Can This Home Be Can This Home Be Greened? A House That Breathes Easier: Improving Indoor Air Quality? A House That Breathes Easier

A Colorado woman seeks to improve air quality in her home.


Povy Kendal Atchison

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In her home in Centennial, Colorado, Debbie Gundling takes medication daily just to live comfortably. She has allergic asthma, a swelling of the breathing passages from allergies, most likely associated with her dust sensitivity. “I realized one day that my house might be exacerbating my condition—and this motivated me to research green building,” Debbie says.

Debbie, an IBM marketing manager, shares her 3,800-square-foot townhouse (built in 1981) with her sister, Connie Simpson, and her father, Dave Gundling. Connie lives in the newly renovated basement apartment, and Dave, a WWII veteran, lives on the first floor. Debbie balances her health issues with family needs, so she’s made compromises. For example, she should eliminate all the carpet, a reservoir for the dust and allergens that aggravate her asthma, but she says the carpet buffers the noise between the floors.

Debbie wants to update and enlarge the kitchen and revamp the master bedroom suite, which also serves as her full-time home office. She asked Natural Home to help her find ways to make her house healthy while accommodating her family and her budget.

1. Remodel with Allergies and Asthma in Mind

Problem: Debbie is concerned about the harmful effects that remodeling debris could have on her health. She and her family must live at home throughout the renovation.

Solutions: Construction dust aggravates asthma and allergies, so the crew should replace the electrostatic furnace filter with a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) variety and fit the supply and return ducts with filters to prevent dust circulation.

Then the crew must seal off the kitchen area from the rest of the house, using temporary plastic walls with zipper doors. Exhaust fans from the work area to the outdoors will ensure that contaminated construction air doesn’t leak into the rest of the home. This is called “negative pressurizing.” When construction is finished, Debbie should have the house cleaned with HEPA-filter vacuums. She should also make sure to use products with few or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic air pollutants.

Cost: Furnace filters: $500 to $800. Negatively pressurizing and sealing off work area from house: an additional $200 to $300.

2. Create More Kitchen Space 

Problems: The kitchen is cramped, and storage is minimal. Debbie wants to knock down the wall between the kitchen and dining room, but she’s worried about cost, especially because she wants to invest in green, nontoxic cabinets and floors.

Solutions: When budget is a concern, avoid moving walls. In Debbie’s case, tearing out a wall would create structural ramifications for the floor above, require changes to the dining room’s sliding door, and even require new exterior siding because the door and wall to the outside would have to be altered.

Debbie’s best option is to remove a partial section of the wall she wanted to eliminate—without sacrificing its structural integrity. This will open up the kitchen/dining room floor plan, create stool seating on the other side of the wall and enable her to extend cabinets into the breakfast nook area.

Debbie can make more efficient use of the space by replacing her unfashionable cabinets—and the soffits above them—with new styles that reach to the ceiling and utilize corner space. She should choose solid wood—because particleboard outgases toxic formaldehyde—and a low-VOC wood finish such as AFM Safecoat’s DuroStain.

To save money, the Gundlings could keep their appliances if they operate well. They should avoid relocating the sink, which usually results in costly plumbing alterations.

Cost: Opening up the wall: $10,000 to $13,000, depending on finishes and any “unknowns.” New cabinetry: $11,000 to $16,000, depending on quality, style and whether the wood is sustainably forested.

3. Soundproof the Floor

Problem: Although Debbie added insulation in the downstairs apartment ceiling, her sister still hears people walking in the kitchen.

Solution: New flooring is expensive to install, but necessary because Debbie needs to eliminate the old carpet and create a better sound barrier. Debbie could use a combination of heavy Sheetrock with a cork liner beneath the hard flooring surface to mitigate sound between floors.

Cost: New flooring and sound mitigation: $3,800 to $4,200. (There would be other costs associated with this project, depending on the scope and final design.)

4. Upgrade the Master Suite/Home Office

Problem: The master bedroom and bath have old fixtures and cabinetry, and the carpet and wallpaper trap moisture and possibly mold. Additionally, the windows frequently fog up and moisture develops between the panes.

Solutions: Given Debbie’s health concerns—and that she lives and works here—improving air quality is critical, and removing the carpet is key. In the bathroom, Debbie should install hard-surface, water-impervious flooring such as tile.

Ventilation is another issue. The bathroom should have a fan that exhausts moisture to the outside; recirculating fans do little more than move stale air around. Debbie also can reduce dust by minimizing desk clutter and removing plants. With the exception of spider plants, most plants don’t improve air quality—but they do collect unwanted dust.

Finally, Debbie might consider replacing her old windows because fogging indicates inefficiency and possible moisture leakage from the window frame. She should also address wood rot and mold when the windows are replaced. Double-pane, low-E (low-emissivity) windows will moderate temperatures and save energy. Upgrading windows will mean less air circulation, but the bathroom exhaust system should compensate.

Cost: New flooring (bedroom only): $2,000 to $3,000. Bathroom fan vented to exterior: $380. Windows: $1,000 per window, including installation.  


AFM Safecoat
(800) 239-0321
no-VOC paints

American Loft
(303) 442-2798
sustainable cabinetry

Blue Sky Energy Solutions
(720) 519-0732
heat-recovery fresh-air ventilation systems

(800) 211-7262
energy-efficient bathroom fans

Sustainable Flooring
(303) 544-6076
bamboo and cork cooperative

Kim Master is the executive director of Colorado’s Boulder Green Building Guild and is a LEED-accredited professional. Special thanks to Marc Bodian, owner of EcoLogicBuilding in Boulder , who provided technical expertise.