Design Considerations

This post will explore some of the issues you might want to consider in the design of your house, including utilizing passive solar heating, window and door placement for optimal fresh air flow, and keeping potentially challenging spaces like the laundry room walled off from the living space.

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Before we built our house, my husband and I were renting a house in Santa Fe that had a moldy smelling washing machine in the laundry room. When repeated efforts to clean it failed, we asked our landlord to remove it.   Unfortunately, the brand new washer we purchased was off-gassing something that I reacted to. Since the laundry room was off the main kitchen/living room area, those rooms were also affected. It got so bad, we finally moved the machine outside where it lived under a tarp for an entire summer. (We eventually gave it away.) Because of this experience, when we were designing our house, we decided to quarantine the laundry room from the main living space of the house. I mention this story because this location is admittedly inconvenient, but worth it to eliminate the risk of an off-gassing washer or dryer in my safe living space. If either appliance requires repair, we don’t have to worry about the aftershave or Tide Mystic Forest laundry detergent scents from the repair person getting in the house. Of course, it does mean going outside to get to the laundry room whether it is a beautiful sunny day or cold, snowy morning in the winter. As you can see in the above image, the mechanical room is also accessed from an exterior door for the same reason.

Since both rooms have appliances that could leak substantial amounts of water if they broke (the washing machine in the laundry room and hot water heater in the mechanical room), we decided as an added precaution to install drains in both floors to reduce the risk of a mold problem resulting from any water leaks.

Passive Solar House Orientation

If it is possible with your particular piece of land, orient your house to take advantage of passive solar heating. In a rectangular-shaped house, you would orient the long side of the house facing south with large windows to collect, store (through the thermal mass of the floor and or walls), and then release into the house that stored warmth. A roof with a two-foot overhang will block the sunlight from coming in during the warmer months of the year.

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For a more thorough overview of passive solar building, click here.

While we are on the subject of heating, many environmentally ill people find radiant floor heating eliminates the challenges of other forms of heating like forced air, ceramic space heaters, oil filled radiators, and baseboard heaters that can burn off accumulated dust when turned on:

“Essentially, I’m unable to tolerate pretty much any form of artificial heat. Within minutes of either being near or in a room with a heater I get short of breath (air hunger) and brain fog that can persist long after the exposure. If I’m asleep whilst heaters are on I will wake up and have symptoms. It seems the only tolerable forms of heat for me are from the sun, water or simply wrapping up warm.”

from discussion: Unable to Tolerate Heaters (MCS)

In radiant floor heating in a concrete slab, tubes are installed, the slab is poured, and when the system is turned on, hot water flows through the tubes inside the slab. Since the heating tubes are contained in the slab, there are no fumes from these materials in the house, just gentle heat. We decided not to seal our cement floor with any products in case the radiant heat caused the product to off-gas fumes (and because we regularly tried to eliminate products wherever possible to make the house as nontoxic as possible).

Click here for a This Old House article on radiant floor heating.

Positioning Doors and Windows for Maximum Air Flow

When designing a house, normally the focus for door and window placement is on convenience (for doors) and most desirable views (for windows). For a healthy house, doors and windows are how you will keep the air in your house clean. (This is of course assuming the air outside is safe to let in, but that is another discussion.) Wherever possible, try to line up windows and doors on opposite sides of the house so breezes will flow easily through the house.

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The path lengthwise through our house is less than ideal and requires stronger winds to move the air through the house in that direction.

5 floor plan cross breezes 2.jpg

Locate Your House on High Ground

Many people with environmental illness are very sensitive to mold and need to keep their houses as dry and mold free as possible. For this reason, it is often recommended that you avoid having a basement. In addition, choosing a building location on your land that is on higher ground will give you extra protection from standing water that may accumulate after heavy storms. If you can, try to see where water naturally flows on your property during storms and plan accordingly.


Our summer storms in northern New Mexico can drop large amounts of rain in a short time. During one particularly heavy rain, I watched from a window as water rose alarmingly quickly next to the house. After the storm, I located the best spot for a drainage trench to move the water past that side. This kind of project is time-consuming and labor intensive (if you do it yourself), but remarkably affective. The image below is of a 12” deep by 12” wide trench filled with rocks.

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My final point to address when designing a house is obvious and I debated on including it for that reason, but here it is: if you need your house as quickly as possible and are constrained by a tight budget, keep it simple. A square or rectangle will be faster to build and, since time is money, cheaper as well. Find out how long certain features like dormers, bay windows and other architectural embellishments will take to build and then add 50% to whatever estimate your builder gives you. (Everything takes longer than you expect it to!)

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As always, good luck with your building project!

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3 thoughts on “Design Considerations

  1. I love your drawings and photos. With them, it’s easy to picture what you’re talking about. Have you ever thought about teaching workshops on building a non toxic house?


    1. I have not, but mainly because everyone would have to be very, very unscented for me to be around them. That said, the people building this kind of house would likely be unscented.


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