How to build a healthy house

February 2, 2012

When constructing a house, how can you ensure that the materials you use do not pose a health threat for you and your family, the builder’s workforce and the community that extends far beyond your house, in some cases globally?

The fact that I am even raising this question may come as a surprise to most homeowners, but in the United States, there are no statutes requiring that toxic ingredients in building materials be pre-tested before they are marketed. Government action can be taken only after the material has been shown to be harmful. John Wargo, a professor of environmental policy and risk analysis at Yale who has written widely about the harmful effects of many building materials, characterized the situation this way: “It’s the wild, wild West out there.”

If you want healthy materials, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands, conducting the vetting process yourself. Green building rating systems for houses are a good start, but most do not address healthy building products. Even the most widely used one, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes, addresses only the issue of emissions from building products that affect indoor air quality. But a newer and less well-known rating system, the Living Building Challenge, lists specific materials and chemicals to be avoided.

Developed by the International Living Future Institute, which is based in Seattle, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) was launched in 2009.

Based on the optimistic premise that “every single act of design and construction can make the world a better place,” Living Building Challenge (LBC) 2.0 is concise in its directive (which is only 48 pages long with limited text; it can be downloaded at https://ilbi.org/lbc/standard). To be certified, every project must meet the requirements of its 20 imperatives, which cover seven performance areas, including site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.

Zeroing in on healthy building materials, Imperative 7 has a “Red List” of 15 materials and chemicals that cannot be used in any LBC-certified project. Most of these are not household names; despite their wide usage in the construction industry, most home builders and architects will not recognize them. The list was compiled by a group that included researchers from the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products, the Healthy Building Network and the International Living Future Institute.

Most homeowners who study the Red List will find it pretty random. There is only one actual building material, polyvinyl chloride (PVC); the rest are ingredients and most have multisyllable names (for example, chlorosulfonated polyethylene used in some types of roofing).

This seeming randomness, however, goes to the heart of the problem, explained Tom Lent, a biochemist with the Healthy Building Network who helped create the list of 15. The issue is not types of materials as a class, but the ingredients in each one. You can have four different types of insulation and each is unhealthy for a different reason — it can be the basic material or an additive like a binder or a flame retardant. “Most of the bad actors are petrochemicals, but petrochemical-derived materials are not all bad and not the only bad actors,” Lent wrote in an e-mail.

Eden Brukman, vice president of the International Living Future Institute, who helped compile the Red List, said that of the more than 100 “candidates” that were identified as harmful, the 15 that made the final cut were selected because they are some of the worst offenders and healthy alternatives are readily available and because they are so commonly used. Collectively, she said, the Red List 15 are known to adversely affect human hormones and reproduction, they are probable or known carcinogens, they bioaccumulate in our fatty tissues and they are persistent in the environment. Some of the Red List items are problematic in a finished house; with others the problems are caused by byproducts of production, or the manufacturing process itself.

How hard is it to avoid using the Living Building Challenge’s Dirty 15 when building a house? Do the alternatives raise the cost? In conversations with architects, homeowners, and a home builder who have worked on such projects, the consensus is that there is a small added cost, but most of it is not due to the alternative materials; it’s the time required to research and verify that the alternative meets the criteria. Jim Fagan, owner/partner of Timberline Construction in Bend, Ore., estimated the added cost to be less than two percent of the construction total for an LBC house in his area. David Winitzky of Santa Barbara, the project architect for a LBC house in California, said that in some instances a cost was unchanged because the more expensive alternative required less labor to install.

The real eye-opener for these experts, however, was the difficulty in getting information. When queried about the details of their products, many manufacturers refuse to answer, insisting that this is proprietary information. But when faced with dogged persistence, most relent because eventually they realize that identifying ingredients does not in fact reveal “a proprietary secret paint formula,” said M.L.Vidas, a Bend, Ore., architect who worked on Fagan’s project.

One strategy for avoiding Red List items is to use natural materials. For example, Richard Piacentini, director of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh who is overseeing a LBC project there, said this made him aware of the problems with halogenated flame retardants, and he is using wool carpeting for his own house because it is “naturally flame resistant.”

The Living Building Challenge is not completely inflexible on its Red List, however, and it allows the use of an offending chemical or material if no suitable alternative can be found. For example, most electric wiring is encased in a PVC material and most building codes will not allow a substitute.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or http://www.katherinesalant.com.

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