Buying or Building a Home

This is a collection of the ideas I would explore if I were to be so lucky to buy or build a home.  Even if you’re looking for an apartment, you can increase the chances of selecting an apartment more conducive to health by familiarizing yourself with this information. I hope you benefit from these ideas!

Before we get into the resources, here is an inspirational introduction from Paul Jennings:

“If ecology is your thing (and it should be your thing) then the short phrase which is your house makes no sense unless combined in a sentence which refers both to landscape and how you deal with your bodily wastes, or what you use to clean your worktops, or how much of your own food you grow.

…let’s place our buildings in an understood and designed landscape where windbreaks reduce our energy needs, and where zonal design reduces work and helps us to create self-sustaining abundant household and settlement economies of the sort we are going to need.

We can stack functions in space like this, for buildings. We do anyway, but we can design to do it better. A house can be a home for people, and for bats; a room can be a place to eat and a place to hold meetings; a place where, as we plot the downfall of capitalism we can draw books from well placed shelves. A house can be a place for education of children; a place where we care for all generations; a place which produces food, and which deals with its own wastes by using them to meet the needs of other elements in the design, a design aimed at abundance.

Stacking functions in space, thinking of a house in the same way we think of a forest or a forest garden, can work with stacking in time. The building we’re living in now might become something else as needs and desires change. So, a well designed barn might come to provide accommodation, it might become a shop or a monthly produce market; a seasonal store; a place for courses or Solstice feasts. Over time, a well designed building may go through transformations, and we can design for that. There are very good historical precedents, it’s how buildings were once nearly all used.

Applying good design for relative location to our buildings, vis-a-vis other buildings and elements in our designs, can give rise to very efficient single envelope constructions, to evolving courtyards; to the kinds of places which feel bigger than they really are because they are thoroughly inhabited, full of all kinds of human activity.

We can build in backup plans, accommodation for young and old; spare capacity for storage. We can take seriously David Holmgren’s call to catch and store energy, not just in solar panels, but as food in larders, as water; as knowledge for dissemination; as growing community. Thinking about buildings like this is Permaculture thinking, because a house as just a place to sleep and watch television is a place segregated from the other functions of human life, from the meeting of a whole host of human and ecological needs.

Integration brings buildings back to life. As a side benefit it reduces food miles; reduces hours behind the steering wheel; it brings generations back together. Well-designed buildings in a well-designed landscape provide the matrix for a very different kind of society from the one we have now.

We are going to experience much more extreme weather. We need to design and build for more high winds, probably extremely high winds. Preparing for this will involve thinking about some of the things I have already mentioned: building and settlement placement; planting properly designed windbreaks. It will also demand earthworks. We will need to think about earth sheltering, possibly even taking Mike Oehler’s route and going underground; we will need to familiarise ourselves with hurricane proofing: combinations of earthworking, planting and building using traditional typhoon proofing approaches from the Pacific Islands. Does anyone know what wind speed will peel their roof off? I don’t believe the roof that I live under will be enough for the future we likely face, not without more work on its structure, on our landscaping and plantings anyway.

It’s going to be very windy. It’s also going to be very dry for long periods. We need to design forwater storage in the landscape and at our buildings.

There’s going to be extreme heat, there could be extreme cold as well. These phenomena demand changes in building design. Straw bale buildings cope well with the cold of course,and with the heat, but there is no room for complacency because we need places to store firewood, to store food – have you ever tried hacking leeks out of frozen ground? I have. We need outside areas which remain cool and pleasant when temperatures rise.

We should be designing with the oldest of aims in mind, to create a functioning household economy, to meet our needs as close to our hearth as possible, not monetary needs, but real needs: growing, harvesting, processing and storing.

If we are not to build toxic boxes, which stand empty during the day, and hold atomised and exhausted people through the night, which meet none of their material needs from their site, and which may very well be rendered uninhabitable by climate change, if not societal collapse, even before their pathetically short planned lifespan comes to an end, then we need to consider human needs, design criteria, in the round.

