CBS MarketWatch, Healthy Home Movement Gains Momentum
CHICAGO (CBS.MW) - The admonitions your parents gave you to "get out of the house and go play" may have been some of the best health advice you ever received. That's because the air inside our houses is probably worse than the smog outside.
"Indoor air quality is a growing concern not just among researchers, but among health officials and consumers as well," said Joseph Laquatra, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University. "Studies of air quality have indicated that indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air, with concentrations of some pollutants 100 times higher indoors."
Cornell is one of 16 universities and two business partners that form the National Consortium for Housing Research Centers, a group whose mission is to facilitate technological advancement in housing and construction.
"Indoor air management is becoming a new consumer skill. It should be included in homeownership courses," Laquatra said.
Indoor air quality has been a focus of study for more than a decade as it became apparent that energy-efficient homes and other tightly constructed buildings often did not properly account for ventilation needs. But the issue has come to the forefront recently as researchers noted an alarming increase in childhood asthma cases for which they have few explanations.
"We don't know if people are becoming weaker or if some new factors are exacerbating the problem," said Nadia Boschi, an architect and professor in the department of building construction at Virginia Tech.
"But we do know there is a proven relationship between dampness and respiratory infection. From a building point of view, the consensus is we need homes that are well ventilated, dry and clean," she said. "If the general public were more aware of the problems, they'd be more willing to look for homes built to healthy specifications."
The public is getting the message.
Because of interest in the topic from its 35 million readers, Better Homes and Gardens magazine is sponsoring construction of the Home for Healthy Living in Des Moines. The 2,900-square-foot Arts and Crafts style home will be a showcase of healthy building techniques and materials, said magazine editor Joan McCloskey.
"Every product we specified for the house was a healthy one, so much so that the builder decided to buy the house for himself because he has a child with asthma," she said.
The house will be constructed with vapor barriers and whole-house air and water filtration systems and will be finished with soy-based stains and low emission paints. It is scheduled to be completed this fall and will be featured in the magazine's November issue.
The Home for Healthy Living won't be the first healthy house demonstration project in the country. The American Lung Association built its own version in Minneapolis, from a design by LHB Eng. & Architects. The plans for the 2,200-square-foot Healthy House are for sale through Healthy Home Plans, which markets architect-designed home plans with blueprints and eco-specifications.
"It's a tough subject to deal with because you don't want to scare folks. But the home is a place where people can take control," said Linda Mason Hunter, the author who started the Healthy Home Plans Web site. A lot of what is "healthy" in houses are things human beings veer toward instinctively, she says, like "bathing a room in breezes and natural light."
Hunter has authored several books, including "The Healthy Home: An attic-to-basement guide to toxin-free living" published by Pocket Books and iUniverse. The book is a resource for those interested in home ecology, including topics such as hazardous household products, ergonomic furniture, soundproofing, safety and detecting carcinogens.
While healthy houses can mean quite different things to different people, the basic elements include eliminating construction products that could release pollutants, sealing off components such as insulation and subfloors that cannot be made toxin-free and properly ventilating the structure. Building a house that is energy efficient is a tenet of some healthy building programs.
"We differ from the green-building movement in that our focus is on human health, rather than planetary health. Both are important environmental issues and they are, in fact, often compatible -- but not always," said John Brower, who with his wife Lynn founded the Healthy House Institute in 1992.
The institute is a resource center offering books and videos for designers, architects, contractors and homeowners interested in making houses healthy places in which to live, he said.
Homebuilders recognize the potential indoor air dangers and have joined, through the National Association of Home Builders Resource Center, in the academic efforts to study the problem. But leaders in the residential construction industry admit that getting builders to accept innovative techniques, such as those that healthy home guidelines call for, can be difficult.
"Housing innovations generally take too long to get accepted into practice. I think builders are willing to try out new technologies, but they often don't know about them or how they will work," said Charlie Ruma, a past president of the National Association of Home Builders who works with the NAHB Research Center.
Among the culprits making our homes unhealthy: wall-to-wall carpeting, resilient floor coverings and synthetic wall-coverings with the potential to release volatile organic compounds; manufactured wood products capable of releasing high levels of formaldehyde; and paints, caulking and sealants that can irritate chemically sensitive people.
Other sore spots: pollen, dust, bacteria, viruses, pet dander, mold spores and mildew.
"Americans spend an average of 65 percent of their time at home, in what is usually viewed as a safe haven. However, growing evidence suggests that some homes may be detrimental to the health of their occupants," says Health House Rx, another Web-based resource for homeowners and builders.
To help people understand how a house functions, Health House Rx offers a primer called Building Science Basics. It is available for consumers at the Health House Website or by calling 1-877-521-1491.
Homeowners can also check the American Indoor Air Quality Council, which was formed in 1998 and has already grown to more than 500 members with 23 corporate sponsors. The council offers certifications for indoor air quality professionals, indoor air quality technicians and microbial remediation specialists.
Plus, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service have developed a national consumer education program concerned with improving the quality of indoor air in homes. The project helps provide awareness of indoor air quality issues associated with remodeling and household products. Read the brochure: Indoor Air Hazards Every Homeowner Should Know About.
Steve Kerch is the real estate editor of CBS.MarketWatch.com in Chicago.