In my quest for healthier ways to build I came across Building Biology (www.HBELC.org) a building philosophy and science that originated in Germany in the early 1960’s, as “Bau-Biologie”. At that time, long before we recognized building-related health problems in North America, it was becoming alarmingly evident in Europe that a growing segment of their population was chronically unwell from being indoors in the mass produced industrialized housing that went up post WWII. A multi-disciplinary gathering of concerned professionals systematically compared newly constructed “sick buildings” with the solid, often earthen, pre-war building stock. What resulted was a set of scientific standards for evaluating indoor environmental quality and 25 principles for building new homes and workplaces.
In North America our need to build better buildings is of more recent concern. As awareness of human impact on planetary ecology grows it becomes increasingly evident that we need to consume less… and North Americans are notorious for consuming far more than their share of the planet’s resources! The burgeoning green building movement has focusing on many facets of the ecological impact of our buildings, including the negative impact of conventional building on our health. Many people in the building industry have worked hard to come up with systems for assessing the “greenness” of building. Fortunately these scorecards almost always contain a section on “indoor environmental quality” and require or reward a dependable supply of fresh air and reduction in the use of toxic substances.
But health is just one small subcategory of the green building agenda. The main emphasis, in the green building movement, is to create more energy efficient homes by making “improvements” to the light frame construction techniques that are uniquely prevalent here. Saving the planet from the excessive consumption of human beings is the driving force.
Unfortunately a “green” home certification is not a guarantee that a home will support the health of its occupants.
In contrast the main focus of Building Biology is human health…and achieving deep ecology is a bi-product of this. A central concept of Building Biology is that “there is almost always a direct correlation between the biological compatibility of a building and its ecological performance.” In other words buildings that deeply nurture every aspect of human health in production, occupation, and post-habitation will also excel as models of sustainability. Why? … Because the natural environment is the gold standard for human health and the ultimate model of sustainability. The role of our indoor environments is to temper nature’s extremes of temperature and to keep us dry and safe from predators.
Photo at right: Doorway to the original Baubiologie Institute in Germany. Credit Robert Laporte
To the extent that our indoor environments measure up to nature, in terms of air quality, light/color quality, electro-climate etc., they will nurture us.
As I first began to apply the 25 Building Biology principles for health and ecology, I found that it was impossible to obtain optimal results using conventional stick frame construction practices and this lead me to explore alternatives, especially earth-based mass wall construction techniques. You can see some of the results on one of my websites.
I have discovered that, when it comes to our health, our conventional building practices are fundamentally flawed! Understanding the principles gives insight as to why our light-frame methods of building are so fraught with problems that often lead to ill health.
While some of these Building Biology principles parallel and precede criteria used in various green building evaluations, others seem obscure in the context of our common building practices on this side of the pond.
Here are the principles:
1) Verify that the building site is geologically undisturbed
2) Place dwellings away from sources of air pollution and noise.
3) Place dwellings well apart from each other in spaciously planned developments amidst green areas.
4) Plan homes and developments taking into consideration the needs of the community, families, individuals and the natural ecosystem.
5) Building activities shall promote health and social well-being
6) Use natural and unadulterated building materials.
7) Allow natural self-regulation of indoor air humidity using hygroscopic (moisture buffering) building materials.
8) Assure low total moisture content and rapid desiccation of wet construction processes in new buildings.
9) Design for a balance between heat storage and thermal insulation.
10) Plan for optimal surface and air temperature.
11) Provide for adequate natural ventilation.
12) Use thermal radiation for heating buildings employing passive solar energy as much as possible.
13) Provide ample natural light and use illumination and color in accordance with nature.
14) Minimize the alteration of vital cosmic and terrestrial radiation.
15) Minimize man-made electromagnetic and radio frequency exposure.
16) Avoid building materials that have elevated radioactivity levels.
17) Provide adequate protection from noise and infrasonic vibration or sound conducted through solids.
18) Utilize building materials, which have neutral or pleasant natural scents and which do not outgas toxics.
19) Minimize occurrence of fungi, bacteria, dust and allergens.
20) Provide the best possible water quality.
21) Support building activities and production of materials which do not have adverse side effects and which promotes health and social well-being throughout their life-cycle.
22) Minimize energy consumption utilizing renewable energy as much as possible
23) Source building materials locally and that do not contribute to the exploitation of scarce or hazardous resources.
24) Utilize physiological and ergonomic knowledge in furniture and space design.
25) Consider proportion, harmonic orders, and shapes in design
When the 25 principles are applied it has been my experience that the resulting buildings fill most North Americans with awe and delight and most Europeans with a nostalgic longing for home.
I will elaborate on the application of these principles in upcoming blogs.
Photo above right:Home designed by author using Building Biology principles. Bottom Line: "When you enter your home, why leave nature behind? Credit Laurie Dickson
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”. www.EcoNestHomes.com