Renovating is always a chance for improvement: Creating a bigger, better, more adequate space for your family or workplace. But how do you create a healthy indoor environment while satisfying your other needs? But how do you also create a healthy indoor environment?
The World Health Organisation has stated, that 75 % of all diseases are caused by environmental factors, and considering the disproportionate amount of time we spend indoors, it becomes evident that our home or office can be a cause for many diseases if not renovated with environmental concerns in mind. It is also worth mentioning, that pollution standards, as they exist for workplaces, do not exist for private homes. As a result, we may find considerable concentrations of pollutants indoors. As a Building Biologist, I have to give priority to the health and wellbeing of my clients, a building is more than a collection of spatial functions, it is the space in which most of our living takes place.
Renovation is therefore a chance to heal your home, a ‘Renovation Therapy’. Let me mention a few central considerations for renovating, with your health and the health of the planet in mind, - knowing that this topic would fill volumes, if addressed in depth.
We have come a long way from the times, when English immigrants built their homes facing South, because they were used to it from the northern hemisphere. Still, many relatively new homes are built with the shape of the block in mind, not the position of the sun. The current move towards an energy rating of new homes is a great way to go, as it forces us to plan passive solar designs. Large windows and living rooms should be facing north, small windows and utility rooms facing south. Consider also the thermal storage capability of different materials, clerestory windows, insulation (see below), efficient heating, ceiling height, to name but a few of the many interacting factors, determining the energy efficiency of a building.
On some small blocks solar efficiency will be difficult to achieve, and developers of subdivisions will have to consider their planning, as well.
Many books are available on this issue, and even project home builders have specialised in solar design. It has moved from the ‘alternative fringe’ into mainstream building practices.
Natural Materials vs. Synthetics
Most people think, that the more natural the building materials are, the better it is for them. This is not the case, if you are allergic to dust mites, for example. Some people have unfortunately become allergic to natural materials or the microscopic life forms, which may inhabit them. Most of us, however, can enjoy the unique beauty of timber and the warmth of natural materials with all the benefits they have ahead of synthetics.
Wood is a renewable resource (provided you stay away from rainforest timber) and has minimal environmental impact during production. Timber frame building has a long tradition in Australia; it is cheap and simple to do.
Particleboard floors have become a cheap alternative to solid timber, but they contain high levels of formaldehyde, which is an aggressive gas that can be emitted for up to 20 years. Particleboard has been declared illegal for indoor use in the USA, and Europe also follows strict standards. I suggest using solid timber, until adequate standards have been developed in Australia.
A brief note about termites, the arch enemy of any timber construction: Chemical barrier spraying is now fortunately illegal in Western Australia, and in New South Wales we have a variety of options (Thermi-Mesh, Granit-Guard, or structural precautions) to choose from, just ask your builder or phone the Housing Industry Association. It does not appear to make a lot of sense to have a healthy timber home and to poison the ground around and below it for its protection. In Sydney, we are fortunate enough to have an environmentally aware pest inspection company, who have been fighting pests successfully for many years without the indiscriminate use of highly toxic substances.
Brick is also a natural material and has low maintenance requirements. Many different types are available, and if you don’t like the look: Go with the trend and render your home.
A relatively new material is autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC), which is traded as very light blocks or panels, and can be cut with a saw, if needed. AAC offers superior insulation, fire resistance and soundproofing. It is a good example of a man-made building material that is worth considering from a health point of view.
A common factor in the above-mentioned building materials is that the walls naturally breathe. I refer to this as the ‘third skin’. Our ‘second skin’ is the clothes we wear. While we don’t consider wearing a plastic bag, we happily paint our houses with impenetrable layers of paint. Breathing walls filter and cleanse the air and prevent mould by reducing condensation.
Moulds and biotoxins appear to be on the increase and should not be underestimated in their impact. Mould and yeast (e.g. Candida albicans) spores pose a constant threat to our health and put stress on the immune system. Some species even are deadly. A laboratory can determine your exposure quite easily and countermeasures can be taken. However, it is best to reduce the chance of mould growth by carefully designing your building in the first place. Good drainage and damp proofing are essential, and the use of ‘breathing’ materials is an important consideration. Other factors, like poor ventilation or the use of un-flued gas heating (illegal in most countries because of the pollution is causes), producing water fumes, also come into the equation. I have already mentioned solar design as a structural necessity: These organisms can’t grow in light and well-aired, dry conditions.
An important issue when planning your renovation is insulation. Fortunately, it is a requirement of most councils, saving precious energy (and pollution) from coal, firewood or oil. These substances also produce Greenhouse gases, which we need to reduce to avoid further changes in the Earth’s atmosphere.
