Our Healthy House Design Guidelines

Our house can be viewed from several different angles, many of which ended up having overlapping requirements:

  • Non-toxic and allergy-free
  • Energy efficient
  • Durable, long lasting and low maintenance
  • Handicap accessible

The specific design guidelines that had to do with the non-toxic, allergy-free nature of the house were the following:

Air-Tight Construction

Standard residential construction techniques result in buildings that allow a lot of air to come in from the outside, through various cracks, seams and other openings. Since this air would carry outdoor allergens indoors, it was decided to use air-tight building construction techniques, so that we would have 100% control over the quality of all air coming into the building.

All-Metal Building

Wood is normally used to frame the inside and outside walls of homes. I decided to use metal instead of wood because construction lumber is often treated with toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, fire retardants and sometimes pesticides. Over the years, wood can rot, possibly exposing us to high levels of mold. Wood can also get termites, which normally requires treatment of the entire structure with high levels of pesticides. Because of my family's sensitivity to such chemicals, an infestation of termites would mean that we would have to move. It also turns out that we're sensitive to chemicals called terpenes that are present in wood. And finally, it's also nice that metal lasts longer than wood and that it can't burn.

Minimize Use of Plastics, Glues, Paints and Other Toxics

The fumes from most plastics, especially softer ones, have been shown in the scientific literature to have unhealthy effects on some people. Similarly, most glues and paints give off volatile organic chemicals that can linger in interior air for months or even years.

Minimize Places Where Mold Can Grow or Dust Can Accumulate

Because my wife and I are very sensitive to mold, we wanted to make sure that there were as few places as possible in the house where it could easily grow. This meant eliminating grout and other seams in showers or on counters where possible, for example. It also meant giving some thought to our closet spaces, to make sure they wouldn't turn into dust traps.

No Natural Gas Indoors

Natural gas and its combustion products are known to damage the immune system. Although some health advocates believe that cooking on natural gas is superior to electric, our doctor highly recommends that people do not have gas inside their houses. The reason is that gas appliances have a tendency to leak gas into the surroundings and to be inadequately ventilated.

Detached Garage

Cars give off all sorts of toxic fumes, from gasoline, lingering engine exhaust, lubrication oils, "street" grime, hot tire rubber, etc. Rather than letting those smells into the house every time we open the door to the garage, we decided to have the garage be detached.

 

As with most people building a home, we also had a number of design guidelines that pertained directly to our own personal taste. This is the kind of thing that makes a house comfortable and livable. Although the house was to be "clean", we certainly didn't want it to be "sterile".

  • One story (no stairs is safer both for small kids and for older people)
  • Handicap accessible throughout
  • Use of the Chinese feng shui principals where possible. This is an ancient "art of placement" that has helped some people feel better.
  • A separate "project room" for the occasional smelly art project, and to store things we might want to keep that don't exactly fit in with the non-toxic nature of the rest of the house.
  • Home-run telephone and cable TV wire, in preparation for a later house-wide computer networking and home automation system.
  • Energy efficient structure and appliances

The design was started in January 1994. We found the land we wanted to build on in February, and the purchase closed in March. The design was finished in August. The contractor started work in late September. The house was finished in February, 1996, seventeen months later, or 25 months from beginning to end.