Just because it’s natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you,” says architect Cothran Harris. A healthy home is designed with building materials that won’t release toxins (called offgas chemicals) into interior spaces. And no offgassing means no pollutants or odors that could adversely affect the health of homeowners.
Concerns about chemical exposure can complicate the countless decisions that come with building a house, so it’s crucial to hire professionals who can manage the process. Cothran Harris, builder Jeff Krueck, and interior designer Celeste Wegman took on such a project on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. “A mix of sustainable and healthy products, such as bamboo floors and formaldehyde-free fabrics, introduces fewer chemicals in the environment. “There’s no one part that makes this a healthy house,” says Cothran. “It takes all the pieces working together.”
Due to the owner’s health issues, “we couldn’t use anything with a polyurethane base, including treated wood and plywood,” explains Jeff. Instead, he installed solid wood throughout the house, from sub-flooring to kitchen cabinets to the beam that supports the second story. “We built the entire house using timber framing―just like they would have 100 years ago,” he says. Celeste aired out the dining room chairs for months before coating them with a sealer to prevent offgassing.
Not all chemicals hide behind walls, so designer Celeste Wegman had to do her homework when selecting interior finishes. “This was a labor-intensive project,” she says. “We researched everything to make sure it was healthy.” She learned about American Clay, an all-natural plaster that resists mold and contains no offgassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Celeste used it to coat the walls. “As a bonus, its suedelike texture adds depth to the interiors,” Celeste says.
In the master bedroom, she painted the shiplap siding with a low-VOC paint that doesn’t give off a new-paint smell. “Everyone’s first comment when they walk in is, ‘It doesn’t smell like a new house,’” Celeste says. “I think that’s one of the best compliments.” Solid wood furnishings were custom-manufactured with white glue rather than yellow, which contains irritating chemicals.
For furnishings, Celeste looked to combine comfort and health. Working with furniture designer Barclay Butera, she had all fabrics triple-washed before custom-making sofas and chairs. Even the carpet, which Celeste had custom-woven, went through a rigorous triple-cleaning process before installation.
A healthy house costs about 10 to 20 percent more to build, says Jeff. But for clients with chemical sensitivities, it’s money well spent. Once healthy building takes off in commercial construction, residential demand will increase, he says. “If you’re given the choice to be even a notch healthier, who wouldn’t take it?”