seattle and Portland labs also featured an “artificial sky,” a room lined with mirrors that simulates outdoor light but allows light levels to be kept stable so that changes to the model (and therefore the design) can be measured accurately. Although both it and the heliodon have both been used for study in university settings for many years, the Seattle and Portland labs were the first to actively reach out to the commercial building market.
Today daylighting studies are thankfully common to commercial and institutional architecture. For practically any building beyond a few stories it would be like throwing money away not to consider how different design moves and material choices can substantially reduce energy bills. But on the academic side, the approach has continued to evolve, and while the UO's Energy Studies In Buildings Laboratory (the original Daylighting Lab) still does important work forwarding how daylighting, natural ventilation and other aspects of design can foster more efficient buildings, the university, like others, has increasingly expanded its approach to look at human health. After all, most any employer's greatest expense is its workforce. The fewer sick days or even coffee breaks employees take, the more productive they are.
To harness recent advances in microbial genomics and improve understanding of the built environment's “microbiome” — the totality of microbial cells, their genetic elements, and their interactions indoors — the UO has formed what's called the Biology and the Built Environment Center (or BioBE, for short) to engage with industry partners, conducting original research, and training a new generation of innovators and practitioners. The Center has also founded what's called the University of Oregon Health + Energy Research Consortium, which "aims to dramatically reduce energy consumption and maximize human health by conducting research that transforms the design, construction and operation of built environments," as the website explains.
Recently I talked with Center's co-director, Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, who also heads the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory (and previously headed a Daylighting Lab in Boise), about this new BioBE Center and what it means for architecture, as well as how the Center can partner with industry without becoming merely a corporate-profit enabler.
Portland Architecture: How did the BioBE Center come about?
Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg: This is actually an idea I’d been chewing on for about five years. I came to UO to try to launch it. The reason for the idea is I really believe fundamentally our research is better when it’s integrated with industry practitioners. With the Daylighting Labs that’s sort of been bred into me. We worked two years as UW grad students on 200 buildings. We looked at challenges related to practice as it related to lighting. In my mind that’s the most effective way to do work: as a research agenda. Fundamentally we still want to do research that’s impactful on human health and productivity within the built environment. Our partnerships have simply evolved. We’re architecture plus biology, and we want to add chemistry to make our research agenda robust. Sustainability and energy and lighting will still be a focus on our work.
How much precedent is there for this approach, or how pioneering might it be?
I think it’s pioneering in some ways, but there is precedent for various aspects. Our partnership with the [UO] Department of Biology is unparalleled as far as I’m aware. Our research on environmental quality has shifted toward understanding bacterial and viral communities within buildings and relates strongly to air quality. That’s novel. The notion of a research consortium is not novel. The way it’s differentiated is the research program we developed, and hand in hand with that is which industry members we invite to participate.
Cal Berkeley has a research consortium that’s been around for 10 years, and they do work in energy and thermal comfort. They have diverse interests as well, but they’re best known for human thermal comfort. Then in the energy efficiency space, Carnegie Mellon has run a national science foundation industry collaborative research consortium. Those are probably the two most closely related. UNC and NC State are involved. Their work is also diverse. It’s in the energy space. I’d say specifically they have a tool that looks at the productivity improvements associated with various types of research. I certainly looked at those as models. MIT has got just a plethora of industry consortia. They have a really nice set of tools and rule sets for how to work with industry. But this is novel for UO. We do not have a business model like I’m proposing. It’s a new way for the researchers to work with industry.
Might the effort be expanded to a regional scale, like the Daylighting Labs?
I’m hopeful we may build a network of universities here in the Pacific Northwest that would like to participate. But right now it’s a collaboration between the UO Department of Architecture, the Department of Biology, and the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory.
When I think of combining biology and architecture, I think of biophilic design: architecture that takes human physiology and behavior into account. How close is that to what BioBE is doing?
I’d say that’s all part of a milieu or research area that has touch points with the work we’ve been doing. It’s not a foreign notion. And any time you build a word like that that establishes a reputation…I think a lot of the studies about human health and productivity have research topics that could be explored through biophilia, or biology or physiology. I’d say our consortium will probably have some projects in the area you’d characterize as biophilia, but the bulk of the research would be more characterized as next-generation air quality or computational tools to explore the built environment.
With this new emphasis on biology, will daylighting still be a priority too?
I think it will still be a core thing. Two reasons: I’m particularly fascinated with it, and it has really brought implications to energy performance and human health. I think it will be a central part of the research mission. It will be interesting to see what priorities industry places. Like this notion of the effect of dosage and spectrum of daylight in buildings and how it implicates the viability of bacteria within dust communities: that may seem like it’s drilling down pretty deeply into a specific corner, but at the end it’s all about how daylight affects us. Science has research on daylight and circadian rhythms, but about 15 years ago we came across the retinal ganglion cell and how light exposure separate from our visual system relates to mood and our sleep cycle and our alertness. I think we’ve got a new dimension to daylight with its relation to bacterial communities and dust. We’ll see if the industry sees that as an important area for continued study. I’ve been active in the Illumination and Engineering Society’s daylight metrics community. What’s emerged is new climate-based simulation methods for predicting human satisfaction with daylit spaces. LEED v4 has developed this metric.
