What lies beneath? Making your home healthier through #green #building

by Robin Rogers LEED AP, GACP

Beneath the veneer of many newly crafted homes and crusty old dwellings, hidden dangers often lurk, undetected, in the folds of our daily lives, including icky biological stuff such as mold and dust mites and scary chemicals like invisible radon gas, volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde. Homeowners Bryan and Tricia Smith uncovered such villains after a remodeling project in their former Yakima, Wash., home. It prompted a voyage of discovery into the world of materials, systems and diet — and the creation of a new home built “green” from the ground up.

Health Triggers

Six million households live with physical housing problems, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Issues include allergens such as paint fumes, dust mites, mold and formaldehyde. These offenders can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses or allergies in the 23 million asthma sufferers in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that indoor air can be more-seriously polluted than outdoor air. Considering that most Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors — and 60 percent of that time in homes — the risks to health may be greater indoors than outdoors. Children are particularly susceptible to housing‐related illnesses.

The Smith family of Selah, Wash., experienced these issues firsthand. After remodeling an older home, asthma and related problems emerged in their younger children. The issues motivated the parents, Tricia and Bryan, to conduct research. “It was like a snowball effect that seemed overwhelming at times,” Tricia Smith says. They discovered that a toxin-free home environment could help eliminate the triggers to respiratory problems. The prime causal suspects were various chemicals used in the remodel, especially the coating used to refurbish an old bathtub.

Consultations with a physician reinforced their resolve to create a healthier environment and amend their dietary routines using naturopathic principles as a guide. Bryan Smith admits that he was skeptical at first, but what he thought was anecdotal evidence produced marked improvements as they made diet and environment changes. “We started with a goal to provide a safe environment where the kids could thrive,” Bryan Smith says, “but hadn’t labeled it ’green’ yet.”

Building a Healthy Home

Working with the Steve Weise Co., the Smiths focused on indoor air quality, but they also wanted the project to achieve overall sustainability in its site development, energy and water use.  Weise was a true advocate for their needs as he kept an eye on the end goal of building a healthier home while maneuvering through the competing interests of quality versus budget choices.

Sustainability consultant Brenda Nunes, of the Sustainability Foundation, played a key role in guiding materials selection. As the developer of a Built Green 5-Star level home in Roslyn, Wash., Nunes understood the challenges and opportunities as they related to green trends, choices and budgets.

Sustainable Materials

Products selected conformed to ultra-low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including no-VOC paint, non-toxic floor finishes, and zero carpeting. These choices contribute to a safer, healthier, virtually odorless home. According to the EPA, VOCs are responsible for a new home “smell” and can trigger many adverse health symptoms, including asthma and cancer, so the Smiths wanted to eliminate odors.

Another common health trigger is urea-formaldehyde, a carcinogen typically found in the glues that hold together pressed wood products and fiberglass insulation. Weise installed alternatives such as formaldehyde-free insulation, plywood, cabinetry, subflooring and roof sheathing.

Locally available sustainable and health-focused materials such as salvaged wood flooring were also used. These hard surfaces don’t harbor dust, dirt and mites the way carpeting does, and they are finished with low-VOC coatings. They are easily cleaned with the central vacuum system and soap-and-water solutions.

Other durable materials that are easy to maintain without toxic chemicals were included such as recycled-content tile, concrete countertops, 50-year siding and 50-year roofing. The cork flooring upstairs is made from the harvested bark of cork oak trees that naturally renews every nine years — without killing the tree.

Robin Rogers LEED AP, GACP
Robin Rogers, LEED AP, GACP, is an architectural designer currently designing a sustainable community (www.rocktopliving.net) with builder Steve Weise near Yakima, Wash. She runs Solaripedia, (www.solaripedia.com), a website devoted to designing and building sustainably. For more information on the Smith’s home, visitwww.healthyhomeinthevalley.com.

Author’s Acknowledgment: Cheryl Isen, president of Isen and Co., (www.isenandco.com), also contributed to this article.

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