My story: how I became a healthy home consultant.
My degree is in Architecture. I never imagined that being a Healthy Home Consultant would become a regular part of my professional practice. In the early 80’s I lived in a home that made me chronically ill. Once it became clear that the cause of my poor health was my home I also realized that my education had been woefully deficient when it came to health. In my quest to become well again my architectural background turned out to be a huge asset. I was trained to understand how buildings are put together and how the standard construction process works. I had an insider view of how it needed to change to incorporate all of the many facets that go in to creating a healthy home. I went on to become a student and practitioner of Building Biology. This science, which originated in Germany, studies the relationship between human health and the built environment. Between my architectural education, my own personal experience with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities and my Building Biology training I gained a set of specialized knowledge that I have remained passionate about for over 20 years. In my healthy home consulting work I have been able to help hundreds of people throughout North America, Mexico, Costa Rica and as far away as Israel, and Switzerland. I have had the opportunity to experience many climate-and culturally-based variations of “home” and to work with professional colleagues including architects, builders, physicians, building officials and inspection and remediation specialists world-wide to determine what makes buildings sick and what makes them support health.
There are a variety of reasons for hiring a Healthy Home Consultant and here are the four most common:
1. Something in my house is making me sick but I don’t know what it is. It is prohibitively expensive to test for every chemical that might be in your air so before calling a Healthy Home Consultant you would benefit by doing a little detective work on your own. Refer to my article What the Nose Knows for some tips on scoping out your home. Once you have gathered some information a Healthy Home Consultant who specializes in detection and remediation of unhealthy situations can help you by doing a general visual inspection aided by various instruments to measure general air quality, electro-magnetic radiation, water quality etc. The consultant can help you determine the most important testing and then design a protocol for remediation once your test results are in. The Building Biology website has a great deal of free information to help you with your initial investigation and lists Healthy Home consultants certified through the Institute.
2. A family member has environmental health issues such as MCS or electro-hypersensitivity and I need to have a potential purchase or rental checked out. For a general list of what to look for when seeking to rent or buy refer to my article Tips for a Healthy Home. When you locate a home that seems like it might work for you, hiring a real estate inspector is your first stop. There are various certifying bodies for this type of inspector and requirements differ from state to state. The primary purpose of a home inspector will be to do a thorough visual inspection of landscape, building envelop, electrical, mechanical and plumbing. Interview your local inspectors and compare their scope of services, training and references as there can be quite a range of experience and services offered. Your realtor may have good recommendations based on past experience. Combining the inspection information with various observations that you may make will help you to determine whether you need a more specialized healthy home consultation. A general home inspection may not tell you about the presence of lead, asbestos or mold. It will not cover some areas that are very important to anyone with Environmental Illness. An environmental home inspector trained through the Institute for Building Biology and Ecology will be able to address issues of special concern in more detail such as VOC measures, water quality, particulate count, presence of pesticides, mold and Electro-Magnetic Radiation. They will also be able to direct you to proper remediation of these problems.
3. A family member is disabled with environment related health issues and I want to build a healthy home from scratch. Consider hiring someone just like me to train and work with your local team! It is important to understand your areas of greatest concern from the outset and to address them from preliminary design to move-in day. You will need to pick the right site (refer to my article Insights on Siting Your Home. This might involve an EMR inspector with the right equipment to detect any site electrical radiation issues. Once your home site has been located you will need to put together a solid team to work with you: The team should include your health practitioner, local architect, local builder and Healthy Home Consultant. Individuals with chemical sensitivities will need to find a method for testing the various materials to know which, amongst the healthy options, work best for them, because no two people with environmental sensitivities will be the same. You will need a very detailed specification document describing the materials and special procedures that must be followed and this document should be referenced in your construction contract.
