My healing journey necessitated building a healthy home in which to heal from severe environmental illness. I share this information for others on a similar path toward healing. Feel free to email me with questions. I wish you health and wellness in your journey!
The first step in building a nontoxic, healthy home is to protect your site and make your project goals visible and clear. We heard and read about gas spills, unspecified products being used, and other disasters that ruined the house for the chemically sensitive person before they even had a chance to live in it. Do what you can to prevent stupid accidents: eyes on the ground and clear communication.
We posted this sign onsite in English and Spanish:
This is a Healthy House Project
Please help make this a successful project! Thank you,
Interview builders and architects. Research and read everything you can get your hands on. And talk to others who have built safe homes. Sample questions we asked:
Questions for Builders
What is your schedule like this year? Does our schedule fit in?
October move in, so pour (concrete) in May/June?
Have you worked with people with MCS/EI before?
If so, what accommodations did you make in terms of materials and processes?
How did you handle subcontractors?
Where are these houses? Names?
What materials/building techniques have you worked with? What do you prefer and why?
Have you worked in the mountains before? How many houses have you done? What do you do differently?
What type(s) of contacts do you generally do?
What is the range of $/SF for the houses you’ve worked on?
How do you work with clients who want to finish the interior of the house?
How can we work materials testing into the plan/schedule?
Do you have architect or designer on staff? If not, what architects have you worked in on similar projects?
Where do you get your materials? (main ones)
RESEARCH: Books we consulted:
Baker-Laporte, Paula; Erica Elliot and John Banta. 2001. Prescriptions for a Healthy House: A Practical Guide for Architects, Builders and Homeowners. New Society Publishers: B.C.
Bower, John. 2001. The Healthy House, 4th Edition. The Healthy House Institute: Indiana.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. 1997 (revised edition). Building Materials for the Environmentally Hypersensitive. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Rousseau, David and James Wasley. 2001. Healthy by Design: Building and Remodeling Solutions for Creating Healthy Homes. Hartley and Marks: Point Roberts, WA.
Clark, Sam. 1996. The Real Goods Independent Builder: Designing and Building a House Your Own Way. Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont.
Dean, Angela. 2003. Green by Design: Creating a Home for Sustainable Living. Gibbs Smith: Layton, Utah.
Pearson, David. 1989. The Natural House Book: Creating a healthy, harmonious, and ecologically-sound home environment. Gaia Books: New York.
Once you have chosen your building team or if you are acting as general contractor and hiring subcontractors, create a list of fragrance-free personal care products so everyone arrives fragrance-free.
We also purchased a supply of jeans and T-shirts, since it was an impossible challenge to make sure all who were on the project weren't using strongly fragranced laundry detergent.
For those we were particularly fragranced but who weren't on the job site very long, we had Tyvek suits.
Our list of fragrance-free, nontoxic personal care products:
- Earth Science Pure Essentials Fragrance Free (Wild Oats on Arapahoe)
- Avalon Organics Aloe Vera Jojoba Fragrance Free (B. Co-op)
- Desert Essence Jojoba Shampoo and Conditioner (B. Co-op)
- Dr. Bronner’s Baby Mild (liquid or bar soap—light blue packaging) (B. Co-op and Vit Cottage)
- Kiss My Face Olive Oil Soap (bar soap) (B. Co-op and Vit Cottage)
- Rainbow Antibacterial Unscented soap (liquid soap with dispenser)
- Neutrogena facial cleansing formula fragrance free
- Sappo Hill Natural soap (round bar soap, without packaging) (B. Co-op)
- Nature’s Gate Fragrance-free moisturizing lotion (Vit Cottage and B. Co-op)
- Almond oil (Vit Cottage and B. Co-op)
- Nature’s Gate Soymilk Organics Fragrance-free body lotion (B. Co-op)
- Jason Vitamin E Fragrance-free Hand and Body lotion (B. Co-op)
- Beauty without Cruelty Fragrance-free Hand and Body Lotion (B. Co-op)
- Alba original Unscented (B. Co-op)
- Lafe’s Natural Crystal Stick (B. Co-op)
- Earth Science Liken plant Unscented natural deodorant (B. Co-op)
- Kiss My Face Active enzyme Fragrance-free or the same brand in Liquid Rock, Fragrance-free (B. Co-op)
- Pure and Basic natural Green Tea Unscented (B. Co-op)
- Alba Clear Enzyme Aloe Unscented (B. Co-op)
- Jason Aloe Vera (B. Co-op)
- Tom’s of Maine Natural deodorant Unscented
- Avalon Aloe Vera Unscented (B. Co-op)
- Kiss My Face Moisture Shave Fragrance-free (B. Co-op)
- Nature’s Gate Organics Soymilk Fragrance-free shave gel (B. Co-op)
- dissolve 4 Tbsp baking soda in 1 pint hot water and apply
- Kiss My Face Natural Styling Gel
- 7th Generation Free and Clear (50 loads=150 fl oz. at $13.35)
- 7th generation sensitive care
- BioPAC liquid laundry (1 gall = 128 loads at $12.69)
- vinegar: ½-2 Cups per load depending on the size—works wonders for taking out smells
- ¼ C baking soda per load acts as softener and brightens
- Ecover Fabric Softener (Vit Cottage)
- 7th generation Natural Ultra Fabric softener (Vit Cottage)
- Badger Sport Broad Spectrum SPF 35
- Lily of the Desert brand
- Mountain Ocean Sun Screen unscented
- Simmons SPF Sunscreen
For more options, see:
Look for Part II: Architectural Specifications to be posted soon.
