Podcast Episode #2 What is Building Biology?

Building Biologist Healthy House Podcasts

In this episode, Stephen will explain what Building Biology is, how it started, and how it can help homeowners, builders and designers create healthier places to live. Stephen will also explore the 25 Principles of Building Biology, which outline an encompassing approach to creating your healthy house, using examples of how to apply them within your own home.

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The following is the transcript from the episode:

Stephen: Welcome to your healthy house. I’m Stephen Collette


Stephen: In this podcast I explore your indoor environmental quality concerns and opportunities. We look at the facts and debunk the fiction. We will discuss examples you can relate to and the doable actions you can take in your own home or apartment. We will also look at the history of how our homes are, the way they are and the future of healthy housing for everyone. I promise to make this fun and interesting for both of us.

Stephen: Episode number two, Building Biology. So I’m a Building Biologist and I get the raised eyebrow glazed doughnut look all the time when I tell people what I am. What does it mean? What do you do? Well, my elevator pitch is this Building Biology looks at the built environment, how it works, how it fails, how it impacts occupant health and how it impacts environmental health as well. That’s a mouthful. Building Biology’s a little simpler. We want to make buildings in the environment healthy. That’s the bottom line. Building Biology started in 1960s postwar Germany, the Germans were forced to build an incredible number of houses after the war and unfortunately they built them terribly more so like North American standards when we really dig into it. But what happened was by the 1960s doctors were associating illnesses with these neighborhoods and they did something very German like which was solve the problem. So they pulled together architects and engineers and city planners and public health and they all gathered around the table to talk about these neighborhoods and how they were impacting their community health. And they solved the problem. They strengthened their building codes, make buildings more durable, they had different aspects and stuff integrated into public health. And one of the outcomes was this school looking at indoor environmental health called Building Biology in Germany. It’s Bau biology and ecology and it really is the biology and ecology of the built environment that institute has been running since then with Dr Anton Schneider and Wolfgang Maes writing amazing documents and papers and instructions on how to create an inspect healthy homes. One of those graduates was Helmut Ziehe, a master architect from Germany who came to Building Biology because he had been working in the desert designing concrete modernist homes for people and noticed that all his workers refused to sleep them, but instead preferred to sleep and healthier naturally built homes made out of clay and straw. That aha moment changed his life. Building Biology, opened his doors and opened his mind to what was possible and what we could create. Helmut came to North America, translated the content into English and started teaching it out of Clearwater, Florida over 30 years ago. Slowly the institute now called the Building Biology institute grew and he brought on instructors and other experts to help explore and teach and train other people to become building biologist.

Luckily one of those graduates was me. I took the training because I got sick. My family got sick. We lived in a mouldy house. We were renting. I thought I knew everything there was about healthy and green and natural buildings because I was building Straw bale homes at the at that time. That’s probably another episode we’ll dig into. But I was an expert and we were living in a century home and my family got sick from mould. It turned out and I realized I didn’t know enough, so I got involved in Building Biology. A colleague told me about it and when I got a chance to talk to the director and learn a little bit about it, it really resonated with me. And so I dug in and took the training. And gratefully, now, 13 years later, I’m one of the instructors, I co-teach and teach three different courses through the institute. And I’ve written some online seminars and I’ve really been involved because I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I don’t want anyone to be sick like my family was sick. I want people to have healthy homes and it’s a passion of mine and I’m grateful to do it.

So the Building Biology institute, it’s based on principles, not scorecards, not checkboxes, not points, systems, but just principles, solid rational principles on how we can make our homes healthy. And there’s only 25 of them. It’s not complicated. So I’d like to go through those 25 principles with you today and just see how they resonate with you. And if they make sense, you can start to apply them. And maybe in future podcasts we’ll break them down even into more granularity to understand them a bit better. The 25 principles are broken down into four large sections.

