Green tract homes, front doors, healthy heaters

| May/June 2004

  • Debra Lynn Dadd
  • Pete Nichols

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,, 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.

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