I've met a number of people who have asked about the specifics of our healthy home. So I want to share this for any and all who may need it.
Below are the construction specifications we created with the help of our architect and builder. I tested materials along the lines John Bower discusses in his book The Healthy House (4th ed.).
Statement of Intent:
This house is being constructed as a healthy house for owners who have extreme chemical sensitivities and need a place to live. The products specified have been tested by the owner. Only these products will be used (or approved substitutions) to safeguard, to the best of our ability, the health of the owners, as well as the workers involved in the construction.
The general contractor will coordinate and train all tradespersons and provide the necessary training to properly install the specified products. As much as reasonably possible, all efforts will be made to prevent the house from absorbing smells from personal care products or other potential sources of contamination as outlined here.
The following are procedures that must be followed at all times:
The general contractor will make every reasonable effort to prevent chemicals and scents from aftershave or cologne, 'regular detergent’ washed clothes or those dried with fabric softener, fragranced deodorant, soap, lotion, or other fragranced body care product from being absorbed into the living space and contaminating the house. (underlined items are biggest concerns re: personal care products)
A sample scenario to avoid: a worker carries drywall or leans against the drywall after it has been installed. S/he is wearing clothes that have been washed in Tide and dried with fabric softener sheets. The drywall absorbs these smells, which remain in the drywall long after the owner needs to move in.
For the Ecofutures crew, see attached list of recommended products for alternatives. Owners will provide the necessary safe alternatives for the necessary subs.
The general contractor will also discuss with subs any products and practices that have not been covered in the specifications, but which may be of concern.
The General Contractor shall inform his workers and sub-contractors:
For cleanup of any spills that happen during the building process, ordinary cleaning products or solvent-based products shall NOT be used. Safer, but still powerful cleaning agents will be on the site and include:
Super 10 Extra Heavy Duty cleaner
Trisodium phosphate (TSP)
A scenario that actually happened: a healthy house was carefully constructed and was complete except for the paint. The painter spilled paint on the concrete floor and, out of habit, pulled out a bottle of solvents from the truck and quickly scrubbed the floor to try to remove the paint. This ruined the house, since the solvents became absorbed in the living space enough to make the owner very ill. No amount of cleaning could remove it. She could not live in the house.
The owners will be responsible for final cleanup.
2. QUALITY CONTROL
The contractor will make every reasonable effort to explain the needs of this job to suppliers to prevent contamination of building products.
The biggest concerns are materials that will go INSIDE the building envelope, on the ‘warm’ side of the polyethylene vapor barrier: wood, drywall, Murco M100, and Wirsbo (softer plastics absorb smells; ABS is harder and isn't as porous). Metal needs to be cleaned of residue oils, but it does not absorb smells.
1. Ask how things will be shipped, in what trucks and what containers.
For example, drywall shipped in a truck that had previously carried pesticides arrived on site contaminated. None of it could be used for the house.
2. Confirm that wood trim or Wirsbo Aquapex haven’t been stored in an enclosed space where there is a plug-in deoderizer, such as in an office.
3. Confirm that materials haven’t been in an enclosed area where smoking is allowed.
4. Ask if the truck bringing the materials (such as wood or drywall) has recently been sprayed with insecticide or any kind of pesticide.
Please phone the owners if there is a question or problem with potential contamination (before installing). We accept that general contractor relies on the ‘good faith’ answers of suppliers re: these questions. We do not hold the general contractor liable for faulty information given by suppliers.
The contractor will make every effort to verify with suppliers that products such as glues, adhesives, caulks and other materials do not contain fungicides, insecticides, or pesticides. We have specified products to use that don’t contain there, but ‘new and improved' versions may have changed.
