By Sarah K. Highland
If a fundamental principle of health is that you are what you eat, then the basic premise of healthy homebuilding is that you ought to be able to eat your house. If you have kids or pets, you may know what I'm talking about. For the rest of you, imagine a door viewed through a very powerful microscope. Every time it opens and closes, particles of the door rub off and waft through the air or fall to the floor. If the door is made of real wood, with an edible finish, well and good. If, however, it's covered with paint or made of a plastic composite, those particles floating around the house won't be so good for you, especially if they land on a kitchen cutting board.
Now let's take a microscopic look at a wall. There may not be visible cracks in the surface, but anywhere there's an electrical outlet there is a hole in the wall that may connect directly to the insulation cavity. Any drafts coming through that little hole are going to carry in with them tiny particles of insulation. Therefore, you may want to consider both of these facts when you evaluate or choose the insulation in your walls: some kinds are much more effective than others (fiberglass, though cheap, is actually not a very good insulator); and some are friendlier than others to inhale. I'd sooner eat straw than cellulose, and you couldn't pay me enough to take a mouthful of fiberglass or foam.
Even if you don't eat your house, you can be sure your builder did. I've inhaled and swallowed a lot of sawdust over the years, which is one of the many reasons I don't build with plywood. Vinyl used for flooring and siding is very toxic stuff to manufacture. Imagine the daily opportunities for breathing, ingesting and absorbing chemicals through the skin in a manufacturing facility unless strict safety procedures are followed; imagine the opportunities for leaks, spills and accidents that would affect the neighbors. The documentary Blue Vinyl takes a look (both humorous and horrifying) at the effects of the industry on real people and places. So when we're making choices about how to replace a disintegrating bathroom floor, it helps to consider not only the personal economics of the material, but the wider economics and ecologics for the greater good. Vinyl may be cheap to buy, but what other costs do we ignore in making this choice?
It can be tough to make choices that support our personal and community health, especially when stores and manufacturers of all kinds are so willing to provide products that violate these values. The alternatives are out there, though, and they're even getting easier to find. Some are traditional: Solid wood flooring and tile, for example, can both be laid down by an enterprising homeowner to save money. Cellulose insulation is an old and relatively benign product with new installation techniques that make it work far better than ever before. Meanwhile, Bioshield and other companies are devising new non-toxic paints and finishes for household use.
There seems to be a widespread cultural myth that all wood must be covered with some kind of finish or something bad will happen to it. I don't know how many times I've built someone a shelf or designed a timber frame for a client and the first question is, "How soon do I have to paint it?" While the appropriateness of painting outdoor wood is up for debate, I can state categorically that it is not strictly necessary to paint, stain or urethane most wood inside the home, and that wooden children's toys and furniture should never be painted except with a completely edible paint or oil.
If a surface will be exposed to wear and touch, you can protect it from dirt by giving it multiple coats of a natural oil finish. Most oil finishes available in stores contain many chemical additives and little real oil. In my house, the floors are finished with four coats of tung oil, ordered online; the wood-paneled ceilings have no finish; and the lid of my blanket chest has four coats of walnut oil from the salad oil shelf at GreenStar, applied with a rag. I love seeing the wood grain and watching the colors of the wood slowly change and deepen with time: a changing beauty that no stain can replicate.
Parents who want greater protection from magic markers and constant kid spills may prefer a more rugged film over wood floors or tables. Ithaca Paint and Decorating (1013 W. State St.) sells one alternative, a whey-based durable clear finish for floors and furniture. While still toxic to ingest, this product is far friendlier to manufacture and to breathe than standard polyurethane. IP&D also sells a variety of unadulterated oil finishes, milk paints, and clay finish plasters.
Remember, anytime you make a repair to the house, that process will release dust. Refinishing floors and prepping for paint jobs are tasks that generate a lot of dust. Make sure your contractor or you have the vacuums and fine filtration equipment needed to minimize the amount of dust left behind. And carefully consider the ingredients in the new materials you use, since the next time someone alters them they'll be eating and breathing whatever you choose.
It requires greater awareness to buck the conventional trends and make healthier choices for our homes. Sometimes it means searching for a special product, other times it means simply refraining from using an unnecessary finish. But GreenStar members are used to making that extra bit of effort. By working together we've made it easier to buy organic and unprocessed food. What if we join the movement to make our homes — and schools and offices — safer and more healing places to be? Our combined efforts will have ripple effects that can only change our world for the better.
Sarah Highland designs homes, consults, and teaches building. She will be giving a class at GreenStar on April 25 called "Creating a Healthful House: A Case Study." To register, sign up at GreenStar's Customer Service Desk or call 607.273.9392. You can learn more about Sarah and her workshops at www.highlandartisan.com.