The Ins and Outs of Healthy Homes
Whether building or buying, we rarely think about creating a house fit for our children’s children’s children. But Susanne Brutscher, a German building biologist, is on a mission to change the way we think about our homes - inside and out. Building biology emerged in Germany in the 1970’s, and spread to Oceania in the noughties. Focusing on chemical-free, ‘green’ building styles (including wooden houses, mud brick and cob), the science includes aspects of medicine, chemistry, biology and psychology. “Building biology looks at the life and health of the building, the life of the people in the building, and the connection between people, their habitats and nature,” Susanne explains.
The age-old adage “it’s what’s on the inside counts” also holds true for homes, insists Susanne. She suggests that before anything is purchased a whole host of factors should be considered, from the durability and maintenance of the product, to the production components and their disposal and the health impacts of a product or material. “The more natural the better. There is almost always a natural alternative for every product in the house.”
BOX FOCUS ON: MOULD
Mould is a cause for diseases including asthma. Check under the carpets, inside the walls and around windows for dampness. Choose: Bare wood, concrete floors or tiles instead of carpets. Cover with mats or rugs that can be sun-cleaned each year, and kiss goodbye to secret mould growth and chemical carpet cleaners.
Treated pine contains copper chrome arsenic, a toxic material that leaches into soil and groundwater. Choose: Natural timbers such as macrocarpa, douglas fir, and recycled native hardwoods. Never burn treated timber.
Windows are key for airflow. If a house is too airtight the costs saved in insulation will be spent on air conditioning. Choose: Small panel windows to allow cross ventilation for fresh air flow.
Use passive heating from the sun to heat your house, and natural shading from deciduous trees to block the sun in summer, and let winter light in when leaves drop.
There’s plenty of research questioning the safety of Wi-Fi, says Suzanne. Some policies issued by insurance giant Lloyd’s now exclude cover for illnesses caused by long-term exposure to electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and Wi-Fi, and the World Health Organisation has classified exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields – such as Wi-Fi - as a ‘possible carcinogen’. Choose: Cables over Wi-Fi. Keep routers away from children and turn off at night.
Some products contain hazardous materials. Keep an eye out for:
- Formaldehyde; a known carcinogen. Found in: Pressed wood products like medium density fibreboard (MDF), paints, wood finishes, and foam insulation
- Polyurethane; a major irritant and asthma-causing agent. Found in: Foam, seating, bedding and insulation.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC); PVC production creates dioxins which interfere with hormones and are a potent carcinogen. Dioxins are also persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that stick around and bioaccumulate up the food chain. Found in: Plastic PVC wood flooring.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs); these carbon compounds evaporate into the air we breathe creating long-term health impacts. Found in: Most paints.
- Flame retardants; very toxic chemicals added to products to reduce their flammability. They also persist in the environment. Found in: Fabric, furniture, electronic equipment and foam cushions.
CHOOSE: VOC-free paints; second-hand or natural alternatives to foam pillows (e.g. down or feather), and mattresses (especially baby mattresses). Hold onto your old foam cushions - the longer you have them, the more they have emitted over time and the safer they are.
The building biologist
Growing up in Bavaria among a family of architects, engineers and builders, “the general conversations were always around building houses,” says Susanne. She trained as a nurse, and found a number of patients suffered health problems due to materials used in their houses.
Moving to New Zealand in 1994, she set up an eco health retreat in Nelson built to European standards (double glazing, woolen insulation, non-toxic building materials, and wooden ceilings and floors). “Everything was designed to be healthy. We thought about the end of life of the project, making sure everything could integrate back into nature at the end.”
During a period of ill health, Suzanne studied to become an interior designer and a building biologist. She now runs her own consulting firm, Greenhome Designs, which focuses on building biology (including a ‘healthy house’ test) and interior design.
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