Healthy House, Happy Home. Home should be the place we feel our best—safe, comfortable and surrounded by favorite people and things. But if your house has poor indoor air quality then home won’t feel like a sanctuary. Headaches, cold-like symptoms, dizziness and fatigue are a few of the health effects you’ll experience when inside air contains allergens and irritants. Unfortunately, too many people feel bad in their own homes, and there’s even a name for it: Sick house syndrome.
Building a new house offers a rare opportunity to ensure that your home is a healthy one, filled with clean air that makes you feel good. Choosing the right building materials can dramatically reduce the potential for mold, chemical gases and other irritants to pollute your living space. Read on to better understand the five main things that create unhealthy indoor air, and strategies for ensuring that your new home doesn’t harbor them.
Microscopic mold spores are everywhere to some degree, but they multiply rapidly in the presence of moisture and can grow on certain building materials. Too much mold in indoor air can mean upper respiratory symptoms like coughing and wheezing in healthy people, and more severe respiratory symptoms, eye irritation and skin reactions for those who are sensitive or allergic to mold. If moisture gets trapped in the walls of your house it creates an inviting home for mold—and once this unwelcome guest takes root, it’s difficult to remove without structural work.
Prevention: Create a completely air tight seal between your walls and the outside world. “The main driver of mold within walls is tiny cracks that let air enter and condensation occur,” says Guillaume Bazouin, Director of Product Development for BONE Structure, a maker of custom steel-framed homes. One of the advantages of steel construction is that it offers a tighter seal than wood, because steel is more stable over time. “Wood can bend and change shape which allows more failure in the building envelope, meaning moisture can enter and mold can accumulate.” And because the steel structure and integrated insulation of BONE Structure homes are sized with the utmost precision, the houses are sealed tight. “The laser-cut steel construction and the integrated insulation ensure that there are no cracks that would allow condensation within the wall cavity,” explains Bazouin.
Once your home is built, you can fight mold by maintaining indoor humidity levels of 60% or lower, using a dehumidifier or the air conditioner to help. Be vigilant about fixing leaks and drying out any damp areas. A properly ventilated house (see below) will help control temperature and humidity levels and prevent mold from taking hold.
Problem: Volatile Organic Compounds
Many building materials emit harmful gases called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which may cause immediate symptoms including headaches, nausea, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Long-term exposure can damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, and has been linked to cancer. New insulation, flooring, carpets and cabinetry can “off gas” VOCs such as formaldehyde and benzene, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency concentrations of many VOCs are up to ten times higher indoors than outside. These gases, which usually are released in the greatest amounts when a building is new and slowly dissipate over time, are likely the culprit behind “new house allergy syndrome”—the phenomenon in which people experience allergy-like symptoms in a newly constructed home.
Prevention: Be vigilant about selecting low-VOC building materials. Everything from paint to insulation to carpet backing to the sealants at the junction of the floor and the wall can be sources of these chemicals. “The builder, interior designer and other stakeholders should be aware of your desire to use low-VOC materials,” says Bazouin. “These products can be more expensive, so work with a builder who understands the trade-offs and can guide you through them.”
Look for building materials that have been certified as low- or no-VOC by an independent evaluator. All of the insulation and other building materials in a BONE Structure home have Green Guard Gold certification, meaning they have been tested for emissions of no more than 360 VOCs and other chemicals. As for the interior finishes, a BONE Structure designer can assist you in choosing low-VOC products that work with your aesthetics and budget.
Problem: Dust Mites
You can’t see them, but millions of uninvited guests live alongside you. Microscopic dust mites make themselves at home in your rugs, bedding and soft furniture and feed on the skin cells you shed (yuck, right?). It’s impossible to entirely rid your home of dust mites, but reducing their numbers might help you breathe easier. These tiny critters are among the most common triggers of asthma and allergy symptoms, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Prevention: You can make your home less hospitable to dust mites by choosing hard floors instead of carpeting (or choose rugs with a flat weave or a low pile), non-fabric window coverings, and upholstered furniture that is easy to clean. Minimize the presence of dust mites by vacuuming with a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum and washing bedding regularly in hot water. Like mold, dust mites thrive in humid conditions, so try to keep your home’s humidity level low. You should also add a HEPA filter to your home’s HVAC system, or install a whole-house filtered ventilation system (these are a part of every BONE Structure home—see below.)
Problem: Poor Ventilation
Even if your indoor air is clean and free of irritants, your home requires a steady flow of fresh air in, stale air out. Today’s new houses are tightly sealed for energy efficiency, but while innovations like triple-pane windows are excellent at preventing drafts and lowering utility bills, they can also prevent a healthy exchange of indoor air with new air from outside.
Prevention: When the weather is mild and breezy, then ventilating your home might be as simple as opening a couple of windows. But when it’s hot or cold out, or when the outdoor air quality isn’t ideal (see below) a built-in ventilation system called an energy recovery (ERV) or heat recovery ventilator (HRV) ensures fresh air 24/7. “These systems continuously move filtered air into the house,” says Bazouin. “This steady flow of clean, temperature controlled air creates a healthy indoor environment.” These ventilation systems are now part of code requirements for new construction in Canada, and all BONE Structure custom steel homes include one. “Our clients always talk about how comfortable these ventilation systems make their homes,” adds Bazouin.
Problem: Dirty Outdoor Air
While air coming from outdoors adds oxygen, that doesn’t mean it’s “fresh.” Depending on where you live and the weather conditions, outdoor air may carry allergens, ozone, particulate matter from diesel exhaust, and other contaminants that put you at risk for respiratory or cardiovascular disease.
Prevention: A ventilation system equipped with a HEPA filter removes most pollutants and allergens from outdoor air before it enters your home. “With a properly filtered ventilation system, the air in your home can be healthier than outdoor air, especially on pollution peak days when there are high levels of ozone or particulate matter in the environment,” says Bazouin. “If somebody in your household is prone to asthma, it will be much healthier to be indoors.”
You can learn more about indoor air quality problems at solutions on the Environmental Protection Agency website. To learn more about the advantages of custom steel frame homes, visit our website or contact BONE Structure.