Allergic Living set out in search of architecturally designed homes that put indoor pollutants on notice. Our columnist reports back with four outstanding residences that incorporate allergy and air quality considerations, green sensibility and, of course, great looks.
Lake Forest Park Home
A healthy home was high on the “must have” list when Seattle architect Nils Finne redesigned this vintage modern home in Lake Forest Park, a picturesque community north of Seattle that’s known for its lush forests and lake views. For more than 30 years, the architect had used sustainability as a guiding principle; but with this reno, there was an added wrinkle: the client had environmental allergies, so air quality was key.
As a result, Finne took full advantage of the fresh forest air and abundant natural light, and incorporated plenty of wood, stone, and other materials that Mother Nature supplied.
Heating/Cooling/Air Filtering: Since it provides energy-efficient heat that keeps feet blissfully warm, Finne uses in-floor radiant heating as much as possible – an especially attractive option for people with allergies and asthma because dust, mold, pollens and other allergens don’t get blown around as they do with forced air. Finne salvaged some of the home’s original copper in-floor system, then added sturdy PEX tubing, which he says is “as close to bulletproof as you can get.”
With the home’s Pacific Northwest locale, air conditioning wasn’t necessary, but Finne did replace skylights with vertical windows that open fully so summer breezes could flow through. The client also gave the bedroom a clean air boost with a room-sized HEPA air purifier.
Flooring: Given the client’s allergies, the architect passed on carpets and other soft surfaces that attract allergens and pollutants, and opted instead for terrazzo floors – which don’t off-gas – in the kitchen and living areas. The most radical change came in the bedroom, where he replaced old dust-collecting carpets with stylish concrete floors, using a finish called Milestone. “It’s a top coating that allows us to bring in a custom color and has a mottled finish, so it has some depth to it,” he says. “It’s a very interesting floor surface.”
Cabinets and Counters: Finne opted for Silestone, a type of quartz countertop that is elegant, extremely dense, durable, stain resistant and doesn’t emit volatile organic compounds. For cabinets, he chose natural cherry wood (a far better option than particle board or plywood cabinets that often that often release VOCs).
Instead of leaving them flat, he designed a striking pattern that was then milled into the doors using a computer-controlled machine. The grooves could be dust collectors – but the client told Finne to go ahead regardless. “So there were certain areas where the aesthetics were allowed to weigh in.”
Wall Finishes: Finne sourced healthy paints through a Portland company called Devine Color (www.devinecolor.com). “They have a very limited palette, but every color you just look at and say, ‘Gosh that’s a wonderful color.’ And they are all extremely low VOC,” he says.
Insulation: Finne went with a combination of rigid foam and blown-in cellulose – a product of choice for people with allergies and asthma as it doesn’t contain formaldehyde or other off-gassing chemicals that can irritate lungs. He says a typical house will lose more than a third of its energy because of heat escaping through windows and poorly insulated walls and roofs, which in turn creates greenhouse gases. “That’s just a low-hanging fruit that you can grab right away,” he says.
Extras: Glass brings the outside in, lightens heavier design elements and is easily cleaned, so it’s used throughout this home, giving an unattractive carport a makeover, and creating a breathtaking master bath. “You’re almost bathing outdoors,” he says. “Or at least it feels that way.”
“It is all in the broad category of what I would call smart sustainable,” says Finne. “But really it’s just smart design.”
Concord Green Home
From the outside, it has all the charm of a traditional New England farmhouse, complete with a manicured yard and a welcoming front porch. But behind its elegantly simple exterior, Concord Green is a feat of healthy architecture.
Designed for a client with serious allergies and chemical sensitivities, every inch of the award-winning Massachusetts home was carefully considered, and each material was painstakingly researched in order to maximize air quality and minimize chemical irritants, molds and other triggers. Strict protocols were also put in place for the building site, where smoking was banned and hidden areas such as wall cavities were carefully cleaned before they were sealed.
“We specialize in healthy, energy-efficient homes, so that’s something we do without question on every project,” says Stephanie Horowitz, architect and managing director of ZeroEnergy Design, whose Concord Green home is a whopping 50 percent more efficient than the local building codes require. “But the unique aspect of this project is that we had to be extra sensitive to the client’s unique needs.”
Heating/Cooling/Air Filtering: A heating system that relied on ductwork where mold, dust and pollutants could gather was out of the question, so Horowitz installed in-floor radiant heating on the main floor, and hot-water radiators on the second and third floors.
A whole-house HEPA filter helps to remove allergens and irritants from the air, while an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) system pulls fresh air in, even in the dead of winter. The ERV keeps energy consumption down by using the warmth and moisture of the air that’s on its way out to heat and humidify the incoming air. In summer, the system helps to circulate cool air that’s fresh, and not recycling indoor toxins.