Stephen:The First Section is called site and community design, where principle number one is verified that his site is free, have naturally occurring in manmade health hazards. Well what does that mean? Well, it means you shouldn’t build your home over a nuclear waste site. Probably some common sense stuff like that don’t build over an old dump, but also think about what else might be under there. Uranium is a naturally occurring and coal and other issues that may be impact your health. Old wetlands could have soil gases and stuff. So that’s basically what number one means.

Stephen:Number two is place dwellings so occupants are undisturbed by sources of manmade air, soil, water, noise and electrical pollution. Well that seems pretty general and it is. But think about where you’re building and where you’re putting your homes. We know from the research that if your homes near a freeway or a highway or an airport, that the pollution, that the noise are going to significantly impact your family’s wellbeing. Now we also see that those are lower income dwellings, and we oftentimes may not have the choice of where our home is located for financial reasons, but where are we? Can we want to think about where those, where that building’s located and if we’re choosing to have the opportunity to choose of home to think about, keep that in mind.

Stephen: Number three is placed dwellings and well-planned communities that provide ample access to fresh air, sunshine in nature. Well, that certainly SPAC smacks of urban sprawl, doesn’t it? That’s not actually the case. Yeah. We all want our little house with a green grass and backyard. Well, that’s not what we’re talking about either. It’s not suburbia, it’s not sprawl, but it’s the idea of creating thoughtful design, really digging in and creating a, a layout of a community or a neighborhood where there’s pathways, where there’s sidewalks, where there’s many parks, where there’s access to nature. We still have our own private spaces and we still have public spaces that we can all enjoy that takes competent design teams to look at that and oftentimes our neighborhoods are just wham, Bam, wham, Bam. Sort of crunching out as many footprints as possible, not really thinking about nature and I think we can do a better job on that.

Stephen: Number four is planned homes and developments. Considering the needs of the community, families and individuals of all ages. This is really important. When you look at a new tract home development, what’s the first thing you see? Well, I see the garage. Why? Because everybody drives well, except for all the kids in the neighborhood. I don’t do any driving. So does that neighborhood have sidewalks? Does the neighborhood have parks? Are All the backyards fenced into eight feet and the kids can’t even see the neighbors if they wanted to. What about older people? What about retired people? We’re currently living through huge baby boom. In the retired population. Can they get around? Can they walk? Are the sidewalks bumpy? Is there a place to get their strollers to? They have stairs or ramps. Think about how you’re developing. You’re going to get old. We’re all gonna get old. So how do we make that space work for everybody?

Stephen:The second group of principals in the Building Biology institute is occupant health and wellbeing. Principle number five is used natural and unadulterated building materials. Unadulterated. That’s a big word. No, doesn’t mean cheating. Building materials. It means, think about how you can use more natural building materials. That could be Straw. That could be clay, that could be stone. No, I don’t need you to make a Fred Flinstone house. It’s not what I’m talking about. But what I really want you to think about is how much manmade materials surround you. In our everyday lives, we have plastics, we have chemicals, we have petroleums, we have glues, we have solvents. We have laminates, polyvinyl chlorides as all that. Really healthy. Really? Why do you go to the cottage? Why do you go outside on the weekend and walk in the park because you feel healthy? Can we make our homes healthier by using more natural materials? I can speak from experience and the answer is yes it is doable and we’ll definitely be talking about this more later on.

Stephen: Principle number six, allow natural self regulation of indoor air humidity using hygroscopic building materials. Now another big word, high gross scopic. It means humidity buffering. You know these heat waves were getting where the humidity is super hot and super high or you know when your teenager has a 40 minute shower and the entire bathroom is like a fog chamber. Can we manage that better? Does it have to be just mechanical ventilation to manage that? We can. I remember staying at Helmut’s apartment once years ago and there was a bunch of us there and this is Florida and it’s hot and it’s humid and Helmut’s had finished his bathroom out with unfinished cork unsealed cork and raw wood finish with beeswax and it was just a tiny little bathroom. Wasn’t anything fancy, but I was the third person to use the shower that morning. And I remember walking in and I could see myself in the mirror. It wasn’t fogged up, it wasn’t steamed up. And I’m like, this is amazing. I’ve never experienced this before. And I commented on it when I came out cause I was new to the Building Biology and Helmut laughed and everyone thought it was pretty funny. And he’s like hygroscopic materials, that’s what it’s all about. And so we can use those materials within our own homes to help manage moisture to take out those highs and lows.

