Podcast Episode #5 What is the Healthiest Home to Buy?

Air Quality Testing Healthy Home Healthy House Podcasts

In this episode, Stephen will explain the pros and cons of homes from different eras, over the last 100+ years. By understanding the differences, you will be able to make a more educated decision, knowing what to look for when finding your dream home to buy or rent.

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The transcript for 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 you.


Stephen: Episode number five what is the healthiest house to buy?

Stephen: As a Building Biologist people ask me what home I should buy. Should I buy an old house a new house? Should I have one built? What are my options and what makes the most sense when I might be sensitive or my kids have allergies and I’m concerned about the indoor air quality. Well as with all things it depends. Each building type when we looked through the last hundred plus years of house construction has some opportunities that could be really great for your family and there could be some challenges that you need to think about and consider as well. So we’re going to walk through decades of homes and the construction types and show you what’s good and bad about each of them to help you build a tool set so you can make the right decisions. I’m going to preface this by saying we’re going to start talking about stick frame construction or conventional construction. In this podcast I’m going to talk about some natural building at the end but for the most part we’re going to talk about stick frame because that’s what most people live in. Now depending on there are some areas of North America where block cement may be more common. I’m not going to get too much into those but I’ll try to touch on them during the podcast.

Stephen: So the first is a a hundred year old homes. These are the homes that are anything older than World War One. So they go by a hundred year old homes century homes heritage homes a variety of different names. But these are wood frame stick frame homes. And what you’re going to find with them is they’re oftentimes rough cut timber. So bigger lber not just the smooth two by four but they’re actually be two inches by four inch kind of lber hollow walls originally very little insulation in the attic. These are going to have your old sash and sill kind of windows and oftentimes you’re going to have like a dirt basement or a rubble foundation a crawl space a lot of dirt a lot of dust. The good thing about these is there’s not a lot of chemicals in the construction of course cause they weren’t that time of when they built them. So that’s a plus and that’s a positive. Now that doesn’t mean the homeowner has an added any chemicals since then. Obviously that’s going to happen from cleaning products and building materials. But if you’re looking at purchasing an older home and maybe it’s been owned by the same family for many years maybe there hasn’t been any updates. If you’re sensitive to chemicals you’re going to have very little chemical exposure within an older home. And that can be a good opportunity. From a particulate perspective older homes can be a challenge because they’re leaky they’re not air tight. They didn’t have air barriers and weather barriers. They had rough cut wood that’s shrunk over this decades. So if the walls are still hollow well it’s going to be freaking cold in winter. So you want to do something about that but you might have a more dust within those walls and the leaking depending on wind pressure and stack effect you can have some of that particulate through the cracks and the big old pine floors coming under the base board and around the attic hatch where everything’s going to be escaping. And also being pulled up from the dirty crawlspace. So particulate can be a concern. You can improve that building type. You can make it more airtight you can reduce the particulate but it requires effort and understanding from a moisture perspective. Typically speaking the building itself is actually pretty good. So the building can take a lot of mold moisture and liquid water from failures roof leaks plbing leaks whatever and and just bounce back cause it’s made out of giant trees. So it’s really resilient. That said with a particulate load some of the moisture can create. If we have moisture and dust certainly it creates potential for mold. So that’s a concern. We obviously don’t want serious water leaks but typical just moisture and condensation stuff happening. It’s pretty resilient and it’s going to take a lot for that building to really start rotting. It’s going to take a lot of water. The downside from the moisture within a hundred year old home are dirt crawls. So if you have a dirt crawl or dirt basements or rubble foundations you could have a dampness in there for sure. With the soil come springtime. So you want to make sure do you want to try and get a sense if you’re looking at buying a house that’s got a dirt basement is it dry? Does it look like it’s got waterlines? And a trick for that one is you want to check underneath the stairs when the back on the bottom of the stairs. That’s where you’re actually gonna see water lines. Because in any water damage basement people will replace everything except the stairs cause it’s too much to do so you and too expensive. So you can always check the back of the basement stairs to see if there’s a waterline or stains to give you a good idea of what’s going on. Just because it’s dirt doesn’t automatically mean it’s wet but it means there’s certainly a possibility. Can you fix it? Of course you can. So again it depends on skills and how much money you want to put into the house and how healthy do you need it out of the gate how much can you afford? And is it going to be a fixer upper? So that’s kind of the a hundred year old homes and the opportunities and the challenges within them.

