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Choosing Natural Building Materials for Improved Indoor Air Quality

Passive Home With Insulated Blocks

Photo by Michael Kolowich

There’s a good reason why everyone — not just people with allergies or chemical sensitivities — should live in a home with good indoor air quality. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, where the air can be two to five times more polluted than the air outdoors. Spending the vast majority of your day inhaling oxygen that’s full of germs and toxins can have a seriously negative impact on anyone’s health.

You might think building a green home automatically means you’re building one with good indoor air quality. That’s not necessarily the case. There’s no guarantee eco-friendly materials are also low in pollutants. And what you put in your home after construction can have an enormous impact on air quality. Here are three ways to ensure the air you’re breathing inside your home is as good as — or better than — the air you’re breathing outside.

How to Choose Green Building Materials

As you research green building materials, make sure you check their level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals that easily become gases and mix with the oxygen in your home. Among the top building products that contain VOCs: insulation, carpet, vinyl flooring, caulk, adhesives, paint and varnish.

The good news is that no- and low-VOC products are becoming much more common and they’re getting easier to find. Start your search by checking out Greenguard Certification and Green Seal, two websites that review and rate products based on their level of chemical emissions.

A desire to avoid VOCs can lead to some fantastic discoveries for your home. One of our customers searched high and low for no-VOC flooring and finally settled on porcelain floors that look just like wood. Not only are they toxin-free, but they’re extremely durable, don’t have to be refinished, and are much less susceptible to water damage.

Get Fresh Air In and Stale Air Out

Air has many places to enter a home, but few places to escape. Over time, that air becomes moist, heavy and laden with dust mites, bacteria, pollen, smoke and other particles. Homes with poor ventilation often have an unappealing smell, or are more likely to develop mold and other problems that can lead to extensive remodeling.

The best way to keep fresh air continually moving in and out of an existing home – while not worrying about heat and moisture fluctuations – is to install energy recovery ventilator (ERV) and heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) systems. These extremely energy-efficient devices cycle air in and out of the house every three hours. Most come with filters that remove fine particulate matter from the air.

One of the great things about ERV and HRV systems is that they ensure heat doesn’t escape or enter the house, and they keep humidity levels consistent. That means the house is more comfortable as well as healthier. If you’re interested in learning more about ERVs and HRVs, talk to your local HVAC installer.

If you’re building new, a very green way to get a home with a consistent temperature, appropriate humidity levels and good indoor air quality is to construct the house with wood fiber-cement bonded composite materials. This unique product balances relative humidity inside buildings naturally and without the aid of mechanical ventilation. The added benefit is that because moisture can’t build up in the walls, mold and bacteria can’t grow. Dupont has a great article that explains the many benefits of building with vapor permeable materials such as wood fiber-cement bonded composites.

Look at Furnishings

What you put in your new or remodeled green home can also impact indoor air quality. Upholstered furniture and anything that contains foam (including mattresses and dining room chairs) can off-gas toxic chemicals. So can composite wood products such as bookshelves, entertainment centers and children’s furniture.

Look for furnishings that are entirely or primarily manufactured with organic and natural materials. A post on the blog Debra’s List has a list of furniture manufacturers that use wool, cotton, real wood, soy-based finishes and other low-VOC materials. You can find others by doing a Google search or visiting your local eco-minded furniture store.

Another possibility for buying “healthy” furniture is to pick up secondhand pieces. Even the most chemical-laden piece of furniture won’t off-gas forever — if you can get items that are a few years old, most of the chemicals will be gone already.

The downside to buying used furniture is that you don’t know what happened in the home it came out of (for example, its possible that dogs slept on that perfect-looking sofa and some of their dander lingers beneath the cushions). But if you don’t have specific allergies or health problems, buying used can be a great option. It’s good for your wallet and the planet, too.

What ideas have you implemented to improve indoor air quality in your home, office, school or other building? We’d love to hear from you.

Paul Wood is has more than 30 years experience in the construction industry. He spent over a decade with Habitat for Humanity International, building homes across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. For the past 10 years, Paul has been the co-owner of ShelterWorks, maker of Faswall blocks, an insulated concrete form (ICF) that can be used to build extremely green homes. Connect with Paul on Facebook and Twitter.


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