We have also specified woods and plywood sheathing that are not treated with wood preservatives, contain urea-formaldehyde, or fungicides. If there is any reason to think that these specified products may contain one or all of these, please contact the owners immediately.
The contractor shall perform and maintain the special project procedures with the same quality of workmanship as would be expected with standard materials and methods.
Except as otherwise approved by the architect or owner, the contractor shall determine and comply with the manufacturer's recommendations on product handling, storage, installation and protection.
The product specifications outlined in this document are part of the contract owners have with the general contractor.
3. PROHIBITED PRODUCTS:
The following products are strictly prohibited:
- Herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and other pesticides
- Any solvents or oil-based products
- wood preservatives
Prohibited Products that have specific approved alternatives:
See below for alternatives.
Contact the architect and owners for further instructions about any application where these substances would normally be used if information for a substitution is not in this document.
4. PRODUCT SUBSTITUTION
No products may be substituted for the specified product unless agreed upon in writing by the owner. These products have been tested by the owner and found to be acceptable. Any material deviation that hasn't been approved may have to be removed.
An MSDS and other product literature will be provided to the owner or architect on any substitution in order for it to be considered.
Submit a physical sample to the owner in time for the owner to test it.
5. FASTENERS, NAILS, AND SCREWS
The coatings on nails and screws can be a problem in a non-toxic house. The general contractor will obtain nails, screws, staples, air gun nails and other fasteners to be used so that the owner can test them. No cement or vinyl coated nails shall be used.
Division 3000: Concrete/Foundations
LaFarge in Lafayette uses Cemex Portland cement. Cement from Cemex in Lyons is okay.
No colorants are to be added to the batch.
On top of the gravel shall be a sheet of Tu-Tuf 4, a cross-linked polyethylene from STO-COTE. Do not use the BLACK Tu-Tuf 4.
The polyethylene will extend under the entire slab to the edge of the foundation (see drawings) to prevent any moisture from being wicked into any part of the concrete foundation/slab.
Any rips in the Tu-Tuf must be repaired with foil tape (Shurtape from EL Foust).
Division 3400: Waterproofing
Rub-R-Wall shall be used. Do not use transition strips made by Rub-R-Wall because they contain asphalt. Contact owners if this is a problem.
Care shall be taken during backfilling and other construction to prevent damage to the waterproofed surface.
No materials containing asphalt shall be used for any part of the waterproofing system.
Make a capillary break between footers and walls using polyethylene sheeting.
Where Rub-R-Wall and the polyethylene vapor barrier meet, create seamless water barrier.
Division 3700: Radon Mitigation System
Radon mitigation shall be roughed in the slab. PVC is okay to use in the portion under the slab, using Guerilla Glue for the joints. Use ABS pipe if going above the floor with Weldon 773 as the pipe glue.
Division 3500: Perimeter Drainage
A drain system shall be installed around the perimeter of the foundation footing. The drainage shall consist of:
Positive drainage away from the building at all points along its perimeter. Ground shall slope away at a minimum of 5% [for some distance].
A free-draining backfill of ¾ in minimum crushed stone or gravel that is free of smaller particles shall be used to line and fill the excavation for all below-grade walls to allow water to drain into the French drain and out to daylight.
A French drain shall be installed so that all perforated pipes are located below the level of the bottom surface of the footing. French drain perforated pipes shall be installed with the holes down to allow water to rise into the pipe. If holes exist on more than one side of the pipe, at least one set of holes shall face downward. These 4-inch perforated pipes shall be connected and be continuous around the entire building and shall daylight a minimum of 20 feet from the building.
The French drain shall be set in a minimum 2” depth bed consisting of ¾”minimum crushed stone free of smaller particles.
The French drain shall be surrounded by a filter membrane to prevent adjacent soil from washing into and clogging the system.
French drains shall be sloped downward a minimum ¼” per foot of run and secured in place with gravel. There shall be a minimum of 2 inches of ¾ inch gravel under the perforated pipes.
There shall be a check valve (question, is this possible?) at the point where the perimeter drain daylights at the NW and SE corners (2 check valves). The check valves prevent rodents from entering the drain, and also enables the radon removal system to work properly.
All canales, scuppers, and downspouts shall have splash blocks and an adequate drainage path away from the building.
French drains shall daylight a minimum of 20 feet from the building.
Metal screen caps shall be placed where the perimeter drain daylights at the NW and SE corners.
Division 2100 Backfill, Compaction, and Grading:
Finish grading: the finish grading shall achieve positive drainage away from the house for at least 10 feet on all sides of the house including the south side. On this south side, the slope shall be a minimum of ½ inch per foot (or 5 inches per 10 feet). Water must flow away from the house on all sides.
