No place like home

Posted 11/14/19

Every autumn, we button up the house in preparation for winter, trading out screens for storm-door inserts, checking for new drafts and leaky weather stripping and giving the woodstove its annual …

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No place like home


Every autumn, we button up the house in preparation for winter, trading out screens for storm-door inserts, checking for new drafts and leaky weather stripping and giving the woodstove its annual checkup. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, this comfortable ritual reminds me how much I love our creaky old house and how generously it has repaid our care over the years.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio proposed three elements to define a well-designed building. The first, firmitas, referred to the structural integrity that provides shelter and security. The second, utilitas, described the arrangement of space and functions that meet the needs of the building’s occupants. The final attribute, venustas, signified the aesthetic qualities that produce pleasure through visual beauty. Those words, most memorably translated as “firmness, commodity and delight,” have remained an inspiration for architects and designers up to our own time. Through the lens of my recent work, and also perhaps because I am getting older, I am more and more focused on the ways our houses can also help sustain our health. It turns out that there is a lot of new statistical evidence to support the notion that energy-efficient homes made with healthy building materials can, in fact, protect and even improve our health and well-being.

The intersection of health and green building has been studied by numerous organizations and agencies, including state departments of health, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health has created very useful materials that summarize the health damage caused by chemicals such as formaldehyde, phthalates, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and flame retardants found in a range of products used in the home, from paints and finishes to upholstery, flooring and air fresheners. Many of these chemicals are included on the materials “red list” maintained on International Living Future Institute’s Materially Better website.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy published a survey of the existing literature on the “non-energy benefits” of energy efficiency, “Home Rx: The Health Benefits of Home Performance.” Their report documents significant health benefits for residents living in homes that feature a high energy-efficiency standard, verified green-building materials; effective mechanical ventilation; and elimination of combustion appliances for heating, hot water and cooking. All of these measures reduce occupants’ exposure to toxic indoor-air pollutants including mold, and chemicals that are off-gassed by red-listed building materials and finishes. The results include improved blood pressure; reduced cardiovascular disease, hypertension, fatigue and stress; and reduced hospitalizations and emergency room visits related to respiratory illnesses including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Of course, eliminating combustion appliances also reduces the danger of residential fires and carbon-monoxide poisoning.

One of the most startling discoveries I’ve made in my research has been the direct connection between energy efficiency and financial health for low- and middle-income families. A 2013 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Community Capital and the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), “Home Energy Efficiency and Mortgage Risks,” compared data from 71,000 homes in 38 states and the District of Columbia. The results showed that borrowers living in Energy Star-rated energy efficient homes were 32 percent less likely to default on their mortgages, and the risk was reduced in direct proportion to the level of efficiency achieved in the home. Studies in Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington State have indicated that families living in Energy-Star homes have significantly lower healthcare costs, including Medicaid payouts.

Firmness, commodity and delight, elements in the built environment that contribute to our physical and mental well-being, are embodied in our modern understanding of sustainable buildings that conserve energy and avoid harmful systems and materials.

Health Rx US Department of Energy
Healthy Buildings at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Materially Better—the living building challenge
Home Energy Efficiency and Mortgage Risks (IMT and UNC Chapel Hill)

Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, building, energy efficient homes


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