Have you ever experienced a feeling of peace and serenity upon walking into a home made of natural materials? More builders are striving to achieve this feeling through baubiologie, or the study of natural building.
Building biology, as it is called in the United States, originated in Germany in the early 1960s. Scientists began to suspect that the increasing number of chronically unwell Germans may have been linked to massproduced industrialized housing built after World War II. A multidisciplinary gathering of professionals tested the theory, systematically comparing these homes with pre-industrial homes made of natural, minimally processed materials. The resulting data became the foundation for a set of standards used to evaluate indoor environmental quality and for 25 building principles for new homes and workplaces. In Northern Europe, baubiologie has become a household word linked with healthy, ecologically sound homes.
The standards the movement has generated are fundamentally different from the way North Americans usually approach home building. Here, we typically build homes using wood stud-frame, also known as light-frame, construction. After World War II, with what seemed like an unlimited supply of cheap energy, builders didn’t prioritize air-tightness or insulation, so original post-war homes received plenty of fresh air—via wall leaks. When the energy crisis of the 1970s made insulating and sealing homes a priority, newly airtight homes became traps for moisture, stale air and chemicals from synthetic building materials. As a result, airquality problems, affecting occupants’ health and homes’ longevity, became rampant. Today, a significant segment of our population suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), allergies and asthma. In 1950, just one in 30 people reported suffering from allergies; today the allergy rate is greater than one in three people. The number of asthma sufferers has more than doubled in the last 30 years, affecting children the most.
The home as a living organism
Building biology experts consider homes living organisms. For example, baubiologists consider exterior walls a third skin, much like our clothing. Using the same “breathability” principle that makes organic cotton and wool more comfortable than most synthetic fabrics, baubiologists look for wall materials that let vapor pass through without synthetic vapor barriers. Baubiologists also use building strategies that work with nature—such as passive solar gain, high-mass interior walls, cross ventilation and shading—to reduce dependence on mechanical solutions.
In the 1980s, John Bower, an American healthy home pioneer, formulated a method to make energy-efficient, light-frame homes healthier: eliminate, isolate and ventilate. His three-part formula calls for eliminating as many pollutants as possible from within the building, isolating occupants from synthetic materials, toxic glues and wraps found in the walls of conventional homes, and adding mechanical ventilation to ensure fresh air replaces the pollution and moisture occupants create.
Like all mammals, humans thrive in environments with temperature variation, humidity range, and a complexity of colors and shapes. Building biology seeks to achieve these healthenhancing conditions indoors while reducing the influence of manmade electromagnetic fields and eliminating the use of toxic building materials. Understanding these forces, diagnosing and correcting problems in existing homes and creating environments that deeply nurture us is the work of building biology.
Building biology sets nature as the gold standard for a healthy human environment. The role of a building is to shelter us from climatic extremes without sacrificing the vitality of the natural world. According to building biology, our indoor climate should feel as fresh and alive as the outdoor environment does.
Paula Baker-Laporte is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a certified building biologist. She leads the design department of the EcoNest Company, which she founded with her husband, timber-frame builder Robert Laporte. She’s the author of Prescriptions for a Healthy House (New Society Publishers, 2008) and coauthor of EcoNest: Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw, and Timber (Gibbs Smith, 2005).
The New Natural House Book by David Pearson (Fireside, 1998)
Living Homes by Suzi Moore McGregor, Nora Burba Trulsson, William McDonough and Terrence Moore (Chronicle, 2008)
The Art of Natural Building by Joseph Kennedy, et al. (New Society Publishers, 2002)
Homes That Heal by Athena Thompson (New Society Publishers, 2004)
Built by Hand by Bill Steen, Athena Steen and Eiko Komatsu (Gibbs Smith, 2003)