Flooring: Reclaimed pine gives the main floor a warm, traditional feel and – unlike carpets – doesn’t attract dust mites. A safe, water-based sealant was applied to the flooring before it was installed, keeping chemical triggers to a minimum. On the second level, wood flooring was also used, but it was coated with ECOS floor paint – a durable, no-VOC covering that is specifically designed for floors.
Cabinets and Counters: Reclaimed cabinets from another kitchen were used alongside custom cabinets made from Columbia Forest Building Products’ formaldehyde-free plywood. To make the counters as chemical-free as possible, Horowitz opted for a custom-cast concrete countertop, which offers durability and aesthetics without compromising air quality.
Wall Finishes: For people with asthma or chemical sensitivities, paints can be a serious trigger, so Horowitz went with Mythics, a brand out of Massachusetts that offers durable paints – minus the off-gassing VOCs and toxins. To make absolutely sure they were safe for this client, samples were given to her to try out for several weeks before the crew applied it to the walls.
Insulation: In order to ensure air control, and to minimize the chance of moisture infiltration and mold growth, Horowitz wanted to make sure the home was completely airtight. Coating the entire exterior with rigid foam insulation not only helped with that goal; it made the home remarkably energy efficient. Spray foam was the product of choice for the interior, because the client could be away from the home while it off-gassed. “It’s a nice product in that it packs a decent R-value per inch and increases the air tightness of the home,” she says.
Extras: Since the entire building shell was made from pre-constructed panels, it allowed for quick assembly – which minimized the amount of time the materials were exposed to moisture, molds, pollens and other possible triggers.
“The client had moved from space to space with her family, and it was always something else – contaminated ductwork, mold in the basement that was seeping into the basement – so it was like this endless quest for a home that didn’t make her sick,” says Horowitz. “And that’s what was so rewarding: to hear her say, ‘Not only is my home beautiful and efficient, but this is the healthiest I’ve been in the past decade.’”
While many green designers use high-tech materials that are airtight, water-repellant and light on irritants, Oregon-based architect Paula Baker-Laporte, co-author of the book Prescription for a Healthy House, believes that nature has all the answers.
Using a philosophy called Building Biology – which originated in Germany after the Second World War – Baker-Laporte and her husband Robert LaPorte create ‘EcoNest’ homes made from clay, straw and wood, and they feature natural floors, clay plasters, beeswax and oil sealants that work with nature rather than against it.
She doesn’t subscribe to the idea that homes need to be seamlessly sealed with plastic vapor barriers. On the contrary, she says designing a home with materials that don’t trap moisture inside is important to air quality – and that doesn’t mean energy efficiency goes out the window.
As you’ll see in the McGowan House, which Baker-Laporte designed for a New Mexican client who wanted a healthy home for her and her prized parrots, EcoNests are anything but mud huts that can only exist in dry desert climes: the pair has created homes in 17 states and four Canadian provinces – and they don’t skimp on style.
Heating/Cooling/Air Filtering: In summer, earthen walls made of a combination of clay and straw absorb the daytime heat, keeping the interior relatively cool, then slowly release the heat at night. In winter, they keep heat in and shield residents from the cold.
Still, some added heating is needed – and in the McGowan home, it came in the form of in-floor radiant heat (using Wirsbo PEX tubing), as well a striking soapstone masonry heater that looks like a fireplace but does much more. In short, a small fire warms the walls of the fireplace; then those walls continue to emanate heat long after the fire is out. Since the gases pass through several chambers and fully combust before heading up the chimney, the system is nearly smoke-free.
For cooling in summer, carefully placed windows ensure plenty of natural airflow.
Wall Finishes: Rather than sealing walls with paint, Baker-Laporte used clay plasters tinted with natural pigments to give the McGowan residence its earthy hues. The colors aren’t uniform as they are with paint, but the architect says our eyes actually prefer variety, because nature doesn’t come in monochrome. “If you look at a leaf that is green, you’re not going to see one shade of green. You’re going to see several tones and hues,” she says. “And when we are in nature, our sight is enlivened, so that is what we do inside.”
The finishes also naturally absorb moisture, then expel it, so mold growth is inhibited – even in steamy rooms like kitchens and baths.
Flooring: Baker-Laporte’s floor of choice is made from a mix of earth, clay and straw, then coated with several layers of natural oils and beeswax. But in the McGowan house, the client opted for red birch floors in the main living areas, which gave the home a warm, welcoming feel, as well as easy-to-clean stone tile in the entryway and bath.
