As we all continue to shelter in place, I start to wonder: how healthy is my home? Staying indoors for days in a row is rare for me – and for the rest of us in Los Angeles and across the world.
My worries are not new, and are justified: history has revealed many toxic infiltrators, such as arsenic-dyed wallpaper popular during the Victorian era or the mid-20th century use of asbestos. But what is the 21st century version?
As architects, our homeowners’ well-being is not just a hope, it’s a promise: from the design of each room to how it functions for years to come. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all thinking about the importance of health, especially in our homes – one of the few areas where we might have some control.
How can we improve the safety our dwellings? Here is a snapshot of the considerations we discuss with homeowners throughout the design process, which are especially applicable now:
On average, people spend over 90% of their time in enclosed spaces (even more, recently). Current building codes require our homes to be airtight, to seal out any exterior contaminants or moisture. But what about the contaminants within? Candles, tobacco products, stoves, furnaces and fireplaces all release chemicals into the air. In addition, building materials, furnishings, fabrics and cleaning supplies emit volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. The World Health Organization estimated that globally, air pollution contributed to approximately seven million premature deaths in 2012. Around 600,000 of those were children under five years old. To address these dangers, the most effective solution is to ventilate with clean outdoor air (cleaner now than ever due to less pollution!) by opening windows and doors. However, good mechanical ventilation/filtration systems ensure constant cleaning of the air. To find the best choice for you, read the EPA’s Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home
While all tap water must meet legal limits, activist environmental groups such as Environmental Working Group (EWP) notes that “legal does not necessarily equal safe.” Many water utilities actually contain several contaminants that exceed the levels outlined within EWP’s Health Guidelines. In Los Angeles, for example, water is treated with chlorine or chloramine. A recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that in addition to fluorine, chlorine or chloramine, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances were detected in 86 water systems that serve up to nine million Californians.
How do we immediately counteract this sustainably? You could purchase bottled water, but instead, consider installing a water filter at your main sink, or for the entire house. And if you’re interested in seeing what’s in the tap water you’re drinking, visit EWG’s Tapwater Database.
In Los Angeles, we’re lucky to have year-round sunshine. How do we reap its benefits while indoors? (See some ideas here.) How much is too much? As architects, we often conduct sun study paths to ensure the functions of bright spaces are optimized. You can do this, too! Consider setting up your workspace in an area that receives ample, indirect or bounced sunlight during the times of the day when you may feel most tired (for example, during the “afternoon slump”). You can even test the visual results on your next video call. Also, modify your sleep environment to keep light out, to make sure you get a good and deep night’s sleep.
Noise is inevitable in our homes, whether it is our screens, music, people chatting or outdoor noise. Construction, helicopters, leaf blowers and traffic all conspire to wear us down. And interior noises such as HVAC systems,
appliances (and family…) have been shown to hinder productivity, focus and memory retention. To protect from these risks, we create sound barriers with the use of proper insulation.
The use of sound-absorbing materials in walls can mitigate noise. Even layering wall materials can help ensure that 2 a.m. movie does not find its way into your bedroom. You might use cork in a floor or place a heavy rug on it. Dual-glazed windows or low-E laminated glass, together with fiberglass insulation, are also huge helps. Auditory health is both science and art. If you want to know where to start, read this.