How can the BioBE Center collaborate successfully with the private sector without becoming corrupted by the profit motive?
It’s an important question and not a trivial one. It’s really important for scientists and academia to maintain the highest academic integrity in their research. It’s in our best interests to do that. We won’t be able to publish in peer review journals if it looks like our integrity is compromised. If we don’t do that, we don’t get promotions or tenure. So it’s in our best interest to maintain integrity, and it’s the consortium members’ desire as well. They’d love us to back a product, but we never will. We won’t back a product. We’ll do sound science to test the usefulness of a product and help manufacturers try to make a better product. That information loop is what it’s about: accelerating scientific impact. As academics we want our work to be as impactful as possible, so we can have the biggest impact…it’s really about aligning research interests with industry goals and exploiting synergies where they exist. But it’s also making sure when we set our agenda we take feedback from industry. But when it’s all said and done, it’s still about integrity. But if we’re successful here, it will be leveraging industry research and development and supporting it with class-A academic integrity to improve practice in industry as well as academia.
I think the idea of “who’s the audience here” is significant. We’ve done a lot of work for the last couple decades on market transformation for energy-efficient buildings. That audience has been architects, engineers, contractors, utilities. And I think we’ve learned a lot about market transformation through the lens of energy efficiency. There’s still more work to be done, but I think we can bring them to bear on issues of health in the built environment. People often make the association with health care, for example, and we very well may invite the health care industry to participate. There’s a lot of press about hospital-associated infections: that we go to hospitals to get healthy and leave with a new infection. There may be some of that reality that happens in every building.
How are do you think the general public is with regard to microbiological issues in buildings?
People sometimes say, ‘I don’t think I want to know the answer. Ew, gross!’ I think people understand there’s a chance of taking on infection. But there is this balance between energy and health in buildings. If you take the inverted-layer days and the smog-filled air next to highways out of the equation, generally outdoor air is far healthier than clean air. But if you just say, ‘I’ll leave my window open,’ you may be wasting energy in the summer or winter and you won’t be comfortable. The balance is pretty real. We have minimum fresh air standards balanced against energy codes. They can push back and forth at one another. I’d think our goal would be to optimize around human health and productivity. That’s why we’re building these buildings. But is there a more efficient way to offer optimal health not minimum standards?
Another area that could come to be perceived and addressed like we've done with the danger of lead pipes or asbestos insulation would be the proliferation of antimicrobials. People say, ‘I’ll buy my 99 percent solution to kill bacteria because all bacteria must be bad.’ But as architects we’ve been designing bacterial communities in our buildings for millennia. The current M.O. of anti-microbial everything, there’s the beginnings of a suggestion that anti-microbial products may be leading to microbially-resistant bacteria.
There’s an Amish farming community, for example, that showed lower incidents of asthma. We’ve seen a study that dog owners have more robust immune systems. The hypothesis is that exposure is healthful. This gets back to the question of exposure versus sterilization. There may be evidence on both sides. This notion of the process by which we gain a strong immune system largely occurs when we’re young. If we’re exposed to a lot of antimicrobials and spend a lot of time in sealed environments has been extremely low, we don’t sensitize ourselves. This is a hypothesis.
Given that the Willamette Valley is a place where people experience a lot of allergies, and possibly even more so in Eugene than in Portland, I'd think this could be another aspect of the BioBE's research.
Definitely. One idea we’ve been noodling around is this notion of more dynamic outdoor air monitoring and more dynamic indoor monitoring. We have ways to measure fresh air rates. There’s an assumption more people in the space need more oxygen. But it doesn’t care anything about whether those people are healthy or unhealthy, and whether the air may cause a certain immune response. The idea could be that we look for more information-rich ways to monitor indoor air, and similarly to monitor outdoor air. If there’s a forest fire, or heavy traffic, and the air intake systems are suffering for it, we consider the amount of outside air with more information.
The reason why I think these things pair well is because of this vicious cycle. We use more energy in our buildings, and we build buildings further away, and we drive our cars and burn more coal to get more energy. We’re worsening the air so we have to put more filtration into our buildings, and use more energy because of the pressure associated with increased filtration. On the other hand, you can’t do natural ventilation sometimes because the outdoor air quality is so bad. Why is that? Can we reduce energy consumption, increase fresh air, and minimize pollution?
Who cares about this? A lot of it is the same industries we worked with in energy efficiency. I’d also add health care. If we can get a couple of large building owners—that could be any Fortune 1000 company—I think it will be really important to find some partners that have a substantial real estate portfolio.