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Resolved: A Healthy Home

Health is one of the core values of TreeHouse. The beginning of the year is a time when many folks take a moment to evaluate their lives, review the previous year(s), plan for the year ahead, and make “resolutions.” This year, we’d like to put having a healthy home on the radar as well. What is a healthy home? Why should you care? What can you do? This article is intended to be a sort of primer on beginning your journey to a healthy home.

Our homes really do have a profound impact on our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. I don’t want to overstate the case. Humans are, generally speaking, living longer and more prosperously than ever. However, if we want those extra years and increased prosperity to be as enjoyable as possible, then we would do well to pay attention to human biology & function and the way the systems of the body (cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, immune, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, and others) respond to our buildings. Because lurking at the edge of the good news about generally longer lives, there is some not-so-good news too: cancer, neurological diseases, and auto-immune diseases (among others) are on the rise. Why? Probably too early to say conclusively, but a wise place to start looking for answers would be the place where you spend most of your time, the place where you sleep, the place where you begin and end your day… your home.

Happy New Year, and we wish you well on your healthy home journey.

What makes a healthy home?

Air

On a list of absolute human necessities, air is right at the top. We can’t go more than a few minutes without it, and it is perhaps the most foundational aspect of our basic health & vitality. We hear lots in the media about outdoor air quality deteriorating, smog, and urban haze, but what few people realize is that our indoor air quality can actually be two to one hundred (!) times more polluted than outdoor air. Couple that with that humans have gone from spending most of their time outdoors, to most of their time indoors and you have a recipe for potential respiratory, neurological, and other health challenges.

Strategies for improving air quality include indoor smoking bans, proper ventilation, VOC (volatile organic compound) reduction, air filtration, microbe & mold control, and toxic material reduction.

Water

Next on the list of necessities for human well-being is water. We can go perhaps three minutes or so without air, and we can go perhaps three days without water. Clean drinking water is perhaps the defining difference between areas where people live long & prosper, and areas where people do not. In Austin, we are fortunate to have modern water treatment facilities, but according to the 2013 City of Austin Annual Drinking Water Quality Report there are trace amounts of fluoride, chloramines, chloroform, arsenic, and other known contaminants. Nothing to be alarmed about exactly… but still something to prevent if you can.

Luckily strategies for water purification are quite straight forward: water filtration. For Austin water, TreeHouse recommends at least a two to three stage filter that is shown to remove chloramine. We get lots of questions about reverse osmosis, and although it is true that it does the best job (short of distillation) of removing contaminants from water it is also very wasteful.

The taste of water can also be affected by mineral content. This can be corrected with water softeners.

Food

Next up on the necessities hierarchy… food. A human can survive three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. What does TreeHouse & healthy homes have to do with food? Well, much of the food we eat is prepared in the home in some way before consumption. This means the kind of surfaces we prepare our food on, and how we clean those surfaces really matters. Many contaminants that we ingest via food consumption are actually introduced after the food gets to our house because of the kind of cleaning products and materials we expose the food to.

Once again, the solution is pretty straightforward: use non-toxic cleaning products and choose naturally anti-microbial and non-toxic surfaces for food prep. This doesn’t mean you have to rip out your countertops and put new ones in. It could be as simple as choosing the right cutting board. Stone, glass, or natural materials such as wood or cork (with food grade finishes) are usually good choices.

Light

We obviously need light to see, but light affects human well-being and health in a number of other ways as well. It influences our circadian rhythms (internal, innate body clock), alertness, mood, and sleep. Humans need appropriate levels of light and darkness at appropriate times of day. The type of light also matters. Generally speaking, natural light is preferable to artificial, and extra-bright light and glare is to be avoided.

Solutions: daylighting, shading, dimming, and appropriately colored lights. Bright white lights or daylight in areas we want to be productive, and soft light in areas we want to relax and rest.

