Active House is a set of specifications that promote a vision of buildings that promote healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without negative impact on the climate. The emphasis on more light and less noise is a welcome contribution to the green building dialogue.
I remember the late 1980s, when the baby boomers’ own baby boom was in full swing and developers introduced the concept of baby-safe homes, avoiding sharp corners, adding outlet covers and cabinet door locks as standard equipment, and providing optional window mechanisms that would stop a young child from tumbling out of the house. By the late 1990s the “aging in place” movement came into its own, and recommendations for single-level living environments, elevator alcoves, lever door sets, and even high-visibility countertops to help aging eyes distinguish this surface from the floor were gaining ground.
Of course, the needs that each of these movements promoted have not disappeared, since people continue being born and getting old. But in this decade, the healthy home is gaining ascendancy, and as the movement for more movement—in the sense of more walking and cycling—takes hold, a new standard is born: The Active House .
The Active House Standard (a play on Passive House) proposes a framework to design and renovate buildings that contribute positively to human health and well-being by focusing on the indoor and outdoor environment, as well as energy and environmental conservation. Drafted by an international collaboration, the standard was initiated in Holland by the Active House Alliance, a non-profit association founded in the common interest of its members, which the organization describes as, “To create a viable, independent, and internationally influential alliance that supports the vision of buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their residents without impacting negatively on the climate and environment,” per the alliance mission statement.
What distinguishes Active House from other green building rating systems that focus principally on energy efficiency and resource conservation is a stronger emphasis on occupant health. The established green building systems referenced human health in indoor environmental requirements as a reaction to the ill effects of early efforts to plug up energy nosebleeds, effects such as gas appliance backdrafting, increased radon levels, and increased concentrations of indoor air pollutants. Active House goes further than occupant safety, considering all indoor environmental aspects of the residence, including noise and acoustics, light, and exterior views, which affect occupant well-being, as well and indoor air quality, of course.
The addition of appropriate visual and acoustic quality is long overdue as important considerations in the overarching movement of green building, namely building better environments.
Within the Active House standard, considerations of lighting include: “Adequate lighting, and especially well designed daylight penetration, provides an array of health benefits to building occupants,” so that daytime electric lighting is hardly needed. This responds to human well-being as well as energy efficiency—why should we need electric light during the day? But the standard then fails to address artificial light, leaving this up to end users, a glaring deficiency, given what we are learning about the health effects of electric light on disregulating human circadian rhythms.
The standard does address the indoor acoustical environment, an element most often neglected as an explicit design consideration—surprisingly so, given how often we plead for peace and quiet.
The standard refers to an “optimal acoustical environment,” that “positively affects health, well-being and performance of building users.” And later warns that, “In extreme cases, exposure to noise can even cause or aggravate cardiovascular diseases,” an issue I can attest to having raised two drummers. Not to make light of the issue, as I heartily agree with Active House in its conviction that “dwellings should be designed to minimize exposure to noise (e.g. from traffic outside or from inside installations) and to optimize overall acoustic quality of living spaces.” The standard provides criteria for evaluating and designing appropriate levels of inside mechanical noise, façade exterior noise suppression, and the most often neglected aspect of noise control, acoustic privacy. I built my drummers a soundproof room, and then took the lessons learned in designing soundproof environments throughout the house. (You can read about how I extrapolated soundproofing techniques into such noisy places as the laundry room, in “Soundproofing a Band Room ,” Journal of Light Construction Oct 2008.
Another original aspect of the Active House standard comes with a well-placed concern for cultural context, respecting local “architectural typology, climate, materials, handcraft as well as an understanding of local standards of society and behavior and traditions.” As a vision, Active House proposes buildings that create “healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without impacting negatively on the climate.” An open source standard, the “consensus committee,” is the online community of interest. You can sign up and join this community at: www.activehouse.info.