January 23, 2010

Building a Safe House for the Chemically Sensitive - That Means All of Us.

As I could not have written it better myself, today's posting excerpts an extremely helpful article written by Healthy House Institute pioneer John Bowers. "Are You Chemically Sensitive?" illustrates why healthy house building is not only important for those most affected, but for us all. (Graphics added by me.)

Are you sensitive to low levels of pollutants in the indoor environment? There are many people exhibiting symptoms at much lower pollution levels than the general population. This tells us that a safe level of exposure for one person is not safe for everyone. In reality, we all have a different degree of tolerability because we all have a unique physical body and a unique metabolism. Some individuals can smoke several packs of cigarettes a day and live disease-free for 80 years, but there are others who are negatively affected by very minor exposures to second-hand tobacco smoke. Most of us fall somewhere between these extremes of extraordinary tolerance and extreme hypersensitivity. Yet, we all may be bothered by the very same pollutants that affect hypersensitive people—but only after a longer period of exposure to a higher concentration.

Coal miners relied on canaries to warn them if air quality reached dangerously contaminated levels.

Hypersensitive people may act as early warning signs to the general population in the same way canaries warned coal miners of polluted air in the mines. Canaries are more susceptible than most people to air pollution. They were taken into the mines to help predict when the air reached dangerously contaminated levels. When the birds stopped singing and died, the miners knew it was time to seek fresh air. Today’s canaries may be the individuals who are more susceptible than the population at large. The rest of us should become aware of what bothers them because, the odds are, similar things could bother us as well. Their symptoms just show up immediately while ours may not manifest themselves for years.

Almost unheard of a generation ago, food allergies, along with other types of allergies, are dramatically on the rise. Photo: ID Me Labels.com.

Many people seem to be exhibiting more symptoms related to their environment than in the past. For example, allergies are much more common today than just 50 years ago, and sensitivities to formaldehyde and other VOCs are increasingly being recognized.

Our bodies are not adapting quickly enough to the health impacts of our modern technology.

This is likely related to the fact that the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe is totally different than the food, water, and air to which human beings have adapted over time. It seems our bodies are having difficulty adapting to an environment that is radically different from any other environment in human history. Our ability to change our surroundings has apparently outstripped our genetic ability to adapt to those changes.

Two or three generations of eating prepared foods, processed flour, and food additives have resulted in subtle changes to our bodies... According to one estimate, the average individual consumes at least one gallon of fungicides, bleaches, dyes, antibiotics, preservatives, moisturizers, and emulsifiers per year [“The Pariah Syndrome,”]. As a result of decades of eating less-nutritious foods and food additives, it seems our systems no longer have the stamina to resist the assaults of environmental pollutants.

Chemically-laden paints, varnishes, floor and carpet coatings, cabinetry and furniture finishes are found on virtually every surface of today's American home. Even after that new house smell is gone, toxic vapors are off-gassing for months or years.

The sad truth is that the air we breathe every day of our lives, both indoors and outdoors, is contaminated with chemicals that our genetic history has not prepared us for. This means our lungs must continually deal with an unnatural pollutant burden. This stress is occurring every minute of every day and it means our bodies have less ability to handle an acute pollution emergency. This constant exposure has resulted in people having less resiliency than they had in the past—and more illness. Much of this illness may be attributable to the toxic, allergenic, and carcinogenic materials we use to build houses...

The pollutants typically found in our homes can cause symptoms such as lack of coordination, dizziness, fatigue, nervousness, headaches, joint and muscle pain, abdominal pain, etc. According to the World Health Organization, the following are common symptoms of sick building syndrome: Irritation of eyes, nose and throat; dry mucous membranes and skin; erythema; mental fatigue; headache; airway infections; cough; hoarseness of voice; wheezing; unspecified hyper-reactivity; nausea; and dizziness.

To read John Bower's complete article, click here.

While this article points out the daunting challenges we all face, the good news is that it is possible to make healthy choices for virtually every material in your home. All it takes is good information, and the motivation to make it happen.

As a "canary" myself, I am deeply motivated to make it happen. It is rewarding to share what we learn along the way so that others can benefit from our work. In
prior and upcoming healthy house posts, you will find details on the many selections we have made to ensure the safest and healthiest environment in THE CONCORD GREEN HOME.

January 10, 2010

Finish Carpentry and Painting are Underway

Vertical v-groove planks and rafters elevate the beauty of the kitchen ceiling.

Ceiling rafters, wall planks, window and door trim and, of course, cabinetry, are some of the finishing touches that are underway in THE CONCORD GREEN HOME. Care is being taken to use formaldehyde-free wood products, non-toxic paints (Mythic), adhesives and sealers for optimal indoor air quality. A huge thank you to Matt and Patrick of Aedi Construction, and their skilled team of craftsmen.

Close up of trim that frames opening between kitchen and other main living spaces.

Sunny little breakfast nook.

