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Healthy Home Basics - Healthy House Construction

By HHI Staff

From The Healthy House Answer Book: Answers to the 133 most commonly asked questions. Questions 11-21.

 

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11. Are there any particular products that stand out as being serious indoor polluters?

 

Offenders include manufactured wood products, which give off a lot of formaldehyde, such as particle board and furniture-grade plywood. These materials are almost universally used in paneling and cabinetry.

 

Combustion appliances can be bothersome—if they aren’t totally sealed. This includes wood stoves, fireplaces, gas ranges, and many gas and oil hot water heaters and furnaces. They’re potentially dangerous because they can inadvertently introduce noxious gases such as carbon monoxide into the air you breathe. Eliminating these items will help to create a house that is considerably healthier than most homes. However, it may not be healthy enough for people who are more sensitive than average, or for people who want the best possible indoor air quality.

 

12. Do you have a particular set of guidelines you follow?

 

We advocate three healthy-house design principles. These are Eliminate pollutant sources by using healthier alternatives wherever possible, Separate from the living space any polluting materials you can’t completely eliminate, and Ventilate to remove stale, polluted air and bring in fresh air. Sometimes filtration is listed as a fourth design point, but it’s often combined with ventilation.

 

13. Won’t building a house out of adobe, rammed earth, or straw bales create a naturally healthy house by eliminating synthetic and man-made products?

 

It’s possible to build any type of home in a healthy manner. But, just because a house is constructed of natural materials doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. After all lead, radon, and asbestos are natural. Plus, houses that have poor ventilation, improper water drainage, or high indoor humidity can be very unhealthy—no matter what materials are used.

 

Our focus is on creating homes with healthy indoor air. Some of the most benign materials are natural, but others are man-made. So, whether you prefer back-to-nature or high-tech, you should still choose products carefully.

 

14. What if I’m chemically sensitive? How careful do I need to be?

 

The design and construction of your house should follow the three healthy-house design principles closely with an emphasis on eliminating as many potentially bothersome materials within the living space as feasible. Because everyone’s tolerance level and metabolism is different, you should test any questionable materials for personal tolerance. 

 

15. How do I perform tolerability testing?

 

If you’re very chemically sensitive, you should only do tolerability testing under your physician’s supervision. For people who are only moderately sensitive, an overnight bedside test can often be helpful. Here’s how we test paint.

 

Because all paints have an odor when wet, have someone else coat one side of a piece of aluminum foil (2-3' long) with a paint you believe you might tolerate. Write down the date and the brand, then set the sample aside in a little-used, well-ventilated room (or in an uncontaminated garage) until it seems to have lost its odor. Then lightly sniff the sample. If you detect any odor, set the sample aside for another week. When you can’t smell anything, place the sample next to your bed on the night stand near your head. If you sleep well through the night, the product is probably going to be tolerable. Keep in mind, that a small sample is not going to be as potent as a large wall. So, while this test is certainly not perfect, it’s often a very useful tolerability indicator.

 

16. How much does a healthy house cost?

 

There’s no precise figure as to how much a healthy house costs. It depends on the degree of healthfulness, the size (small houses are less costly that large ones), land values, labor costs, and the luxuriousness of the materials (marble floors vs. colored concrete). There’s really a considerable range in costs. Some people have built healthy houses for almost the same amount of money as unhealthy houses, but others have spent as much as 25% more than for a typical house.

 

17. I want a healthy house but I just don’t know if I can really afford one. What do you suggest?

 

We believe in downsizing, that is, building a slightly smaller home. That way, you can put your money into healthy materials and a good ventilation system rather than extra little-used square footage. If money is particularly tight, don’t worry about the materials used outdoors such as roofing and siding. Concentrate on the materials actually inside the living space.

 

Here’s something else to consider. If you build an unhealthy house, you may be spending extra money anyway—at the doctor's office. In choosing between the lesser of two evils, where would you rather have your money go—to a mortgage payment or toward medical expenses?