Stephen: Principle number seven is assure low total moisture content and rapid desiccation of wet construction processes in buildings. On another mouthful, it’s about drawing your house out after construction. Now not everyone gets to move into a new home, so it doesn’t apply to everyone. But for those that do, Canada mortgage and Housing Corporation had recommended you run a dehumidifier on every floor continuously for six months after you moved into the home. That’s just to get rid of all the construction moisture. Think of all the paint. Think of all the glues. Think of the caulks, think of the wood that was in the rain, that’s drying out. All that moisture has to come out and it comes into our buildings. Now if we’re not managing it properly, we’re going to get dampness. We’re going to get moisture in the house. That’s going to be uncomfortable, but it’s also going to create a potential for mould. I had that happen to my own house and I was really surprised to have this principal sort of sit back and slap me in the face. We had done an addition to our own home and it was still under construction and I was in the basement of our existing house and I noticed water dripping off a cold waterline and I’m like, oh no, there’s been an accident. Something’s happened, a waterlines broken. And I was all upset and worried and it turns out it wasn’t the case at all. It turns out there was so much moisture in the air from the construction that the water in the air condensed on the coldest surface, which was my cold water pipe. And when I realized that this happened to me as I continually teach this principle, I couldn’t help but laugh and certainly my wife thought it was very amusing.

Stephen: Principle number eight is designed for a climatically appropriate balance between thermal insulation and thermal storage capacity. Now this is one we don’t really use in our existing homes, at least most of us in the north and eastern climates. For those in the southwest, we understand thermal storage. In the southwest states, there’s a lot of adobe, there’s a lot of thermally massive buildings. These are stone buildings. These are rammed earth buildings. These are clay clay and Straw, and that thermal storage acts like a battery. It can actually hold the thermal energy and store it during the hot hot day, especially in the southwest. And then when things get cooler like at night, it can actually radiate that energy back out and that can actually provide thermal comfort because it can take the highs and lows out the, for the rest of us, we’re used to having thermal insulation, right? The more fluffy stuff we have in the walls, the more comfortable we are, especially in cold climates. But even in cold climates we can benefit from thermal storage.

Stephen: Principle number nine, plan for climatically appropriate surface and air temperature. So if you have the opportunity to go south somewhere warm in the winter for those in a cold climate and you get down onto the beach and you’re into your little hostile agenda and the floor is tiled and it feels wonderfully cool. Now that same cool tiled floor would be a miserable experience in a cold climate winter. And so we need appropriate surface temperatures to ensure our thermal comfort, thermal comfort. We only have the air temperature to measure. We have that thermostat on our wall and you can go up or down.

Stephen: Principle number 10 provide for ample ventilation. Now this is something, when I was a kid, it wasn’t a big deal. I had this amazing building manager, operator and maintainer and it was my mom. She knew when to open the windows to let the nice breeze in. She knew when to close him when it was getting hot. She knew when to close the blinds to keep the sun from blistering and warming the house, and she would manage the home. Nowadays in the 21st century, nobody’s home. We have to have two incomes to go out and pay for the giant house out in the suburbs. And that means we’re not managing it. We have to rely on mechanical ventilation. So those are he recovery ventilators, energy recovery ventilators, and we’ll talk about those in future podcasts. But they’re typically installed incorrectly. They’re not working properly and you don’t even know how to use them properly. So those are real challenges.

