Guest Blog Post: Consider Your Health When Building or Renovating

Guest Blog Post: Consider Your Health When Building or Renovating

Elise Corcoran is a Building Biologist offering a Healthy Home Consultancy Service for clients embarking on building new or renovating.  Elise co-owns Natural Designer Homes, a Multi- Award Winning Building Company operating in Northern NSW and Gold Coast regions. Elise is passionate about building homes which are both healthy for the occupants as well as the environment.

By Elise Corcoran

There is much to be said about building a sustainable, energy efficient home. In fact, we should all be striving to achieve this. However, I would argue that focusing on sustainability and energy efficiency in isolation could be detrimental to the health of the occupants. The reason being that building a sustainable, energy efficient home considers the health of the environment only. No consideration is given to the health of the occupants. This is where building biology comes into play.

Building Biology

Given that the home and workplace are considered to be like our third skin (clothing being the second), building biologists analyse the products we use, the air we breathe, the water we drink and bathe in, electro-magnetic fields, the building site, design and building materials. Building biologists help us to recognise hazards and recommend the most practical solutions to overcome them.

Indoor Air Quality

Most people spend 90% of their time in a building, whether it be the home or the workplace. It is therefore interesting to point out that indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialised cities.

This is not surprising when we consider that inside our buildings we have bombed, sprayed and squirted in order to clean, maintain or repair. When a home is new or has been recently renovated, the problem is often amplified.

A house may be fully insulated and have double or low emissivity glazing to prevent heat transfer from the windows. In fact, it may be so well sealed that when windows and doors are closed, there is no allowance for fresh air. When this sealed home is combined with the standard building materials we use today predominantly filled with volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), we are essentially creating a vault full of toxins. 

Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs)

We are all electrical beings and we are surrounded by natural terrestrial radiation. However, with so many devices in our lives, especially wireless devices, we must consider how much exposure to radiation is too much for our bodies to cope with?

The healthy home should not alter the natural electromagnetic background or introduce man-made electromagnetic fields that pose a health risk (Bijilsma, 2013). Problem areas lie with high level radio frequency fields from wireless technology including mobile phone towers as well as extra low frequency electromagnetic fields from AC electronic devices (what we plug in). 

Building Design 

Placing a pre-drawn design on just any available block of land will often result in the operational failure of a building. It may even look odd as it has not been designed to suit the climate, microclimate or surrounding area, let alone the occupants. It may be uneconomical to maintain and could very well have an adverse effect on the health of occupants.

According to Rudolph Steiner, the role of the architect is “to find for every structure the unique form that expresses the essence of the building’s function while sustaining every activity that takes place within it.”

This quote sums up what we should strive to achieve when designing a new home. Adhering to this principle would ensure that each home was unique and suited for its purpose. If careful planning is put into the design stage, then there is not the constant need to renovate, extend, or repair the dwelling thus saving resources and energy. We must be mindful to design for minimal impact on the planet, for peace of mind and the spirit as well as the health of the physical body. 

Material Selection 

Building materials can play a major role in the health of the building and need to be carefully selected with reference to the climate zone, indoor air quality and the electro-climate of the home. 

Ask these questions. Where are the materials sourced and what effect does this have on the environment in terms of embodied energy (the sum of all the energy required to produce the goods)? Are the materials suitable for the climate or area the home is being built in?  With regard to paints, glues and sealants, these can all be highly toxic. Yet there are healthy options available.

See the guide below for some tips on what to consider when you are building or renovating.

So, what can you do?

  • Allocate time to choosing the right block of land for your intended use. Before purchasing, search Google to find mobile phone tower locations. Carry out a physical search of the area to check for power stations and rubbish tips. Even golf courses and well maintained parks can be a problem in terms of chemical use so consider everything. Research past uses of the land and if in doubt, test for contaminants in the soil. 
  • Consult the Bureau of Meteorology to research climate zone, sub zones and microclimate. This will assist with the design process.
  • Your Home Technical Manual is an excellent resource that contains a sections on healthy homes. It is available to download for free at www.yourhome.gov.au/technical.
  • Engage a builder who is knowledgeable about healthy buildings. If this is not possible, find a building biologist www.aces.edu.au/links/find-a-consultant/building-biology who will work alongside your chosen builder and designer. Extra vigilance must be taken when wiring a home for someone who is electrically sensitive and careful consideration must be given to the plumbing for anyone who has a skin condition such as eczema or an allergy such as asthma. 
  • Investigate materials: Ask where they come from, how they are processed, what will be used to fix them in place and how long they will last. Consult the Healthy Building Network www.healthybuilding.net. This website was established in the US in 2000 with the aim of sourcing materials with the best environmental, health and social practices.
  • Have your appliances tested for EMFs before purchasing them. This is best done by a Building Biologist who has the correct equipment. The alternative here is to steer away from wireless appliances completely. Keep all appliances away from sleeping areas and limit them in areas of high use. Design with your appliances in mind: EMFs can be high at a bedhead where a fridge is on the other side of the wall, and sleeping upstairs directly above a ceiling fan located downstairs can be problematic. 
  • Further reading can be done in the book Healthy Home, Healthy Family referenced below.

References

Bijilsma, N. (2012). Healthy Home, Healthy Family. (2nd edition). Joshua Books, Australia.

Bijilsma, N. (2013). Wireless technology - a danger we can’t live without… ACNEM Journal, Vol 32(1), 17-20

 

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