 

18. How do I find a designer or architect that can design a healthy house?

 

Currently, there’s no comprehensive national listing of healthy designers or architects. If you can’t find someone who understands healthy design, those who specialize in solar or energy-efficient projects are often receptive. Whoever you choose, he or she should be someone with whom you feel comfortable. We highly recommend giving your designer or architect some healthy-house books to familiarize them with the concepts.

 

19. How do I find a contractor to build a healthy house?

 

There isn’t an all-embracing listing of healthy-house builders either. We’ve found that custom builders, or those who enjoy remodeling work, are often receptive because they’re used to doing things differently on each project. Builders who specialize in energy-efficient construction are also good because they usually build to careful standards and are familiar with mechanical ventilation. Check with the Energy Efficient Building Association (www.eeba.org) to see if they have any members in your area.

 

Once your healthy house is under construction, it’s a good idea to place a sign in a conspicuous spot on the site that reads, “This home is being specially built to help ensure pristine indoor air quality. Therefore, do not smoke in or around the house, or use any product that hasn’t been specifically approved. Your understanding is much appreciated. Thank you.” You might hold a preconstruction meeting for everyone involved to explain the scope of the project. The more knowledge workers have, the better job they will do, and the healthier your house will be.

 

20. We’re in the middle of the construction process and my builder wants to use some unhealthy materials. What should I do?

 

You’re the one paying the bills, so you’re the boss. You have two choices: You can stick to your guns and tell him to use healthy materials, or cave in and let him build you an unhealthy house. In most cases, you should be able to work out a compromise. But in some instances, homeowners have found it necessary to fire their builder and have someone else complete the job. Of course, this can get into a legal and financial mess. The best thing is to have a detailed set of plans in the first place with everything spelled out as to what materials are to be used and how changes are handled once construction begins.

 

21. What part of the country is the best place in which to build a healthy house?

 

There aren’t many utopias anywhere in the world. However, virtually every state has some areas where the outdoor air is of reasonably good quality. When looking at a prospective building site, you’ll want to consider a number of factors. For example, what’s upwind of the area—chemically sprayed farm fields, busy highways, incinerators, smokestack industries, perhaps a sulfur-spewing volcano, etc.? Is the site on high or low land?

 

Higher land often has fewer drainage problems and better-quality air. Are there strong electromagnetic fields in the area from power substations, large transformers, or high-voltage power lines? How near are the neighbors, and what is their life-style? Do they routinely use wood stoves or lawn-chemical services? Does the site have an undesirable past? Perhaps it was a local landfill. Is the area known for extremely high radon readings? Is there any vegetation on the site that could be a problem—odorous creosote bushes, cedar trees, or pollen-bearing plants?

(Note: This article is part of the original HHI Archives, and was believed to be accurate at the time of writing. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)

 

HHI Error Correction Policy

HHI is committed to accuracy of content and correcting information that is incomplete or inaccurate. With our broad scope of coverage of healthful indoor environments, and desire to rapidly publish info to benefit the community, mistakes are inevitable. HHI has established an error correction policy to welcome corrections or enhancements to our information. Please help us improve the quality of our content by contacting allen@healthyhouseinstitute.com with corrections or suggestions for improvement. Each contact will receive a respectful reply.

The Healthy House Institute (HHI), a for-profit educational LLC, provides the information on HealthyHouseInstitute.com as a free service to the public. The intent is to disseminate accurate, verified and science-based information on creating healthy home environments.

 

While an effort is made to ensure the quality of the content and credibility of sources listed on this site, HHI provides no warranty - expressed or implied - and assumes no legal liability for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, product or process disclosed on or in conjunction with the site. The views and opinions of the authors or originators expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of HHI: its principals, executives, Board members, advisors or affiliates.

Healthy Home Basics - Healthy House Construction:  Created on February 1st, 2008.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011

 

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