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Building Healthy Houses

By HHI Staff

Since we, as Americans, spend 90% of our time indoors, the indoor environment should be of primary concern to us. Unfortunately, the indoor air of our homes is often making us sick.


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I became involved in non-toxic house construction after my wife became sensitized to a wide range of modern products. We had rebuilt an old Federal style house that was originally constructed about 1850. Since we were living in the house while we did the work, she was continually exposed to the outgassing of the new underlayment, carpet, vinyl, insulation, paint, etc. Outgassing refers to the volatile compounds given off by modern synthetic materials.


[We believe] as a result of this exposure, she can no longer tolerate such things as synthetic clothing, fragrances, combustion gases, most plastics, and printing ink. Her sensitivities are so acute that after I return home from town, I must wash my clothes and take a shower to remove any odors that I have picked up. Her symptoms include inflamed sinuses, stomach and kidney problems, breathing difficulties and muscle soreness. Virtually every system in her body can be affected depending on the particular substance she is exposed to.


Unfortunately, there are thousands of people around the country who have developed similar sensitivities. Often, they have related their health complaints directly to their house. Over 500 different volatile chemicals have been identified as being emitted by modern building materials. We now know something about the major polluters like formaldehyde, but very little about the many other gases that fill our homes. The concentration of these chemicals will decrease as these materials age, but often the damage to one's immune system is done early in the outgassing period, soon after the materials are installed.


Builders use these products every day and during installation workers experience higher exposure levels than homeowners. Therefore, builders run the risk of damaging their own health as a result of this exposure. There can also be the risk of a lawsuit if a house makes an occupant sick. Sadly, many builders are less frightened of ill health than of being sued.


So, what can be done? To build a house my wife could tolerate, I had to do quite a few things differently. If only a few of these changes are incorporated in conventional housing, the indoor air quality will substantially improve. At present, the indoor air in our houses is almost always worse than the outdoor air. Even in major cities it can be 10 times as bad. This must change, and it certainly can.


Man-made wood products are to be avoided because of their formaldehyde emissions. Medium density fiberboard is undoubtedly much worse than exterior grade plywood because it uses a more volatile glue. For sensitive people, even hardboard must be avoided even though it releases very little formaldehyde.


Studies in Canada have shown that backdrafting and spillage are actually quite common occurrences with combustion appliances. While most of the time, the combustion gases do go up the chimney, they can easily come down in certain situations, such as when a high speed range hood is turned on. The gas range is by far more polluting than any other appliance and a very powerful ducted range hood is always recommended, yet when it is turned on it can pull the furnace's fumes down the chimney and into the living space. The modern high efficiency furnaces with sealed combustion chambers help to eliminate this problem.


The houses that I have built do not use any of these products. In addition, caulks, paints, adhesives, etc. are chosen with extreme care, and their use is limited wherever possible.


One of the early decisions that I made in designing our house was to build an extremely airtight structure with a controlled fresh air supply. In this way, the air entering the house could be filtered if necessary. Instead of a filter system, we have found that all we need to do is turn the air supply off when there is a pollution problem outdoors. Our heat recovery ventilator is designed to change the indoor air every hour, but we only need to run it about 6 hours a day to keep the indoor air fresh.


Less fresh air is needed because extreme care was taken in selecting building materials to be used within the living space. All of the floors are covered with ceramic tile. The kitchen and bath cabinets are custom built of solid wood, rather than veneered particle board. All of the interior woodwork and doors are made of tulip poplar, a native hardwood. We chose this over pine because sensitive people often react to the natural aroma of softwoods. The kitchen countertops are stainless steel, and the panels around the bathtub are porcelainized steel. Specially made finishes were used, and even though they were designed for sensitive people, they required a couple of months to outgas before we could move into the house.


It is more important to construct the interior with non-toxic materials, than the exterior, since the roofing and siding don't outgas into the living space (unless a window is open). In our case, we decided to choose inert materials wherever we could. Metal siding and roofing were selected because they have baked on finishes that have minimal outgassing characteristics. Triple glazed aluminum framed windows, with thermal breaks were used as were insulated steel exterior doors. The insulation in the doors could pose a problem if it was directly exposed to the interior of the house, but the steel skin provides an excellent barrier.


One of the things that I did that deviates the most from standard residential construction was to use a steel frame. The main reason for this was to avoid the use of toxic termite treatments. After hearing some of the horror stories related to residents being poisoned by these chemicals, I wanted no part of them.


Many builders are familiar with steel drywall studs. Load bearing studs are readily available also, but they aren't often used because they cost about two and a half times as much as wood studs. When you consider that the steel studs can be placed on 24" centers, and you eliminate the termiticides, the total cost will be comparable. I had a house under construction with steel studs and a wood roof system. (The subterranean termites in our part of the country can't get up into a roof very easily.) The framing package for this 1200 sq. ft. house was about $400 more than if I had built entirely with wood. That is about the cost of treating for termites.


