Area 51? No. STUDIO E.

By Marcia Faye

Area 51—the remote, top-secret United States Air Force installation near the popularly dubbed “Extraterrestrial Highway” in Nevada—may have its, well … Who really knows what it has? But, it doesn’t have anything over IIT Main Campus. For in historic Carman Hall—an apartment-residence for graduate students designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—there exists a rather unassuming, largely empty, white-painted double-suite where no one lives. Yet graduate students can frequently be found there, running various pieces of mysterious-looking apparatuses with the aim of ultimately improving the quality of life for not only the residents of Carman Hall but for every person in the United States.   

Welcome to STUDIO E.

“I decided on the acronym STUDIO E, the Suite for Testing Urban Dwellings and their Indoor and Outdoor Environments,” explains Brent Stephens, assistant professor of architectural engineering and director of IIT’s Built Environment Research Group [see the spring 2015 IIT Magazine article “Paging Dr. Building”]. Inspired by a test house Stephens utilized as a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, the studio serves as a “living lab” for developing methods to improve the air quality and energy impacts of the indoor environment. Stephens along with his team of five graduate students and several undergraduates are conducting various modeling and hands-on projects funded by government and industry organizations, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Also on the team is post-doctoral researcher Stephanie Kunkel (M.S BIOL ’11, Ph.D. ’14), who received a two-year $120,000 fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to work on a project that integrates microbiology with aerosol science and building science. With the help of a compressed-air cough simulator the team built that expels innocuous viruses, bacteria, and fungi in place of human pathogens, Kunkel is investigating the fate, transport, and control of airborne germs in the indoor environment of STUDIO E.

“With influenza, for example, there is still on ongoing debate about whether the virus is transmitted predominantly through touching surfaces or through the air. If surface transmission is dominant, then washing your hands or using hand sanitizer is obviously very important,” says Stephens. “But some models and measurements show that the virus may also be transmitted long distances through the air. Short of wearing a mask or a respirator—if you are sick, the best option would simply be to stay home. We’ve all sat next to that person on the train who is a vector.”

Parham Azimi, one of Stephens’s doctoral students, has been working on a related project in STUDIO E, namely, a Markov chain probability model of influenza transmission in an office environment. (Markov chain behavior modeling, useful in a number of fields from biology to finance, is a singular random process where what happens in the next level depends only upon the current level.) Stephens says that an infected individual who is coughing is surrounded by a “hot zone” of expelled viruses with the vast majority of them landing within a radius of less than a meter; smaller particles escape and remain airborne.

“Parham has determined mathematically that if someone spends 30 minutes in the hot zone, that person will have a much higher incidence of contracting the virus; if it’s less than a half hour, the balance likely shifts to the airborne route,” says Stephens. “The person could still get infected but is at a lower risk.”

With winter on the wane and longer days ahead, concerns about the flu bug are being replaced with that of ozone, an inhaled pollutant that forms via chemical reactions that occur in the presence of sunlight. Stephens’s team has been conducting ozone research in STUDIO E since its inception and is now refining a test method to determine the ability of the building shell to buffer against ozone infiltration indoors.

“We’ve made the first measurements of how ozone infiltrates into a multi-family building that we’re aware of,” says Stephens, who notes that for more susceptible populations, ozone is associated with increased mortality and morbidity. “In STUDIO E, about 50 percent, on average, reacts away at the building shell and 50 percent enters indoors, which then reacts with surfaces.”

As an adjunct to the STUDIO E ozone project, the team is also measuring how outdoor particulate matter infiltrates indoors through an EPA grant [see the spring 2015 IIT Magazine article “Paging Dr. Building”].