Top Ten Principles of Building a Healthy House – Part One

The current big trend in architecture these days is “green”. It seems as though everything is going green. And that’s not a bad thing, but what has gotten lost in the stampede is the fact that the foundation of green architecture was the healthy building movement. Certainly, green architecture systems like LEED include for healthy design strategies, but it is not weighed very heavily. LEED is more oriented towards reducing the impact of the construction process on the environment. If you want to build a healthy house, there is a better and easier way to do it than by simply incorporating LEED strategies into your design. Now I’m not suggesting LEED strategies are bad, but LEED in itself will not guarantee a healthy house. Before LEED became popular, I learned the principles of healthy construction and built a healthy house for myself. Here are my top ten principles of building a healthy home:

Principle #1: Build it Air-tight, Well Insulated and Properly Ventilated.

A healthy airtight house may seem like a contradiction. Don’t we want to get the bad indoor air out and breathe healthy fresh outdoor air? Not really. What we want to do is create good indoor air, and also bring fresh outdoor air inside. By using the right building materials inside the house, indoor air quality is dramatically improved, and indeed in most locations it will be much less polluted than the outdoor air. A well insulated, airtight house is highly energy efficient and less costly to heat and cool than a conventional house, and also has the added benefit of being healthier when constantly ventilated with heat recovery ventilator (or heat exchanger) which extracts the heat/cold from outgoing stale air and uses it to heat/cool the incoming fresh air. The result is a proven win-win method and double whammy of healthy construction and energy efficiency.

Principle #2: Be Committed

No amount of researching, thinking and dreaming about your healthy house will be of any use if you don’t commit yourself to following through with your dream and maintaining your principles. Either decide to do it, or don’t. And if you do, then make a pact with yourself to do it wholeheartedly and with passion. Doubt will creep in, due to the many naysayers who will say you are wasting your time or that it’s not worth the cost. Be strong and consider yourself an ambassador, freely giving your knowledge and teaching others about healthy house building. And use the opportunity to educate your contractors by making them aware of the impact building materials and construction methods can have on personal health. Stay committed by convincing yourself at the outset that building a healthy house is worth the effort.

Principle #3: Separate Interior Building Materials from Exterior Materials.

The construction materials that will have the most impact on your health are the ones you will use in the interior of your house. The potential health effects from off-gassing chemicals, and material sensitivities will be most evident in the interior. Quite simply, you will need to follow a higher standard in your selection of interior materials and finishes; on the other hand using conventional materials on the exterior of the house will in most cases be quite acceptable.

Principle #4: Use Good Design Methods to Eliminate Potential Mold Growth.

Mold is the enemy, and mold requires moisture to grow, so eliminate all unwanted sources of moisture. Proper design and construction techniques will ensure there is no chance for mold growth anywhere in the house. Firstly, make sure there is there is no condensation of moisture on interior surfaces due to excessive humidity, lack of ventilation, or low temperature by following Principle #1: “Build it Air-tight, Well Insulated and Properly Ventilated”. Secondly, make sure that water is not allowed to infiltrate the house from the outside, e.g. from a leaking roof or a cracked basement. Thirdly, deal with and repair any water leakage, e.g. from a broken pipe or a flood as quickly as possible.

Principle #5: Know Your Limits

Perfection isn’t possible and you will have to make compromises. There will likely be occasions where either the cost or practicality of 100% perfection is unnecessary or impossible. Accept this beforehand, but know your limits because a bad decision could inadvertently negate the benefit achieved from all the other decisions. To do this, prioritize the areas where you want to maximize results and investigate options for making improvements over conventional construction where perfection is not possible.

In my next post, I will discuss the remaining five of my Top Ten Principles of Building a Healthy House which will include:

  • Use Non-Toxic methods of Pest Control,
  • Eliminate Carpeting,
  • No VOC Off-Gassing Materials,
  • Design your kitchen cabinetry wisely,
  • Use Radon Resistant Construction Techniques.

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