Building a healthy house is not easy. In many cases, there is no safe alternative product, no such thing as organic, nontoxic wiring, no safe caulk or water proofer. I found insulation very challenging and never tested one that my body did not adversely react to. I will share what choices we made and why, what worked and what we would do differently. There is not enough information on healthy house building and much of what we found relied on low-toxic alternatives that, when tested, made me feel horrible. I did not want to rely on the belief that these materials would off-gas completely. “Maybe this is why so many chemically sensitive people find they can’t live in the houses they have specially built,” I would speculate/fear.
It took two years to build our house and another year and a month before I could move in. I wish someone would figure out how to build a quick, low cost, non-toxic house that people could move into immediately. I would like to issue a call-to-action to architects and builders to crack the code on this! Our house is not that—it took longer than it should have and probably cost more than it should have as well. It did not help that we were winging it the whole time and extremely freaked out and praying our solutions worked, particularly when they seemed based on an untested theory or worse, wishful thinking. Since our house did ultimately work out for me, I am sharing what we did with you in case any part of what we came up with helps you find relief. If you built a healthy house and would like to share an alternative solution to anything I discuss, please share what you did. I wish you good luck and success in building a safe and healthy house or even simply making your current house or living space safer.
Margaret Forrest is an artist, furniture designer, and illustrator whose work has been shown in the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR, the Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia, and the Meredith Gallery in Baltimore, MD. Her illustrated novella The Test was nominated for a reader’s choice award in 2013. Margaret Forrest was born in Maine. She currently lives in northern New Mexico.
Much Much Longer Bio: Why I Needed to Build A Healthy House
In 2004, after surgery and treatments for thyroid cancer, I developed severe chemical sensitivities. My husband and I were living in Philadelphia at the time. A couple months after my surgery, we noticed the basement and hallways of the apartment building we were living in smelled strongly of mold. During this time, I had unrelenting brain fog, fatigue, headaches–all of which I attributed to the cancer surgery and treatments. But the mold worried us after a doctor suggested the mold could be responsible for my symptoms. We decided to leave and stay at my husband’s parent’s apartment in New York. My symptoms continued to get worse there so we left for my husband’s parent’s house on Cape Cod. Fresh sea air, quiet and relaxation…how could that go wrong? Unfortunately, my mother-in-law had placed open boxes of mothballs in all the closets. The house was fumy with naphthalene when we arrived. Foolishly, we stayed the night. The next morning my brain fog was so severe and cognitive abilities so impaired that I was having trouble coming up with the words to explain my condition to my husband. You know that feeling of not being able to remember a word or someone’s name? Now imagine all your words are gone and so is your ability to think.
Obviously, we left their house, but this was only the very beginning of my ordeal with a challenging illness and my realization that I wasn’t just getting sick from one bad apartment or house, but most of the world. We continued to flee bad housing situations, moving from place to place searching for a safe place that did not seem to exist. Eventually we purchased a piece of land in northern New Mexico and built a healthy house that we are currently living in. That sentence makes it sound so simple! Actually, building our house involved years of misery, near constant anxiety that the house wouldn’t be safe for me, and financial stress.
The spring before the building was to begin, the house we were renting in Santa Fe became unlivable after the septic tank backed up into the house and septic gases began leaking into the house. Several plumbers failed to find the location of the problem so we moved to the land we purchased for the healthy house we planned to build. At this point, the land had no structures, electricity, phone service or water. (FYI, we did try to find another rental, but new rentals are extremely challenging for the chemically sensitive since they tend to be spruced up with new paint, new carpeting, refinished floors and other toxic improvements.) Thus it was with no other options that we made the decision to camp on our land while we built our healthy house, cluelessly assuming this situation would only last the summer. It lasted just over three years.
If you are not chemically sensitive, you may be thinking we had an unusual amount of bad luck. If you are chemically sensitive, you are probably replaying all the drama and health consequences you have suffered when your landlord decided to spray for bugs, when a roof leak turned into mold in the walls, or the road in front of your house was re-tarred. The chemically sensitive are a very vulnerable population. Events such as these are, for healthy people, annoyances or merely unpleasant smells. But for those with chemical sensitivities or environmental illness, they cause serious and intolerable health consequences. This is how, for me, living outside became the obvious (though horrible) alternative to the frightening downward spiral of symptoms and health issues that accrue in a moldy, fragrance-filled or toxic building material laden house or apartment.
I have since been diagnosed with a mast cell disease, an illness where your body produces too many mast cells or your mast cells are unstable or both. These mast cells degranulate (burst) and spew inflammatory chemicals (histamine and many others) into your body tripping off a cascade of symptoms too numerous to go into here. This process leads to many inflammatory and allergic diseases, GI problems requiring special diets and GI mast cell stabilizers, and fatigue and severe brain fog. One of the first things I read after getting my diagnosis was, “Patients with mastocytosis can be exquisitely sensitive to even small amounts of chemicals.” The mast cell disease patient websites and Facebook groups I visited were filled with people asking questions like “what unscented products do you use?” and “how do you travel without getting sick—where do you stay?” and “does anyone know of a safe VOC mask that eliminates fragrances but is made of a safe material?” I stared at the screen, stunned because these were all the questions I and other chemically sensitive people ask, but these people were all mastocytosis or mast cell activation syndrome patients. I found myself wondering what percentage of people with chemical sensitivities are going undiagnosed and untreated.
Allow me to digress from the topic of healthy house building for a moment to encourage those of you who are suffering from chemical sensitivities to ask your doctor about mast cell disease. A simple serum tryptase blood test and a 24-hour urine collection for histamine and prostaglandin levels can be ordered to determine if this is your underlying problem. You may not have a mast cell disease, perhaps your sensitivities are the result of Lyme disease, a chemical or pesticide overexposure, or some as yet undiscovered cause. But if it is a mast cell disease, you’ll want to find a specialist who can help you treat it.
So that is my sad tale, though I am fortunate now to have a safe, nontoxic house to live in which helps enormously with managing my illness. I also live in the high desert of New Mexico where we enjoy, apart from wildfire season, clean unpolluted air. If you have a recommendation for other safe areas people could try, let me know and I will report them on this site.
The Build A Healthy House blog is the story of how I built my own healthy house and is for informational purposes only. I am not giving advice on this subject and readers should consult with a professional on all of the subjects I address here. Your choice to use or try any products, techniques, building materials, or information found on this blog is at your own risk.
The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information.