In my architectural practice my focus is creating healthy homes following the principles of Building Biology. I often receive inquiries from folks who have become ill with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). They are living in homes that are far from ideal and don’t know how to begin to make it safe for themselves. My advice to them is to first remediate any large ongoing problems like mold, combustion gasses or chemical pollutants. Next concentrate on the single most important room, as far as health is concerned - the bedroom. It should be a sanctuary where our bodies repair as we sleep soundly. In this blog I will explore 6 steps for creating a healthy bedroom.
Uncluttered, Cleanable and Clean
The first step to creating a healthy bedroom is making it cleanable. It is impossible to properly clean a cluttered room. Clutter invites dust and dust invites dust-mites. Dust mites invite allergies. Too much stuff can make the room feel mentally cluttered as well. The bedroom should feel calm and soothing.
All surfaces should be easily cleanable, especially the floors. I am not in favor of wall-to-wall carpeting in the bedroom, or anywhere else for that matter because even with the best cleaning efforts carpeting can become a storage reservoir for dust, pesticides, dirt, mold, odor, moisture. Witnessing the removal of older wall-to-wall carpeting is a sobering experience for even the most fastidious housekeeper. As the carpet and under pad are torn away they reveal a disgusting array of accumulated debris that eluded the vacuum.
It matters what you clean with as well. It is never necessary to use harsh chemicals. Many commercial cleaners contain harmful toxics and perfumes undesirable anywhere in the house and especially in the bedroom. My rule of thumb is the simpler the better. There are many non-toxic cleaning products available at your local health food store or you can make your own. A light dilution of vinegar in water, a duster and a good quality HEPA vacuum will do the lion’s share. Here is a great demonstration about home-made cleaning products. Essential oils are a fine addition for added disinfection and pleasant smell for those who tolerate them. My favorites are peppermint or Thieves Oil.
Air the bedroom out with regularity. Almost anywhere the outdoor air is multiple times cleaner than indoor air. Strip the bed, open the windows and doors and bring in fresh air and sunshine - just like our grandma’s did.
Instituting a “no street shoes” policy for the whole house is a good way to assure that dirt, pesticides and other pollutants are left at the front door. At the very least “shoes off” in the bedroom should be mandatory.
• Choose cleanable surfaces
• Clean with simple non-toxic ingredients
• Air the room out regularly
• Don’t track bad stuff in with your shoes
Non-toxic and Natural
What is your bedroom made out of?
The Building Biology ideal is to build structures out of unadulterated natural and non-toxic ingredients that have a balance of mass and insulation. Walls should be vapor diffusible allowing for a natural free flow of water vapor through them. All finishes materials and coatings should be natural, non-toxic and vapor diffusible as well. Using certain types of natural plasters may even help to remove toxins from the air!
Conventional wood-frame home construction, in contrast to the Building Biology ideal, consists of many layers of lightweight synthetic materials, exterior or interior vapor barriers, sheathing insulations, gypsum board and paint. Any of these layers within the envelop can contribute to poor indoor air quality as can furnishings, bed, bedding, window coverings and other surface treatments.
Of course we wouldn’t want to use toxics anywhere in our house but this is most important in the bedroom. When choosing any new finishes or furnishings for the bedroom make your selections based on health. Select finishing products that are Zero VOC . Furniture should be made of solid wood or very low emissions plywoods. Avoid synthetic fabrics and foams. It is important that nothing is releasing toxic chemicals into your bedroom while you sleep.
Does your bedroom smell neutral or naturally pleasant? If you detect an odor after doing all you can to clean the room, then you may need to introduce filtration. Two stand-alone very high efficiency filtration units that I recommend are the Austin Air Healthmate and the IQAir Healthpro. Either of these will filter-out impurities that can cause odor.
There is a quality of fresh air that is lost once it is sent through ductwork. If your climate allows you to use the real thing then why run it through ductwork? As weather permits open your windows and let your home breathe!
We love fresh air and our home is designed to invite it in.
Our bedroom is designed with windows to the south and sliding doors to the west.
Our summers here get quite hot during the day but will cool down 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Although air conditioning is very popular in Southern Oregon we find that we can work with nature and stay comfortable without it.
