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Healthy Homes: Design for The Future, Remember the Past

As the world slowly comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic’s worst days, architects and designers are researching what the effects were on living spaces, commercial and residential. The changes experienced by people in all walks of life were drastic in many cases. People found ways of coping with the restrictions, remote working, new-found need for cleanliness, and other aspects of the pandemic, working around the limitations in their buildings that were overlooked in normal times. How can this knowledge be applied to the future design and construction of buildings? What are the criteria for a healthy home going forward?

The American Institute of Architects has developed a Framework for Design Excellence: Design for Well-being, set of guidelines that can be expanded as more details become available. The main thrust is:

AIA understands there are limitations to changing well-accepted building designs and cost concerns involved in making all-new floorplans. Hopefully, it says, if you can do only limited changes:

Breaking down the healthy home requirements would have us focus on three areas: air, water, and light. Other aspects, such as automation and smart home technologies, would augment and enhance the Big Three while entertainment and cleanliness functions would logically spin off from them. In each case, current technology can be applied if done carefully with an eye toward its long-range effectiveness and durability.

Another consideration is energy. The healthy home is also an energy efficient home. Homes that are built with green construction techniques and energy-efficient systems have an impact that goes beyond lower energy bills and a reduced environmental footprint. A report by the IEA (International Energy Agency) shows that energy-efficient homes can reduce stress and incidents of infectious disease, reduce the symptoms of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and reduce the risk of cancer, arthritis, and depression. All newly built homes are typically more energy-efficient than older homes, and many builders offer additional green features.

Bringing all the elements together, at the design and construction phases, means an integrated, sustainable, and healthy environment regardless of future illnesses. A caution, however, must be observed: Homes are not quarantine or isolation wards, they are living areas and must be presented as safe spaces that can meet the requirements of current and future generations of real people.

Start at the Beginning

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most architects-oriented houses North/South to minimize direct sunlight and added balconies and roof extensions to block sunlight. Now, the trend is to use an East/West orientation to allow natural sunlight to reach far into the house. The idea is that sunlight can reduce bacteria and virus strength and dispersion.

The ultraviolet rays of natural daylight in the room prevents the spread of a variety of unwanted microorganisms. A recent review of the survival of human coronaviruses, such as COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) on surfaces found large variability, ranging from two hours to nine days. The survival time depends on many factors including the type of surface, temperature, relative humidity, and specific strain of the virus. However, coronaviruses die very quickly when exposed to the UV light in sunlight.

The architecture of today’s homes, entry-level or premium/luxury, has evolved throughout the generations. What was common 50 or 100 years ago is only found in books, not being built on lots. But some of the design elements we take for granted today are being examined closely as a result of the pandemic.

For example, open-plan homes give us something to think about in terms of airflow. On the one hand, this style can help ventilation throughout the house as there are fewer barriers and more free-flowing air. On the other hand, if someone gets sick with something contagious, that air circulating throughout the home is a potential carrier. Compartmentalizing allows semi-isolation and localized treatment of air flows. That can help contain a virus and decrease the probability of it making other people sick. 

The Air We Breathe

The most common way COVID-19 is transmitted from one person to another is through tiny airborne particles of the virus hanging in indoor air for minutes or hours after an infected person has been there. While there are various strategies for avoiding breathing that air—from remote work to masking—we can do more about making indoor environments safer by filtering or cleaning air.

Research shows changing the air in a room multiple times an hour with filtered or clean outdoor air—using a window fan, higher MERV filters in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems, using portable air cleaning devices, and even just opening a window—can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Studies show five air changes an hour reduce transmission risk by 50%. Improving indoor air has benefits beyond COVID-19: it will reduce the risk of getting the flu, a common cold, or other diseases spread by air. That can lead to better overall health outcomes.

The government has identified improved indoor air quality as an important tool to fight the spread of airborne diseases in the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan last September—and the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan prioritized it. A number of Federal departments and agencies—including the White House OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy)—have worked together to launch the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, a call to action for anyone who manages or maintains a building. As part of the launch, the Environmental Protection Agency released a practical guide for building managers, contractors, homeowners, and business owners to create an action plan for cleaner indoor air.

Here are the basics:

Filtration is a great tool to supplement ventilation or to use if adequate ventilation isn’t possible—for example, if extreme temperatures, wildfire smoke, or outdoor pollution make opening a window problematic. Filtration equipment is more important than we might think; due to advanced air condition systems, many newer home designs have windows that do not open at all.

Although the FDA has not received any problem reports associated with using UV light products, unintentional or excessive exposure to UV light during cleaning may put a user at risk of eye injury, skin burns, or even an increased risk of skin. 

Every home must have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors on every floor. These are designed to alert occupants—loudly and quickly—in the event of a life-threatening situation. Smoke detectors alert you to a fire in the house, and CO detectors warn about this odorless and deadly gas, often called “The Silent Killer,” by firefighters.