4. I am healthy but I have heard that homes can cause health problems and I want to live in the healthiest environment possible to stay healthy. As with number 3 above you will needa Healthy Home Consultant who specializes in new construction…like me! I approach a project differently for a client who is basically healthy and one with sensitivities although many of the parameters will be similar. I explain the difference this way: “If you are healthy and want to enhance your health then visiting a spa is a better choice for you than a hospital stay. On the other hand if you are having a heart attack a health spa won’t save you.” There are many things that people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities cannot tolerate that are perfectly fine for a healthy person. An analogy would be food allergies. On allergic person may go into anaphylactic shock by eating a strawberry but for someone who is free of these allergies, a strawberry is a healthy treat packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants. I would still recommend the pesticide-free version! Similarly, in a construction example, many with hypersensitivities to chemicals may not be able to tolerate wood terpenes but a healthy person may enjoy the look and feel of wood. So I would recommend to a healthy client that they consider a natural, breathable finish on their wood rather than an acrylic sealer to help regulate the home’s humidity and electro-climate but if that person requires a more durable finish then I would direct them to a healthier choice amongst the available acrylics.
Creating a house from scratch or an extensive renovation will require thousands of choices and the role of the Healthy Home Consultant is to educate my clients as to the best choices for them within a given budget and to work with the team to make sure that these choices are understood and implemented.
1. Realistic expectations: On its own a home will not make you healthy. If someone has severe sensitivities it is very important that they are working with the right health practitioner to build their health as they build their home. I always tell my sensitive clients that it is a piece of cake to create a home that is 99% better than the Standard American Production home but impossible to create something that is absolutely perfect. It might take time for some products, even healthy ones to cure completely and although the client is always anxious to get into a healthy environment as soon as possible they need a realistic time line for completion of a more complex construction and then possible additional time for the new home to completely cure. They also need to understand the client builder relationship in light of their special requirements. I explain that the builder will be using products and techniques that may be unfamiliar and a little more difficult to apply and that it is necessary to communicate more and appreciate these extra efforts on their behalf Often the contractor will have some trepidations about committing to such a project. A good consultant can help owner and contractor to put together contract language for their attorney’s review that addresses their special concerns that doing something so customized presents.
2. The right design: There are certain very basic things about the design of a healthy home that fly in the face of standard home design. For example for optimum health you don’t want the garage attached and you don’t want wall-to-wall carpeting. If I am called in early enough in the project I can usually get owner and designer buy-in on these major departures. However if I am called in after the fact my job is to introduce protocols for the healthiest carpet installation or the best ways to seal a garage etc.
3. The right team: One can spell-out all of the protocols and materials for a healthy home but unless the designer and builder are on-board with the mission and all of the builder’s sub-contractors are properly educated, things can fall through the cracks. I always advise my clients to select a designer and builder who work well together. They should be excited about the prospect of working on a healthy house and willing to learn something new. Even if someone advertises that they are “green” this is not necessarily an indication that they know how to create a healthy home. The various green building scorecards that are popular now often advocate non-toxic finishes and improved ventilation and this is a good start but it is only scratching the surface. The Owner needs to be an informed and empowered integral part of the decision making process and because of this should plan their time to be available when needed to do their part in keeping things running smoothly and on schedule. The Healthy Home Consultant also needs to be available throughout the process to look at potential material substitutions and help the team solve problems that may arise.
4. The right information: A good written specification is a key document for a successful outcome. Detailed project specification documents are usually included in commercial construction but rarely part of home construction documents. A healthy home specification is a document that lists all of the acceptable materials options and the special project procedures and accompanies the drawings. I believe that the contractor has enough on his plate without creating an extra research project so my specifications contain all of the source material for all of the products and a very clear description of special procedures. My book Prescriptions for a Healthy House is a good primer for anyone wishing to understand the general scope of healthy home construction. By including detailed specifications as part of the construction documents the Owner is assured that the contractor is familiar with and has agreed to the parameters for creating a healthy home.
5. The right communication: Good communication between the Owner and the various team members can make the difference between a joyous process and a contentious one. . One certainty is that unforeseen issues will come up during construction no matter how good the documents or the contractor. Construction is an exercise in problem solving and an open and honest dialogue and positive problem solving attitude amongst all concerned will pave the way for success in combining a difficult process … construction, with an unconventional but very worthwhile mandate … healthy home construction.
In an ideal world healthy homes would be the norm and unhealthy homes would be outlawed. In that world, which I hope to see in my lifetime, a healthy home consultant would be as antiquated as a typewriter repairman. Sadly we have not reached this stage of enlightenment yet, or by a longshot so my consulting shingle still hangs on my virtual door!
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.”