Of Homes and Health

New building trend pushes the idea of healthy homes

By Stephen Drinkard

In 1809, when explorer David Thompson built the first shelter by a white man in this region, he constructed his cabin on the Hope Peninsula with materials at hand -- logs, clay and animal parchment -- and he did so with complete freedom. This same mythos of frontier freedom brought many of us to Bonner County to build homes and dreams.

However, in the early 1970s various forces began to reshape building philosophies. Our former boundless sources of materials and energy were shown to be finite, and the markets reflected that with steep increases in the costs of building and heating homes. Our natural reaction was to build very energy efficient houses -- which, in turn, is having the effect of making our homes, and lives, less healthy.

Urged on by the problems associated with the very airtight, energy-efficient home, and by rising concerns with environmental and personal health, some local architects and builders are re-thinking their concepts of building.

Bonner County building inspector Bob Garrison says his office often gets complaints from owners of super tight homes of mold in their walls, windows that sweat, stale air and the fact they can't seem to get rid of colds.

"We go out and do an air exchange test on their house and usually find that they are not getting the required 2.8 air exchanges per hour," Garrison said. "They are breathing stale, sometimes poisonous air." The problem was exacerbated, says Garrison, when the former board of county commissioners repealed the Northwest Energy Code for Bonner County, doing so in the spirit of reducing government regulation.

Now, people are still building very tight houses to conserve energy, but they are foregoing the relatively expensive air exchange systems the code formerly required. Their new houses can't "breathe."

When Brent Baker of Baker Construction arrived in Bonner County in the '70s, he built his own family's energy-efficient house using a modified passive solar and earth berm design. More lately, however, he has begun to pay attention to reports of "sick buildings". He also began studying the works of Utah architect Dale Bates and the concept of "healthy architecture."

Baker is currently finishing a "healthy house" designed by Bates for Sandra and David Teed near Jewel Lake. Sandra is a nutritionist and David is a psychotherapist; health is paramount to both.

The "healthy architecture" concept encompasses a broad range of ideas, but has four important components:

-The shell of the house, while being highly insulated, must breathe. Fresh air has to come in and stale air go out. In the Teed home, Baker used Faswall block in construction of the walls. Similar in shape to regular concrete block, the Faswall block is made out of recycled wooden shipping pallets and cement.

-The builder and designer must minimize "outgasing" of chemicals in man-made materials. The varnishes, paints, lacquers, adhesives, vinyls, carpets and particle board used in house construction all give out minute amounts of chemicals, including formaldehyde.

-The air in the house should be ionized -- that is, have the same kind of negative charge that waterfalls or ocean waves impart to the ions in the air. While this concept still strikes many as `new age' nonsense, the truth of it is as old as the winds. People feel happy near moving water. But when the warm Santa Ana winds blow in southern California, people feel agitated and irritable. A similar situation happens in a house heated by a forced air furnace or any other non-radiant heat source: ionized atoms are depleted. The alternative? "Radiant heat," says Baker.

- Also controversial is the idea that the house should be built to mitigate electromagnetic radiation from, for example, the conventional "circle" of electrical outlets in a bedroom. Some studies have linked EMR to various ailments, including cancer, although the connection is by no means accepted. But Baker says absolute proof of a health hazard should err on the side of caution. "In Europe, they assume that if there is significant anecdotal information about a dangerous practice it should be discontinued until it can be proven it is not dangerous," he points out.

Another "healthy home" underway locally is being built by architect Bruce Millard of Architects Studio, and colleagues Brent Lockwood and Norm Sommerfeld of The Home Crafters. Millard was commissioned by Jerry and Judy Chittick to design a 1600-square-foot house on Glengary Bay. "Part of the reason they got really interested in what I had to say about the design of a healthy house is that Judy works in the health profession and she sees the consequences of ill health," said Millard.

Millard grew up in Philadelphia during the '60s and '70s, and as an aspiring architect worked passionately for energy conservation. "Given the world situation and the political climate it was encouraging to save energy," he said. "In retrospect, it was inevitably a single-minded focus."

People have started to think more holistically about energy and the environment, according to Millard. He believes we must now think not in the short term of how cheap or pretty or convenient something is, but more broadly about the effects on our energy resources, our external environment and on the environments within our houses.

The adhesives most often used to glue down countertops, flooring and bath/wall panels outgas forever. Vinyls, because they are made of petro-chemicals, also continue to outgas. "Go into a vinyl store," says Millard, "and smell the samples; what you smell there does not go away. You breath it." Conventional carpets not only outgas petrochemicals but harbor dust and dust mites, "little creatures, which, like all of us animals, excrete waste matter." Moreover, carpets absorb and hold the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are given off when we paint. At least, in the matter of paints, when they are fully cured, their outgasing effectively ceases.

People have different thresholds of response to toxins; some are simply more sensitive than others. For example, some people are able to paint in their home without any ills effects; for others the task weakens their health. Just this winter a friend of Millard's ignored warnings about paints when he and his wife painted an upstairs bedroom, cracking the window just a bit. Both developed headaches, along with colds that lingered a couple of weeks afterwards.

This kind of anecdotal information has some people making different choices when they buld their homes. With advice from Bruce Millard, Leanore Bittner, who recently moved into her pyramid-shaped house near Dufort Road, chose non-toxic, recycled materials to build her floors and countertops. "I tend to be scientific in my approach to life; it would be hard to prove, say, that vinyl outgassing causes this or that," she said. "But I think it logical to assume the outgassing from all these man-made toxins combined could compromise our immune system, sooner for some of us, later for others."

Alternative materials cost from 5 to 15 percent more in the short run. But as more people ask for healthier materials, prices will drop. Such materials include linoleum, a completely natural and beautiful product, rather than vinyl; beeswax or resin finishes instead of polyurthenes; sustainable cork floors and grass carpets and rugs instead of plastic carpets; breathable rather than impervious wall materials; as well as formaldehyde-free particle board, low VOC paints and lumber constructed from recyclable wastes.

Millard observed an irony in the migration of people from the big cities to Bonner County, who often come for a healthier environment and cleaner air. But because they have to stay inside more during the winter months in their tight houses, their indoor air quality may be worse than that which they fled.

They still can do as David Thompson did. There is some room left to punch another hole in the forest and build with the natural materials harvested on-site.

But the BTU-rich, old-growth tamarack for our stoves is declining. Alternative energy sources aren't cheap. And we all have become addicted to comfort, convenience and low energy costs. If then we still want to build our houses as we see fit and not have them possibly hurt us, we should be paying a lot more attention to the materials from our dreams are made.

Stephen Drinkard is a local writer who saws and hammers a lot. He recently completed his masterwork, a bathroom.

Back to Contents Page -- 1996 Summer Sandpoint Magazine