Division 5000: Steel/Metals
Division 6000: Wood/Framing
Materials NOT allowed:
Division 7000: Thermal and Moisture Control
Goal is to create complete vapor barrier to prevent air inside the house from being contaminated by the wood, insulation, electrical, etc. that is in the walls. The barrier, therefore, cannot have holes or rips and must be sealed around joints, electric boxes, plumbing, etc.
Make sure to install after insulation is completely dry… (maybe test with moisture meter??)
See drawings for placement of vapor barrier:
Sealing: interior partition wall intersection with the ceiling, which is also sealed completely. Sealing the top plate, before drywall is hung, completes the air barrier at the insulated ceiling.
1. During framing:
--Mud sill to foundation
2. Before plumbing/HVAC/electrical rough-in
--complete rim joists
3. Before insulation
--Exterior walls bottom plates
--window/door rough openings
--electrical box wiring holes
--penetrations through rim joists
4. Before drywall-Drywall to framing
5. Before trim
6. Final steps
--Whole house fan cover
--caulk or polyken tape at all wall openings for plumbing and use gasketed electrical boxes
--cover window and door insulation with Polyken Tape
Division 7000: Roofing
Division 8000: Windows and Doors
Installed so water from drainage around window does not seep into stucco or go behind window into the wall.
Milgard fiberglass window:
Fiberglass screens are sometimes treated. Either provide a sample to owner or use aluminum screens. WE USED ALUMINUM SCREENS.
- Interior doors: poplar, solid wood
Make sure any wood for the framing is not treated—if it is and there is no alternative, let owners know…(may have to seal in all wood areas with Safeseal)
Need to discuss and test weather-stripping (John Bower recommends stainless steel by Pemko or Tygon tubing by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics)
Division 9000: Finishes
GP DensArmor Plus (is made of fiberglass so workers need to take precautions…)
(Need spackle: Bull’s eye from Arizona recommended by another person with MCS)
Keep relative humidity between 45% and 55%…
Division 9400: Siding
- traditional 3-coat stucco with no additives
- use Portland cement (no additives) from CEMEX in Lyons
Division 9600: Interior Paint or Stain
I am testing AFM semi-gloss paint for kitchen and bath
If more than one coat, 3 days between coats…
Professional Carpenter’s Wood filler by Elmers
Division 10000: Specialties
W/D hose: braided stainless steel mesh hose for washing machine—less odor and lasts longer
under water heaters: add drip pan and hose leading to the drain
Division 11000: Equipment
Division 12000: Furnishings
No glue or adhesive shall be used for installation of the cabinets or countertops. Use mechanical means to fasten countertop to cabinets.
Division 13000: Special Construction
Perform waterproof test of exterior before installation of interior drywall so that leaks can be detected and remedied. Window testing for water infiltration.
Division 150000: Mechanical
Piping for in-floor hydronic heat shall be WIRSBO Cross-linked polyethylene.
(look into: vent fan in bathroom, install with a humidistat so automatically turns off and on depending on humidity??)
Division 153500: HRV system
A whole-house HRV, not an ERV, shall be installed and located in the northernmost end of the loft.
The fresh air intake shall be on the north side of the building, away from the vent for the kitchen sink, so smells will not enter the house.
Fresh air registers will be in two bedrooms.
Stale air/exhaust vents shall be in the bathroom (20%) and the kitchen (80%)
Unit shall be suspended to decrease the vibration and noise from the machine.
The system shall be balanced so there is a slight positive pressure in the house.
At the cold end of the HRV on both ducts (one for incoming air and one for outgoing air) there shall be dampers. This is an aid in balancing up the system and checking for moisture.
An Aller-Air 4000-MCS air filter will be installed and attached to the HRV
Division 15400: Plumbing (running out of energy, need to reword)
Whole-house sediment filter shall be installed where the water enters the house.
ABS black shall be used for any exposed drainage (CWV) under the kitchen sink or elsewhere. Weldon 773 glue can be used for ABS.
Aquapex shall be used for fresh cold and hot water plumbing.
Plumbing shall run along where wall and floor meet with metal box cover over it…
install water purifier/filtration at kitchen sink…
Division 15500 Plumbing: Faucets, Fixtures, Finishes
Make sure sinks and any other fixtures do not have sound deadening material on it, which often contains asphalt.
For caulking, use AFM Safecoat caulking
Discussion point: Insulation: put in certain areas so there is no sweating?
Division 16000: Electrical
Romex: need to find least smelly plastic (discuss—what does electrician usually use?)
What tapes, etc. would electrician use?
Metal boxes, so less outgassing…need to wash with TSP
See drawings for kill switches