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Building a Healthy Home

by Loren E. Abraham
February 1997

[Editor's Note: this was a post in response to someone building a "environmentally safe house from the ground up" in New Mexico.]

Anyone contemplating a building project should seek the help of a qualified design professional with demonstrated experience in designing for their particular needs (e.g., MCS, allergies, accessibility, etc.) or at the least a willingness to research the best current knowledge and practice in these areas.

As a licensed architect and researcher who has specialized in environmental research and "green building" strategies for the past 10 years, I will attempt to provide a few bits of information and a number of pointers to more information regarding this request for information. Sorry for this rather loosely connected collection of thoughts. (Just a few things off the top of my head really). A complete answer to all your questions would take a substantial amount of bandwidth, but I will try to be as "to the point" as possible. I am also cross posting this to another list (hope you don't mind).

Question: I've ordered "Healthy House Building" by John Bower.

This will give your designer and builder good information if they follow it. Some one knowledgeable will have to "review, observe and enforce" or you may not get what you expect.

Question: Is a well vented propane furnace putting out radiant heat an "environmentally safe" option?

Yes, provided there are no windows or air intake vents located near the exhaust (flue) vent for the furnace. Some of the propane will not completely combust and you do not want to breathe the other exhaust constituents either. Make sure that the furnace flue vents to the side of the building away from the prevailing winds during the heating season if possible. What about the AC side of the equation. I assume it is electric and forced air, but you will need to look carefully at the air makeup and filtration systems if you are very sensitive to a lot of things.

Question: I need suggestions for building materials.

This is where the discussion could get really long winded. In a nutshell:

Be prepared to spend more for everything.

Stay away from carpet. Use hardwood floors - beeswax finish. Ceramic Tile and quarry tile also is good - no bright colors as they are mostly glazed with toxic metal containing glazes. [Addendum 1/26/98: The comment about brightly colored glazed tile is not related to any indoor air quality or exposure to toxic materials per se, it is about environmental impacts related to the manufacture of materials; and so it is not necessarily germane to the topic being addressed. However, I believe we should all be concerned about these external environmental issues as well. It is widely believed (and there appears to strong evidence that) the increasing incidence of MCS, CFIDS (or CFS), asthma, certain autoimmune diseases and various other health problems is connected to pervasive exposure to toxic materials used in the manufacture of products, overuse of antibiotics, and environmental damage due to the ubiquitous use of pesticides and herbicides on food crops, and reckless releases of toxic materials into the environment.]

Use non VOC paints...I recommend AFM (San Diego) which are formulated specifically for chemically sensitive people. If you can't get them try Miller Paints. Both are better for YOU than Glidden (Spreadmaster 2000) or Benjamin Moore (Pristine).

Insulation is difficult, but you should stay away from foam and fiberglass. Try blown-in cellulose, or airkrete. Plaster interior walls will be more serviceable, durable and dust free than drywall (but they cost more). Avoid vinyl wall coverings and flooring.

Have your contractor use neoprene or EPDM gaskets if possible instead of liquid sealants (caulk) where necessary use water based acrylic caulking. [Addendum 1/26/98: It is important to note that there is an increasing incidence of sensitivity to latex (usually airborne particles). Anyone who has or believes they may have this sensitivity should avoid using latex caulk or paints. Instead they should use silicone caulk and low VOC water based urethane paints (also available from AFM).]

Include a whole house ventilation system combined with a heat exchanger and standard as well as HEPA air filtration. This is important since you are using a radiant heating system, if your house is adequately sealed to prevent infiltration, you will quickly find your air quality saturated with pollutants. This system can also be coupled with an AC unit and used to provide the air conditioned air in summer. If you are sensitive to ragweed and pollen you will need to be able to close up the house during certain times of the year.

VERY IMPORTANT: After construction is complete - everything caulked and painted - allow the house to air out for at least 2-3 weeks (preferrably 4 weeks) with all windows open and fans running. Most building materials when newly installed, off gas various VOCs, and other chemicals. This airing out period will allow much of these pollutants to off gas and be vented away before you move in. In addition they will be less likely to adsorb into and onto the interior surfaces and off gas later.

Before you buy, try the materials...hold them ...smell them. If they smell bad or just feel uncomfortable, try something else. Believe me if it bothers you while your just holding it for a few moments, it may very well become intolerable over time.

Ask the manufacturers for an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). Research the toxic constituents listed in the MSDS. You can look these up in the Lewis, Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference, 3rd Edition, 1993, Van Nostrand Rheinhold which contains detailed toxicity info on over 5,600 chemicals. There are also web sites where you can seek this info. For information on interpreting data see Leclaire and Rousseau below.

Use good design sense. Avoid lots of horizontal surfaces (shelves and cabinet tops), they collect dust. Use cabinets instead of shelves all th way to the ceiling. Build in furniture as much as possible. Have everything finished before it is brought to the site. Introduce lots of DAYLIGHT. Use plenty of windows which open to take advantage of natural ventilation (high ones out of reach can have electric operators). South windows need adequate overhangs and trees for shade. Use energy efficient low maintenence windows (look for the NFRC label) Andersen and Pella low-e casements are the best. Introduce water sounds into your garden (but not inside the house). High ceilings and open spaces will allow for better ventilation and a less enclosed feeling (lofty spaces for lofty thoughts).

Use common sense avoid treated anything; AVOID FORMALDEHYDE .. glues, fillers preservatives .. all with non-formaldehyde constituents (e.g., medite particle board). Use solid wood and water based acrylic finishes where needed. Ask for NO additives in the concrete mix.. they are not really necessary, no matter what anyone tells you ...and they ARE toxic.

Avoid asphalt, creosote, urethanes, and lay-in acoustical tile ceilings. Specify exterior grade plywood (contains less formaldehyde than interior grade plwd), lead free solder. Use ground cover rather than maintenance lawn. Use indiginous plants and refrain from pesticides and fertilizers. If you install a swimming pool, consider ioized water treatment rather than chemicals. Install a horizontal axis washing machine (requires 1/4 as much detergent).

For more info, check out the following web resources (in no particular order):

Here is a short list of recommended reading:

Well I hope this gives you something to do for a week or so.

Regards and happy wood butchering!

Loren E. Abraham, AIA, IDSA
President - DTI/ERG
912 St Charles Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22901
Vc: 804 296 4197 Pg: 804 963 1511 Fax: 804 971 3729
1997 Daybreak Technologies Inc. / Environmental Research Group
I currently provide consultation services in this area at a reasonable hourly rate, can provide names of satisfied clients, and would be happy to discuss a particular project with anyone who is in need of this expertise.

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