The Wellness Factor: Building A Healthy Home

Wellness is on the cusp of becoming one of the newest buzzwords in housing.

A young lady flipping the papers in a file. A pile of books is also resting on the table.

The introduction of natural light indoors is just one factor that contributes to personal wellness at home

In fact, strategists at Moen identified three trends that they expect to affect future consumer behavior. One overarching theme that Moen identified was how a home plays a role in health and wellness. The Urban Land Institute has also keyed into wellness with Building Healthy Places, a two-year global initiative to raise awareness of the connections between health and the built environment.

“Many people ask about healthy homes without the vaguest idea of what that really means. For some consumers that might mean safer stair rails,” says Ted Clifton, a Seattle green homebuilder and president at zero-energy home design firm Zero Energy Plans, noting there is a lot of talk in the industry about health and wellness, but it’s often in very general terms and not in specifics. 

How Clean is Your Air?

Still, the concern is real since people in the United States spend about 70 percent of their time in their home. Today, 
indoor air quality (IAQ) is central to the vision of a healthy home and recent concerns center around air quality and the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released from building products, furniture, flooring, fabrics and glues. 

In addition to being built tighter and more energy efficient, new homes today are becoming much healthier too and a big focus is on IAQ. “The reality is it doesn’t take much to improve indoor air quality,” says Connecticut architect Duo Dickinson.

A number of builders such as KB Home specifically address health concerns — the company’s newest homes include whole-house mechanical ventilation and high-efficiency minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) 8-rated air filters. They also use low VOC paints and finishes.

Wellness is Affordable

“People are (making) homes that are healthy homes at all price ranges. Good air quality, no VOCs, all of those kind of things have come so mainstream you don’t have to spend extra money to have those elements, to have a healthy home,” says Phil Kean, a Winter Park, Fla., architect who was also named the National Association of Home Builders’ 2013 Custom Home Builder of the Year. Most of the suppliers Kean works with are able to provide VOC-free products without charging a premium.

Approximately only one in 10 consumers will have heard the term “VOC” and, even then, they don’t understand what it means, observes Clifton. “And there is a total disconnect between what it means and what it is. They don’t know what kind of products it may be lurking in.”

So even though the products used in the construction of a home might be low VOC, the new rugs consumers bring in to cover today’s healthier hard-surface flooring or bookcases or furniture all might be fabricated using formaldehyde and will release VOCs. 

Paint, Floors, Walls ‘Scrub’ the Air

Manufacturers are also working to develop building products that promote good air quality with flooring, paints and even drywall that improve air quality. For example, CertainTeed Gypsum’s AirRenew Essential IAQ wall board cleans the air by capturing VOCs and converting them into inert compounds. Additional 
new products protect against moisture and mold. Lauzon introduced hardwood floors with a titanium dioxide finish that breaks down toxic contaminants in the environment. Sherwin Williams introduced a line of zero-VOC interior paint that also incorporates a new technology to reduce VOC levels in the air and to also eliminate indoor odors from pets, cooking and smoke.

Wellness has only recently gained traction among many homeowners, but the concept of a healthy home dates back to the 1930s, when the American Public Health Association published “Basic Principles of Healthful Houses.” Since then, the concept has been refined to center on a home that is dry, clean, pest-free, safe, contaminant-free, well ventilated and thermally controlled. Now, a new vision of wellness at home is evolving to also include holistic outcomes such as wellbeing.

Several nonprofits are working on development standards for wellness. The U.S. Green Building Council recently accepted the Well Building Standard developed by Delos Building Wellness, which looks at air, water, nourishment, light fitness and comfort. Pilot projects including wellness-themed rooms at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas are underway in a number of cities.

Consumers Opt for Well Over Green

There is a 
natural affinity between green and wellness, but for most consumers, wellness is more compelling. “Some people don’t care about saving energy, but everybody wants a house that is healthy,” says Kean.

New homes today are apt to include other features and floorplans that promote a sense of wellbeing. Citing our “biophysical response to the environment,” Dickinson points to one of the strongest trends in home design — a connection with the outdoors. “Even in climates like New England, over 90 percent of clients have ‘connection to the outdoors’ as a priority. Being able to be outside and bring the outside in has a clear wellness aspect to it.” Equally important is the amount of natural light new home designs bring to interiors. 

Developers are also beginning to focus on community features that promote healthy living and social connection. In San Francisco’s East Bay area, land is scarce and lot sizes continue to decrease. Still, says Redfin agent Sonal Basu, owners want space to exercise in their yard and many want a pool to compensate for lot sizes, so new communities there offer a range of wellness and community features for residents to fulfill fitness goals.
Looking ahead, expect to see even great concerns for wellness in homes as homebuyers become more aware of IAQ, VOCs and other environmental concerns and look for a natural, holistic approach to their family’s health.

Camilla McLaughlin is an award-winning writer specializing in house and home. Her work has appeared in leading online and print publications, such as Yahoo! Real Estate, Unique Homes magazine and Realtor Magazine. She has also freelanced for the Associated Press.

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