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Green-Home Design Tips: Healthy Options for a Sustainable Sanctuary

May 30, 2024 ● By Brian Johnson, BBEC, EMRS, BBNC
Light bulb green living

Boy Wirat from Getty Images

Americans spend about 90 percent of their lives indoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Unhealthy indoor environments, which might rise to the level of a sick building syndrome (SBS) diagnosis, can cause headaches; eye, nose or throat irritation; dry cough; itchy skin; nausea; fatigue; and difficulty concentrating.  

There is no need to settle for noxious, poorly ventilated, artificially illuminated, mold boxes. The best new and remodeled homes embrace eco-friendly, non-toxic and environmentally safe building designs and principles. Achieving a greener and healthier home is a collaborative process among homeowners, municipal planners, developers, architects and builders.

 

Eco-Safe Planning 

A green home begins with thoughtful planning that prioritizes sustainability, safety and health. City planners and developers need to know the history of the land to identify potential environmental hazards before the shovel goes in the ground. Previous industrial activity, legal and illegal dumping of waste material, and even past farming practices that relied on pesticides, herbicides and fungicides need to be addressed.

Due diligence extends to surrounding properties, as well. Developers also need to evaluate the sources of groundwater and locate hazards like electric substations, high-tension power lines, and nearby radio and cellular towers. Site evaluation includes soil and groundwater testing to look for hidden hazards or to determine the extent of remediation of known issues. Naturally occurring toxins in the ground such as radon should also be considered before developing a site.

 

Healthy Construction

Local building codes primarily focus on public safety, whereas green-home builders and contractors follow guidelines and principles that go beyond codes to address sustainability, as well as human health and wellness, constructing dwellings that protect occupants from unhealthy air, soil, water, noise and electromagnetic pollution. Simultaneously, they integrate sustainable materials, advanced technologies and eco-friendly practices that harmonize with the environment.

 

Ambient Quality 

Climate control in today’s homes goes beyond simply installing energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment. Homes must be as airtight as possible to ensure efficient temperature regulation, prevent pests, keep out pollutants and withstand varying weather conditions, while also having breathable systems and allowing for proper ventilation. This is achieved by incorporating passive airflow through vents and windows, as well as active systems like air-handling systems that draw in filtered, fresh air and circulate it throughout the home.

Indoor air can be burdened with positively charged ions emitted from common household items such as computers, air conditioners, fluorescent lighting and various electronic devices and appliances. Pollution, molds and toxic chemicals in the air also carry positive ions. Natural building materials such as wood, bamboo, clay, concrete and earth are breathable and produce negative ions that are found in outdoors environments like oceans, forests and waterfalls. A research review in Environmental Science and Pollution Research found that exposure to negative air ions may have a positive effect on amino acid metabolism, which manifests as reduced inflammation and anti-oxidation. Further, an International Journal of Molecular Sciences article noted that negative air ions are widely used in air cleaning and may relieve dust and mold spore allergies. Good ventilation assists in clearing out positively charged ions.

Toxic mold is a common and insidious issue, thriving in environments with excess moisture and temperatures ranging from 77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Sensitivity to molds varies among individuals, leading to minor reactions like a stuffy nose or itchy eyes for some, while those with mold allergies and asthma may experience more severe symptoms.

Building practices should incorporate techniques to minimize moisture content during the construction process. Additionally, it is essential to conduct inspections and tests for mold before installing insulation and closing walls. Both natural and synthetic materials, such as wood and plastic, when exposed to moisture vapor, can create favorable conditions for the growth of harmful molds. Ensuring adequate ventilation and properly installing equipment that may contribute to condensation, such as air conditioning units and dehumidifiers, play a vital role in minimizing the likelihood of mold growth.

Acoustic protection from noise and vibration adds to the overall quality of living spaces. Our nervous system needs periods of peace and quiet. Noise can come from various sources, such as traffic, neighbors or appliances. Vibration might be caused by machinery or other nearby forces. Thoughtful building practices incorporate building materials that help block, absorb, mitigate or reduce noise and vibration. These include soundproofing, insulated walls, low-emissivity (Low-E) dual-glazed windows filled with gas, and plaster and clay-based paint systems.

