An interview with award-winning pro-biotic researcher Richard Beckett.
Richard Beckett, an Associate Professor in Architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, focuses on design operating at the intersection of architecture and microbial ecologies in buildings and cities.
His research on Probiotic Design won the RIBA Presidents Research Award in 2021.
Richard is currently running an intriguing experiment… in an art exhibition.
For several days over the next few months, he will be occupying a booth in the centre of the Roca London Gallery to measure the impact of his ongoing research into probiotic design.
During the ‘Small Spaces in the City: Rethinking Inside the Box’ exhibition, he is experimenting with bringing the forest into the home by lining the booth with tiles constructed using our Re-Connecting Nature™ microbial extract.
Like all of us at Uute Scientific, Richard believes that exposure to microbes associated with natural environments plays a fundamental role in shaping immunoregulatory health. He is developing biologically active building materials that can ‘rewild’ the indoor environment – bringing microbial diversity associated with nature directly into the home.
In advance of the exhibition, Richard very kindly gave us some time to answer some questions. Enjoy his thoughts below.
We look forward to hearing more about his ground-breaking research and wish him the very best of luck in London!
What inspired you to start researching the impact of buildings on human health and microbiome?
My research operates at the intersection of architecture and microbiology and, over the last 10 years, has been looking at novel ways to integrate living systems and species into architecture, mostly in line with climatic and sustainability agendas for buildings. More recently, my interest has focussed on the role of design in shaping the indoor microbiome and how that can play a role in shaping healthy buildings.
Contemporary cities purposely select for low micro and macro biodiversity, especially inside buildings. We now spend up to 95% of our day indoors, and so the microbes that constitute our indoor microbiomes are important for health. While we must continue to protect from pathogens, we must also find ways to ensure exposure to beneficial microbes.
Design can play a key role here in rewilding our buildings and cities with microbial diversity and, importantly, shaping how we interact with them.
How does probiotic design aim to use environmental microbial communities to create healthier indoor environments and bodies?
The modern city was shaped in line with the understanding of the human body as an island, or a discreet body that should be separated from nature in order to be healthy. In contrast, the contemporary understanding of the human is one as a holobiont, a multispecies body where health is dependent on microbes.
What we see now is that contemporary buildings can be understood as unhealthy through a lack of environmental microbes, as we have focussed so hard on eradicating them. So, we need to find new ways to repopulate our buildings with the microbes associated with nature – the ones that are symbiotically important for health.
While there are indirect strategies that can help to ensure outdoor microbes are able to come inside buildings, this is more challenging in cities and areas with low surrounding green space. Probiotic design explores a more direct approach by purposely integrating environmental microbes into materials that then serve as a source of beneficial microbes for buildings.
How do you plan to calibrate antibiotic approaches to limit harmful microbial exposures while allowing for beneficial ones?
It is important to continue to protect against pathogens in buildings, but crucially to do this in a way that does not exert pressures that then select for antimicrobial resistance. This means not using antimicrobial chemicals in spaces that do not require sterility. Here, we can use benign microbes that can outcompete pathogens but does not create a sterile condition by targeting all microbes. This still permits the presence of broader microbial diversity that in itself can inhibit pathogen persistence but can also provide the beneficial exposures necessary for human health.
Design can play a role in increasing the amount of environmental microbes in buildings, but it can also play a role in shaping and promoting exposures or entanglements with them through the way we plan, use and inhabit spaces.
Re-Connecting Nature™ microbial extract is inactivated, meaning it has undergone heat treatment but remains effective; what sparked your interest, and what are you experimenting with?
Some of the work we have been doing involves isolating microbes from cultures or environmental samples in order to integrate them into our materials. We have been tweaking the physical and chemical properties of these materials to create a biocompatible niche so that they can survive in the material and indoor environments.
Some of the challenges that arise from isolating specific strains is that their mechanisms can change once they are separated from their environment and community structure. An alternative approach is to integrate the microbial niche as well, which addresses more the notion of microbial diversity rather than specific microbial strains. The potential to use your material is an interesting way to do this.
We have been integrating it into porous materials like concretes and ceramics and seeing how the microbes behave and survive in indoor environments. Designing with materials like soil is challenging for buildings; we are so used to materials that look clean and can easily be cleaned. Designing for ‘dirty’ aesthetics is interesting, and we may need to learn to embrace again the aesthetics of nature, which may involve things like dirt, moisture, and growth.
Could you tell us more about SYN.DE.BIO and how do designers, artists, and scientists collaborate to explore biological materials in the built environment?
Syn.de.bio is now closed, but its aim was to bring together biodesigners in architecture to progress the field. This field has grown significantly over the last 5-10 years. There are now increasing numbers of Master’s courses at universities around the world that focus specifically on this discipline. Designing with living organisms and integrating them into architecture, either as materials or systems, offers new ways to address contemporary challenges in the built environment.
How do advancements in digital fabrication techniques and new materials impact the future of design and construction, and what are the potential applications and benefits of these materials in the built environment?
The development of robotic fabrication has and will continue to have a huge impact on architecture and construction. They permit the production of complex forms, multi-layer material systems and automation of production. Combined with new materials, especially biological and animate materials, we hope that buildings can one day repair themselves, absorb CO2 and pollution, and maybe even grow parts of buildings when we need more space.
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