Because CO is a byproduct of combustion, things like the hot water heater, boiler, or natural gas stove can all emit CO. If not fully combusted, or not properly vented, this can lead to a deadly build-up in the home. More than 350 people die of unintentional CO poisoning each year in the U.S.. Adding automatic testing of the alarm and battery to the smart home technology makes sense since these vital devices are perhaps the least attended to in any home.

There is another silent killer in the soil: radon. Radon is a natural substance that can be found in the dirt and rocks beneath houses, in well water, and in some building materials. It is a radioactive gas that cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. It can enter homes through soil, crawlspaces, foundation cracks, floors, and walls. All homes have some radon gas but breathing high levels of radon can put you at risk for lung cancer.

Developers and contractors should be aware of radon levels in their area. Various testing kits are available and should be employed before construction if possible and then before closeout. Use a two-day test kit or 90-day test kit (90-day test kits take longer but the results are more accurate) and follow test kit instructions closely.

Technology can also help address any problems with the air we breathe. For example, RePure intelligently identifies, tracks, and removes harmful contaminants in the air and water. The company is passionate about helping families create a healthy and smart home environment, while educating on indoor air and water quality issues.

The Water We Drink

All humans need water, like air, to survive. Designing a water system to present healthy pure water to the whole house and all its occupants is the goal. The method can take a variety of paths to reach that goal. In all case, it starts at the source, the water utility. For instance, Elite Water Systems, designs water and air quality solutions that address indoor issues. The water product is called the Titanium, which is an advanced point-of-entry water system on the market. It has the highest rated flow rates removing 99.7% of lead and other heavy metals, 99.7% ofPFAS (perfluorinated alkylated substances) PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) as well as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), disinfectant by-products, as well e-coli down to a .1 micron in size.

According to federal and state laws, public water utilities must provide water that meets certain quality and safety standards for drinking purposes. Michigan and other states created stricter water regulations in response to reports of high lead content in the water supply and governments at the local, state, and federal levels increased testing and funding for mitigation of contaminants in water supplies.

However, regardless of the utility’s efforts, tap water is not sterile; it might have germs in it. Even when the public water system is working correctly, a small number of germs that naturally occur in the environment can still be present. When these germs get into the pipes inside a home or building, they could grow and multiply if the conditions are right.

For example, this can happen when the taps are not turned on for long periods of time and the water sits still within the pipes. Designing a way for the smart-house automation systems to backflush or recirculate water in the house pipes would be an answer.

Lead is a major contaminant in drinking water pipes, faucets, paint, and walls that threatens the health and well-being of families and children across the country. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and countless experts agree there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Yet, up to 10 million American households connect to water through lead pipes and service lines.

That is why the Administration made replacing lead pipes a centerpiece of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—to deliver clean drinking water to families and children across America. These investments will put plumbers and pipefitters to work replacing all of the America’s lead pipes and service lines and making other critical upgrades.

The Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan ensures America’s drinking water and homes are safe and healthy through more than 15 new actions, including allocating $3 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to states, Tribes, and Territories for lead service line replacement in 2022, and calling on states to prioritize underserved communities.

Getting the lead—and other elements—out at the sources will benefit everyone. But it will be a slow process in many areas so water conditioning at the house is still necessary and has long-term benefits as well. House-level water conditioning starts at the POE (point of entry) with water treatment systems typically treating most of the water entering a residence. Point of entry systems, or whole-house systems, are usually installed after the water meter.

The POU (point of use) water treatment systems typically treat water in batches and deliver water to a single tap, such as a kitchen sink faucet or an auxiliary faucet. The treatment techniques can be used with each other for greater pathogen reduction. The addition of coagulants, carbon, alum, and iron salts to filtration systems may aid in chemical removal from water.

The best whole house water filtration system depends on what you want to remove from your water. In general, a whole house filter allows only water molecules to pass through a membrane and leaves behind other, unwanted molecules. Unfortunately, no filter design can trap or remove all water contaminants.

Still, an ideal water filter should, at minimum, remove large particles, such as sediment, soil, silt, small rocks, and others. It should also remove chlorine, arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, and other heavy metals, usually through a carbon filter. A whole home water filter can also remove pesticides, pharmaceutical agents, VOCs, industrial solvents, and other chemicals used in the agricultural and industrial sectors that can bleed into the water table.

Some systems lower total dissolved solids to negligible levels, resulting in clean and clear water to drink. Others kill harmful microorganisms in the water, such as bacteria, viruses, cysts, parasites, and fungi. Some whole home water filters also have water softener capabilities, removing magnesium and calcium. While others may not remove these hardness minerals, they prevent them from forming limescale.

In general, a water filtration and conditioning system should provide the same level of clean, purified water to every tap in the house as well as to the appliances that use water such as dishwashers and laundry equipment. POU filters can augment the whole house system for cooking and drinking water, and separate canister filters will often by attached to refrigerators and other appliances that dispense water.