Stephen: Between the wars kind of the next sort of category of homes you’re looking at. Somewhere between 1930 1920s 1930s into the early 1940s these kind of homes changed a fair bit. We definitely saw more concrete basements which was great. A more concrete foundations less less rubble and rock you’re going to slowly start to see installation within these homes. They’re going to be using a milled lber so now they’re going to be real two by fours so actually not two inches by four inches. But what we see lber as today that it’s been fine properly milled. So this creates a more square more plb more true tighter fitting home plastering within the 1920s 1930s definitely was quite an art. And so we’re going to see tighter homes on the inside. You may see stucco or concrete on the outside and they’re typically gonna perform better. I personally like some of the architectural details. You’re going to see some deco and some new sort of a curves and baseboards and door openings which I really like. The one detail that is a little weird within this timeframe is you’re actually gonna see the floor joist and where the concrete basement stops in the floor joist start. Most floor joists sit on top of the top of the concrete wall. In 1920s and 1930s for a little while in some regions in the country they put the floor joists in the concrete they actually buried right in there and you can see that from the basement. So the concrete comes up right to the floor deck with the joists buried in the concrete not super ideal. And you want to be really careful with things like spray foaming in that area; which I’m not a fan of and there’ll be a whole podcast on that at some point; but I’m not it’s a real concern because moisture from the concrete can drive into your floor joist. So you want to be really careful about that detail. Again it can still work. And if you see a house from the 1920s and thirties it has it and the wood’s all dry it’s probably still going to outlast you unless you mess something up seriously. So just keep that in mind. Insulation started to become more common sometimes in the colder climates with moisture and paint blistering on the outside. This is actually the decade we’re building science started. And how it started was that these new fangled insulated homes became a thing and wood siding was still used quite commonly and a painting of wood siding was still a trade avery great trade and painters would not warranty their work on those new fangled insulated homes because the dewpoint moved and the dewpoint occurred on the outside of the sheathing now and on the back of their painted a siding and the paint started to blister. And that’s actually the very beginning of building science. So you can thank house painters for that. That’s your useless tidbit of knowledge for the day. Air sealing is important but luckily it’s a lot easier to air seal these these sort of homes over the a hundred year old homes. So a great opportunity great architectural details. So I really like them. And again less chemicals in there unless it’s been updated in recent times.

Stephen: The next group of homes you’re going to see is post World War II say is a 1940s 1950s until the early sixties. And this is the housing boom. This is when all the GIs and everyone in the military came home from overseas and they were guaranteed a new house and a job. And so this housing stocks filled North America Canada the US hundreds of thousands of homes were built. We started seeing a mass production. We started seeing framing systems and different approaches to speeding up the construction of these homes. And we’ll see a lot of these homes in around former military bases and current military bases and people still living in them. What you’re gonna see is the advent of drywall. So in 20s and 30s you still lath and plaster but post World War II drywall became a thing because lath took too long to install. And so the original drywall was actually 16 or 18 inches wide by four foot sheets. And the idea was it was nailed in place. And that was actually the backing board the lath. And they still plastered over top. Over time we just realized that we could make them four by eight sheets and we could get rid of the plasters and just move to drywall tape. And that’s the advent of drywall. The challenge of drywall of course is it’s easier to grow mold. It can hold moisture easily and the paper creates a food source that said post World War Two still looking at a lot of plaster over top of the wallboards is still a lot more durable. The plaster can be really healthy it can help mitigate and take out some of the moisture in the air.

