Spark

Is your office building making you sick?

If only we could just crack a window open around here...
Toronto's skyline is filled with sealed buildings.
Listen10:16

If you're reading this at work, take a look around.

Is there a window near you? And if there is, can you open it?

Or is your building sealed, like most contemporary office towers, warehouses,  big box stores and condos?

Now look at the furniture. What's your table made of? Some kind of polymer that's supposed to look like wood?

How about your flooring?

Sealed buildings and the technology and furniture that are in them are about more than just aesthetics.

That's because your building has its own microbiome -- a universe of quintillions of bacteria.

Your own body is a microbiome too.  

The workplace is the same thing, just on a larger scale.

Some of that bacteria is good for you. Some is bad.

And a healthy biome in a healthy building makes for a healthy you!

Robin Guenther is one of the world's foremost experts on healthy buildings.

She's been a consultant on a large study that's examining the office and home microbiome - something that's never been done before. 
Robin Guenther is a leading sustainable design-architect. (perkinswill.com)

And that's because humans haven't been living in sealed buildings for very long. Indeed, we're pretty much the first generation to have lived in these types of building in human history.

North Americans spend an average of 90 per cent of our time indoors

And not only that, "as a species, we're really the first generation to have spent 90 per cent of our lives in these types of buildings," Robin says.

Add to that the six per cent of time we spend in cars, and we aren't really spending much time in natural environments at all.

So this year, the US National Academy of Sciences started a large study to examine that "built environment" microbiome.

It's the first time any research has been done on what you and I might be absorbing from our homes, workplaces and recreation centres.

Although mechanical ventilation -- the way air is artificially circulated through buildings as a way to mimic open windows -- is now very good, Robin says we still know very little about the dangers of the chemicals and materials used in walls, carpets, flooring and office equipment.

However, the good news is that architects and builders are becoming more aware of the possible effects of polymer-based substances, and there is a move towards "greener" buildings, that use sustainable materials.

Robin designed the second LEED-certified hospital in the US, the Center for Discovery in Harris, New York.

It's a modern health facility that is a hospital, and also treats people with developmental disabilities.

It's laid out like a farm, and even grows its own food.

Part of the Center for Discovery hospital in Harris, New York, designed by Robin Guenther. (Center for Discovery)

Robin adds that newer building designs are incorporating more exterior spaces -- from terraces to entire floors -- that are designed to get people outside.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.