As a freelance science journalist, Emily Anthes reads a lot of scientific studies. A few years ago, she started noticing more and more scientists writing about a very specific topic: microbes in houses. “In a single house, they were finding thousands of different species of microbes, and that just kind of blew my mind,” she says. “But it also opened my eyes to a new way of looking at indoor spaces.”
In her new book, The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, Anthes dives into the design and impact of the built world. From those microbes that influence the air quality in our homes to hospital rooms that improve recovery time to housing designed to predict when an elderly person may fall, it’s a wide-ranging exploration of the design and science behind the indoor spaces where we spend most of our time.
She spoke with Fast Company about how the pandemic has changed the way many people look at the indoors, and about how buildings and spaces are being designed to meet the needs of more diverse users.
Fast Company: You wrote this book before the pandemic forced people to start spending a lot more time in their homes. How do you think all this time indoors is affecting people?
Emily Anthes: At a more meta level, I think it has made people much more interested in and attuned to their indoor environments and curious about the questions of how these environments matter. It’s maybe prompted people to realize that these spaces can have a big impact on how we feel on a day-to-day basis. To drill down to more specific affects, I think it depends hugely on what kind of space you’re sheltering in place in. We know things like daylight and nature are really important for both our minds and our bodies, so hopefully people are spending lots of time in spaces that are sunny and either have houseplants or views of natural landscape. And if that’s the case, they can probably stave off some of the worst effects of being inside all the time, though I know not everyone has that luxury.
FC: You write about the creation of evidence-based design and a classic study of gallbladder patients who recovered more quickly because their hospital rooms looked out on trees instead of a brick wall. How widely has evidence-based design spread in hospitals?
EA: Hospitals are sort of the birthplace of evidence-based design, and maybe for predictable reasons. It’s a place where patient outcomes really matter. So that’s where a lot of this research got started, and it has spread fairly widely in hospitals, at least in American hospitals and some of the Westernized nations. You see a lot more hospitals now doing things like providing single patient rooms, which we know is one of the best things you can do for patient outcomes, and providing views of the natural world. A lot of hospital lobbies now are drenched in daylight and have all sorts of plants; they have meditation rooms and zen gardens. Some of these principles have been less widely applied outside of hospitals, and that’s sort of the next frontier, for offices or retail spaces or other types of buildings: How can we design them with a good evidence base to improve occupant health and well-being?
FC: During the pandemic, there have been countless examples of COVID-19-related design tweaks and proposals claiming to make spaces healthier. Since our understanding of current conditions seems to be changing daily, and the science is always evolving, how can researchers and designers react without being too reactive?
EA: That’s a hard problem and I don’t know that I have easy or quick solutions. I think we’ll [start to] see more buildings be designed with more flexibility from the start, whether that means walls that can be reconfigured or doors that can be added, or HVAC systems that have multiple different settings and configurations. One of the only certainties is more uncertainty. We’re seeing how quickly people are having to remake their homes into offices or ad hoc schoolrooms. So the more we can design flexibility into everything from our homes to our hospitals from the start, the better, and that gives us the ability to adjust as new science emerges. Some of the changes will be beneficial regardless of whether or not they play a big role in stopping this particular pandemic.
In lots of ways, creating a healthy indoor environment requires bringing in some elements of the outdoor one, whether that’s daylight or nature or fresh air or the rich assortment of microbes that live in soil and plants. I think our buildings have, over the course of the 20th century, become too hermetically sealed and closed off from the outdoor world. So on a more holistic level, one thing we should be thinking about is how we can make our buildings and indoor spaces a little bit more permeable so there’s more continuity between our indoor environments and our outdoor environments.
FC: A recurring concept in the book is people trying to design specific kinds of places for specific types of people or conditions—from the elderly to the incarcerated to those on the autism spectrum. Are we getting to the point where buildings will begin to look and function completely differently based on what they’re used for?
EA: I’m not sure it makes sense to make extremely niche buildings, partly because our world is changing so fast and people change and threats change. I think a lot of the principles of good design are good design for everyone. An environment that works well for an autistic adult is going to work well for all adults. So I don’t think there’s a need to get extremely niche when we design environments. We should think carefully about the needs of all sorts of occupants, including those who have different abilities and sensitivities and preferences, but a lot of good design is just good design.