Is There Such Thing as a Non-Toxic Home?

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Poor indoor air quality is a well-recognized and documented problem, and one that affects everybody. With a risk so great affecting almost every person in the country, it should be easy to go about making a non-toxic home. It isn't. But NatureBuilt Wall Systems in conjunction with The Endeavour Centre is doing it anyways.

Prefabricated Strawbale walls, green construction, environmental

Canada's Greenest Home

We were determined that this home be 100% non-toxic to its occupants.

Creating a completely non-toxic home was a key goal in the design and construction of Canada’s Greenest Home. Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is a well-recognized and documented problem, and one that affects everybody. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says, “There is convincing evidence that poor indoor air quality is damaging people’s health.” And the US Environmental Protection Agency rates “poor IAQ as being among the top environmental risks to human health.” With a risk so great affecting almost every person in the country, it should be easy to go about making a non-toxic home. But it isn’t.

The project to build Canada’s Greenest Home has been undertaken by the students and faculty of The Endeavour Centre, a sustainable building school in Peterborough, Ontario. They planned from the beginning to make indoor air quality a top priority. “There is no way to build a “green” home without keeping all toxins out,” says Chris Magwood, Endeavour’s executive director. “We were determined that this home be 100% non-toxic to its occupants.”

Easier said than done, as it turns out. The building team expected to research the chemical contents of every material that went into the home. In fact, it is a central demand of The Living Building Challenge, a green building standard that sets a high bar for environmental performance. But they didn’t expect it to be as difficult a task as it turned out to be.

“Everybody is selling “green” products for buildings these days,” explains Magwood. “But the vast majority of them are slight improvements or pure green washing. The word “green” on the label is by no means an indication that the product is part of a completely clean indoor air strategy.”

Jen Feigin, the project coordinator, did a lot of the research to find non-toxic options for every element of the building. She sought out Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for every product and material under consideration. Anything that listed known toxins was immediately eliminated. “But you can’t just trust the MSDS,” insists Feigin. “Companies can hide toxins if they are considered part of a proprietary formula or do not make up a significant percentage of the product. You’ve got to dig deeper to be sure.”

The Pharos Project is an online database of building materials and their degree of toxicity, and the group made use of this resource in addition to direct contact with companies, academic researchers and building biologists. “It can be shocking when you start to see the real ingredient lists,” says Feigin.

So what goes into a truly non-toxic building? As it turns out, the more natural and unprocessed the material, the more likely it is to have no ill affect on IAQ. The building’s walls, for example, are a prefabricated panel system made from wheat straw bales encased in mortar on both sides. These walls, from Ontario-based NatureBuilt Wall Systems, contain no petrochemicals and do not off-gas. They also act as a moisture buffer that helps prevent dampness and mold growth in the home. Solid lumber replaces plywood and chipboard that contain formaldehyde glues. And clay plasters can replace latex paint on the walls. “You wouldn’t believe what’s in most paints,” says Magwood, “being low- or no-VOC does not mean non-toxic.”

An important part of making a non-toxic house is ensuring that it stays that way over the long term. Whole house ventilation and humidity balancing is achieved using an Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) system with excellent filters, ensuring a constant input of clean, fresh air for the occupants. The house has no combustion devices, relying on a clean air source heat pump for warmth in winter and cooling in summer.

So how did the group do, now that the home is nearly complete? “We thought we were setting out to teach students about how to build a non-toxic home,” bemuses Feigin, “but it was a real education for everybody involved!” In the end, they managed to keep all but a few small bits of the building completely non-toxic. “There is a small bit of chipboard built into the floor system, and a very small amount of plywood. The foam used to seal around the windows is the healthiest we could find. It isn’t completely non-toxic, but it is separated from the living space. And the paint in the bathrooms is the cleanest paint on the market, but also has a couple of minor ingredients we’d rather have not used.” The group makes their findings available to the public via their project blog.

Canada’s Greenest Home may not have that “new home smell” associated with new construction (which is largely a result of chemical off-gassing), but it does smell of the possibility of clean and healthy homes for all. “We hope this gets easier for everybody to do,” says Magwood. “Regardless of how people feel about “green building,” everybody has a vested interest in the health of their families. This needs to be a priority, and it needs to get easier to avoid poisoning ourselves.”
A public open house for Canada’s Greenest Home will be held on February 23rd. Contact us for more details.

NatureBuilt Wall Systems Inc. manufacturers a prefabricated strawbale wall panel system that is environmentally friendly, airtight, super-insulated, made of all natural materials and goes up fast.

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Neeraj Jain
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