Designing and Building with Chemical Sensitivity in Mind

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By Molly Erin McCabe, AKBD, CGP

Most design projects begin by drafting and prioritizing the client’s wish list. At the top of the list you will typically find more storage, better lighting, updated finishes, etc. However, when a Homeowner has Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), the priorities change with indoor air quality and chemical free maintenance hitting the top of the list.

As an asthma sufferer, I designed and built my own house with these specifications and relished the opportunity to do it again when I was approached by a prospective client with severe chemical sensitivities.

The client had a poorly designed master bath which had a vaulted ceiling with an exhaust fan set 12’ off the floor that was ducted into the roof space. Additionally, the room had improperly installed and maintained tile which had created a black mold problem. The net result was poor indoor air quality as well as cleaning and maintenance issues that kept the homeowners from even using the bathroom. When the homeowners found out they were expecting their first child, they realized it was time to seriously tackle the master bathroom’s numerous issues.

MCS, as defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, is a physical condition whereby the affected person reports sensitivity or intolerance to a variety of common chemicals, both natural and synthetic, at very low levels. Common irritants include: cleaning agents (bleach, soaps and detergents), paints, and varnishes (including sealants, caulks and glues), as well as upholstery, carpet, furniture and cabinetry that have been treated or manufactured with common chemicals such as formaldehyde resins (a known carcinogen), pesticides and other toxic solvents.

These substances and materials have a tendency to “off-gas” a variety of chemical irritants referred to as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which compromise the indoor air quality (IAQ) of the home. Today’s energy efficient “tight” homes trap these irritants indoors potentially impacting the health of the occupants. Symptoms include: sore throat, watery eyes, nausea, headaches, muscle and joint pain, memory loss, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, skin rashes, chronic allergies, sleep interruption, behavior issues, brain damage and depression.

Architects, designers and builders have an ethical obligation to educate homeowners on their options for incorporating low/non-toxic materials that will render any project safe and healthy for its occupants.  As a base line, here are some primary selection criteria for consideration:

  • Natural hard surface flooring such as cork, linoleum, wood or tile instead of carpeting, laminate or vinyl to minimize off-gassing and the harboring of dust mites, mildew and/or bacteria.
  • Low/No VOC paints and finishes over their high VOC brethren – look for third party certifications such as Green Seal (www.greenseal.org) or Green Guard (www.greenguard.org) for assurance of low VOC levels.
  • Vintage furniture has likely already off-gassed its toxic components so consider buying used. If new furnishings is what you need, look for a manufacturer’s membership in the Sustainable Furnishings Council (www.sustainablefurnishings.org) which promotes the manufacturing of sustainable, low toxicity products.
  • Stock or semi-custom cabinetry that has earned the Environmental Stewardship Program seal from the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA - www.greencabinetsource.org).
  • Custom made cabinetry and furniture that uses only no added formaldehyde plywood, particle board and/or medium density fiber board (MDF) along with low VOC finishes and adhesives.
  • Countertop materials that don’t contain high VOC glues, resins or other toxic binding agents and can be maintained without the use of high VOC sealants and cleaning agents.
  • Untreated natural fibers such as wool, cotton, jute, etc. rather than synthetic fiber materials for window coverings and furnishings.
  • Materials that do not require toxic cleaning agents for routine maintenance.
  • Analyze and supplement, where necessary, the home’s ventilation including upgrading kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, installing a filter on a forced air furnace and/or installing a room air exchanger.

Remedies for the client’s toxic bathroom:

  • Installed an 8’ flat ceiling over the shower with a new exhaust fan vented to the outside of the house; installed a second fan in the water closet.
  • Replaced shag carpet with Marmoleum (natural sheet linoleum) flooring.
  • Used no-VOC Benjamin Moore Natural paint for walls and ceiling.
  • Cabinetry was comprised of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Alder doors and drawer fronts with FSC maple plywood cabinet and drawer boxes and a low-VOC finish and adhesives.
  • Replaced tile with solid surface countertop and shower surround (slab and panels) fabricated with low-VOC adhesives and caulks. These surfaces are very low maintenance and require no toxic cleaners for near or long-term maintenance.
  • Installed pre-finished millwork.

To minimize the impact of the built environment on the health of a home’s occupants it is important to do your homework and have a clear understanding of not only the manufacturing process but also the maintenance requirements of the components and finishes being specified. Working with professional architects, designers and/or builders, who are well versed in the area of environmental design and construction, is one way to ensure that selected materials and finishes meet the needs of the MCS sufferer. For those consumers who would like to have a deeper understanding there are many resources available to help you make good, healthy choices.

Further Resources

The Healthy House by John Bower (2000)

The Healthy House Institute - www.healthyhouseinstitute.com

Washington State Chemical Sensitivity Network - wsmcsn@yahoogroups.com

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