The Bartlett School of Architecture


The Bartlett Joins Forces with UCL's Eastman Dental Institute on Probiotic Research Project

5 December 2022

Researchers from The Bartlett School of Architecture and The Eastman are collaborating with the UC San Diego and John Hopkins on research to combat pathogens in built environments.


The new, three-year international, multidisciplinary research project addresses contemporary agendas towards designing and building healthy built environments. ‘ENG-EPSRC EFRI ELiS: Developing probiotic interventions to reduce the emergence and persistence of pathogens in built environments’, was awarded £669,856 in funding by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK. US funding for the UC San Diego and John Hopkins researchers comes from the National Science Foundation through the ‘Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation - Engineering Living Systems’ funding scheme.

In the UK, The Bartlett’s Richard Beckett is the Principal Investigator, and Sean Nair of The Eastman is the Co-Principal Investigator. The US team comprises UC San Diego’s Jack Gilbert (Principal Investigator) and Karsten Zengler (Co-PI), as well as Shaochen Chen and Rebecca Fielding-Miller at UC San Diego and Michael Betenbaugh at Johns Hopkins. 

The US team have commenced work already, while the British team will start work in February 2023, developing 1:1 scale probiotic building prototypes for real world testing as interventions to reduce antimicrobial resistance in buildings. As part of the infrastructure for the project, two research assistants will join the UK team - one will lead the material and design research at The Bartlett, while another will join the Eastman team to work on microbiology.
The project continues an ongoing collaboration between Richard Beckett and Sean Nair, who worked together on a previous project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which developed a proof of concept for probiotic building materials. The research and development continued with a UCL Grand Challenges Grant, ultimately resulting in the development of the new ENG-EPSRC project, in collaboration with the US team. It emerges from a UK Research and Innovation call to facilitate US/UK collaborative research.

EFRI-EPSRC "ENG-EPSRC EFRI ELiS: Developing probiotic interventions to reduce the emergence and persistence of pathogens in built environments

Image: Probiotic design prototypes - photos by Richard Beckett

The project brings together expertise in microbiology, the built environment, infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
The proposal responds to the urgency for improving the health of our built environments using an approach that departs from the modern understanding that healthy environments should be based on fewer microbes. Urbanisation, indoor lifestyles and ingrained antibiotic mentalities are selecting for AMR and there is a risk that the current pandemic exacerbates our overreliance on antibiotic approaches which are driving other unintended, longer term public health problems.
This approach considers a more nuanced understanding of microbes that recognises that not all microbes are pathogenic. In this manner, future healthy buildings should aim to discriminate between good and bad microbes and in doing so, find ways that can reduce exposure to harmful microbes but also permit the presence and agency of benign environmental microbes roles that are beneficial for human health and the resilience of buildings and cites.
The proposal will develop novel probiotic materials for buildings that contain novel, harmless soil derived, Bacillus species which can inhibit the growth of drug resistant organisms. In the laboratory, we will engineer these probiotic materials for application in buildings that can prevent AMR bacteria colonisation on these materials and on other building surfaces.

The way we design and plan buildings in relation to microbes requires a philosophical shift from one that assumes healthy buildings = fewer microbes. A probiotic architecture retains control of pathogens but permits and facilitates other benign microbiodiversity to remain. The project vision is a complete transformation of how we design building materials, construct and maintain building environments. It aligns with the emerging health challenges associated with urbanisation and the understanding of the beneficial role that benign microbes can play towards creating healthy bodies, buildings and cities.”

- Richard Beckett

The EPSRC funding will take forward our discovery that certain benign environmental bacteria can be incorporated into building materials,  preventing colonization by antimicrobial resistant bacteria, and accelerate the development of these living surfaces for real world application.”

- Sean Nair 

Richard Beckett is an Associate Professor in Architecture at The Bartlett School of Architecture. He is director of RC7 for Architectural Design MArch, and leads Studio 3 on the Landscape Architecture MA/MLA course. His research is focused 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. He has built numerous projects and has been exhibited internationally including Archilab – Naturalising Architecture, The Pompidou Centre and Nature – Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

Sean Nair is Head of Microbial Diseases and Reader in Cellular Microbiology at The Eastman Dental Institute, UCL, and editor for BMC Microbiology. His research focuses on interactions of bacteria with host cells in health and disease where his primary focus is on the mechanisms by which staphylococci/MRSA, and other hospital-acquired pathogens such as enterococci (VRE) cause disease, and the development of novel antimicrobial strategies to combat infections.

More information

Visit Richard Beckett’s research profile
Visit Sean Nair’s research profile
Find out more about the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
Find out more about the National Science Foundation

Image: Probiotic design prototypes - photos by Richard Beckett