Undertake a thought experiment: imagine what you are building now, but in the year 2100, and how well it will have stood the passage of the next 80 years. Now that will still be a young building. Consider it in 2200. Less than 200 years old, still not very old, and yet we can hardly conceive of the problems the folks living in that building might face from day-to-day. I have a strong suspicion that they will not be going to work on hoverboards, or living in a world of which Gene Roddenberry might have dreamed.

The necessary reinvention of society, we might almost say the rediscovery of society will affect the way we build. Presently, houses, most buildings in fact, are mostly under-occupied. Households have shrunk and we have segregated the generations. Multi-generational design of buildings and settlements could be one practical response to the challenge of a world in which society must take up where social services have fallen away. Straw bale granny annexes may be the way forward; clusters of buildings in which youngsters can raise their own families without leaving home may be another. Increased occupancy is a fine idea, but it’s going to be much easier if we design for it. Old people looking after the very young, and being looked after in their turn is one of the oldest and most successful patterns in human life, perhaps one of the keys to our species’ runaway success, but good design might help us side-step the well-recognised problems of sharing too little space with too many people.

It’s past time to start seeing homes as homes rather than as speculative steps on the property ladder. This isn’t just about the obvious social impoverishment that has followed the senseless spiralling of property prices, it’s also about the need to reconnect with place, to understand and observe our landscapes and to care for them. Designing for the long term and to cope with the probable catastrophic outcomes we will face in the decades to come, relies upon the cultural rediscovery of settlement. When we design places where people are born, play, feed themselves, make things, raise children, grow old, die and are buried under fruit trees, then we will have moved decisively towards permanent culture, ironically perhaps forced in that direction by crisis.”

Windows made of animal horn. Beautiful!
  • Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR)
    • Learn about the four forms of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) and how to select and use meters to test potential new homes for EMR. Most issues can be remediated, but there are a few that can’t, and you need to know if the home you’re considering has an issue that can’t be remediated BEFORE you buy.  Read the books below to educate yourself and/or your homebuilder.  Here are just a couple steps one can take
      • If you’re building a new home and you are installing standard electrical circuits, make sure you put the wires in conduit or metal-clad wiring.  This will be extremely expensive, but will protect you from the very low frequencies from your 60Hz circuits.  Buildings in Chicago and New York typically have all the wiring inside conduit, due to zoning laws that were passed at one point in the past, but other places don’t have the wiring inside conduit, which is causing everyone to have exposure to very low frequencies.  Some say that aluminum shielded Romex should prevent any fields emenating from the wires, but I don’t know if that is true.  One would need to test or find someone who has tested it already.
      • Install a remote contactor, so that all of the electricity can be turned off at night as an extra precaution.  This can literally be done with a remote control.
      • Not crossing any electrical lines with any water lines, so that the water is not carrying the electricmagnetic field throughout the entire house.
      • the electricity can be grounded a bit differently to optimize health.
      • Make sure that all receptacles are grounded correctly, and that the electricians know what they’re doing, and check their work afterward with meters to ensure they haven’t inadvertently created harmful magnetic fields by crossing the neutral between circuits, for example.
      • If you’re going off-grid and you are using solar panels, consider living a bit more minimalistically so that any appliances or lights can run on Direct Current (DC) rather than AC, so that you don’t have to install a solar panel power inverter, to invert the DC from the panels to AC to use with your appliances.  These inverters are not designed with physiology in mind, and they create extremely high levels of electromagnetic interference and radiates this field into the home environment.   If DC is not an option for some reason, build your home in two parts – one that has electricity, and one that doesn’t, particularly your bedroom.  This was traditionally done in European countries, where the bedrooms were in a separate building from the kitchen.  I don’t know why they did it that way, but in light of EMFs today, it is a great idea!
      • I’ve heard something about installing Double Arc Fault Breakers, but I haven’t been able to find much info about this yet.  If you have Dirty Electricity on the wiring, turning off the circuit breakers WILL NOT HELP.
      • New windows were made not too long ago with certain gases, etc that resulted in Radio-Frequency blocking.  But, people started losing their cell signals, and the window companies got so many complaints, that they changed their manufacturing processes, so now, if you wanted the RF-blocking windows, you have to ask for it and pay extra.

