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Ventilation design on the prevalence of Anti-Microbial Bacteria in homes

Bedroom window open
Personal habits such as sleeping with the bedroom window open helps ensure your home is well-ventilated.

Investigating how housing design affects the indoor microbiome, antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and the consequent impact on occupants’ health.

Could the design of modern homes be making us ill? For World Antibiotics Awareness Week (12-18 November 2018) it is a question being asked by Tim Sharpe, Professor in Environmental Architecture and Director of Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit at Glasgow School of Art. Tim’s project, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) looks at how ventilation affects air quality - and how that impacts the health of the occupants.

Everyone lives in a home, so there’s a potentially huge impact to be had from making buildings healthier to live in”

Air quality is a significant public health issue, but while there has been a lot of work examining the effects of pollutants outdoors, which are quite easily measurable, there has been little looking at the quality of air in the very places we spend most of our time: our homes.

Current building regulations, particularly surrounding energy efficiency, have improved air tightness but ventilation provision and use has not adapted accordingly. “If you’ve got a house that’s essentially cut off from the outdoor environment it can develop its own microbiome of moulds, moisture and bacteria. If that includes antimicrobial resistant bacteria, then you have a problem,” explains Tim, who is principal investigator on the project Influence of Ventilation Design on the Prevalence of Anti-microbial Bacteria in Homes.

Microbiological samples were taken from around 200 Housing Association homes in the Glasgow area and the residents completed surveys about their health, whether they had used antibiotics recently, and also their ventilation habits. “We took samples from all over the house, but the focus of the study is on the bedroom as this is somewhere people spend a large amount of time and is also relatively undisturbed by other activities in the house,” explains Tim.

Around 20 houses are being monitored more closely for a longer period to take into account different seasons and how this affects the way people ventilate their homes. “Half of the houses chosen are well ventilated, either by design or personal habits, such as people who sleep with their bedroom window open each night,” says Tim. “We think that something as simple as this could make a difference.”

The project develops the work of a previous AHRC-funded network, which found that many homes lacked adequate ventilation, but there was a lack of evidence of the consequent health effects. “The construction industry is frequently slow to change and will only make it when forced to do so with strong evidence. The aim is that this work will make the link between ventilation and health and provide that ‘smoking gun’ required for regulatory change.”

Although the project is not yet complete, the team has already contributed to an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Healthy Homes and Buildings, and to a NICE Public Health Advisory Committee looking at indoor air quality. The legacy of the project will be a blueprint of methodology for measuring indoor air quality, which Tim hopes will extend to other buildings and also focus on different types of occupants, such as the homes of those with high antibiotic use.

“Everyone lives in a home, so there’s a potentially huge impact to be had from making buildings healthier to live in,” says Tim. “Key to this is using an evidence-based design approach - where detailed scientific data informs design decisions - so that we can plan healthier homes and influence regulation that ensures they are built.”

To find out more about the project visit the HEMAC network website.

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