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Evidence-based indoor design is more important than ever

The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness

Emily Anthes
Scientific American/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pp.
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The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has transformed our homes into schools, workplaces, recreational centers, and experimental kitchens, rendering us increasingly aware of the opportunities and constraints built into their design. In her new book, The Great Indoors, science journalist Emily Anthes helps us channel this awareness into an appreciation of how design alters our feelings and behaviors within built environments.

Although research on the benefits of nature is booming, the reality is that North Americans and Europeans spend about 90% of their time indoors. Worldwide, the indoor environment is expected to double in square footage by 2060.

Anthes takes readers on a tour of the behavioral implications of indoor design, highlighting apartments created for neuro­diverse individuals, dome homes, and electronically monitored housing. She also explores hospitals, prisons, and public spaces designed to encourage physical activity. Along the way, she interviews environmental psychologists, design professionals, and advocates of the thoughtful deployment of evidence-based design.

Google Trends has documented a recent spike in searches related to antibacterial cleansers, suggesting that many of us have come to think of the microbial world as our enemy. Yet Anthes argues that “a healthy home is one that’s full of uninvited guests.” In her “absolutely spotless” showerhead, for example, she discovers myco­bacteria, which resist destruction by hot water and chlorine. Some strains of mycobacteria, she learns, can bolster human immune systems, while others cause tuberculosis.

Science has yet to disentangle the benefits and dangers posed by the microbes in our homes, but indoor ecologists are regularly discovering new strains and have even determined that different microbial signatures are left by men’s and women’s bodies. Anthes invites readers to consider the potential benefits of fostering a greater understanding of these indoor ecosystems and points to a future wherein we consciously cultivate healthy ones.

Many advances in health, such as reducing New York City’s levels of cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis in the 1800s, were the result of better physical design and infrastructure maintenance, not pharmaceutical breakthroughs. Anthes’s prescient reminder of this fact allows readers to think about how design can enhance environmental health. One can imagine, for example, a future in which contact-free buildings and services are the norm.

Because we adapt to indoor environments, we tend to overlook the possibilities that better design could provide. Private hospital rooms, for example, harbor 50% fewer pathogens than shared rooms. Meanwhile, we know that the heart rates of young people on the autism spectrum become elevated when these individuals are exposed to typical restaurant noise. Prioritizing ambient sound mitigation in such settings could help support more humane design.

Research findings often run counter to traditional design strategies and can reveal unexpected connections between design and behavior. One study Anthes cites, for example, found that face-to-face interactions declined by 72% when companies switched from cubicles to open floor plans. Another study found that by placing the operating room bed on a diagonal instead of in the traditional centered position, the anesthesiologist gains important protected workspace that minimizes disruptions and enhances patient safety.

The Great Indoors contains no slogs about how inclusionary zoning codes support affordable housing design. Instead, readers learn, for example, how dirt, water, and barbed wire are ingredients for easily constructed dome homes that have provided emergency housing for refugees and could better serve people in poverty.

But not all design changes bring about their desired effects. Anthes recounts how a school in rural Buckingham County, Virginia, redesigned in 2012 to encourage healthy eating and physical activity had mixed success. Hiding the calorie-laden chocolate milk behind the counter increased the consumption of white milk, and placing activity-friendly equipment in the halls reduced students’ sedentary time. But situating the outdoor playground a long walk away from the school building lessened the time available for engagement in vigorous outdoor activity, a failure that inspired more research.

A self-described fan of the indoors, Anthes encourages readers to reconsider the places where they spend most of their time and to ask themselves whether those places serve their needs. At a point when we are spending even more time than usual indoors, all of humanity could likely benefit from confronting such questions.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Family and Consumer Studies , University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.