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Sensitivity Workshop

The ordeal, she claimed, had left her with debilitating symptoms known collectively as multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, or MCS. Currently, the medical community classifies MCS as a "syndrome of unknown origin," like the more widely publicized Gulf War syndrome or chronic fatigue syndrome. The absence of a universally accepted definition of MCS, and the idiosyncratic nature of its symptoms, have made it controversial.

By now, Lively-Diebold is used to cynicism about her condition. It's one of the reasons she wanted to find "the type of architect who would listen to your input, not just tell you what you need to have." When the couple settled on a site and went shopping for architects, they were impressed by the way in which Carter+Burton used green principles to effect strikingly modern designs. "They had already done things that were energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive," says Lively-Diebold, "so that was a good start." Most important, she says, Burton and the firm's founding partner, Page Carter, didn't blanch upon hearing her list of requirements. "They seemed excited and open to the idea."


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)

Even so, Burton recalls the "steep learning curve" faced by the architects, builder Stephen Whittington, interior designer Michelle Timberlake, and the contractors who had to abandon tried-and-true methods and routines. For starters, the entire site had to be designated a no-smoking area -- a tough sell among construction workers for whom coffee-and-cigarette breaks are sacred. All building materials had to be chosen from preapproved lists; finding certain items, such as a humidifier air filter that wouldn't emit mold-conducive warm air, proved difficult.

Of paramount importance was that off-gassing be kept to a minimum. Chemically inert or natural materials such as stone, concrete, stucco and wood were used whenever possible. For people with MCS, high-VOC varnishes, oils, glues and sealants are among a newly built house's most incorrigible offenders; Lively-Diebold's purview extended even to the oil-based release agents used to coat the concrete foundation. "I went with my husband to a job site to check my tolerance," she recalls. "I just walked around and smelled them."

When they prompted a flare-up, she and the building team settled on an unorthodox alternative: Wesson oil. "It worked just fine," she says. (Though for a while, she confesses, subcontractors jokingly referred to the building as "the salad house.")

In some cases, as with the stress-skin panels that cover the house, due diligence entailed all-night experiments, with Lively-Diebold volunteering as a guinea pig. "I slept with them right next to me," she explains. "If I had any problems, they went right out the door."

The house, now two years old, does not boast its virtuousness conspicuously. A visitor's initial impression is purely architectural: warm materials, an abundance of natural light, the balance of elegant forms and expansive volumes. Next come the design details: Noguchi hanging lanterns in the entrance hall, svelte Barcelona loungers in the living room, a Saarinen Tulip table and chairs in the breakfast nook.

The innovations that help make the infrastructure of this house "healthy" are in no way visible. VOC-free paint, once rare but now widely available, looks as rich as regular paint. The minimally treated, low-gassing marine-grade plywood from which the kitchen cabinets are made is indistinguishable from its standard-issue counterpart. Behind a plain-looking door on the lower level, filters, ventilators, vacuums and humidifiers vigilantly defend against airborne pathogens. This system so thoroughly controls the flow and exchange of air that the house receives a complete air transfusion every few hours.

"Separation, ventilation and filtration," says Burton. "It's not a healthy house if you don't have all three."

The delicate balance of separate systems, the need for careful monitoring and enlightened stewardship: If the healthy house invites comparisons to Earth's environment, it's no accident. Burton was a student of Samuel Mockbee, a larger-than-life figure who devoted himself to promoting sustainable, socially conscious architecture. The teacher's influence on the pupil is obvious when the topic turns to, say, hardwoods. For Burton, the health of the rain forest is directly linked to the health of the homeowner. Harvesting lumber from sustainably managed forests, he says, reduces ozone depletion, which in turn makes his client breathe easier.

For Bobbie Lively-Diebold, living in a healthy house has changed everything. The world outside her door -- with all its marauding chemicals, pollutants and VOCs -- still has the capacity to make her sick. "But my body is in a better position to tolerate things," she says. "This is like a detox center. A safe place."


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