Graphisoft USA,  Louis' Design Articles

Meet the Microbi(H)ome Family

by Louis Postel, first published by Graphisoft USA, June 2017

There’s a marine architect in London, a leading megayacht designer, who makes it a point to check out his clients’ socks, scarves, ties, autos, and book collections before submitting a single sketch. Similarly, his colleague and rival in Miami embeds himself in his clients’ social lives for weeks and months of cocktails and dinners before shedding the tux and getting down to work.

What does it take, then, to really know one’s clients?

While super-sleuthing and socializing can reveal much, how to know what makes clients tick at more of a gut level? Literally speaking, how can their personal microbial clouds best drive the design?

If Winston Churchill was right that “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” the “us” being shaped—at least for us in the West—refers more to our brains, than our bacteria. Intellect, culture, aesthetics, and all high-minded things come from those three pounds of matter residing in our skulls, or so it was thought until now.

That view is changing as research into the human genome progresses. Gut health is now all the scientific rage (though abdomens have long been considered the seat of the soul for centuries in the East). “ ‘Onaka’ or Honored Middle, and ‘Hara’ or the center of spiritual and physical strength, are how the Japanese describe our largest organ, the intestine, which for Europeans is barely more than a simple digestive system,” wrote Germany’s Dr. Stephen Bischoff in BioMed Central, 2011, “Gut Health: a new objective in medicine?”.

Trillions of microorganisms, weighing two to six pounds per adult, outnumber human cells ten to one. These gut bacteria in the intestine, says Bischoff, not only prevent malnutrition, allergies, and infections, they are most likely sending mood signals to the brain. Can a CAD plug-in that helps build this Prozac effect into office towers and shopping malls be far behind?

Ilaria Mazzoleni comes from a small farming village in the Alps. As principal of IM Studio Milano/Los Angeles, writer of BIoArch books and articles (latest book: Architecture Follows Nature:  Biomimetic Principles for Innovative Design (CRC Press, 2013; and many articles including a seminal one in Domus, 2011: A Zoological Approach to Architecture, and in Trim Tab, 2015, Building Adaptive Communities: Lessons from the Super-Organism” ), SCI-Arc professor, and a founder of NAHR, a residency eco-lab in Italy, Mazzoleni recalls a childhood intimate with nature. In such a setting, bacteria had not yet attained enemy status, as in many US households, eradicated by anti-bacterial sprays and solutions.

While no one’s proposing that surgeons not wash their hands before operating, Mazzoleni’s idea is that healthy spaces need to acknowledge the many benefits of bacteria in creating a resilient, indoor ecosystem. Her entry in the 2015 Laka reactive architecture competition, which calls for a Microbi(H)ome, shows a model family over a twenty-four-hour living cycle. At a gut level, they are involved in a friendlier relationship between bacteria and the built environment where they, like most of us, spend 90% of their time.

Her team included her research partner, the microbiologist Lola Dompe, the evolutionary biologist Shauna Price, and Mazzoleni’s former grad student at SCI-Arc, Richard Molina, creating the graphics.

Their board for Laka illustrating daily life within the Microbi(H)ome “highlights helpful characteristics of the microorganisms observed, including abilities to harness energy and process waste, and how these properties contribute to an overall reactive system. The sequence of internal spaces, connected to the outdoors is crucial in sustaining a thriving microbial community and, in turn, healthier inhabitants. The home network connects all spatial elements designed to exchange energy, water, and food, resulting in a renewable system fed by humans and fueled by microbial work.”

A client’s predilection for neckties with thin stripes may tell you one thing, their personal clouds of Staphylococcus epidermidis, Propionibacterium acnes, and Corynebacterium jeikeium quite another.  Such gut-level understanding could lead to structures that reinforce that client’s hara center of spiritual and physical strength in ways that truly make a house a home.

9 am. Let’s start with breakfast, with ham and eggs stoking our Microbi(H)home Family’s hara. Simultaneously, gathered in close-knit fashion, they are unknowingly exchanging beneficial microbes. Such exquisite synergy might suggest to an architect that kitchen nooks and bump-outs with banquettes would make more sense, on a gut level at least, than vast spaces, where a walk for an OJ refill to the fridge takes all of ten minutes.

From individual microbial clouds comes the harmless skin bacterium Staphylococcus epidermidis that releases chemicals that block nasty Staphylococcus aureus from growing. Propionibacterium acnes blocks other pathogens by turning the skin slightly acidic, though occasionally causing acne in hair follicles. Corynebacterium jeikeium, meanwhile, prevents skin damage by producing bacteriocin-like compounds that keep noxious competitors at bay.

Given this microscopic exchange, Grandma’s old-fashioned insistence on the family sharing meals could well be one of the design drivers of the future, despite rolled eyes from the teens.

10 am. Time to clean the house with a little help from friendly bacteria to create “a self-operating ventilation system based on the climate outside.” How? A biofilm of hardy, heat-resistant Bacillus subtilis paired with a porous and bendable substrate will open the house for an airing when humidity is high and capable of blocking airborne viruses. The substrate will then flatten and close when humidity is low and too dense for a healthy microbial exchange.

5 pm. Back from school, it’s now time for Microbi(H)ome Teen to walk the dog. Mazzoleni and her team recommend “a living wall at the entrance, which contains macro and microorganisms that act as a barrier, simulating the body’s mucous membrane in which microorganisms like bacteriophages trap and kill harmful bacteria. When dog and Teen return, architects should make accommodations for indoor plants such as English ivy, spider plants, and aloe that will filter airborne toxins from mold, feces and carbon dioxide.

After all, who know what the dog’s been into?

It is interesting also to note how the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), seemed to have anticipated such a microbial barrier at his home/office in Brookline, Massachusetts, known as Fairsted. There, masses of wisteria over a high arched entrance create a formidable living wall to the present day.

7 pm. Homework and Facebook. Soil-based, microbial fuel cells buried in the garden power functional and task lighting, computers, and a hair dryer. “Cells interact with electrogenic bacteria, transferring electrons to a below-ground anode and an above-ground cathode to produce electricity.

At the same time, bioluminescent bacteria living in “transparent bladders and tanks” fill the Microbi(H)ome with soft, ambient lighting where the microbial clouds of Mom and Dad come together again after a long day.

To celebrate these daily occurrences, their architect has applied a UV strip around a custom-designed pergola holding up the wisteria in the entryway. As darkness falls the UV activates a green penumbra, a biofluorescence emitted from Pseudomonas aeruginosa applied to the exterior, which is known for its hardiness and resistance to heat.

How well does one know these clients? It would be possible join them every night for dinner for a year and still not come to know their world as well as Team Mazzoleni through the lens of a microscope.

For the question remains: how will the bacterial shapers within and without these clients inform the design of the spaces they will be inhabiting around the clock, whether it’s a house a school, an office, or for the lucky ones, a mega yacht? How might their Onakas, their “Honored Middles” flourish or fail as part of the workings of these built environments, these interior microbial systems that design us humans?

Clients may be at a loss to explain such success or failure, but they’ll know it in their gut.