Stephen: Now again that said there’s been a few coats paints on coats of paint on that wall system over the decades. So there’s not a lot of ability to safely take in some moisture. But the older the homes certainly it’s possible. You’re going to see a building papers starting to be used and plywood sheathing. So now we’re starting to use manufactured products on the exterior of the two by four exterior walls as well. So less of solid wood solid lumbers solid trees and and rocks. Now we’re getting into manufactured materials and that’s the big change between pre and post World War Two. So we’re starting to see insulation put in. These would have been craft wrapped fiberglass bats and craft wrap fiberglass bats just means they’re wrapped in almost like a paper bag like a grocery bag. And they had these really cool wings on them. And so these bats would fit into the wall cavities at the at the proper dimensions and they would have these wings and you would pull unfold the wings and you would staple the wings or tack them to the studs and that would hold the insulation in place so it wouldn’t slide down. And I’ve seen over the years doing healthy house inspections that not everybody actually stapled those wings down and you will see some slipping some cold spots along the top of the wall systems. And also the corners details in these homes have a really weak detail. They didn’t stagger the corner studs. So you can get cold joints in the very exterior walls in the exterior corner walls sorry. And that can lead to some condensation. It’s not life threatening or anything. We just need to know that that’s the weak point. Some chemicals started to be used in this play and this timeframe but again they’ve all off gassed. It’s going to be what the updates have happened over the years to these homes. This is also going to be the time frame where you’re just starting to get into the idea of finishing a basement. The late fifties early sixties as the family started to grow after the war you needed a place to put those screaming squealing kids; in the basement. Turned out to be that spot.

Stephen: Now brings in the 1960s and that’s where we’re going to see basements being finished. Definitely way more use of plastics petrochemicals plywoods solvent synthetic carpets caulkings glues all these became standard stuff in the construction industry. Now again these hve all off-gassed since 1960 I certainly hope so and they’re fine unless they get really really wet. So if your wall system’s got issues and got chemicals in it and any wall system gets wet you’re going to have issues obviously but some of the chemicals might break down and cause some air quality concerns. But if you’ve got that much water you have other air quality concerns as well. Formaldehyde was probably one of the bigger issues as far as the chemicals used within the homes of this age because plywood was king. We loved paneling we loved wood paneling. We live chipboard pressboard plywood. These are amazing modern science solutions and where we’re using them everywhere we could. Again these have off gassed over time but you just want to think about what what’s been added since then. As the homes in this age are getting a lot tighter the dust levels through the decades of have decreased as far ascoming from the building itself. So the basements are in better shape; we’re seeing them in better quality. People are living in them now so we’re seeing from a particular perspective things are getting better. From a chemical perspective things are increasing. So they’re inverse to each other. Asbestos is also another issue. We started using that heavily in the sixties and seventies in our stuccos and in our stippled ceilings and all those sorts of things. So we started seeing that and that’s a serious health concern and it’s regulated in your jurisdiction. So you need to take that seriously. And I think asbestos will definitely be something we’ll talk about cause I know people have lots of questions about that. So you just want to be cautious before you start smashing walls.

