The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Healthy Homes Taking Center Stage

For all the personal and financial damage the coronavirus pandemic has caused, it has also given new impetus to what had been a slow-moving trend toward healthier homes. And it’s easy to see why.

As we stay at home to avoid contamination, we tend to worry -- not just about the dangers outside, but about how safe we are inside our dwellings, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

“We feel threatened about our own personal safety, as well as that of our close family members,” says behavioral psychologist Mary Campbell, who also is the mayor of Hermosa Beach, California. “And the best thing we can do is figure out how to get a handle on it. When we are in such a state, all we want is a lifeline.”

Healthy and sustainable living have been a slowly growing shift in homebuilding and community design in recent years, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine, California. Think community gardens, the farm-to-table movement, fitness on demand and so on.

Now, the Burns group believes the movement will lurch “into hyperspeed,” according to a recent press release, and the latest research from Green Builder Media seems to bear that out. In tracking web and social media content, the company’s research wing, Cognition Smart Data, found the number of discussions specific to health and wellness has skewed “exponentially” higher. At first, the discussions were negative, with concern about COVID-19. But now, people are talking about minimizing their risk and staying healthy.

“People are looking for ways to default to hope and optimism,” says Green Builder’s Sara Gutterman.

After the 2008 recession, energy conservation became top-of-mind and has remained there ever since, Gutterman points out. Now it’s health and welfare, and she expects the topic to remain a key focus going forward. “We didn’t go backward then, and we won’t go back this time, either,” she says.

The online discourse is taking many forms. People are talking about mental health, stress relief, telemedicine, smart technology, on-site energy production, food safety and resiliency. Searches for “calming quotes” have doubled; “stress quotes” searches have tripled.

But interest in indoor air quality has exploded. “IAQ is now as important as location to some homebuyers. Says Gutterman, “Indoor air quality has shifted quickly from ‘nice to have’ to a necessity. It’s the belle of the ball.”

Fortunately, IAQ is one thing homeowners and buyers can do something about, even if not easily or inexpensively. But if we’re serious about improving the quality of our indoor air, we can do so.

That’s a good thing, because we don’t take care of our houses nearly as well as we should, says Caroline Blazovsky, a healthy home expert. As CEO of My Healthy Home in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, she has investigated more than 30,000 houses nationwide for people with health issues. “Treat a home like a doctor treats a patient,” she advises.

Some remedies are as simple as leaving your shoes outside when you enter your house, keeping the water heater at the correct temperature, opening windows for ventilation, changing HVAC filters regularly and leaving toilet lids down, especially when you flush.

There are numerous more expensive technology solutions available, too. Everything from whole-house dehumidifiers -- humidity has a big impact on health, according to one study -- to touchless faucets, and from HVAC disinfectors to energy-recovery ventilation products. You can even buy automatic toilet seats.

But before you lay out any money, Blazovsky suggests having your house tested by a healthy home expert. “Test first, before you do anything,” she says.

At one home Blozavsky tested, for example, the owner wasn’t feeling well, but the cause was a mystery. Finally, she discovered that a person working inside the house was a horse owner, and was bringing horse proteins inside with her, triggering symptoms in the homeowner.

That’s just one way your indoor air quality can be impacted. We can bring all kinds of particles indoors with us: gasoline, dander, animal proteins, volatile organic compounds, formaldehydes, flame retardants and pesticides, to name a few.

“Our bodies are filled with a plethora of problems,” says Blazovsky. “Radon, mold, formaldehyde and high VOCs are just some that may not only be potential carcinogens, but also cause inflammation in the body.”

If you are building a new house, you should be careful about what products are going into your place. Unless your building company calls itself a healthy homebuilder -- and can prove it -- you’ll have to do your own research. Blazovsky’s advice: “Think about health and wellness holistically, and build as naturally as possible.”

“This is where the industry is going,” she says. “Sometimes buyers have more knowledge than their builders.”

Talk to green-building consultants, builders and architects, and start asking questions. Also, check out groups such as the Healthy Building Network and the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance, and look online for residential environmental consultants.