It is a privilege to write a blog for Mother Earth and to share my area of expertise with you in the hope that it will enhance your health. By way of introduction I will begin by describing the journey that has led me to specialize in the design of healthy homes and workplaces. This path began in 1972 when I happened upon the University of Toronto, School of Architecture, almost by chance, with a good handle on math, a love of art and very little understanding of architecture. There I began a life-long inquiry into what makes space beautiful and good.
Fast forward to 1992: I was a practicing architect in Santa Fe NM and was struggling with a mysterious chronic illness that had remained undiagnosed for years, even though I had seen many doctors. Finally my new doctor, Erica Elliott, discovered what was wrong with me. Unfortunately, this information was as a result of a shocking discovery about her own health; she too was troubled by a constellation of disabling symptoms that eluded diagnosis by her colleagues.
Although the particular array of symptoms was quite different for each of us she perceived that they both had the same root cause: chemical over-exposure had made us hyper-sensitive. Subsequent testing proved her theory to be correct. A person with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), as the condition is called, becomes symptomatic at very low levels of exposure to a wide variety of toxins, allergens and even electromagnetic fields commonly found in our modern world. My symptoms included fatigue, frequent respiratory infection, hyper-sensitivity to certain odors, muscular pain, and increased food and pollen allergies.
Aside from not feeling well most of the time, the more monumental realization was that, as an architect who frequented homes under construction, I was constantly being exposed to, and made sick by, the thousands of products and building materials used in new home construction that emitted toxic chemicals. I reasoned that if these chemicals were so devastating for me then they must not be very good for anyone else who gets exposed to them including the factory workers where these products were produced, the contractors who installed them and the future inhabitants.
I felt an ethical duty to become fully informed so that I could protect my clients. I researched different aspects of building that could affect human health. I gathered information about the chemical composition of conventional construction materials and found healthier alternatives. I also gained a deeper understanding of current building practices that could lead to “sick” buildings over time through mold growth, accumulation of combustion bi-products, pest intrusions, or lack of proper ventilation. In addition Dr Elliott and I engaged in endless discussions combining her medical knowledge with my design/building knowledge to try to determine how we could help people to create safer environments once they had already become ill.
As I began to write about this, I received many calls from chemically sensitive people from all over the country, people who needed help. In 1997, I teamed up with Dr. Erica Elliott and John Banta, an experienced “house doctor,” to write a book entitled “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” in response to these countless inquiries. We brought the architectural, medical and building science disciplines together in order to explain why healthier homes were necessary and how to build them.
Today “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” is in its 3rd Edition. My long personal journey back to health has been a successful one. I have personally spoken with hundreds of people who had been made sick by their homes and I have consulted on the health aspect of construction and renovation projects throughout North America and as far afield as Switzerland, Israel and Costa Rica.
But my greatest passion lies in designing homes and workplaces that go beyond “non-toxic” and create nurturing spaces by following the principles of Building Biology ® (Bau-Biologie)….next blog…Building Biology for Health and Ecology.
Do you suspect that your home is causing health issues? Are you doing a renovation or new home and have a health question? Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Mother Earth News Blog in the subject. Your situation will probably be of interest to other readers too so as time permits I will answer your questions in my blog.
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. She can be reached at email@example.com