Managing Air in the Built Environment: Creating Benefits for Human Health and Wellbeing
Together with Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) and Singapore National Biofilm Consortium (SNBC) we recently held a webinar, ‘Studying and Controlling the Microbiome of the Air’, which focused on the transmission of bacteria and viruses in both outdoor and built environment. At the event Dr Angela Sherry, VC Senior Fellow in the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE) at Northumbria University gave a talk relating to the current challenges of monitoring the microbial quality of air in the built environment’. You can watch her full talk here.
In this blog, Dr Angela Sherry talks about her role and research at HBBE, her thoughts following our webinar, and she tells us about the exciting new OME project – a Living House currently being built in the heart of the Newcastle campus for researchers to come together to collaborate, test and demonstrate their technologies at building scale.
I’m an Environmental Molecular Microbiologist and my research investigates the community composition of microbes within the Built Environment, with an aim to mechanistically understand the role of microbes in human health and the impacts that environmental change, design or engineering interventions may have. My research within the HBBE aligns with the Microbial Environments theme, and aims to investigate microbiomes within the built environment to determine which microbes are there (microbiome characterisation), how many microbes are there (microbial quantification), what role the microbes are playing (microbial function) and how microbes move and interact (microbial translocation). I currently lead on a number of projects including supervising a PhD studentship looking to decipher the built environment microbiome, an Environmental Biotechnology Network-funded project ‘Fibre Highways’ investigating microbial movement around fibres within the environment and a study on the response of airborne biological agents to ventilation systems and room occupancy in collaboration with the Royal Air Force. Ultimately, the aim is to define a healthy built environment microbiome and develop novel biotechnologies to promote, sustain and modulate the microbiome to create healthier indoor environments which will benefit human health and wellbeing.
Deciphering airborne microbiomes in the Built Environment, and translocation of microbes around fibres and textiles.
The HBBE vision is to develop biotechnologies to create a new generation of Living Buildings which are responsive to their natural environment; grown using living engineered materials to reduce inefficient industrial construction processes; metabolise their own waste, reducing pollution, generate energy and high-value products and modulate their microbiome.
The Hub combines two research clusters: Architectural Design at Newcastle University and Biotechnology at Northumbria University, with over 50 researchers from a diverse range of backgrounds to create a new transdisciplinary field, capable of creatively designing and building biotechnology at multiple scales from molecular interactions to whole buildings. The HBBE is organised around four core themes, Building Metabolism, Living Construction, Microbial Environments and Responsible Interactions. HBBE research is integrated over three new research facilities: a Micro Bio-Design Lab, a Macro Bio-Design Lab and a unique Experimental ‘Living’ House, ‘The OME’.
I was really excited by the opportunities presented when I joined the HBBE as a Senior Research Fellow in February 2020. The Hub has provided a space where I can explore my research ideas in a friendly, informal setting with colleagues from a wide range of disciplines. This has provided a unique environment in which I have been able to shape my research ideas with input from a range of different perspectives, which has already led to collaborations I perhaps would not have been involved in without the interdisciplinary jamboree of workshops, sandpits and meetings that the Hub has provided.
Just over a year into this role, I have diversified my research portfolio due to knowledge gained and ideas developed from interacting with a range of researchers in disciplines such as design, architecture, materials science, bioinformatics, engineering and biosciences. The access to new laboratory infrastructure that the Hub provides also ensures that my research becomes a reality, which will be tested in an applied setting in the experimental living house, the OME, to develop biotechnological solutions for the real world.
The Living House
3D models and current building progress of the OME, Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE) in the grounds of Newcastle University, due for completion in Spring 2021.
Many HBBE technologies are at an early stage of development, so the OME has been designed as a building within a building: a self-contained apartment (the home) enclosed within a protective building envelope. This will allow us to freely experiment with materials and processes not quite yet ready for external exposure. The apartment will be situated above a laboratory, used to develop processes to convert domestic waste into heat, energy and useful products.
Surfaces and ventilation systems within the building will be investigated and modified to explore how we can potentially manipulate microbiomes within the built environment. A prototyping and exhibition space will allow living prototypes to be tested whilst learning about people’s response to, and interactions with, these new materials and systems.
The façade of the OME has been designed to enable a range of material samples, both bio-fabricated and living, to be tested in an external environment and viewed by the public, whilst considering the interaction of the building with its environment. Crucially the HBBE aims to find the links between these diverse approaches to incorporating biotechnology in the built environment, to create self-sustaining, regenerative, living buildings which benefit human and ecological health and wellbeing.
Within the Microbial Environments theme of the HBBE, we will test a wide range of prototypes from new materials grown from microbes through to surveillance of the microbial life (microbiomes) within the OME to better understand the influence of materials, surfaces and ventilation systems on the microbes which surround us – both to avoid harmful microorganisms, including viruses, and to encourage healthy bacteria that benefit human health. The data generated from microbial surveillance will help to develop real time augmentation and remediation of simple and complex bacterial communities using bacteriophages. Furthermore, visualisation techniques looking at the movement of microbes around fomites and textiles, as well as panels of biological mimics/surrogates will facilitate modelling of the movement of microbiota around and between built environment spaces. All approaches aim to survey, capture, remediate or enrich microbial diversity that offer links to a healthier society.
Air microbiome webinar: reflections
The ‘Studying and controlling the air microbiome’ webinars were thought-provoking and identified a number of key challenges in this emerging area, as expected, the discussions also identified future avenues of research worth exploring. There is currently limited evidence of the transmission of viable, live Covid19 virus on surfaces and in the indoor built environment. However, since most of us spend most of our daily lives inside and evidence suggests that the indoor environments in which we work and live are indeed the most common venues for SARS‐CoV‐2 transmission (1) (2) , it is essential to understand the transmission dynamics of airborne infectious diseases. Questions remain relating to the transmission of the Covid19 virus in air and in the built environment within different countries and across climatic regions given that different countries, like the UK and Singapore, implemented completely different lockdown scenarios to try to reduce the transmission of the pandemic. Standardisation of air sampling methods would enable comparison of air microbiomes between countries and climatic regions to be further explored going forward.
A consensus was reached between those presenting from academia and industry that the definition of a healthy air microbiome does not constitute making air ‘sterile’ and a particular level of microbial diversity is necessary to maintain healthy occupants in the built environment and reduce allergic responses, although this is not yet fully understood. Approaches to modify indoor built environment air microbiomes going forward may include pathogen or taxa-specific modifications, novel antimicrobial materials or bio-augmentation with bacteriophage.
Questions were posed, such as, will there be differences between old dwellings and new builds with regard to transmission of airborne biological agents? Presumably yes, due to differences in building materials, ventilation systems and the age of building envelopes. Going forward building design, architecture and building services will play a significant role in developing mitigation strategies to reduce built environment transmission pathways. Finally, surveillance of the microbial fraction of air in public transport infrastructure, e.g. research into the air microbiomes on buses, was also identified as a key area for future research.
Dr Angela Sherry
Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE), Applied Sciences, Northumbria University.