Sept. 24, San Jose, Calif. -- At a workshop today preceding the annual West Coast Green conference, two Building Biology practitioners presented a healthy home building philosophy that differed, often starkly, from conventional green building wisdom.

Entitled “Building the Natural, Healthy Way With Bau-Biologie,” the session introduced attendees to the basic design methods and tenets of Building Biology, which Vicki Warren, executive director of the International Institute for Bau-Biologie, described as “the study of how buildings affect our lives and environment, especially our well-being.”

Warren warned attendees that the approach might differ from what mainstream building professionals consider green. “We’re not really comfortable with the green movement,” she said. “Our focus is biology and we think they missed the boat on that.”

While most green builders would advocate for a tightly built home, for example, Warren lamented, “We have locked ourselves inside our home and away from nature and its natural rhythms. We have surrounded ourselves with unnatural pollutants. We have sealed the home to save money, but we can’t breathe and we can’t sleep.”

To draw a comparison with the conventional wisdom of mainstream building, co-presenter Paula LaPorte, architect and founder of Tesuque, N.M.-based EcoNest Design, offered seven modern building myths along with Bau-Biologie’s recommended alternatives.

  • “Government protects us—the EPA and FDA assure that our air, food, water, and shelter are safe.” In reality, LaPorte said, even small traces of chemicals like formaldehyde and limited exposure to radio frequency waves and magnetic fields are enough to cause harmful health effects. The presenters recommended installing building products that eliminate hazardous chemicals entirely, and shielding homeowners from radio frequency signals and magnetic fields, especially in the bedroom.
  • “Modern building uses advanced industrialized materials to create the healthiest and longest-enduring buildings.” New homes actually make a growing portion of the population sick, LaPorte argued. Rather than using new synthetic building materials that do not breathe, Building Biology advocates employing natural and unadulterated materials like adobe, clay, and wood that absorb and release moisture.
  • “Modern technology has created the most comfortable indoor environments ever.” Whereas mainstream builders consider only temperature and humidity when thinking about the indoor climate, Building Biology recommends builders consider surface temperature, air movement, ion balance, electro-climate, odor, and other factors.
  • “Mechanical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning replace natural climate control.” “The modern house is a box hooked up to life support,” LaPorte said, adding that HERS ratings penalize dwellings that lack mechanical HVAC systems. Building Biology advocates using natural heating and cooling techniques first, such as passive solar, deciduous trees, open windows, and overhangs.
  • “R-value is the most important measure of envelope performance.” Building Biology recommends using heavy walls that have both thermal mass and insulation. In LaPorte’s comparison of alternative wall systems, natural materials such as adobe, clay straw, and rammed earth fared well not only for the health of the occupants but also for energy efficiency and social impact.
  • “Building with natural materials is experimental.” “Only in a tiny fraction of human history have we begun to build with unnatural, highly processed materials,” LaPorte said, lamenting that natural building systems such as adobe that have performed well for centuries still are viewed with suspicion by code officials.
  • “Nature has no limits to its bounty.” Green professionals and Building Biology advocates would agree on one tenet—oversized buildings and wasteful construction practices are burdening the planet’s limited resources. So few green experts would disagree with LaPorte’s advice to “build smart and build wisely, so every inch counts.”

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