Green Building For Health

by Alex Stadtner

If you ask most green building consultants about their top priority, energy efficiency typically rolls off their tongue like oil over a wetland. Sadly, many people buy simple energy efficiency measures at the expense of their own health, and as their energy bills decrease their medical bills skyrocket because of exposure to mold and other harmful indoor pollutants. The green building movement must learn to reach their energy efficiency goals without com-promising occupant health.

American buildings gobble up approximately 70% of our total electricity pie, and spit out roughly 39% of our CO2 emissions – so energy efficiency is a no joke priority. Our buildings need a serious diet and lifestyle change.

When people need to make such an extreme change they are encouraged to see a physician. But when buildings are expected to change dramatically more people are comfortable hiring Bubba (sorry, I’m from Austin) and expecting lower utility bills without any negative side effects. It’s like asking America’s Biggest Loser to go on a Gandhi-style hunger strike. . . and then being surprised when he dies of starvation. Energy efficiency is critically important, but must be done responsibly and with proper supervision.

Space heating and cooling take up the biggest chunks of our energy pie, so here are two examples that painfully illustrate my point. Ask Bubba, “what can I do to green my house?” “Air sealing!” he exclaims without pause. Bubba is part of the “cash-for-caulkers” program and he knows that it’s crazy to condition (heat or cool) air and then let it escape the building through small holes and cracks. He proceeds to seal every nook and cranny in sight, and soon enough the home is sealed like a zip-lock bag.

The owner notices energy bills begin to drop… but wait… over  winter a strange musty odor develops and green (for literary sake) spots appear on some windowsills and walls. This never happened before. Little Suzy starts wheezing at night and is eventually diagnosed with asthma, and Junior gets a strange ear infection that just won’t quit. It’s not a coincidence. Bubba’s air sealing regimen unintentionally created a perfect habitat for mold growth. How’s that for green building?

A second family wanting lower energy bills decides to go with a fancier company that performs building diagnostics. The contractor shows up with a “blower door” that quantifies the amount of air leakage in the home. He closes all windows and covers the vents and puts a powerful fan in the door. The fan sucks an enormous amount of air from cracks and holes in the building, pulling air through crawlspaces, attics, and wall cavities, and ultimately into the home. The building becomes a big vacuum, and microscopic mold spores, asbestos fibers, or other nasty particulates that were once behind walls are pulled into the occupied portion of the home. Little Suzy or Junior may wind up in the hospital with an asthma attack.

We routinely recommend air sealing and blower door testing as tools in retrofitting existing buildings for energy efficiency and improved Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). But they must be used responsibly. Buildings, like people, are complex organisms that require whole-systems solutions and not simple one-stop-solutions.

Don’t grow a green building without good indoor air quality. Energy efficiency is one of many priorities for our built environment, but occupant health must remain priority numero uno. As a reminder to contractors pushing e-efficiency over all else, I like to quote the anti-smoking motto, “when you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.” (period)

Alex Stadtner, BBEC, LEED AP, is a Healthy Homes Specialist and owner of Healthy Building Science LLC, in the San Francisco Bay Area. His firm offers green building consulting and environmental testing services.