Healthy Homes

Saltscapes Magazine, November/December 2007

It can be a scary world out there. We’re bombarded with messages about dangers to our health and happiness from what seems like all corners these days. Rates of diseases like cancer, asthma and chronic diseases are allon the rise and then we’re told culprits can range from our food to the toys our kids play with to the very homes we live in. The tenuous control we hold over our lives can often seem very fragile indeed.

More and more people are looking for ways to bring some of that control back into their lives. Whether it’s through things like physical exercise or choosing organic foods we want to know we’re making the right choices for ourselves and our families. Now some people are looking beyond their own bodies and into the environment around them as a way to control what’s happening to our fragile bodies.

When Greg Muzatti and his family decided to build a home in Mahone Bay they searched for a contractor that would let them make the decisions about the environment the family would be living in.
“It was made the way we wanted it to be,” says Muzatti, “even down to the point of having them not smoke in the building when it was under construction.” He spent months researching everything from the non-toxic insulation to the solar heating panels to the electric furnace. He says the result is a four-bedroom, 2,800-square-foot house he says he can feel confident will help keep his family healthy.

“I feel much more confident our kids won’t develop asthma or some malady down the road due to off-gassing,” says Muzzatti. Owner of an online retail business and a stay-at-home dad, he admits he wanted control over his environment and says a contractor willing to look at non-toxic construction methods gave that to him.

“We don’t have any particular health concerns in our house as far as asthma or allergies go,” he says, “but I’m not comfortable with fibreglass insulation. I don’t like fumes from an oil furnace.”
Muzzatti opted for ICF construction, which uses Styrofoam blocks filled with concrete, and p2000 insulation in the ceilings. He says the result has been impressive temperature control. “Just as an example, recently at 34°C outside our temperature inside the house remained at 24.5°C.” He also has no worries about formaldehyde in the insulation. No method is perfect, and most building materials have some chemical content, but Muzzatti says he has more confidence in his home than the traditional plywood structure.

More and more people are looking for alternative says Richard Lind of the Canadian Home Builders Association. The Lunnenberg County Builder says interest has increased over the last five years and he says the industry is responding. When he built a home for a client with environmental sensitivities nearly 15 years ago he says the products he neededwe scarce and hard to find. “What I’venotice is that since then many of the things that were really leading edge and innovative at the time are becoming much more common place.”

“There has been a steady movement towards healthier materials,” says Lind. He says materials like flooring supplies and paint have much lower levels of chemical off-gassing than just 10 years ago.

The problem is the science has not kept up with the public interest. Dr. Virginia Salares, a senior researcher at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, says we really don’t know what the cemicals in our air do to our bodies. “What it actually does to people, we don’t know enough,” but as Canadians spend about 90% of their time indoors, she says it’s prudent to take precautions.

While the link between respiratory problems and environmental sensitivities and air quality is still being studied, we do know more people are reporting problems. Jyl Bishop-Veale, a naturopath in Wolfville,NS, she says a quarter of her patients have some kind of sensitivity to their home or work environment. Shesays people react to all kinds of chemicals in their homes but the worst offenders are mold and dust-mites. “People don’t really understand what’s in the walls,” says Bishop-Veale. “People live under the assumption these products are safe and they don’t worry about it. I don’t think they do know. That would be one of my questions if someone came in feeling unwell,what’s new in your environment? Have you recently renovated? Have you moved into a new place?”

Bishop-Veale says formaldehyde is a big offender when it comes to environmental sensitivities. She says when people come in complaining of non-specific symptoms like lethargy, fatigue or malaise she often looks to the patient’s kitchen, saying new cabinets, if not made of solid wood, can be a problem because of the potential formaldehyde content.

Exposed particle board is a concern for the CMHC’s Dr. Salares. “If you’ve got particle board exposed, you’ve got a high potential for gasses to be released,” she says. Salares recommends using solid wood where possible and choosing plywood rather than composite materials like MDF because there’s less exposed glue.

