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Sensitivity Workshop

A Retreat in Rural Virginia Thrives on Owners' 'Healthy House' Standards

By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page H01

If the well-meaning souls at Carter+Burton Architecture weren't sure what Bobbie Lively-Diebold meant when she told them she was "extremely sensitive" to chemicals, vapors and smells, they learned one day when she and her husband came to look over some blueprints.

Architect Jim Burton thought he and his associates had prepared. "We aired out the blueprints three hours before she got there, and we had all the windows open," he recalls. "We couldn't detect any smell."

Bob Diebold and Bobbie Lively-Diebold in the living room of their Front Royal home, built to minimize the presence of volatile organic compounds. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

All the same, within minutes of arriving, Lively-Diebold began to respond violently to fumes left over from the blueprinting process. Her speech began to slur. She grew confused. She tried to walk, but could only wobble.

Fresh air revived her. "But the whole episode showed us just how serious her condition was," says Burton. "We took a lot of precautions, and they still weren't enough."

Lively-Diebold and her husband, Bob Diebold, had commissioned Carter+Burton to build a three-level contemporary residence just outside of Front Royal, on a cliff overlooking the Shenandoah River. It would be a place where the couple -- he a former physicist, she a former employee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- could enjoy retirement in a peaceful, natural setting. They imagined huge windows overlooking hillocks of pasture on one side of the house and dense woods on the other; decks off upstairs bedrooms, where they could listen to the rush of the water in early morning; extra rooms for visiting children and grandchildren.

But Lively-Diebold knew she couldn't enjoy such amenities if she was constantly battling sickness. So she and her husband asked Carter+Burton to build their dream home according to "healthy house" standards. The result, they hoped, would be a house in which innovative design, careful selection of materials and state-of-the-art technology safeguard against the presence of the substances that Lively-Diebold says her system cannot tolerate.

Many of the standards to which this house and others have been built can be found in "The Healthy House," a 1989 book by John Bower, now in its fourth updated edition. With his wife, Lynn, Bower founded the Healthy House Institute in 1992; between the books he writes and the resource center in Bloomington, Ind., he and his wife oversee (www.hhinst.com), he has devoted himself to helping individuals find ways to rid their households of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

Healthy houses, Bower says, are not just for people like Bobbie Lively-Diebold. Many of us, he believes, suffer from indoor air pollution, without even realizing it. "Sniffles, sore throats, neck aches, all kinds of symptoms -- there are people who think that a lot of them are related to indoor air quality," he says. "The air we breathe is one of the primary ways we take the environment into our systems. The thinking with regard to sensitive people is that they're the canaries in the coal mines. It's time to do something about the problem once the canaries get sick."

Lively-Diebold, 68, traces the history of her disorder back to a single day in 1988, when she arrived at work in the EPA complex at Waterside Mall in Southwest Washington. New carpet had just been installed and was still in the early stages of "off-gassing," the term used to describe the release of chemical vapors from a material -- in this case, the glue binding the carpet's fibers to its backing.

Immediately, she says, she began to experience the problems that plague her to this day: disorientation, slurred speech, difficulty breathing and impaired mobility. Lively-Diebold believes that exposure to the off-gassing carpet and to other VOCs given off during the building's renovation irreparably affected her respiratory and neurological systems. She was among a group of 19 employees who filed suit against Waterside's owners and managers, citing permanent damage to their health. Of the original plaintiffs, five, including Lively-Diebold, were eventually awarded restitution totaling nearly $1 million dollars.

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