There are different forms of insulation available, some of which are less desirable than others, from a health point of view. If you are working with rockwool or fibreglass, it is essential to wear breathing protection. The reason being the microscopic dust fibres, which actually go through the lungs into the blood vessels and can lodge themselves into cells, causing long term damage, similar to asbestos. Keeping in mind the microscopic nature of the fibres, it appears obvious that they penetrate every gap in wall or ceiling to mix with the dust in the building, which we in turn breathe in. Safe alternatives are cellulose fibre, made from recycled newspaper, or wool bats. The latter are a renewable, readily available material, which we love wearing as our ‘second skin’, too. Unfortunately, an Australian Standard has not been developed yet, and there have been quality problems. Make sure you buy from a trusted supplier.
Compared to only a few years ago, the toxicity of paints has been much reduced. However, the solvents are still toxic and harmful to us. Once they have evaporated, the concept of providing a tight waterproof seal on our walls, preventing them from air exchange, should also be questioned.
There are beautiful natural paint products on the market, which have been made purely from plant-based materials. The paints appear to cover and seal the wall surface, but in fact remain porous and continue to exchange and filter the air.
Furniture and timber floors are a wonderful application for plant-based oils. The floor needs to be sanded down well, and then it is sheer pleasure to rub in the beautifully fragrant oil and to admire the matt sheen of the surface. An added bonus is that the floor does not need to be sanded back (as with varnishes or lacquers), before re-oiling. This makes the floor last much longer.
Floor coverings can be a major concern in most indoor environments. It is not just the carpet or PVC vinyl itself, it is the glue used to bind it to the floor and the underlay, which causes chemical pollution. I recommend using real Linoleum or tiling instead of PVC, which has become a highly questionable material, which Greenpeace have been campaigning against for years. Tiles can be considered safe, even though some glazings can have radioactive emissions. When buying carpet, make sure that the woollen carpet has a natural backing. If it consists of wool glued onto some rubber or polyester back, it defeats the purpose. As pleasant as the characteristics of wool are, this type of carpet has often been heavily treated with pesticides (synthetic pyrethroids) more than any other material in the house. It is best to have it thoroughly steam cleaned, soon after it has been laid. Do not allow your carpets to be glued down. The solvents gas out for considerable time and it will be difficult to replace the carpet at a later point in time.
As mentioned above, people with dust allergies should look for a synthetic carpet with good electrostatic properties, if they insist on having a wall-to-wall floor covering. Laying rugs onto a beautifully finished timber floor is often a much better solution, and they can be easily steam cleaned.
Much of what I said before about flooring and carpets applies to furniture, as it is often made of particleboard and synthetic coverings.
Electromagnetic Fields and Radiation
A largely unknown issue when renovating is the electropollution caused by poor wiring. I regularly measure considerable levels of electric fields, magnetic fields, or electrostatic charges in homes of sick clients. These fields can be looked at as foreign energies, which interfere with our body’s hormones and intercellular communication. The body consequently experiences stress and exhaustion. In many international studies on thousands of subjects Electromagnetic fields have been linked to childhood leukaemia and increased cancer risk.
Plan as few power points as possible to reduce the amount of wiring, i.e. the amount of electromagnetic fields around the wires in your home. Ask you electrician,
To earth the system extra well
To keep wires away from beds (this also applies to wires above the ceiling),
To twist the wires to reduce magnetic fields
To install a demand switch. It automatically disconnects a circuit at the fuse box, while no electricity is actually being used. This leaves the home electrically clean
To shield the wires by laying them into metallic conduits, which have been earthed.
When you are planning the overall design, try to keep the fuse box and the power inlet from the street away from the bedrooms. It is usually preferable to have these at the back of the house. In areas of high electropollution through TV/radio/mobile phone transmitters, consider solid building materials and shielding curtains.
EMR (electro-magnetic radiation) needs to be avoided. Do not use wireless networks for computers or cordless phones, and if your neighbours are using them, shield your home. Paints, foils, and fabrics with metal content are available to protect you and your family,
As with all building, make sure you enjoy the process and learn as much as possible from it. The researching and planning is just as much fun as living in the completed home afterwards, knowing that you have created a safe and healthy home for yourself and your family.
Many people think, that they are unable to afford building with healthy materials and construction methods. However, even if some of them are a little more expensive to begin with, they are the best investment you can make for the planet, yourself and your family! As the philosopher Schopenhauer said:
“Health is not everything, but without health, everything is nothing.”
After finishing his degree in Biology at the university of Hamburg, Joachim Herrmann worked as a teacher in Germany, New Zealand and Australia.
He is now practicing as a Building Biologist (certif. BBE, NZ) in the wider Sydney area. His interest in Building Biology dates back 20 years, when he started studying natural building methods, energy efficiency, indoor pollution, dowsing, Feng Shui, Sick Building Syndrome, bio harmonic architecture and Eco building.
He works as project manager in the design of healthy buildings and also conducts home and office inspections to assess the indoor environment and to improve health and productivity, often in conjunction with other healing professionals, like allergy specialists, child therapists, naturopaths, etc.