 

  • Research the area in which you plan to buy or build
    • If you are electro-hyper-sensitive (EHS), or even if you’re not, you might want to locate a place to call home in an EMF/EMR-free zone.  This page has a list of areas and groups dedicated to this: https://electroplague.com/sanctuaries/ .  There is one place in Colorado founded by a retired electrical engineer that sounds really promising, as he will only allow DC current working in tandem with his (assumed) solar panels.
    • You want to be more than .5 miles away from high voltage transmission lines.  You may need to be farther – this varies quite a bit, and you’ll need a magnetic fields meter to measure the area to really know.
    • You want to be more than 100 feet away from the nearest substation: https://hifld-dhs-gii.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/143c1a29fd184b709e86b343ebcb2614_0.  Use the map tool and zoom in until you can see the area of your home- you can pinpoint the cross streets of the substations.
    • You want to be more than 25 feet away from an electrical transformer (the kind you see on telephone poles, or the large green boxes in the front or backyard).
    • You want to be more than .25 miles away from the nearest cell phone tower and antennas: www.antennasearch.com.  After you enter your address and the site displays your summary, you can obtain more detail by clicking further in the “Detailed Results” section at the bottom of the summary.  You don’t want to be in direct sight of a cell towers, and that include the second story of your home.
    • Locate any toxic superfund sites that may be close to your home: https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/srchsites.cfm
    • scan the area for high voltage power lines.  Studies have shown increased cancer risk the closer one lives to high voltage power lines.
    • You might consider living in a state that allows residents to opt out of ‘smart meters’.  Here is a list of states that offer this – but check around the internet for an up-to-date list:
    •  Is the location near any concrete plants that have permits to burn hazardous waste in their kilns? These plants emit hazardous pollution in the form of mercury and lead vapors, among others.
    • Is the location near any recycling centers of incinerators?  These facilities also emit toxic vapors.
    • Are you near a highway or very busy road?  Studies show increased risks of cancer within close proximity to places like this, as there are higher levels of toxins including asbestos.
  • Hire an electrical professional to assess the electrical, and mechanical layout of your home.  Alex Stadtner of www.healthbuildingscience.com is a great person to do this.  Hiring a consultant will avoid dirty electricity errors and general biologically harmful choices that could easily be avoided.   You don’t ever want to put sleeping areas next to ‘point sources’ such as refrigerators, electrical ovens, etc.  In the case where sleeping areas can’t be away from point sources, he can install magnetic shielding.

 

  • Hire an Electrician Who is Recommended by someone like Alex Stadtner (above).  In the USA we have a very large code book which seems incredibly larger than even the bible, and electricians say they follow everything in the code, but the reality is, is that they don’t.  Every home has typically 2 – 3 wiring errors.  These wiring errors create harmful magnetic fields so strong, that they can be even stronger than the magnetic fields you find under high voltage power lines.   If there are no wiring errors, then data wires such as ethernet, hard-wires security systems, phone lines, etc, typically don’t cause problems.

Here is probably the most common wiring error.

Error: where 2 branch circuits are feeding one electrical junction box behind two switches, and they mix the neutrals together.  Electricians will swear that they would never do this, as its a code violation, yet it occurs ALL. THE. TIME.  And they don’t check their work.  Everything in the circuit will ‘work’ (dishwasher, etc), and the inspectors aren’t trained to look for this code violation.  But it creates stray current, and you no longer have a balanced load.

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If one wants to wire a building properly, they need to follow electrician Karl Riley’s practices, as he has laid them out in his book “Tracing EMFs in Building Wiring and Grounding

His book includes diagrams like this, which electricians will understand the purpose of if you talk about stray current and amperage….but if you talk about magnetic fields they will have no idea what you’re talking about.

Similarly to the situation above, electricians will tell you that they would never make the mistakes that Karl Riley talks about regarding this diagram, but there are always one or ten! errors, even when electricians are told that they need to adhere to the concepts outlined in Karl’s book.  Diganostics done after the job, pulls neutral off the neutral bus, one by one, will show the numerous errors.