Stephen: The 1970s definitely what you’re starting to see is more air ceiling buildings got tighter and more in the later in the 70s buildings got tighter and that certainly because of the oil embargo and we started taking energy efficiency very seriously. A lot of chemicals in the 70s. A lot of chemicals definitely. Wall to wall carpet became a magical thing in the big thick shag carpet. My grandparents had it. They had a rake to actually rake up their shag carpet to keep it immaculate. So there are some traumatic emotionally crazy things from the 70s that we’re all still trying to deal with. But avocado green fridges and autumn harvest gold appliances, baby blue in the bathroom. Some crazy wild stuff. for the most part you’re looking at like the ranch house right? A classic seventies home the ranch bungalow. The biggest concern I think for these is going to be leaky windows. You’re going to see those old classic slider windows side to side. That was a huge design detail and really popular but they’re terrible. There’s super leaky letting in air letting out air you’re losing energy making things really uncomfortable and the wood’s probably gonna be in really poor shape if those are still in place. so you want to keep those in mind. Mid efficiency furnaces started to really take take place in the 70s too. Going from the huge old oil burners to something a little more efficient. Homes got a little tighter. and that helped with managing the moisture in the basement. by seeing the mid efficiency furnace it would actually help dry the basement out by actually sucking local air in and then using it for combustion. Newer homes have high efficiency furnaces and we actually take our combustion air from outside and when we take an older home and go from a mid efficiency furnace to a high efficiency furnace and actually puts more moisture in the basement we get less dying and you need more dehidification. Same thing as when you take those old slider windows out and replace them with new air tight windows that actually perform really well. The moisture that used to escape doesn’t escape anymore. And so some of these issues with the homes and opportunities change with the updates that people have done over the years and we can take a healthy home and really wreck it by making poor decisions by not understanding how the house operates as a whole system.

Stephen: The 1980s I think the biggest change in the 1980s is a lot of terrible giant sized homes. We realized that the advent of CAD and computer design that we can make a home anything we wanted it to be. We lost the box and we’ve got these bumpouts and these nubs and these vaults and all these different shapes and details and they were really hard to detail. They were really hard to get right. Now they get called the Mcmansions and other things and not all homes in the 80s obviously fall into this category. But this is a category that was really changed how we live in our homes. And it was less about what the outside look like and more about what the spaces on the inside wanted to want it to look like. And the outside got really lumpy and crazy and every bump every corner every nook every nub. It’s hard to detail. And when we’re thinking about detailing we’re thinking about air movement moisture movement and thermal movement. And the more lumber and corners we have to put in the more those aren’t going to get done. Right. And so they have a bigger concern for sure just because of all the crazy details. Lots of thermal bridging. we did start to see gaskets under sill plates. So before 1980 1970s we didn’t have gaskets. So sill plate is where the concrete bits stop their basement or your crawl space and where your wood-frame starts. And the first piece is called a sill. It lays on top of the concrete wall. And we used to put we didn’t put anything between the concrete in the wood and concrete moves water really easily. And so that would drive into the wood andif it was really wet that could wreck your your structure. We started seeing by the 1980s that we were using sill plates stilled gaskets underneath the sill plates. So that was a great detail. In the late eighties we started tightening homes even more and that’s looking at better drywall details better finishing details.

Stephen: And that takes us into the 90s. And by this time we’re starting to see vapor barriers. So we had air barriers on the outside. We would use tar paper or building paper or different things. But by the 90s we’re starting to see more more chemical materials. So things like a tie back and tie par coming on air barriers coming on the outside we’d start see vapor barriers on the inside as well. and these would be a six mill poly polyethylene and but the details in the 90s as they were kind of installed and not really sealed taped and sealed like we do now. So we’ve got some vapor control but still around the problem areas around joints. so where the wall hits the ceiling where the wall hits the floor where the wall hits a window. We’re still gonna have that stuff in the 90s. We’re still using fiberglass around the windows instead of spray foam and still seeing a lot of leaking. So air ceiling is still important. Engineered joists started to show up in the 90s so we’re now using structurally designed wood to hold the homes up instead of using solid lumber wood and metal combinations on those. Joists really became complicated as lots of different manufacturers trying to trying to come up with something better than lumber. Again a lot of chemicals a lot of chemicals. Now the homes are getting a lot tighter like chemicals take longer to get out of the house. we’re spending way more time in the home by the 90s. And so the chemicals that the occupants are generating are also staying in there longer.