Stephen: Principle number 11 use appropriate thermal radiation strategies for heating buildings, including passive solar, wherever viable. And the passive solar is a pretty catchphrase word. People understand it. Let the sunshine in when you need it and keep the sun out when you don’t. And that can be as simple as overhangs, some shading trees, and those are really easy strategies. And rarely do they impact the cost of your building when building new.

Stephen: Principle number 12 provide an abundance of well-balanced, natural light and illumination while using color in accordance with nature. Natural Light. We feel good in natural light. Our bodies need natural light and we spend so much time under electric lighting that it really does impact our wellbeing. Getting outside, getting the sun in her face on her bodies really is good. Using color and accordance with nature. Our bodies, again, our eyes process these healthy colors, these natural colors, and it benefits us and our wellbeing.

Stephen: Principle number 13 provide adequate acoustical protection from harmful noise and vibration. This is an easy one. If you’ve ever lived, live near a road or a bus terminal or a train station, or stayed at the hotel near the airport and didn’t sleep at night cause you heard the airplanes running nonstop. It’s important to our well meaning that harmful noise and vibration impacts us biologically.

Stephen: Principle number 14 utilize nontoxic building materials that have neutral or pleasant natural sense. Clean doesn’t have a scent, never did. And our building materials need to be clean. They need to be healthy and nontoxic, and they really shouldn’t have any odors if fit. That odor is really stinky. It’s telling you something, it’s trying to murder you, it’s gotta be healthy. It’s gotta be natural and it shouldn’t be stinky.

Stephen: Principle number 15 use appropriate water and moisture exclusion techniques to prevent interior growth of fungi, bacteria, dust, and allergens. What happens when you splash water out of the tub and onto the floor? You get in trouble because we all know we shouldn’t be doing that, but I will happen. Your washing machine will overflow some point in time. Some little kid’s going to stuff, a GI Joe down your toilet and try to flush them. This is life accidents happen, but how do we build our buildings so when those things happen or buildings are more durable, more resilient, so they’re not completely destroyed after one toilet overflow, but can handle and spring back and maintain the indoor air quality.

Stephen: Principle number 16 assure or best possible water quality by applying purification technologies if required. That’s pretty straight forward. We want clean drinking water and in both Canada and the U S we’ve had terrible, terrible tragedies where our drinking water wasn’t safe and that’s not acceptable. What’s in our drinking water? How do we make it clean? How do we make it safe for our family?

Stephen: Principle. Number 17 utilize physiological and ergonomic knowledge and into interior and furniture design. That’s ergonomics. Have you ever sat in a chair that was uncomfortable? Have you ever stood at a countertop and had your back hurt after a long time? That’s ergonomics. We can design better. We can make our homes fit us, not us fit our homes.

Stephen: Principle number 18 consider proportion. Harmonic measure, order and shape and design. This is one of my favorite principles. It’s a little more esoteric but it really gets into the idea that we can build with math and science using geometry and create really beautiful spaces using some universal math. The next section of principles is natural and manmade. Electromagnetic radiation safety. So this is looking at electromagnetics or EMR.

Stephen: Principle number 19 is minimize indoor interference with vital cosmic and terrestrial radiation. No, you’re not being zapped by Martians from the cosmic chaos, but there is natural radiation going on outside. One of is from the big flaming ball in the sky called the sun that we happen to really enjoy. And there is terrestrial radiation as well. And the more we are exposed to outside, the better it is. And unfortunately some of our building processes will block this and can impact your health.

Stephen: Principle number 20, minimize manmade power system and radio frequency radiation exposure generated from within the building and from outside sources as well. So this is really looking at electrics, electromagnetic radiation. You can actually have some electric and magnetic fields coming off your wiring. And for some people they’re sensitive to that and it impacts them and other frequencies, high frequencies, the radio frequency is your Wifi, your smart phones, your cell phones, your, smart meters. Those all can impact us as well. They operate in a radio frequency, a high frequency, like a microwave frequency. And our bodies weren’t really designed for that. We’ve never had those exposures, until the 20th and 21st century.

