Emily Anthes on the Great Indoors During a Pandemic and Beyond

Emily Anthes
Wednesday, August 26, 2020

It began with microbes. Seven or eight years ago, I came across a handful of studies about the “indoor microbiome.” Scientists were swabbing the inside of buildings, and what they were finding was astounding: thousands of species of fungi and bacteria squatting in our schools, hospitals, and homes.

The findings were fascinating in their own right, but they also prompted me to look at my own apartment with new eyes. They made me realize that my home was a vibrant ecosystem — and that our buildings are rich, complex environments.

Emily Anthes | Courtesy of Emily Anthes

That was the spark for what became The Great Indoors, an exploration of the science of our indoor spaces and how they affect our lives. When I started the book, I was already well aware of the fact that we spend 90 percent of our lives in indoors. What I didn’t know, of course, was that a pandemic was brewing — and that The Great Indoors would be released at a time when millions of us were being ordered to stay in our homes.

I wanted to write a wide-ranging book — one that drew together research on everything from apartment buildings to operating rooms, from open-plan offices to prison cells — but I knew that I also needed to find a way to limit the project’s scope. I found it helpful to remind myself that I was a science journalist and not an architect or a designer or a historian. So I limited myself to topics and stories for which there was a robust scientific literature. That’s where I thought I could make the biggest contribution — by synthesizing the science and exploring, for instance, the ecosystems hiding in our homes, the connection between school design and learning, and the role that staircases can play in public health.

The story I wanted to tell had seemed simple at the outset: I would demonstrate that indoor environments affect our health and wellbeing, and, therefore, redesigning our indoor spaces could help us build better lives. But reality is, of course, more complicated. As I toured real-world buildings — including a school designed to make students more physically active and a jail designed to be more humane — I came to see some of the limits of what good design can do. Design can improve our lives but it isn’t a silver bullet, and it doesn’t work in isolation. Getting the best out of our buildings requires not only thoughtful design, but also careful contemplation of our policies, practices, and societal values.

It has been a strange moment to publish a book, especially one focused on the indoor environment. The pandemic has made in-person book events, like readings and talks, impossible, and I haven’t been entirely comfortable trying to promote a personal project when so many people are suffering so deeply. On the other hand, I do think that the pandemic, and accompanying stay-at-home-orders, have made people much more attuned to and interested in the quality of our indoor environments.

Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The book offers lessons on how we can stay (relatively) happy and healthy while we’re holed up in our homes. For instance, the scientific literature makes it clear that exposure to nature and daylight has a wide array of benefits for both our physical and mental health — alleviating stress, improving mood, reducing pain, and boosting alertness, to name just a few. Finding ways to bring more nature and daylight into our spaces can pay major dividends for our wellbeing. The good news, if you have a black thumb, is that the nature doesn’t have to be in the form of real, live houseplants. Window views of the natural world, photographs of nature, and recordings of natural sounds can all yield benefits. 

I also delved into the research on how people cope with isolation in extreme environments, like in outer space. One lesson is that it’s very important to find a way to balance social interaction and privacy. While there’s been a lot of focus on how to stay connected with friends and family during this time, those of us who share homes with others also need to find a way to carve out our own personal space. That can mean taking a long, solitary bath or retreating to the bedroom for some quality time with a book or even just putting on headphones and escaping into a private auditory world.

The pandemic already is changing how we design and operate our indoor spaces. Even before it struck, we were starting to see a growing interest in the quality of indoor air. In the coming weeks and months, I suspect more businesses and building managers will be bumping up their ventilation rates and installing high-quality air filters and filtration systems. I hope commercial real estate developers will also rethink their aversion to operable windows ― let occupants breathe fresh air.

Even though surfaces don’t seem to be a major route of transmission for the coronavirus, the pandemic also appears to be accelerating a trend toward more touchless systems and environments. Think elevators you summon with your smart phone, doors that are triggered by motion sensors and facial recognition systems, and voice-controlled lights and thermostats. Even if these technologies don’t play a huge role in combating Covid-19, they could help slow the spread of other common infectious diseases.

On a larger scale, we’re seeing a well-deserved rethinking of our devotion to open-plan designs in our homes, schools, offices and elsewhere. Giving us our interior walls back would not only protect us from airborne pathogens, but also cut down on noise and distraction, providing more privacy and personal space. It would also make it easier to create temporary in-home offices and classrooms when the next disaster strikes. Along those lines, I think we’ll see architects deliberately designing more flexibility into our buildings, creating homes, offices, and even hospitals in which rooms and spaces can be more easily transformed and repurposed. Because if this year has taught us anything, it’s that the only certainty is more uncertainty.

 

Emily Anthes is a freelance science journalist and author of The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness. Anthes won the 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award in the Magazine category.