 

Environmental Responsibility

Environmental consciousness is the common thread—from concept to completion—of a green build. This includes conservation of natural resources, use of socially responsible materials and execution of energy-efficient practices. Choosing materials that prioritize both environmental sustainability and human well-being, from the extraction phase to end-of-life disposal, is crucial.

For example, locally sourced materials like clay, lime-based mortars and natural stone can reduce a home’s carbon footprint by minimizing the need for extensive transportation. Avoid materials that introduce harmful toxins into the home over time, such as engineered wood, plastic, spray foams, metal, glues and adhesives that contain polymers and formaldehyde, which off-gas toxic chemicals. Green builders use low chemical emission products certified by UL Green Guard. Additionally, some concrete fly ash contains naturally occurring uranium and thorium that have the potential to release harmful radiation.

Minimizing energy consumption throughout a building’s life cycle is possible through energy-efficient design, energy-smart technology and appliances, and renewable energy sources like solar power and geothermal climate systems. Responsible building also involves consideration of the long-term impact of a material or appliance throughout its entire life cycle—from raw material extraction and manufacturing to transportation, installation, use and eventual disposal or recycling. Some examples include the use of sustainably harvested timber, recycled steel, and products and appliances certified by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Conscientious builders and consumers also look for Declare labels that flag a product’s chemical ingredients and provide final assembly locations, life expectancy, end-of-life options and compliance with leading green-building standards.

Choosing materials and appliances with lower environmental-lifecycle costs means prioritizing options that are not only environmentally friendly in their production and use but also have minimal negative effects when reaching the end of their useful life. This holistic approach ensures that the overall environmental impact of the building process is minimized, contributing to sustainable and responsible construction practices.

Conserving shrinking water resources and minimizing contaminants in a home’s drinking water are essential to planetary and human health. Green homes include water-saving technologies such as rainwater harvesting systems and low-flow toilets and showerheads. They also include water purification systems to reduce the occupant’s exposure to lead, heavy metals, chlorine and other chemicals and pollutants.

 

Electrical Systems

In today’s digital age, we are consistently exposed to elevated levels of electromagnetic fields (EMF), which are invisible areas of energy associated with the use of electrical power, as well as natural and manmade types of light. EMF exposure can originate from electrical fields generated by wiring, radio frequencies from cellular and wireless devices, and micro-electrical surge pollution from transformers, motors, power supplies or solar equipment.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluated cancer risks from radiofrequency radiation (RFR) and classified it as a possible human carcinogen. A paper in Environmental Research concluded that “there is substantial scientific evidence that RFR causes cancer, endocrinological, neurological and other adverse health effects.”Accounting for these findings in a green build may identify areas to address for mitigation.

Prioritizing natural light and using colors in harmony with nature not only promote sustainability, but also create aesthetically pleasing spaces. Low-E windows allow natural light to enter the home while deflecting harmful ultraviolet rays and infrared light, reducing energy bills and blocking radio frequencies.

Green, healthy homes include advancements in lighting that go beyond the LED light bulb, taking into consideration light intensity, color frequencies and placement decisions, all of which can affect our circadian rhythm and reduce EMF exposure. Newer fixtures mimic the sun indoors by automatically changing color, intensity and frequency throughout the day and night to support our natural body clock. 

The design and installation of the electrical system can have a significant effect on EMFs in the home. In a green home, the electrical panel and high-EMF emitting appliances like the refrigerator are not placed against bedroom walls. Wires are run in single, continuous circuits, without junctions and extensions, to reduce the system’s EMF profile. Bedrooms may incorporate electric kill switches to provide an EMF-free sleep environment and coax occupants to charge their cell phone in another room.

As the world goes wireless with advances like 5G, green homes take a different approach to reduce EMF exposure. The home’s internet connections, including those for computers, printers, televisions and game systems, are hardwired, which also increases connectivity and speed. Additionally, reconnecting the landline phone not only improves call clarity, but also contributes to reducing overall exposure.

Brian Johnson is the CEO of SENERGY360, where he is a certified building biologist and general contractor working to bring optimized living solutions and approaches to modern living, creating efficient and sustainable home environments. Check out his monthly “Healthy Homes Show” at KnoWEwell.com.


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