The Light We Live By

Light is important for visual performance and safety, and it also plays a vital role in regulating human physiological functions. Most new home designs have more and larger windows than older homes, and buyers can often increase natural light in a new construction by adding windows as an upgrade.

Homes may be lit by natural light, through windows, supplemented with artificial light sources during the day. In the evening, artificial lighting continues to be the dominant source. In addition, lighting systems can be programmed to replicate circadian rhythms (see sidebar) for a healthier sleep cycle. Window treatments connected to apps that can control light and shadows in the home can reduce glare or add brighter light when needed, aiding the circadian rhythms.

What Are Circadian Rhythms?

A person’s “body clock” is regulated by circadian rhythms, which are physiological processes that occur approximately every 24-hours. These 24-hour rhythms have also been widely observed in plants, animals, fungi, and even bacteria. An example of a circadian rhythm is a person’s wake/sleep cycle. A function of light is to train the body’s circadian system to the solar day so that the wake/sleep cycle is synchronized with the natural light/dark cycle on Earth. If a person’s circadian functioning is right, that person sleeps well at night and is alert during the day.

There is a need to understand the impact of the various types of lighting in the home on the health of residents. Poor sleep, for example, is associated with a significantly increased risk of life-threatening flare-ups in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, according to a new study supported by the National Institutes of Health. The risk for these flare-ups—sudden bouts of worsening breathing—was 25-95% higher in people who experienced poor sleep than in people who had good quality sleep. Poor sleep can also weaken the immune system of a healthy person and make them more susceptible to colds and the flu.

Market intelligence firm Guidehouse Insights reports modern lighting and control technologies have enabled the development of lighting systems to facilitate healthy circadian rhythms of building occupants. Although there is a dominant design standard for circadian lighting, the matter of how to best implement circadian-supporting lighting is far from settled. In fact, there are multiple competing approaches to measuring the circadian effects of lighting, research on how electric lighting affects occupant health is ongoing, and experts disagree about whether there is sufficient understanding of the topic to even put out standards.

Lighting professionals generally agree on the range of characteristics that determine the quality of lighting products (e.g., luminous efficacy, lifetime, color quality, power quality, temporal stability), though measurement challenges and disagreements about the application of some traits remain. With the understanding that the particulars of certain attributes are application-specific (especially regarding color), the general thinking is that more is better: higher efficacy, longer lifetime, increased stability.

Once the sources and quality of light is determined, the control of that light becomes important. Applying smart devices to lighting is one of the easiest additions to a new construction. These can be simple, off-the-shelf units or custom designed for specific applications. Motion sensors automatically turn lights on when they detect motion and turn them off a short while later. Occupancy sensors detect indoor activity within a certain area. They provide convenience by turning lights on automatically when someone enters a room and save energy by turning lights off room or reducing light output when a space is unoccupied. However, occupancy sensors must be located where they will detect occupants or occupant activity in all parts of the room.

Ultrasonic sensors detect sound, while infrared sensors detect heat and motion. In addition to controlling ambient lighting in a room, they are useful for task lighting applications such as over kitchen counters. In such applications, task lights are turned on by the motion of a person washing dishes, for instance, and automatically turn off after the person leaves the area.

This is where smart home technologies intersect with healthy home goals to provide people with needed regulation. Taking advantage of technology to give the body what it wants, the slow onset of light in the morning and the slow decrease of light in the evening.

Achieving that on and off switch manually is difficult. Fortunately, there are systems that automatically detects your life habits and structures the home’s lighting around it. Orro, for example, offers a lighting control system that mimics these cycles. The home’s lights can naturally increase when the occupant is waking up and “set” when it’s time to wind down—a pattern that will help make nights more restful and days more productive. Called HCL (human-centric lighting), controls such as these are intuitive, yet programmable, to help reach that goal.

Beyond HCL, smart home technologies also support total wellness in other ways. For example, Orro has a feature called ‘Routines’ that allows homeowners to simplify the management of their home lighting by creating rules that automatically trigger changes. Integration with other smart home platforms also allows devices such as Orro to trigger operations of other home systems when different events occur. For example, by tying together various devices and systems you can automatically respond to a condition in the home’s air quality by turning on an HVAC fan or connected air purifier.

A benefit of systems such as Orro is that they are designed to be easy replacements for standard electrical switches and do not require any custom wiring. All that’s needed is a neutral wire, which is already an element of new construction. The Orro unit fits seamlessly into the junction box, which means it can be added at any point in the project, even after completion if the customer requests additional services. Orro also offers professionals training on installation and set up to make sure the process is simple and quick. Light, air, water: Basic elements of life and good health and vital for continued resistance to illness. There is no way to predict accurately what diseases might show up next but planning and designing with the knowledge of what has happened, especially since COVID-19 hit, will give future occupants a better chance. Changing the way new construction implements better air, water, and lighting control will make the difference.

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