It started with the best of intentions. In the housing boom after World War II, homes were air-conditioned for comfort, closing the windows in the process. After the energy crisis of the 1970s, houses were made energy-efficient, producing a new array of insulations, paints, sealants, caulks and adhesives to do the job.
American houses were becoming as snug as a submarine.
They were also becoming polluted. Even poisonous. The new synthetic building products, dispensing a toxic soup of chemicals into airtight buildings, have created a new problem--the "sick building syndrome"--that can threaten the health of its occupants.
The prescription, say environmentally conscious architects and builders, is to go back to nature and natural building products.
"Grandpa really knew how to build houses--he didn't use all these sophisticated, man-made materials that pollute the environment," said Jerry Miller, owner of Environmental Projects--a 20-year-old architecture and building firm in Laguna Beach. "Grandpa used wood and stone and concrete and glass."
Paul Bierman-Lytle, a nationally renowned environmental architect, lamented: "We are not very civilized in the way we use the planet. We are petroleum fiends when it comes to building materials. We have to start changing the way we build and the way we consume."
His Masters Corp., headquartered in a concrete-block warehouse in New Canaan, Conn., builds custom houses with such features as nontoxic, low-toxic and natural building materials; energy-efficient heating and cooling; air filter systems designed to remove pollutants, and an overall computer management system that makes the traditional thermostat look prehistoric.
And, having spent the past few years scouting Europe for manufacturers of natural building products, Bierman-Lytle has assembled a comprehensive assortment under one roof. He recently opened Environmental Outfitters, a resource sales center that sells more than 2,000 products, including petrochemical-free paint, insulation from seawater minerals, untreated wood products and stains made with citrus peel, linseed oil and berries.
The growing movement toward designing "healthy homes" is long overdue, said Bob Berkebile, chairman of the American Institute of Architects' new environmental committee. "The Environmental Protection Agency research lab has identified 60,000 chemicals that we are exposed to all the time and don't react to very favorably.
"We're just now starting to look at the toxic soup we have created," he said. "Eventually, we're going to have to rethink all the building materials and building systems we use."
Right now, Bierman-Lytle's clients fall into two groups: those who want--and can afford--to make an environmental statement (natural products can add as much as 35% to the construction costs of a new house), and those suffering from such an array of chemical sensitivities that one allergist has described them as the "canaries in the coal mine."
But Bierman-Lytle sees a bright future for healthy houses, despite the obstacles of higher costs and an entrenched housing industry, where change occurs slowly.
"There is going to be a gigantic public demand for environmental standards in houses," he said. "It's already happening. A year ago, we were getting 25 to 30 telephone inquiries a week about healthy buildings. Now we're getting around 150 calls a week, and a lot of media attention."
An increasing number of Miller's Southern California clients are requesting natural materials for their homes, the builder/designer said. "People are becoming more educated about the health hazards of products such as petroleum-based paints, particle board and formaldehyde," he noted.
Particle board, commonly used to make cabinets, "is put together with formaldehyde-based resins that release known carcinogens into the air," Miller explained. Paints, he added, are only 10% substance--"the rest is carrier that we breathe as it evaporates into the environment."
Adds Bierman-Lytle: "The production rate of synthetic chemicals is truly awesome. There are 1,000 new products on the market every year. Most of them are petroleum-derived, and we have found that a lot of them produce indoor pollution."
Like a chemist-detective, he said he looks for radon, biogenic particles, organic particles and vapors, water and environmental tobacco smoke. Bierman-Lytle cited some of the materials he uses: natural linoleum from Scotland, 100% cotton carpeting in soft pastels from Germany, cement and seawater roofing slate from Belgium, formaldehyde-free boards from Oregon.
Compounding the danger of the myriad chemicals introduced to homes since Grandpa built his 60 years ago, Miller said, modern structures "practically have to be hermetically sealed to meet today's strict standards.
"Building codes require that windows and doors cannot leak air under any condition," Miller said. "Airborne chemicals and second-hand smoke just get trapped."