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  • Light Pollution – maybe you want to live in or near a community that makes sure the stars can be seen at night!  Find land or a home near a Certified IDA International Dark Sky Community – for an up-to-date list, check: http://www.darksky.org/idsp/communities/

 

 

  • Select features to reduce toxin exposure.  Some of these ideas are borrowed from Dr. Hulda Clark’s “A Cure for All Diseases”
    • Garage: a separate building from the home is the best arrangement.You can keep all the basement chemicals into this garage (hopefully you won’t need a lot of chemicals in the first place!). Things that will freeze, such as latex paint, don’t keep around unless absolutely necessary.  Better yet, don’t use latex paint!  Use natural earth-plaster finishes.  If the garage is attached, you will have toxin exposure. Never use your door between the garage and house. Walk around the outside. Don’t allow this door to be used. Tack a sheet of plastic over it to slow down the rate of fume entrance into the house, or find another way to stopgap.  Your house acts like a chimney for the garage. Your house is taller and warmer than the garage so garage-air is pulled in and up as the warm air in the house rises. In medieval days, the barn for the animals was attached to the house. We think such an arrangement with its penetrating odors is unsavory. But what of the gasoline and motor fumes we are getting now due to parked vehicles? These are toxic besides! This is even more medieval. If your garage is under your house, you cannot keep the pollution from entering your home. In this case, leave the cars and lawnmower outside. Remove cans of gasoline, solvents, etc.  Put up a separate shed for these items.
    • Basement: don’t have a basement where you stockpile toxic items. Basements invite mold, mice and radon besides toxic things. Fumes travel upward where you live! Keep your toxic things in the attic. If there is no attic, store them in the utility room. Close off the ventilation between utility room and the rest of your house. If you have none of these, perhaps because you live in a senior citizen community or condominium, don’t keep any toxic things stored anywhere. Don’t save any leftover paints, solvents or cleaners. Buy such small quantities that you can afford to throw it all away when you are done with them. Live on top of the earth as was intended by nature. Never have a basement room “finished” for actual living space. Don’t buy a house that has a “lower level” built into the earth. This will be the most polluted and dangerous room in your house. If you are ill, move out of such a room. There is no way that it can be “cleaned up”. Move to the other end of the house and furthest away from an attached garage door.  From an energy perspective, basements are heat sinks, so your home will be more energy efficinet without a basement.
    • Fiberglass: check your dwelling for uncovered fiberglass. Repair immediately. Search for small screw holes intended for pictures, or electric outlet plates that are missing.  Also remove fiberglass jackets from water heater and fiberglass filter from furnace. Replace with foam or carbon. Best of all, hire a crew to remove it all from your home, and replace insulation with blown-in shredded paper or other innocuous substance. Never build a new house using fiberglass for any purpose.
    • Say NO to Formaldehyde – formaldehyde donors or precursors.  they make up less than 1% of the volume (so it doesn’t have to be listed on the label of products), but as paint cures, it combines to create formaldehyde.  along those lines, this is where you can see greenwashing at its best.  It’s found in zero-VOC paints, and will create formaldehyde during the paint curing process.  Volatile Organic Compounds – they are regulated by EPA because of their propensity to react with low level nitrogen and UV to create smog.  The EPA in the 90s started regulating VOCs in products, and now you’ll see zero-VOC in the hardware stores, and that gives us the illusion that its safe for occupants, but in reality it simply means it doesn’t contain chemicals that contribute to outdoor pollution, but they can contain chemicals that are highly toxic to humans that aren’t regulated as VOCs, including acetone, ammonia, and butyl acetate.
    • Carpeting – this one is commonly known – most carpets are releasing a ton of toxic gases over the entire course of its lifetime.  If your home has carpeting, know that to reduce your toxin exposure, you should budget for replacing it with a safe alternative: use the heavily-researched recommendations from http://www.gimmethegoodstuff.org to choose a safe carpet, or an area rug.  The Citizenry also sells high-pile rugs from time to time.  And The Green Design Center also has recommendations for safe rugs.

 

 

  • Water quality – maybe you want to live in a community that doesn’t add fluoride to the water supply, as fluoride is a neurotoxin and is one of the two most difficult toxins to filter out of water (the other being arsenic).  Find a list of communities who have banned fluoridation here: www.fluoridealert.org.  Conversely, here is a list of states that have mandatory fluoridation laws: http://fluoridealert.org/content/mandatory-fluoridation-in-the-u-s/.