I haven't found any insulations that are totally non-toxic, but by having a well sealed house, the insulation can't contaminate the inside air. I chose fiberglass because of availability and cost. For sensitive people, I don't find cellulose any better than fiberglass from a health standpoint. Insulation seems to be a bigger problem for installers than homeowners, and I always wear a quality, tight fitting mask and long sleeves whenever I work with it. Worker protection is easy to do. Remember, you're worth it.


I use superinsulated walls 10 1/2" thick and the ceiling contains 12" of insulation. This is well sealed behind foil-backed drywall to keep particles and gases from entering the living space. Extra care is taken to seal around electrical boxes, windows, doors, etc.


Since combustion gases are a problem for sensitive people, even in extremely small amounts, electric heat was mandatory. It seemed to me more cost effective to use a lot of insulation and baseboard heaters than a more expensive heat pump. Our heating bill is around $200 per year. I know of heat pump installations that require that much in annual maintenance costs.


We decided on ceramic tile for all the floors because it is so inert. Hardwood would have been our second choice, but ceramic tile on a concrete slab actually was less costly, and we are very happy with its appearance. Of course, we didn't choose an expensive tile. In fact we bought seconds. The minor imperfections aren't noticeable and at a dollar a sq. ft. the material was cheaper than carpet. One thing to keep in mind about a concrete slab-on-grade is that it must be kept warm and dry in order to minimize the chance of mold growth on the floor. We used poly under the slab and extruded polystyrene around the perimeter and for 6' under the edges. These materials are separated from the living space by 4" of concrete so they can't outgas into the house. I don't like the idea of using extruded polystyrene because of what it does to the ozone layer, but the only other insulation that can be used in contact with ground moisture is glass foam which costs 2 or 3 times as much at a lower Rvalue. I know that glass foam would have been a better ecological choice, but cost was a definite factor.


I worked by myself, with no employees, because of the freedom it gave me. I built this type of house for about $60 a sq. ft. (excluding land) and made a profit at it. Other custom built houses in our area sold for between $50 and $55, so the cost wasn't tremendously more. The insulation package alone would seem to justify the increased expense. I can't say what the price would be for a builder with a full crew, but the cost of a house goes far beyond the mortgage payment. It includes lost productivity and time off from work due to illness that is caused by the house. It also includes the cost of a doctor and medication. This can easily exceed the mortgage payment. In choosing the lesser of two evils, I suspect that most people would rather pay a little extra to the bank each month than to the doctor.


I'll be the first to admit that the houses I built were extreme. Fortunately, few people require such a pristine indoor atmosphere. On the other hand, most people don't deserve to breathe the poor quality air that is presently found in most houses. If only some of the techniques that I have employed are incorporated in house designs, the indoor air quality will definitely improve. As builders, we are unnecessarily exposing ourselves and our clients to a variety of noxious substances often because we don't believe that homebuyers will pay for a healthy house. In a recent survey, 50% of consumers said that they would pay extra for organically raised food because of its health benefits. If we start educating clients about the dangers of conventional construction, I suspect that many of them will be willing to spend a little more.

Selecting Materials

There are certainly ways to use products that are less polluting. There are sealants that can be used with particle board and high efficiency gas furnaces are relatively non-polluting, but it may be more cost effective to use something else.


The next most important thing to do is use materials that have little or no odor. However, this is very subjective, since we all have different thresholds for different smells. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and research laboratories actually test materials for their particular outgassing characteristics. Once this type of information is readily available for all products, it will be easy to look at a list and pick the least noxious materials. Unfortunately, today there is no systematic testing of all materials. It is only being done on a few products.


As a builder, I wear a mask that contains activated carbon whenever I use a potentially toxic building material. Every construction crew should carry a couple of large fans in their truck to bring fresh air into a house as it is closed up. Skin protection is also important with such things as fiberglass insulation. Hearing protectors are recommended when using many power tools.


After researching most commonly used construction materials, I have found that there are negative health effects associated with virtually everything. The effects can be minor or major, immediate or delayed. It doesn't matter if only one person out of a hundred thousand is affected, if that one person is you or your client it is a big deal.


Fortunately, there are alternative less toxic materials available to replace most of the commonly used ones. Less polluting paints and drywall compounds are sold. Some are imported from West Germany, and others are manufactured in this country. Cost isn't always out of line. As they are used by more builders, they will begin to be stocked locally. In the meantime, a little extra planning is required to have materials when you need them.


(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)




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Building Healthy Houses:  Created on March 31st, 2007.  Last Modified on December 19th, 2013


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