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When energy efficiency can be bad for your health

Sustainable building biology that doesn’t factor in humans’ health results in hazards in homes, writes Alanna Moore.

In 1989 I studied a course on building biology that had been translated from the German. It warned of the hazards of modern building practices and materials in relation to human health, comfort and wellbeing, as well as any deleterious planetary effects.

Penned by architects and health and building professionals in Germany, its dictum is that our homes should be healthy spaces where we can relax and rejuvenate. Unlike homes with Sick Building Syndrome, our homes should protect us and foster our wellbeing.

Twenty-one years later and I lament that building biology has not captured people’s attention as much as other important environmental issues. We do spend a great deal of time indoors, after all.

Yet what has become paramount in the current ethos is the green spin of energy efficient building that is totally divorced from our own biological needs.

These days people don’t question life much anymore. They just robotically accept the status quo and the spin that goes with it. In terms of energy efficiency and the power down scenario of Peak Oil, this seems also very much the case.

But we ignore the tenets of good building biology at our own peril. The concept of sustainability should include humans in there too.

In Australia, technocratic spin doctors chant mantras of their ‘adhering to the Australian standards’. Meanwhile, in other countries such as Russia, standards for exposure to electro-magnetic radiation and other environmental hazards can be way more stringent.

We really need to take the more precautionary approach. There can be energy efficiency that doesn’t compromise our health.

So here is my checklist of potential hazards for the home and home planet.

Compact Fluoro Lightbulbs. They have a ghastly dull light and they flicker – affecting our brainwaves, and they contain mercury. For good energy efficiency, the best alternative is to replace all your bulbs with low radiation LED bulbs. (And don’t send those compact fluoros to landfill. Get them properly recycled.)

The Air Tight House. Trying to keep any fresh air out and all the heat inside makes for a good mausoleum. This might save on the heating bill and greenhouse gases, but if the building can’t breathe and outgas naturally how are we to breathe? Our homes need to act as a ‘third skin’ for us. This is the most well known tenet of good building biology. As an alternative – put on jumpers and leggings.

Fibreglass Insulation Batts. Fine particles can end up in the lungs. This could well become the asbestos of the future. There are plenty of alternatives around.

The ‘Smart Meter’. Never was there such a misnomer. Said to be an adjunct to ‘managing’ electricity demand, it doesn’t actually encourage a frugal use of electricity. That requires education and a change in the mainstream ethos that is anti-consumerist – hardly something on any government’s agenda. What it does do is irradiate us with more electro-smog. Just because smart meters are low impact doesn’t necessarily mean low levels of health effects. The low level of power they use could be pathogenic over a lengthy exposure. Do you really want your normal household power supply to be contaminated with radio frequencies – known as ‘dirty electricity’?

Wind Farms. They are not reliable enough to replace coal-powered stations. And that’s just as well. If you find yourself living within a kilometre or two from one of these, and especially if you are downwind from them, you will be a candidate for Wind Farm Syndrome – headaches, insomnia, irritation … Niggling symptoms that don’t quite qualify as ‘real’ health impacts, so you might also get accused of hypochondria. Certainly any grazing animals living beneath the turbines will suffer most – with milk drying up and dying quickly.

Concrete floors for heat banking in solar-passive house design. In this regard, they are an over-kill. Concrete homes are damp for years and have terrible ‘feng shui’. You can feel drained of energy if spending time on a concrete floor. The metal mesh in them can be a conduit for stray electricity and also any geopathic stress too, if that is present, so earthing needs to be very good. Concrete has no breathing ability at all. The production of concrete (and also lime) is very high in energy and resource use. In fact it’s probably the most un-eco-friendly building product around. But there are alternatives.

As a sensible society, we don’t have to take this Techno Trip to Hell. How do we go forward?  Well, backwards might well be a good start.

Living in an over-developed country means we need to learn from the ancient wisdom inherent in vernacular, natural buildings and the ecological traditions of our ancestors and less-environmentally-impacting neighbours today.

For a more natural and healthy built environment check out Peter Cowman’s Living Architecture website.

Alanna Moore is an acclaimed author,  geomancer and editor of Geomantica magazine. She is also a permaculture farmer and teacher, and her archived articles on permaculture can be found here. Alanna’s new book Sensitive Permaculture can be bought from bookshops around Australia and also via Amazon UK and Amazon USA. Information about her other books is available here. For more information contact Alanna at info [at] geomantica [dotcom].


0 #2 Wam 2010-08-18 10:58
Right on target about home insulation to conserve energy. Most of the times it means no more airflow. Businesses who rent such offices often times find their employees starved of oxygen and performing poorly, costing them much more than any extra heating/air conditioning would have. - Proving once again the Law of Unintended Consequences
+1 #1 Matt 2010-08-14 10:03
Whilst there are one or two good points in this article, there are some misleading statements also. For example, where is your evidence to support that CFLs affect one's brainwaves? Has there ever been a study into this, and if so where can we find out more? Agreed susceptible people can be adversley affected by migranes, etc., with certain types of luminaire. If your luminaire is too dull, buy a brighter one. If it takes too long to reach full brightness, then don't go for the cheapest you can find; many of them reach full brightness very quickly. If the colour is wrong for you, put some effort into finding ones with a more agreeable colour temperature, say 4,000 Kelvin or so, or 6,000 K for a daylight product.

Wind farm issues - what are your sources? I lived for a few years next to a windfarm ofseveral 1.4 MW machines. Neither myself nor my neighbours suffered ANY reduction in quality of life. What we did find, however, was that people actually visited the area specifically to see the turbines in action.

Where are these homes with concrete floors that have been damp for years? I have experienced many households where this is not the case (when proper construction methods are applied) and in fact live in such a property with absolutely no problems. We have lived here since the building was completed. As for the metal mesh, IF there is any 'stray electricity' flowing around, it is likely to be very insignificant, with practically no measurable electromagnetic field to affect us. Concrete will act as a good insulator for this. I'd be far more concerned about electricity flowing through household wiring circuits - which IS significant.

Stating, that there are alternatives to concrete, but not saying what they are is not overly helpful. What are these alternatives? Hempcrete? Rammed earth? Straw bales? Gigacrete?

Don't get me wrong, I am a big supporter of responsible construction and provide environmental consultancy and assessments of developments (and I also enjoy dowsing and living a more pagan lifestyle than most) but I feel articles like this help to fuel some of the misconceptions I find myself coming up against every day.

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