At nighttime we open all the windows. The cool night air flows over our massive walls and the coolth is stored in them, buffering the extremely hot daytime temperatures. The fresh cooling breezes keep us comfortable during summer nights with just a light sheet. It is healthier for us and healthier for the planet than running even the most efficient air conditioning unit!
In the winter we also leave our window open…just a crack. We are able to do this in comfort, in our climate, again because of the thermal storage capacity of our massive walls. The interior wall separating us from our dining room sunspace is a waddle and daub mixture. Because it has excellent thermal storage capacity, it helps to temper the room during the night with heat it has stored from the sun or our masonry heater. This allows us to comfortably let in some fresh outdoor air, in fact with our wool duvet we are comfortable without the addition of heat in the winter bedroom. The mass walls also allow us to air the bed room thoroughly when cleaning it without a sharp drop in temperature. Of course our climate is moderate compared to much of North America. And if you live in a climate where open windows year round is not an option then whole house mechanical ventilation may be an important component to maintaining healthy indoor air quality.
Free of Man-made Electro-magnetic Pollution
I think James Bond movies initiated at least one serious cultural setback by portraying the bedroom as a high tech seduction lab…….as if women got turned on by electronics! Building Biology states that the ideal electro-climate indoors is as close to the electro-climate found in unadulterated nature as possible. The human body is a finely tuned, sublimely sensitive electro-magnetic antenna that evolved in nature with only the naturally occurring frequencies of the earth. At night our bodies repair by transmitting subtle electronic signals. There is mounting scientific evidence demonstrating that low-frequency man-made signals can interfere with the body’s natural repair process.
Are you or your loved ones affected by the electricity in your home? Sensitivity amongst individuals varies greatly and since we can’t see, smell or taste electricity it is often overlooked as a source of discomfort and ill-health. Of course electricity is unavoidable during the day but we can greatly decrease our exposure while we sleep, when avoidance is most important.
Here are some simple and inexpensive things you can do:
- Get rid of electronics in the bedroom. Trade in your electric alarm clock for a battery operated one. Unplug everything around your bed, get rid of cordless phones and turn off cell phones.
- If you have a wireless router, anywhere in the house turn it off at night.
- Turn off the electricity in your bedroom while you sleep. The room can be wired to accomplish this task easily if you are building from scratch. If working with an existing space you can figure out which breakers serve your bedroom and the walls surrounding it and flip them off at night. This takes a little investigation but some people notice a huge improvement in their sleep. If you are one of them you can go the next step and purchase an Remote Cut Off Switch and use a remote control device to conveniently turn things off from your bedside.
If you are concerned or if, after doing these simple things, you notice you or a family member, are sleeping better, have a professional electro-magnetic assessment done on your home with special emphasis on your bedroom. Mapping all of the potential frequencies from various sources both inside and from your surroundings is complex and requires specialized training and equipment. A Building Biologist can come to your home and perform measurements to determine if there are other sources of electro-magnetic pollution affecting your bedroom and help you map out a strategy for dealing with them.
Free of Noise Pollution
I am spoiled. When I sleep away from home I am often most struck by the myriad of noise sources. The sounds of forced air turning off and on during the night, refrigerators, sounds from other hotel guests, traffic these all contribute to a restless night.
The bedroom should be acoustically protected.
What does your bedroom sound like at night? There are many strategies for attenuation of annoying sounds depending on the source. An architect can talk to you about renovation strategies to create a more peaceful acoustic environment. If this is not in your budget try earplugs.
Free of Light Pollution
It is important to have the ability to darken a bedroom, especially if you are living in an urban area. Our brains require darkness to produce proper levels of melatonin. I am always astounded when travelling and staying in hotels/motels en route. I am often forced to choose between fresh air or darkness!
We are fortunate to live on the edge of a small town in a rural setting. Still our Hunter Douglas blinds come in handy when the moon is full or when the Oregon sun rises way too early in the summer!
Of course no discussion of the bedroom would be complete without discussing the most important piece of furniture in it - the bed. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this discussion - The Healthy Bed
Wishing you and yours a peaceful night of sound sleep filled with sweet dreams!
Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”.
Photo credit: Laurie Dickson
Architect Credit: Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA
Builder: EcoNest Company