Stephen: Principle number 21, avoid the use of building materials that have elevated radioactivity levels. So there has been studies of using, some granite can have elevated levels of radioactivity in it. Some building materials including fly ash have noted a little bit of radioactivity and I’m pretty sure nobody wants their walls glowing green at night because of radioactivity. So that’s pretty straight forward.

Stephen: The last section of the 25 principles of Building Biology is environmental protection, social responsibility, and energy efficiency. Principle number 22, construction materials production and building processes shall provide for a health and social wellbeing and every phase of the building’s lifecycle. Well, that means we should think about who’s working in the factory. Is it actually healthy for them to be making this material? Is it toxic and harmful? That’s not a great idea. What about when the life cycles at the end? Where does this material go? Does it break down? Will it break down? Who’s breaking it down? And that’s the lifecycle. So thinking about how it’s healthy from start to finish.

Stephen: Principle number 23, avoid the use of building materials that deplete irreplaceable natural resources or being harvested in, in an unsustainable manner. Sure. We all want that solid slab. One piece, magnificent dining room table that we see in those architectural magazines and websites. You know the 12 foot thing that came from a giant single tree. Did we have to cut down that giant single tree for that? Probably not. And so we need to be thoughtful in how we use our resources, especially ones that we can’t replace.

Stephen: Principle number 24 minimize the energy consumption throughout the life of the building. Utilizing climate based and energy efficient design, energy and water saving techniques and renewable energy. This is what we’re all about in the 21st century climate change. We’re trying to save the energy, we’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint through our homes. Thinking about solar panels, think about led lights and these are all great strategies, more insulation. We need to do them, but can we just build our homes proper from the get go? It’s not rocket science. We’ve actually solved this problem on how to do this. We just need to implement it. And getting people on board is really important.

Stephen: And the last principle, principle number 25 considered the embodied energy and environmental life cycle costs when choosing all materials used in construction. Now the embodied energy in life cycle costs, that’s taking a material and finding out how much energy it costs, it costs to make it concrete really, really high in energy. Right? And what happens to it at the end of its life cycle? Can it be reused? Can it be repurposed? Will it ever break down? And so thinking about those costs is really important.

Stephen:And when we sit back and look at all 25 principles, most of these are pretty common sesnse when we really just sort of glance at them. It’s not rocket science. The more natural the building materials, the more natural the process, the better buildings we make, the more efficient buildings we make, minimize exposures on any level. That’s all pretty straightforward stuff. We’re not solving for the mysteries of the universe. And so these principles can be taken far more deeply. You can dive deep in them. And I think we might do that in one of our podcasts, break down some of these into more detail. But from a glance, a lot of these are really common sense and that’s what creating healthy houses is all about.

Stephen: It’s thinking about the common sense stuff, stepping back and assessing the situation, thinking about a product or a material that you might want to bring into your home. Is it possible? Is this healthy for my family? I’m not really sure. Well where can you get the answers? We’ll talk about that too and hopefully this podcast will be one of those places that you can find the answers. So those are the 25 principles of Building Biology. For more information you can check out their website www.buildingbiologyinstitute.org lots of great information on there and I hope this introduction has been really helpful to you and spurred your interest and want to learn more. Come back to the next podcast and we’ll have another talk and we’ll help create your healthy house. Thanks.

Stephen: I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Please subscribe on your favorite podcast source and give us a review that will make it easier for other people to find, and you will be doing your part to help others create their own healthy homes. If you’d like to learn more about me, Stephen Collette, and what I do, please check out my website at www.yourhealthyhouse.ca Music for the podcast is by Brian Pickett of Voodoo Highway Music. Audio technical support is by Mike Pickett. Editorial support is by Eric Rosen. I’m your host, Stephen Collette. Thanks for listening and enjoy your day. Cheers.