Analog Building Sensors for Conditions of Microbial Growth 

Temperature, Moisture, pH,  Air Movement


Copenhagen / 2018     A peformance lecture presented at the Fermenting Feminism symposium at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen. As an alternative to constant sterilization of microbially-sensitive interiors like hospoitals or food processing facilities, I offered an approach based on stewardship of dynamically-stable non-pathogenic microbial ecologies, like an immune system for the building. To practice attunement to the building conditions needed by companion microbes, I presented  a series of analog building sensors, designed for training intimacy between the wearer’s body and the environmental conditions of a space. I closed with a mold remediation cleansing ritual found in the Torah in Vayikrah 14:35-57.


In addition to the importance of conventional, precision tools for monitoring quantitative data in the microbial ecology of buildings, this project lays out a suite of complementary building sensors for use in restoring a more intuitive relationship with the building and the conditions of microbial growth, the most critical of which are pH, moisture levels, temperature, and air circulation.   

1. ANALOG : human being is required to take the reading rather than machine outputting a numerical digital reading

2. INTIMATE : instruments require your touch both the sensor and the building

3. LIVELY : the sensitive material used for the sensor is exposed and scaled for human being to be appreciate its liveliness in sensing the building condition  


the dye extracted from purple cabbage is a natural pH indicator, changing color to display acidity or alkalinity
sponges dangling from the ears are dipped in a sample of cabbage water held on the wrist and then swabbed along a wall, watching for a shift in color





the plastic fibers in the film of fortune-telling fish expand non-uniformaly as they absorb moisture, indicating changes in surface relative humidity by the curling the shape of the fish
an array of fish clipped to a chain between index finger and the pit of the elbow are brushed along a wall, noticing for the quiver or roll of a fish tail 




the foil in the gemstone of a mood ring shifts color as heat is conducted through the metal setting
mood rings worn on the fingers are pressed and held against a wall, waiting to observe the changes in color




the smoke plume rising from a stick of incense visualizes the direction and speed of air movement through the buildings, illustrating  likely  dynamics of microbial transmission or cross-contamination between building areas
palo santo suspended  at the pubic crest is lit aflame and snuffed out, tracing the billows in wisps of smoke to see the shape of the air





Thank you all for coming as you are
I am here today as an architect priestess
For a special occasion attunement to the microbial ecologies of the building in which we are gathered together

My work is usually in the microbial Mileua of food processing facilities like slaughterhouses gristmill breweries or potato chip factories But I am honored to be invited here into the folds of this historical operating theater.

For the past two centuries, we have attempted to manage the growth of pathogens in buildings for medicine, food, or other germy processes by designing these buildings to be sterilized constantly.

As with growing antibiotic resistance and awareness of our bodies microbiomes, the practice of constant sterilization is revealing itself to be both increasingly ineffective and actively harmful. While an aversion to rot or stagnant pools can be healthful, a modern dichotomy between movement (all good) and stillness (all bad) has effaced the importance of a third, middle option: wind-water, in Chinese, ‘feng shui’, or movement within containment.

In place of an architecture of sterilization, I am here to help guide us in cultivating a holistic microbial immune system for this building.

To build this immunity, just as in the body, we invite mutualistic and beneficial microbes to populate the floors walls ceilings ventilation systems and plumbing.

Rather than trying to kill everything indiscriminately, we attend closely to subtle shifts in population, tuning them into harmony with human wellbeing. Rather than trying to seal out all life indiscriminately, we attend closely to the habitat conditions structured by the architecture, gaining a deeper intimacy with the life of the building. In time, with acceptance, stewardship, and care, these walls, floors, ceilings might season into homeostasis, diverse, robust, dynamically stable communities that together resist pathogen encroachment or dysbiotic shifts.

In the sterilization-based approach, non porous construction materials like plastic and stainless steel are the standard. Many of these materials are expensive, petroleum based, and cannot be refinished, destined for landfill every 5-10 years, all surface and no innards. These materials are also, almost by definition, cold, in exactly the spaces where humans desperately need to experience warmth, care, and connection to our bodies. Notice how different it feels to be here together in a medical space built with materials like wood and plaster, warmer and softer than a modern day hospital, (regardless of the austere display of power in this layout). These traditional, long lasting, and often locally available building materials fell out of favor because of their porosity, the fear that because they draw in moisture, and moisture supports microbial growth, that they will fester, harboring disease in nooks and crannies where it is impossible to clean. In reality, it always impossible to clean. No matter what materials we build with, no matter how hard we try to scrub scrape bleach and freeze, to sterilize, to seal out, to vanquish, we will never succeed.

Microbes are shifty. They have thrived here on earth billions of years longer than the rest of us precisely because of their capacity to transform themselves and adapt to a range of extreme living environments. Moreover, as has been well understood in food science for decades, its actually not raw moisture content but water activity levels that influence microbial growth. Architects have glossed over this nuance, lumping together the porosity of a material, where moisture is held in liquid form through capillary action, with the hydrophilia of a material, where moisture is held in a chemically bound state, unavailable for interactions that would feed microbial growth. Like the salt molecules dissolved in a vat of pickle brine keeping overgrowth at bay, wood has a vast capacity to form hydrophilic bonds with water, tucking it away and out of reach to growth. Our society may fear the fecundity of moisture accumulating in corpulent folds as much or more than whatever may actually be reproducing within, but it turns out that thick, monolithic construction materials with the capacity to buffer great quantities of moisture may be one of our greatest allies in coexisting peacefully with microbial life, architecturally speaking.

