Of the nearly 80,000 chemicals in commerce, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tested only 200 for toxicity. These chemicals contribute to indoor air that’s five to 10 times more unhealthy than outside air. And children now spend an average of 90 to 97 percent of their time indoors.
Based on these sobering statistics, green building veteran David Mosrie presented a number of fine solutions for making our homes healthy and toxin-free in “Exploring a Health-Based Model for Sustainability” on The Healthy House Institute’s website this week.
“The vogue strategy in the U.S. green building industry of airtight shells and chemically based construction materials, driven by an unchecked zeal to pursue increasingly incremental energy efficiency savings, is broadly accepted throughout the industry,” Mosrie writes. “However, we feel this strategy and the value structure that supports it should be earnestly re-examined. We feel there is a better way. “
Mosrie and Anthony Brenner founded Push Design in Asheville, North Carolina, after Brenner discovered that his 9-year-old developmentally disabled daughter suffered from an acute case of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome (MCS). Upon further investigation, the team discovered that 4 million people in the United States suffer from MCS, and significantly more suffer from lower grade forms of environmental and chemical sensitivities, including childhood asthma. According the American Medical Association, polluted air causes 94 percent of all respiratory ailments, accounting for a third of the total cost of health care in the United States. “Through one father’s passionate quest to build a safe and healthy environment for his daughter we discovered a promising new path for sustainable design and construction,” Mosrie explains.
Push Design built a “formative model for what we feel is the next frontier of sustainable design and construction.” They developed their Health-Based Building strategy after tackling three key issues.
1. Energy Efficiency—At What Cost?
“While energy efficiency is without question an important component of sustainability, it is but a single component, and establishing it as the defining parameter and main measure is a misappropriation,” Mosrie states.” A more comprehensive perspective is called for. Is an energy efficient home that does not sincerely account for the environmental impact or long-term health effects of its residents truly sustainable?”
2. Reasess Values and Priorities
“We put forth the premise that the overriding principle should be Health. Health can then be divided into two major categories – Human Health and Environmental Health. Energy Efficiency is but a component of the latter subcategory, and should be reassigned to this position.”
3. Restructure Values for Health-Based Building
“As we work regularly with hypersensitive clients, we have developed strategies and implemented materials that prove that a significantly higher standard of health can be implemented without sacrificing performance or incurring significant additional costs.”
Push Design’s model incorporates the following basic design principles:
One of the major failings in modern building practice is an over-reliance on mechanical solutions and the lack of sincere exploration of the potential impact of passive strategies, Mosrie states. He advocates scaled down active systems as a secondary strategy while maximizing passive strategies such as thermal mass and breathable wall systems first.
The Precautionary Principle states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. “The current system has effectively given the public a false assurance that a stricter protection standard has been established, either by the government or the certifying authority, where actually the average LEED-certified building achieves only 6 percent of its total points for ‘indoor environmental quality,’ the category most closely tied to health,” Mosrie states.
“We often face the offhand objection that our approach must be significantly more expensive as we employ materials that are at a premium price,” Mosrie states. “However, our recent projects have come at market cost or less when the final tally was calculated—and with a unique palate of benefits not found in most projects (carbon negativity, nearly toxin-free, mold-resistant, pest resistant, others).” The team takes a systems-based approach and keeps an open mind to new materials and solutions.
“Although we applaud the advance of the sustainability industry in the U.S. over the last 10 years, we have not yet achieved our goals,” Mosrie concludes. “We are confident that the use of dangerous and impactful industrial chemicals is not the solution, and that this strategy does not reflect the core principles of sustainability or ecological design. We should attain to a higher standard. In fact, we must. “
You can create an energy-efficient yet toxin-free home. Photo By Marshal Safron