It worked. They found that homes raised 1 meter attract 40 percent fewer mosquitoes. At 2 meters it was 68 percent less, and at 3 meters 84 percent less.
“I was surprised at how much of an impact they saw,” says Kelly Searle, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who did not participate in the study. Searle, who researched how building materials, like brick, mud, and metal, itself affects malaria transmission, says this level of reduction is convincing. “We see really strong evidence that housing can protect against malaria infection,” she says.
“It’s really important,” she continues, because bedding and insecticide sprays are not enough. “If we could have additional tools we can use to prevent malaria, that’s fantastic.”
Adopting this design for new homes or adaptations in real communities will be a challenge. “The number of people who will be affected [the academic studies] to actually change your home will be quite a bit, ”says Patrick Kelley, vice president of the Terwilliger Center for Innovation at the shelter at Habitat for Humanity International. It’s an obstacle – but it’s not insurmountable.
One way to widely change the growing population would be to build codes that local authorities could enforce. But the other would be a change in consumer behavior: people taste in houses that are being updated as they learn which design makes sense – for example, counter-intuitively large windows, but with screens. “I’m more optimistic about the way consumers behave, putting knowledge in people’s hands,” Kelley says. “There are ways to bring some of those messages into home decorating markets, where people go to buy wood – buy screening.”
Lindsay agrees. “The way architects think about change,” he says, “is to build something new and then get people to look at it and say, ‘Hey, that’s great!’ and copy it. “If locals see the appeal of these science-based designs, they’re more likely to build one too.
Okumu believes that design is a more sustainable way to combat malaria than the use of commercial products such as bed nets, insecticides and drugs. The goal is simple: to prevent mosquitoes from finding people. “Over the years, I’ve learned that we need to go back to the basic biology of the disease,” Okumu says. “And malaria is primarily a problem of poor housing and surface water.”
Lindsay is holding a large clinical trial in Tanzania called Star Homes Project, designed by team member Jakob Knudsen, a Danish architect, testing the resistance of two-story homes with walls made of breathable canvas fabric, inspired by design from Southeast Asia. The study will run for three years and will monitor the transmission of malaria among children living in 110 stars in 60 villages, compared to rates for others living in 440 traditional homes.
“They’re really really pretty,” Lindsay says.
Each house has bunk beds from the airy screen. The wind blows, exhales and exhales, and the mosquitoes are probably kept away. In the evening, the lights shine slightly through the transparent walls – and the house remains hidden from view.
More great WIRE stories