As fun as its been needlessly fearing the unknowable, or hubristically attempting to control the uncontrollable, let us soften into curiosity and humility.

Key parameters to track in the environmental conditions of microbial growth are temperature, ph, moisture, and air movement. Just as we adjust these parameters in our food or our bodies, we can titrate these parameters in our buildings to nurture microbial growth with greater intention. I have brought today ideas of some of the tools we can use to listen more closely to these conditions in the building.

I’d like to ask for four volunteers to come to the front, to each take on one of these sensitive things, these sensing tools that can help us to know the small conditions within this space.

(While volunteers approach)

Each of these tools for environmental monitoring are analog and worn close to the body, but should be complemented by post-scarcity real-time remote digital sensors that would be distributed around the building to report analogous data ongoingly. These sensors may appear cruder than their digital partners, but it is critical not to fetishize quantitative data at the expense of affirming and refining our bodies own intuitive understanding of these environmental conditions.These tools are not precise, but they are accurate. And accuracy is much more fundamental, particularly when modernity so often blinds us with precision at accuracy’s expense. This version of these sensors are also a bit extra, for special occasion architect priestess visits, like this one. I have a kit of simpler versions using the same lively sensing materials, for a building operator to use in a regular walk-through practice with them once a week or so. These will available by donation at lunch if you'd like to bring one home.

This is the temperature sensor. This building inspectors thermometer is held like a gun to point at a wall from a distance, this mood ring invites you close to pat the building like this. Look for a change in color as the temperature changes. (Adorn)

This is the ph sensor. The color in purple cabbage, like many natural dyes, is sensitive to ph. You can see how the color changes when I introduce this strong base. These swabs would allow you to nuzzle against the building, dipping here to test a moistened swab for changes in color. Sincere apologies that I will give this cup to you dry of cabbage water for the sake of the museum, but please still experience the embodiment (Adorn)

This is the moisture sensor. You may brush your forearm against the wall. As the fish detects moisture, you can look for it curling up, this is what happens when the film absorbs liquid and expands, like your hair curling up on a humid day. It’s actually very similar to the mechanism inside this building inspectors hygrometer, containing a tiny fiber that expands and contracts with moisture absorption, reporting charges in the fibers length as an electrical impulse travels across it. (Adorn).

This is the air velocity sensor. You can light the Palo Santo like this and look for the direction of smoke movement, or track with this compass if you like. This is particularly helpful for tracing where microbes may be being communicated from one area of a building to another. This design is actually quite similar to a building inspectors smoke pen I picked up, and smells much nicer.

If you will, I'd now like to invite all four of you to take your tool, find a corner, and spend a moment with this practice of sensitivity to the building. Combing over, caressing, and sensing the corners and surfaces of the space to learn more about its textures, temperatures, acidity, moisture, and air movement. Come to know it as it is right now, just a little bit better. For everyone in the audience, I'd like you to take this time to do the same, just in the area wherever you're seated, using your own body. You may want to notice in particular one of the conditions I've highlighted or you may find yourself drawn to notice some other quality of your local habitat.

Let’s take two minutes with this, and then I'll signal to the volunteers to come back here to the center with me.

In a moment I'll invite the volunteers each to share something they noticed, but I'd like to fold it into a restorative ritual for the space that will close out my time with you today.

In the Torah, in Vayikra Section 14 Lines 35-57, we find instructions for mold remediation in ancient residential architecture. These instructions can be found in the same section that the Torah offers advice for skin conditions found on the body. Growing up Jewish in a culture of anxious cerebral disembodiment, I draw strength from this history of an embodied, vulnerable architecture. The text also includes instructions for a cohen, a priestess, to oversee both physical remediation of the home, scraping and replastering, as well psychic rebalancing, purifying the home for reinhabitation. In today’s world, it can be difficult to synthesize scientific and emotional truths, even when they need each other deeply, and personally I get nervous presenting these two sides of my work together, even here today, just a bit. As I chart a course for my work as an architect, I draw strength from the duality of the cohen’s traditional role in this ritual, embracing both technical and spiritual skillfulness in service to coexistence.

Where the Torah’s cleansing ritual uses the blood of a slain dove, we will use tapwater from the bathroom here at the museum. We will add to this the original cleansing materials called for, hyssop cedar and crimson, together with some of the cleaning products used in maintaining this building (name). Combined together, we draw in the atmosphere of this place (Invite volunteers to share their sentences) . In the original, we would then apply this mixture to the back of second, live dove and send the bird flying to carry the buildings disease away from our settlement. But today we are stronger and full of love, it is a time of greater opening to the seductions of ecology. Rather than work to extrude or banish what may have caused us difficulty, we will draw it in to our center, offering healing and care, celebrating our abundance, and honoring the restorative power of accumulation and fermentation within a sacred container. I return to the living water of Copenhagen, to take a sip and pass the glass to whoever may like to join.

Feel free to continue passing the glass as the next presentation begins. I will look for it in the audience or you may return it to me when we break for lunch.

Baruch atah adonoi elohanu melech Haolam asher notanu lanu mayim Chayim
Blessed are you g-dess (queen of the universe) who gives us living water"

Thank you.



a kit containing all four key sensor elements, to support others in developing microbial attunement practices
edition of 75


a surface water activity sensor to mork accurately pair common building science observations with the conditons that truly govern microbial growth (i.e. water acticity levels and not relative humidity)

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