Stephen: So something to keep in mind that takes us into 21st century where we are now way more airtight. So we’re seeing huge strides in making our homes irritate which I think is good. We need it. But we also need to think about ventilation. And the fact that when I grew up my mom was the property manager. She was the building maintenance team. She opened a window when the fresh air was needed. She closed the window when it was too cold or closed the curtains when the sun hit them. We don’t do that anymore cause we’re not home. Right? We have two people out trying to make a living just paying for the House that we’re living in. To make those mortgage payments. So it’s really hard. We don’t have building operators anymore. And so windows don’t get open. I’ve had clients who were in their home for 15 years and had never ever opened a window. Now to me that stark raving insane but it’s true and it happens. It’s more common than you may think. So we want to think about just where our fresh air is coming from. Is it coming from a mechanical system like a heat recovery ventilator or an energy recovery ventilator? Are you window openers? Can you be opening windows? Should you be opening windows? The answer is yes to both of those. You should be opening windows. but now a lot more chemicals are being used as well. So now we’re seeing the finishes the furnishings glues, caulks, polymer structure bituminous membranes peel and stick stuff. We’re seeing a lot of chemicals in newer homes and they haven’t had time to off gas. And so I’ll have clients not do well with the newest homes. If they’re chemically sensitive from a mold perspective they can do really well. But again we have less durability in newer homes because the materials used are wood engineered materials. And so they’re not solid wood there. They can get water into them and they can break down easier. So when we look across a whole timeline older homes have more solid materials. So they’re more durable from a water events situation they may have more particular than them or dust something that can be managed. They’re going to be early air leaky. So we need to think about sealing them up at the opposite end of the 21st century. We’re going to have a way tighter homes very airtight. we’re going to have more chemicals. We’re going to have less a particular cause. There’s less transfer through the walls through the building envelope from the outside. and so and there’s a spectrum in between that.

Stephen: So depending on what your concerns are you just want to think about what’s going on in the home and try to make the best choices you can with the information that you have. Now you’re going to have a Building Biologist come and do you know pre-purchase inspection. I’ve done those and that can really help. Looking more at health not just a basic home inspection but really looking at the building envelope, the environment and then trying to make decisions based on what your concerns are now what would be the best home to buy the healthiest house to buy for you and your family?

Stephen: Well if you’re starting from scratch certainly a natural home can be a great option. So depending on where your client what your climate is that could be a straw bale home where you need more insulation. That could be an Adobe home if you need more thermal mass in the hot dry a southwest and almost everywhere in between you could do something like a straw clay or a rammed earth or other building materials where you’re looking at clay and straw and trying to mix them in a compromise of insulation and thermal mass and they can be way more resilient way more resilient. For those of us in North America we look to Europe for heritage beautiful homes and beautiful buildings that are stood the test of time for hundreds of years. They’re all made out of natural materials over there. They don’t call them natural buildings they call them buildings. We don’t have heritage in North American we’re not old enough. And so we call buildings that use these kinds of materials natural or you know sometimes I get hippy houses and hay houses and silly terms like that. Now I used to build Straw Bale homes and I’m here to tell you that they can be really durable and really resilient and really healthy. Natural materials have been used for millennia. And so looking at a natural building such as straw clay such as Straw bales such as Adobe such as rammed earth. there’s lots of others and we’ll break down some of those over podcasts in the future.

Stephen: But I just want you to think that if you’re really serious about your health and you’re really sensitive you really want to think about possibly a natural based home with as much natural materials as possible. Now people can still be sensitive. Of course there’s no there’s no free lunch ticket where you just buy this and everything works out great. Everybody’s sensitive to different things. I had one client sensitive to the polyethylenes screens on her south facing window when the sun hit them. We wouldn’t know that until we figured it out. It took a while but I did and we were able to switch them out for steel and she was fine. But my point being is everybody has different sensitivities and so knowing what yours are and then knowing where those potential chemicals or potential triggers reside within a home or a type of home can help you really narrow down your choices and help you focus in and zero in on really what the best choices are in the best building. age might be for you to start looking at when you’re looking at purchasing the healthiest home. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next time. Cheers.

Stephen: If you enjoy this show please leave a review and subscribe to the podcast and you will be doing your part to help others create their own healthy homes. If you’d like to learn more about me Steven 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.