What are the effects of spending an entire season indoors, as most of us have done this year? I don’t mean the psychological effects but the material ones. I wonder about the carpets that have gotten worn down from pacing. The couches that sag from cradling our butts all day. The expanded inventories of elastic-waist pants, house slippers, sweatshirts. Among other lessons learned, we’ve had a chance to become intensely familiar with what we like and dislike about our living spaces. We’ve experienced every day what studies have confirmed: Plants, space, and sunlight make people happy, while extreme temperatures, loud noise, cramped conditions, and dim light make people unhappy. The pandemic has forced us to confront exactly how little control we have over our homes.
That’s the subject of Emily Anthes’s The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness. Along with domestic spaces, Anthes explores a range of buildings — fancy offices, operating rooms, a housing development designed for adults with autism, a solitary-confinement unit — in hopes of dissecting the effects of architecture and design on human behavior. I read it, in a perverse spirit, entirely outside, on a sunny patch of grass, without a single person within seeing or hearing distance. “I am unapologetically indoorsy,” writes the author in her introduction. “It’s not that I don’t like nature; I think nature is lovely. I’ve been camping several times — and enjoyed it!” Ha. Me and Emily Anthes, we could not be less alike.
The formula for popular social-science books is: cold open on a catchy anecdote, proceed to divulge personal interest in topic, pivot to argument about why topic is universal and not remotely what the reader expected, and then spend 240 pages on scenes of varying persuasiveness. I’m usually out by page 30. I don’t know if this is a fault of my attention span, the formula, the kind of author who is drawn to the formula, or constraints pushed by publishers eager to get the book on a best-seller list. In any case, my alarm bells tend to go off early.
In order to enjoy one of these books, you need to trust the author’s ability to responsibly synthesize specialized knowledge that lies outside of her, and your, expertise. You need to know in your soul that the author is not the type of person to cite Wikipedia as a source or become enveloped in a plagiarism scandal one instant after you finish reading her book. I am glad to report that Anthes passes the trustworthy test. Her sources are respectable and diligently noted. My margins were covered with scribbled WTFs not because she was drawing deranged conclusions from misinterpreted studies but because the book contains piles of cool facts that are actually, from what I can tell, facts.
Those cool facts come fast and furious. The New York City subway, for example, is smothered in microbes associated with bare feet. Why? Anthes quotes a microbiologist on the topic: “Every time you take a step, your heel comes up and then presses down, creating a small bellows of bottom-of-your-foot air squirting out into the surroundings.” The scientist continues: “Imagine millions of people running around down there. Puff puff puff puff puff — every time they take a step, they put out a little puff of foot microbiology.” Another WTF moment: Pillowcases and toilet-seat surfaces are apparently “strikingly similar” from a microbiological perspective. These are from a chapter on the billions of invisible roommates we cohabit with, from bacteria to fungi to dust motes to a zoo’s worth of wee invertebrates. In one scene, Anthes unscrews her showerhead and swabs the interior, then mails it off to a lab. The results come back a year later. Among other things, her showerhead contains an organism called RB41, “which has been found in dog noses and paleolithic cave paintings,” and a class of mycobacteria that can cause tuberculosis and leprosy when inhaled. “Nothing to freak out about,” the scientist who processed the swabs assures Anthes. “Many of those could be totally nonpathogenic.” Could be! Even the least germophobic reader will squirm at the descriptions of carpeting (“disgusting” — a scientist’s term, not mine!) and basements (“hotbeds of arthropod diversity”). However, it’s less boring to stay home all day when you know that your house is a teeming jungle.
Hospitals are scarier. Design can alter patient outcomes in unnerving ways, suggesting that our fragile bodies are susceptible to environmental factors not just psychologically but on some mysterious mechanical level. Surgical patients with plants in their rooms have lower blood pressure and use less pain medication than patients in plant-free rooms. Patients in sunny rooms fare better than patients in shady rooms. In one study, patients treated in rooms with sound-absorbing tiles were significantly less likely to be readmitted within three months. When Florence Nightingale recommended sunlight and flowers for the infirm in 1859, she anticipated what would later become known as “evidence-based design.”
The book’s best chapter explores how neuroatypical people interact with their surroundings. Gallaudet University is a private college in Washington, D.C., that largely serves students who are deaf or hard of hearing. A group of academics and architects at the school outlined design features tuned to the needs of the students, including translucent and partial walls and rooms painted in soft blues and greens, which contrast with human-skin tones and make it easier to perceive gestures. Designers who worked on a housing development created for adults with autism made a slew of decisions that would probably appeal to people without autism too, pouring a layer of gypsum concrete between each floor to dampen the sound of footfall and cleverly installing shower temperature knobs opposite the showerhead, so residents didn’t have to dart through a stream of frigid or boiling water in order to adjust it. (Can we standardize that?) In a 2015 study, researchers created a dental office designed to soothe children with autism, featuring dimmer lights, relaxing music, and calming images projected onto the ceiling. What happened next will not shock you: The changes were received warmly by neurotypical people, too.
A good chunk of the book’s material fits into the “obvious” category, but it’s always nice to see one’s personal preferences ratified by data. A study of IT employees confirmed that face-to-face communication — as opposed to, say, Slack — was correlated with higher productivity and performance. (I believe workers required to use Slack should be paid extra for the sheer attentional burden of it.) Students who attend class in well-ventilated and well-maintained buildings perform better academically. A detention facility remodeled to include athletic facilities, a library, and classrooms saw the number of assaults drop by 50 percent.
But for every unsurprising conclusion, there’s a curveball. Anthes visits a Louisiana professor who has developed a buoyant foundation that allows houses to float on top of floodwaters. The system requires no heavy equipment and can be installed inexpensively on an existing house by just two people. Rather than pour catastrophically into a home, the floodwater itself lifts residents to safety. But what would seem like a brilliant answer to Hurricane Katrina (and a future of similar disasters, worsened by climate change) is stymied by the federal government. Homeowners in high-risk areas are required to buy flood insurance, but “amphibious structures” like the floating foundations are not eligible for subsidized policies. When Anthes reaches out to FEMA, she’s told that the technology is not as safe as simply moving to a higher elevation. Well, sure.
The Great Indoors isn’t a self-help book, but our present context has layered it with some self-helpy applications. You can’t necessarily drill a window into your wall or blast a skylight into your ceiling, but you can push your favorite chair closer to the window and find out whether being depressed in a pool of sunlight is better than being depressed in a veil of shadows. If you can’t turn your bedroom into an anti-sensory cocoon, do it to your own body with a pair of earplugs and an eye mask. Pick a clump of roadside greenery next time you go outside (in your mask) and put it in a rinsed-out jar on the kitchen table. All those studies proving that plants cause joy? They don’t specify that the plants should be exquisite. Gather ye weeds while ye may.
*A version of this article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!