Insulation: The earthen walls naturally keep homes warm in winter and cool in summer, and with less heating and cooling required, there are fewer opportunities for allergy triggers to circulate, and fewer greenhouse gases heading into the environment. Baker-Laporte does employ conventional insulation, such as cellulose or formaldehyde-free fiberglass, in the roof to prevent the heat from escaping. In the McGowan House, she used open-cell spray foam which keeps heat in but still allows moisture to pass through, so mold has a tougher time setting up shop.
Cabinets and Counters: While most particle board and plywood uses formaldehyde as a binding agent, there are some manufacturers who produce products that are free of the common asthma trigger – and the custom cabinet maker used those safe materials for the McGowan kitchen. After the cabinets were varnished, they were left to off-gas in the factory before being installed. For counters, the client opted for solid granite.
Extras: The client’s parrots got their very own aviary right off the kitchen, which also offers access to an outdoor area.
“When you walk into a house that was made using natural materials, it’s enlivening. We have been visited by hundreds if not thousands of curiosity seekers from around the world, and their first comment is usually, ‘It feels so peaceful in here’ – which is how we feel in nature,” says Baker-Laporte, who lives in an EcoNest home with her partner, Robert Laporte. “And for me it’s not a theory, because living in the environment is proof.”
Dockside Green Condominiums
Condo living may be stylish and convenient, but since developers often opt for inexpensive carpets, paints and other finishes that can off-gas VOCs for months, it’s not always picture perfect for those with asthma, allergies and chemical sensitivities.
But residents of Dockside Green, a waterfront condo development in Victoria, British Columbia, not only enjoy modern perks like gleaming granite countertops and stainless appliances: they can breathe easier knowing they’ve bought into one of the greenest – and healthiest – condo complexes in all of North America.
Designed by Perkins + Will, the award-winning development landed the coveted LEED Platinum certification, and is packed with resource-saving measures including onsite waste water treatment, a biomass gasification plant that creates fuel for heating and cooling, rooftop gardens and low-E windows, as well as social initiatives such as low-income units. The designers also made sure the suites were winners when it came to air quality.
“As a firm we had demonstrated that we could deliver a green building. But the next level was to develop an entire neighborhood that these buildings could fit into,” says architect Robert Drew of Perkins + Will, an international architecture firm that’s well-known for its sustainable designs. “We were able to translate everything we knew about a building into a neighborhood – and then that filtered back into the success of the buildings. There was definitely a reciprocal relationship between the two.”
Heating/Cooling/Air Filtering: Residents of Dockside Green are treated to fresh air year-round, which helps prevent dusts, molds, pollens and VOCs from circulating and re-circulating. Rather, the seaside air is pulled into the suite, passes over a fan coil that warms it when the weather is chilly, then a fan unit on the roof pulls the air back out again. So how can heating all that air possibly be green? Before it heads out, the air passes through recovery units that collect the heat and direct it back into the energy loop. To boot, each of the fan coil units is equipped with a HEPA filter, which pulls out any allergens and pollutants before the air hits the suite.
Flooring: Instead of conventional wall-to-wall carpets, many of which contain a host of off-gassing chemicals, wool carpeting was the flooring of choice for the main living areas of the suites. A low-VOC adhesive was also used in the installation. Durable and easy-to-clean porcelain tiles line the floors in the kitchens and baths – and the architects made sure to use safe grouts that don’t off-gas.
Cabinets and Counters: To keep air quality high, the kitchen cabinets were made from formaldehyde-free wheat board, and owners could choose between a dark wood veneer or a lighter bamboo look for the doors. Kitchen counters were given the luxurious look of golden granite – without any off-gassing downside.
Wall Finishes: Many condo developers keep costs down with paints that emit asthma-triggering chemicals. But at Dockside Green, walls were painted with low-VOC or no-VOC paints, and Drew could literally smell the difference. “I’ve been in lots of buildings where it takes a long time to exhaust all of the contaminants out of materials,” he says. “But those suites never smelled at all – and the paint is obviously a huge contributor to that.”
Insulation: The architects chose a two-layer system to give the buildings’ thermal performance a serious boost. Formaldehyde-free batt insulation was used to fill the wall cavities, then an extra layer of mineral wool insulation was added to the exterior sheathing to minimize energy loss and maximize comfort.
Extras: When the new residents moved in, they received a kit filled with environmentally friendly cleaning products and a compost bin, so that from day one, they could help keep their suites clean, green and more asthma-friendly. The suites were also equipped with programmable meters that allow residents to easily control heat and ventilation – even from smartphones and tablets – and to keep tabs on their energy use.
“We went through a whole bunch of air quality testing in these suites, and got really good results,” says Drew, who says that both buildings are also using even less energy than expected. “In fact, the air quality inside is actually slightly better than that outside, simply because you are able to filter out some of the particulates and allergens.”
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