Comfort

To put it simply, our homes should ideally be places of comfort and happiness. Comfort is a difficult thing to pin down and can vary from person to person, but we know that it is affected by temperature, humidity, sound, light, smell, and ergonomics / design. Strategies for increasing comfort include properly functioning heating, air conditioning, and ventilation; exterior noise reduction; adjustable light; preventing irritating smells; and sound reverberation reduction.

Mind

To put it simply, our homes should ideally be places of comfort and happiness. Comfort is a difficult thing to pin down and can vary from person to person, but we know that it is affected by temperature, humidity, sound, light, smell, and ergonomics/design. Strategies for increasing comfort include properly functioning heating, air conditioning, and ventilation; exterior noise reduction; adjustable light; preventing irritating smells; and sound reverberation reduction.

  1. Sleep – Sleep is when your body rests and regenerates. It is as important as diet when it comes to well being. Make sure you bedroom is comfortable, quiet, and free of any harsh or glaring lights. Especially avoid lighting with strong blue or white color.
  2. Beauty – Chaos and ugliness create stress. Good home design creates harmony, order, and beauty.
  3. Biophilia – Literally translates “love of life.” We were made to be in and around nature. Homes with no outdoor views, with no sign of real, organic life can feel industrial, sterile, and well… lifeless. Get some indoor plants. Uncover the windows to your yard if you have one. Find ways to bring nature home.

Getting started: Your first steps toward a healthier home

  1. Air Filtration – make sure you change your filters regularly, and consider adding a more advanced air filtration system like those from Austin Air if you know you have poor air quality, allergies, pets, mold, or chemical sensitivities.
  2. Water Filtration – It is kind of sad that we have to filter our water, but we do. You can do something easy like a table top (and beautiful) Soma, a more advanced filter like those from Berkey, or a whole home system like those from Aquasana or Kinetico.
  3. Test – your home for mold, toxins, lead, bacteria, pesticides, etc. We have kits at TreeHouse starting at $10, and we do home water testing too.
  4. No Toxins Allowed! Make sure you know what is in that cleaner, laundry detergent, water bottle, insulation, candle, flooring finish, carpet, etc. Non-toxic alternatives are now widely available. We’ve got plenty at TreeHouse.
  5. Healthy Food Prep – Make sure your surface cleaners are non-toxic (something like Parsley Plus) and make sure you are working on non-toxic, anti-microbial surfaces like stone or a cutting board from Epicurean or ProTeak.
  6. Tree Hugging – Bring some plants into your home. They improve air quality, and being around nature is good for the soul.
  7. Sleep – Get LED lights with softer colors (no blue or white) installed in your bedroom to improve sleep (plus save energy).

Getting serious: Bigger steps toward a healthy home

  1. Let There Be (Natural) Light! – Windows, sun tunnels, or skylights in every room. You’ll feel better. Make sure they are high performance and sealed up tight so you don’t waste energy.
  2. Light Control – Dimmers, Blinds, and Shades… Because sometimes it is supposed to be dark.
  3. Sound Control – Doing a big remodel? Consider sound reduction measures for walls facing busy streets or neighbors. Indow Windows inserts also have great sound reduction performance.
  4. HVAC – Make sure your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system is up to par. Get your ducts sealed to prevent dirty, attic air from getting into the home.
  5. Reduce Loud, “Echo-y” spaces – Consider installing carpet or cork flooring in spaces that are loud or have a tendency to echo.
  6. Painting? – Make sure you use No-VOC paint. It looks the same, performs great, and is priced comparably to traditional “stinky” paint. Also, there are alternatives to latex paint such as American Clay or ROMABIO Paint.

Note on Sources

I have drawn many of my thoughts and insights from The International Well Building Institute. Their Well Building Standard is the first of its kind, and is by far the most thorough, advanced, and accessible thinking on the topic. Although it is created with commercial spaces in mind primarily, its insights can easily be repurposed for the home.