Another big concern for Salares is humidity. She says basements are at high risk for developing mould. She says the best option is to go with out a basement or crawl space but admits, “there’s a lot of resistance to this concept.” She says if you really feel you need an underground space at leastmake sure it’s heated. Leaving the area cold can result in condensation she says and “that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Humidity is something Jorn Schroder looked at seriously when he built his home in Tatamagouche, NS. The German immigrant and architectural consultant says he has little confidence in the traditional North American method of building plywood homes with a vapour barrier over fiber insulation. “No contractor is able to close in a plastic foil so that there is no moisture going into that wall construction,” says Schroder. “I don’t want to live in a plastic bag”
Using European methods Schroder used a mixture of timber frame and frame construction with cellulose insulation. He says everything is vented to the outside of the home to prevent moisture build-up. Schroder also used clay for the interior walls. He says the walls absorb or release humidity as needed and limit the chance of mould build-up. “We never had foggy mirrors in the bathroom when we take a shower.”

Ian Startup says he, too, is starting to see more interest in non-toxic methods of building and in more environmentally friendly living. The Queens County R-2000 home builder and designer promotes the idea of green building. To
back up his efforts he established Hawthorne Hill, a 45-acre lot in Mahone Bay he’s selling as a green neighbourhood. The subdivision has rules about environmentally responsible building and living, it bans things like chemical
pesticides and dryer sheets, and sets aside green space for its residents.

“Some people are very interested in a healthy lifestyle, they want to exercise, they eat organic food,” says Startup. “I get responses to my website all the time from people who are just so enthusiastic about this concept.”
Startup says the idea came from his wife Margo Kleiker’s naturopathic practice. He says many of her patients suffered because of things like indoor pollutants, moulds and chemicals. Startup says many people just don’t know what is in the air they’re breathing at home.

“I think they’d be stunned, I think they’d be astonished. I built a home in Mahone Bay last fall. I had several people stop by to observe the house under construction and several of them commented that
the house didn’t have that new house smell,” says Startup. He says the smell they refer to is, in fact, “all these off-gassing products, all the off-gassing chipboard and particle board and paint and caulking, all of those products just weren’t in the house so it didn’t have that ‘new house’ smell.”

Startup says he chooses to build with materials he says are less toxic and kinder to the human body. He uses tinted plaster instead of gyproc and paint, and lumber instead of particle board or plywood.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed about the construction of the homes is that it doesn’t really increase the cost. A lot of these modern building materials that do have a high toxic load have been developed primarily for the convenience of the builder. The builder really has to take a step back and start to making choice that are going to result in a healthier environment for the occupants of the home and not think about his own convenience first. Lumber is cheaper than plywood so choosing a healthier product is going to save money. However, there is more skill required in putting the lumber in place, so the labour component is a little bit higher, but it’s compensated for by the fact that materials are cheaper.”

That’s not true in all cases, though. Hugh McGoldrick operates 1850 House in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, a business that takes down and reuses wood from antique homes and other buildings. He claims
the wood is much healthier because it was cut before the era of industrial pollution. “It’s just like a human being. What if a human being just kept sucking all this pollution into their body, which is what is happening to people. After a while, they develop illnesses, cancer, leukemia. It’s the same thing with trees.”

McGoldrick admits building a home with an antique frame and all antique wood is expensive but he claims it will last several lifetimes. He says that’s not the case with many homes being built today. “It’s all about the healthy wood. If you’re building a structure with unhealthy materials, what are you going to get? You’re going to get an unhealthy structure.”

He says there is a lot of interest in his product but most of his sales are not taking place here in the Atlantic Provinces. Instead he says much of the interest is from the United States and Western Canada. “I have a huge demand but unfortunately here in the Maritimes it’s a learning curve, it’s about a mature market.”

But interest is growing says Greg Muzzatti. He says he was impressed with just how much of the material he wanted to use for his home was available locally. “We used pine siding on our home from a local mill, then we put a stain on it that’s environmentally friendly. We applied it ourselves. That was available also in Halifax. All these technologies were very readily available in Atlantic Canada, so it has a real good Atlantic Canada flavour.”

As for cost, Muzzatti says some things were more expensive but in the end he figures the overall cost was on par with the average price of building a new home. His research was extensive but he says the result was worth it. After a year living in his new home he has confidence it’s a healthy environment for his two young kids. “I’m not worried about (chemicals) absorbing in the walls and ceiling and it’s all affordable,” says Muzzatti. “I just found I needed a contractor that was flexible and willing to look at new technologies.”