Planning to build a house or renovate? Before you do, give a thought to the ways in which your home can be made not only energy efficient and beautiful, but also healthier for the occupants and in harmony with the natural environment. Approaches to environmentally friendly and healthy housing range from the mainstream, in which energy conservation is a primary concern, to the more esoteric, taking ley lines and ch'i into account. The focus might be on building a house for human health, or for planetary health, or both. According to the Building Biology and Ecology Services of New Zealand, with most people spending more than 80% of their time indoors, environmental pollution has become the No 1 health problem in our modern life. And the pressure of human consumption on Earth's natural resources is now common knowledge. There are many ways for New Zealanders to improve their standard of housing, not all of them costing the earth.
Breathability, longevity and insulation are among the qualities of natural building materials such as earth, stone and wood. Also they have the distinction of having housed humans the world over for thousands of years, the ability to blend in with the environment, and are naturals when it comes to beauty.
The thermal mass of a building material describes it's ability to to store heat. Concrete and brick have thermal mass, and buildings built into the earth are the best when it comes to heat storage. Combined with a design which makes full use of the sun's heat, houses built with thermal mass in mind can hugely reduce not only the cost of heating but also the consumption of natural resources used in heating.
Make natural light a feature of your house. Natural light has a balanced light spectrum which is beneficial to our health. Artificial light does not contain the type of light humans need to maintain health, however ordinary light bulbs are recommended for indoor use. Even windows stop some of the sun's beneficial rays however, so the best way to absorb the sun's energy is to go outside and soak it up - not too much of course :) .
Solar hot water systems are so effective, they can boil the water! For tap water not quite so hot, install a tempering valve.
Toilets are a fundamental issue, due to the large amount of water flushed daily down New Zealand loos. Composting toilets not only save litres of water a day, but also destroy viruses and harmful bacteria and Giardia.
Carpets - being dusty, and harbouring colonies of the house dust mite - can make life harder for allergy sufferers. Carpets made from synthetic materials cause electrostatic fields and outgas chemicals. Wool carpets, which provide good insulation, absorb moisture and have the advantage over flooring alternatives of being warm, soft and natural, are unfortunately often treated with insecticide. Toxic glues are usually used in laying them. Furthermore, the manufacture of carpets can be very hard on the environment. For those with a fondness for carpets, look for the Environmental Choice Label.
Natural paints are available in New Zealand, valuable from both human and planetary health perspectives. Also available are Environmental Choice Label paints which meet standards set for odour and toxicity.
Treated timber is an issue for New Zealand, which has one of the highest rates of use. The solution? Plant more hardwoods which do not need treating (rather than deplete the world's current dwindling supply). From an environmental point of view, recycled timber is a good option.
Old houses may in many respects be a disadvantage for eco-house enthusiasts, and for many the preferred option will be to design their house from scratch. However, for those who love old houses, there are some good points to consider. For one, the older a material is, the less outgassing. The same goes for furniture.
The above points provide a mere glimpse at what is involved in environmental friendly housing.