UO architecture researchers get $1 million to study indoor air quality

Researchers at the University of Oregon and industry partners will use $1 million in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to study how indoor air quality is affected before and after home weatherization projects and what that means to human health.

Charlie BrownThe investigation will explore whole-house ventilation and weatherization strategies and the anticipated effects of climate change through adaptations in building design and use.

The research team includes the UO’s Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory in the Department of Architecture and the Institute for Ecology and Evolution in the Department of Biology, the Oregon Research Institute, and Clean Energy Works. The team’s work is part of EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program and the Indoor Air and Climate Change program.

“What’s unique about this project is the way it attempts to link microbial composition and health-related factors with energy conservation and design practices like daylighting and natural ventilation,” says G.Z. Brown, the grant’s lead investigator and director of the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory.

The project grew out of Brown’s continued collaboration with biologists Jessica Green and Brendan Bohannan as co-investigators of the UO’s Sloan-funded Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE) Center. The BioBE center will study the biology of the microbial communities present in the outdoor and indoor zones of the houses used for this study. The work will contribute to the growing knowledge of how healthy buildings and microbial community diversity can support physical health and immunity.

A total of 72 sample homes will be selected from the cities of Portland and Bend, Oregon. These two locations will allow the research team to study the influence of different geographic locations and climate conditions on specific indoor-air-quality indicators during winter and summer seasons.

In addition, co-investigator Deborah Johnson-Shelton of the Oregon Research Institute will survey 218 households in these two cities. Survey participates will be selected from those planning to have home weatherization improvements with the support of Clean Energy Works Oregon. The participants will be asked to describe current use of the house’s ventilation system and other factors regarding health and energy savings goals.  This information combined with the biological sampling of the inside of the houses and adjacent outdoor air the will help the researchers identify the impacts of air quality using both mechanical and natural ventilation systems.

“We are not looking for bad microbes, for example, we are looking for good microbes,” Brown said. “A lot of work has been done on pathogens. Only recently have scientists approached this with the idea that some microbes are good for you.”

The project’s findings will be useful for homeowners, building contractors, architects, design professionals, and agencies administering weatherization programs. The results will show how ventilation system design in weatherized homes influences exposure to airborne outdoor microorganisms.

“Right now, the way we solve air quality problems in buildings is to increase the ventilation rate,” said Brown. “Since most buildings are mechanically ventilated, increasing the amount of ventilation increases energy use. Natural ventilation has potential of increasing ventilation rates at a lower energy cost.”

Brown and his team are looking for sustainable practices to promote residential building energy efficiency and improve air quality and human health. “We want to do both—how to both control microorganisms and how we can do it efficiently from an energy perspective,” he said.

“This work combines two streams of research together in one project,” said Judith Sheine, head of the UO Department of Architecture. “It incorporates years of building science research conducted by the Energy Studies in Buildings Lab on passive heating and cooling with newer research on microbial ecology and environments.”

This approach, she added, has helped place the department on the leading edge of research on the built environment.

The University of Oregon’s architecture program is recognized as number one in the nation for sustainable design education practices and principles. The top ranked program has been recognized multiple times as leading sustainable design education among the 154 accredited architecture programs in the U.S. The rankings were published in America’s Best Architecture and Design Schools 2015.

Last year, the UO was designated one of 11 charter members in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Design and Health Research Consortium for its work on the “built environment microbiome.” The consortium includes the nation’s leading thinkers about the growing connection between design and public health.

As Brown and his co-investigators firmly believe, “Human health, especially in vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, infirm and low-income, can be considerably improved by providing better air quality inside buildings. We expect the results of our work to be of interest across a wide range of disciplines, building types, and climate zones.”