The green wave is moving across the country and everyone seems to have been touched by it in some form. Consumers are beginning to realize that green homes sell faster, and for more money than non-green homes. And once they discover that families living in green homes are happier, healthier and more productive as well…they are sold. Unfortunately however, the green movement is failing to fully educate the consumer on what it means to be green. Building green is just the foundation to living a green lifestyle. In order to fully take advantage of the health benefits of green building, you have to understand the whole picture.
While a crucial component of being green is the sustainable use of resources and having a low environmental impact, a larger part that is often overlooked considers the impact products have on the health of the residents. According to the EPA, indoor environments are typically two to five times more toxic than the outdoors. This is especially alarming because statistically, we spend 90% of our time indoors. Standard home building materials such as adhesives and finishes contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Especially for energy efficient homes with tight envelopes, these toxic vapors remain in the home and can unknowingly cause health problems over time. Off-gassing has become a more relevant problem in newer buildings, due to a major change in global construction practices. Older buildings were designed to have plenty of natural ventilation and ample window area, which limited the accumulation of air pollutants; on the other hand, newer buildings are designed to be airtight, with the goal of improving energy efficiency. However, airtightness also creates conditions for higher air pollutant levels, unless products are properly specified and spaces are properly ventilated. Aside from the building materials themselves, furniture, clothing and many other products used in households are made with noxious chemicals during their manufacturing process. These chemicals are absorbed by many types of surfaces, especially porous materials, and many are classified as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These substances are notorious for causing irritation and allergic reactions in humans, and have also been known to be associated with more severe or devastating health conditions after prolonged exposure.
There are also some misconceptions about the meaning of building and living green. One of the biggest is about the word “natural”. Many believe that this word means that a product is safe to use or eat, but this usually isn’t the case. For example, radon, lead, and mold are all naturally occurring but are highly toxic. Another misconception is the belief that if a home is built in a healthy way, then a healthy environment is ensured. However, it’s really up to the homeowner to maintain a clean home through behavioral strategies. To really consider the health of the homeowner, you have to maintain the long-term health of the build long after it is finished. This means implementing suggested behavioral strategies such as using non-toxic cleaners, locking up chemicals, cleaning vents and ductwork regularly, removing shoes and doing a deep clean twice a year.
The building itself, and behavioral strategies, are not the only considerations when understanding green building. You also have to consider its contents. If we build a green home for our client, and then they fill it with furniture that is made with toxins, the wellness circle is detrimentally disrupted. Furniture (and furnishings) are responsible for a large part of indoor pollution because they are filled with added formaldehydes and other VOCs. Fabrics from upholstered goods are traditionally filled with chemicals to retard stains and flammability, while the frames and cushions are filled with glues, resins, and harmful finishes. This applies to all types of furnishings from upholstered items, to casegoods, and to even area rugs.
The solution is to look for brands that are flame retardant-free, fully recyclable and use solid wood frames, certified organic textiles, and water based adhesives and finishes. Specifically, you should seek out quality furnishings that are smart, healthy, and responsible by choosing companies that use FSC certified woods, natural latex, jute, hemp, wool, goose feathers and down. In the event one is allergic to any of these natural materials, or a byproduct thereof (like dust mites who love down), there are some conscientious manufacturers that offer certified non-toxic and synthetic materials used as alternatives. These natural materials are not only superior in terms of comfort and lifespan, but can be inherently flame retardant without the use of chemicals. Once you understand what it truly means to design, and build green, you will be empowered to experience whole living.