Green Tract Homes
I’m a single mother with three small kids. For reasons of affordability, security, and location, I’m considering buying a new tract home. Just how toxic is living in a new standard-built tract house? I would use my own nontoxic flooring, paint, and possibly cabinetry, but how much will the construction materials outgas, for how long, and can it be mitigated? I don’t want to make myself or my kids sick. And when is some developer going to build green tract homes for us ecologically willing but financially weak regular folks?
—Cynthia Williams, Cathedral City, California
Debra Lynn Dadd replies:
Tract homes are affordably priced because the builders purchase inexpensive materials in volume. These usually aren’t the least toxic homes, but the tradeoff is fewer design costs and greater construction efficiency. If you buy a house before it’s completely built, you may be able to get the builder to use less toxic construction materials such as formaldehyde-free particleboard, formaldehyde-free insulation, and nontoxic caulk—at a minimal extra cost. You can check my website, DLD123.com, for a list of the least toxic building products.
The amount of outgassing and the time period over which this occurs vary depending on the construction material. Outgassing can be mitigated by heating the house before you move in, which “bakes off” the volatile gases in the materials and finishes and cures them into an inert form. If the house is uninhabited, just close all the doors and windows and turn up the central heat as far as it will go (or use space heaters). Baking can take from one to five days; I’ve never needed to do it for longer than five. At the end of each twenty-four hour period, open the doors and windows and air out the house completely, using a fan if necessary. Then, check to see if the odors are gone, or if you need to air the house out for another day.
A few tracts do feature some green elements. Some are less toxic; others save energy. (See “Anatomy of a Zero Energy Home,” page 20.) As with all other green products, the market responds to consumer demand. As demand rises and prices for eco-friendly building products fall, more green developments will be built.
Debra Lynn Dadd is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home Safe Home (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004).
Choosing a Front Door
I’m buying a home and am having difficulty deciding what type of front door makes the most sense from an environmental point of view. Fiberglass doors insulate better than wood and have a lifetime warranty, but they’re made of petrochemicals. Wood doors often need to be replaced because they warp or are otherwise damaged by the elements.
—Norma Hartie, Peekskill, New York
Pete Nichols replies:
There are three main types of exterior doors on the market: wood, metal, and fiberglass. Some important factors to consider are efficiency (and how that affects comfort), stability, aesthetics, ease of upkeep, and ultimate cost.
Fiberglass doors tend to offer the highest thermal efficiency, while metal (usually steel-coated) doors run a close second, followed by wood. (Of course there are many design factors that affect these values, such as the presence of glass or recessed panel areas). Fiberglass and metal doors tend to use insulating foam cores (up to R-7), while solid wood doors use the natural insulation value of the wood (between R-1 and R-2).
Different materials deliver differences in stability, which impacts the effectiveness of sealing and therefore homeowner ease and comfort. Fiberglass doors offer the greatest stability because they’re extremely dent resistant and typically do not require additional weather-stripping. Metal doors tend to be as stable as fiberglass, assuming they don’t get bent (which typically requires replacement). Wood doors shrink and swell with changes in temperature and humidity, making them more difficult to effectively weather strip over the spectrum of climatic changes that are found in most regions. This is further exacerbated when the door is unprotected from the elements.
Aesthetics cannot be overlooked, especially when you’re trying to match your home’s existing style. Fiberglass doors are made in both smooth and wood-textured (looks real) finishes and designed to accept both paint and stain. Metal doors must be painted, and wood doors allow the flexibility of either a paint or a stain.
Upfront prices for doors vary widely, but generally fiberglass doors are the most expensive, with metal and wood coming in second. (The cost of wood doors is dependent on the type of wood used.) However, life-cycle maintenance costs (weather-stripping) tends to be greatest for wood doors.
Pete Nichols has an extensive background in green building materials and technologies and is the founder and marketing manager of Sustainable Flooring, a bamboo and cork manufacturing cooperative (SustainableFlooring.com). He is also a co-author of the upcoming book Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time (New Society, September 2004).
We want to replace our existing heater with a more energy-efficient gas unit that includes effective air filtration for dust, mold, and chemicals. My reading suggests this may require a complementary portable unit because filtering particulates and chemicals are separate processes. Can you direct me to good information and products to accomplish this?
We live in a rural pocket by the woods. A stone quarry about two miles away probably accounts for the gray dust that shows up inside our house sometimes. Fortunately, auto traffic is sparse, so our outside air is generally fine. I use natural cleaning products and garden organically.
—Signe Sundberg-Hall, Downington, Pennsylvania
Debra Lynn Dadd replies:
First, check the Energy Star website (EnergyStar.gov) for furnace recommendations. Energy Star is the U.S. government’s seal of approval for products that are exceptionally energy efficient.
Regular furnace filters will remove at least some dust and are not very expensive. Different types of filters vary in the amount of dust they remove, and some also remove mold. Some carbon filters will fit into the same slot in your furnace, but these are generally too thin to be very effective.
If you want whole-house filtration, there are two options. The HEPA-AIRE CAP600 series central air purifiers (CleanAirZone.com) attach to your central HVAC system and continuously filter the air. Three stages of filtration, including activated-carbon filtration and a true HEPA filter, remove particulates, gases, odors, and other pollutants. This would address all your concerns.
Some freestanding units are large enough to filter the air in the whole house, or smaller units in each room could operate as needed. A good source of comparison information on quality filters is Allergy Buyers Club (AllergyBuyersClub.com).
Before you buy, however, please reconsider whether or not you actually need an air filter. It sounds like you have some dust, which can be handled with a regular furnace filter. You don’t describe a mold problem. It sounds like you don’t have many chemicals in your home either. It’s always better to breathe fresh, natural air if you have it and better to remove sources of chemical exposure than to filter them out. Good ventilation may be all you need.