Another view of the kitchen, before island is installed.

Kitchen base cabinet, with glass upper cabinets behind, await paint and installation.

Sweet staircase book nook, which will have a window seat built under soon.

A small dose of painted wainscot planking can go a long way, such as here behind the future Master Bathtub.

Shed dormer windows in the Loft.

A lovely winter view of the park from the Loft.

January 8, 2010

Details for the Mechanically Inclined - Air, Water, Fire and... Cool

Onlookers are mesmorized by George Rhoad's audiokinetic sculpture at Boston's Museum of Science, via Flickr.

For those of you who like to get technical, here is an overview of the systems that will heat, cool and clean the air and water in THE CONCORD GREEN HOME:

  • Weil-McLain modulating gas fire boiler - 98.6% efficient
  • Pex and Reflector radiant system - given the efficiency of thermal insulation plan, it was deemed sufficient vs. other more powerful systems.

  • Plumbed for future Fujitsu mini-split ductless air conditioning, if passive cooling strategy requires active supplementation
This supplements Jan. 6 post. Stay warm.

January 6, 2010

Healthy Heating for a Healthy + Green House

A hot plunge caldarium unearthed in ancient Roman bath house, heated by an under-floor hypocaust... a wonderful precursor to today's radiant heat.

Brrr.... time to share information on heating strategies employed in THE CONCORD GREEN HOME. As has been the approach with so many aspects of this special home, we considered both time-tested methods and the latest in modern technology.

Unlike its hissing and clanking predecessors, modern Myson hot water radiators are highly efficient, and come in all different styles, including this vintage look selected for THE CONCORD GREEN HOME.

Our ancestors had it right. Under-floor and hot water heating are thoroughly healthy ways to stay warm, whether in ancient Rome, or Victorian-era America.

The CONCORD GREEN HOME will have a mix of both radiant heat and radiators:

The first floor will have hydronic (hot water) radiant heat under its hardwood and stone flooring, which radiates warmth beautifully and keeps all surfaces free from visible heating elements. Many skeptics will tell you that radiant heat and hardwood flooring don't mix. There is some basis for that concern, as wood expands and contracts with temperature changes. However, if you use dimensionally stable species such as oak or maple, engineered wood flooring, or, in this case, old-growth quartersawn heart pine, it can absolutely be done.

Upstairs rooms will be warmed by hot water radiators from Myson in traditional style, as shown in photo above.

Form follows function. Call me wacky, but I see poetic beauty in all those hot water pipes.

Boiler for hot water will be heated by gas, which feeds both the heating zones and the domestic hot water, which is stored in a 99% efficient tank. Plans and plumbing are in place to add solar thermal hot water heating soon. Hot water supply is divided into 6 lines - 2 for first floor heating, 2 for second floor heating, 1 for attic loft and 1 for domestic hot water. On demand, circulator pump "calls" for hot water from boiler and delivers to radiant or radiator zones as required. Pipes are upgraded to cast iron throughout the home --- we absolutely minimized use of PVC in this healthy environment.

A word about the ubiquitous use of forced hot air... I recognize that this may be controversial, but in my humble opinion, forced hot air, popular because it enables the inexpensive addition of air conditioning, is simply not an option for healthy heating.

Not only does forced hot air dry out the throat and nasal passages, leaving one more susceptible to illness, it makes any particulate, allergen, spore or chemical matter airborne, and then distributes it throughout the entire structure.

Mold spores image courtesy of WebMD

Lead paint dust, mold and other health risks common in the vast majority of older housing stock in this country are bad enough when heating is done by traditional methods, such as radiators, baseboards or wood stoves. The health risk is compounded exponentially when one then "modernizes" with forced hot air heating and cooling, and blows all those contaminants up into the air for easy inhalation. I am personally convinced that the introduction of forced hot air is one plausible explanation for the dramatic rise in asthma rates over the last few decades.

Ok, I'll climb down from my soapbox now.

While evaluating the best active heating system for your own home, be sure to do the following as well, to the greatest extent possible:

1. Optimize the house for passive solar heating, including orientation of the structure relative to the sun, window placement (including solar heat gain and efficiency ratings), thermal mass, etc. (See earlier posts on these topics)

2. Superinsulate the building envelope to minimize the impact of exterior temperature swings on interior comfort. Be sure to provide fresh air ventilation, preferably with heat recovery feature. (See earlier posts on superinsulation).

It is critically important to keep the fresh air ventilation and heat recovery systems completely sealed until all construction work is 100% complete, in order to avoid contamination. Don't depend on a quick post-construction duct cleaning. Much better to prevent construction dust from entering in the first place.

Lastly, a better option for mechanical air conditioning that eliminates the ductwork (a perfect habitat for condensation and dust to grow mold), are ductless mini-split air conditioners. More on this in another post soon.

For more on the evolution of heating systems, check out Steve Smith's article, A Brief History of Radiant Heating, at Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine.
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