Why Do We Keep Building And Buying Homes That Don't Serve Us? / by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts,

Let's talk about food for a minute. The thought of eating pesticides reminds us that our bodies are subject to environmental exposures that we'd like to avoid. So to solve the problem, we've decided that organic food makes a lot of sense.

And this fact really is amazing.

We live in one of the most brilliant and connected times in the history of human beings. With relative ease, most of us have access to high quality food in well stocked grocery stores. And in those stores, we can even gain insight into where the food came from, whether it was grown in an ecologically sound way, and whether or not it participated in a supply chain that involved fair trade and ethically sound transportation.

What a luxury! 

For the vast majority of its history, agriculture can be described as having been organic; only during the 20th century was a large supply of new products, generally deemed not organic, introduced into food production. The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture.

And now It's become the norm - for those who want to purchase food conscientiously, you're more empowered to do so than ever before. And there's good reason to want to buy food this way. Again, the thought of eating pesticides reminds us that our bodies are subject to environmental exposures that we'd like to avoid. We know that chemically intensive farming is not sustainable for the very land that grows the food. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that better food equals better living for everyone. 


So why doesn't our society treat homes the same way? Why are we generally content on allowing, what constitutes for most the largest financial transaction in one's life, to be completely unknown to us? 

Well, it's got a history, especially in the US. Around the same time organic farming was getting off the ground, just after World War II, suburban sprawl began with developments like Levittown. Not only were developments like this codifying racist housing policies, but they were also tearing at the fabric of quality building processes. Levitt envisioned Henry Ford's assembly line being able to build homes faster than anyone else. He had dollar signs in his eyes and had no notion that he'd be creating boxes for people to live unhealthy lives for generations to come. 

Any damn fool can build homes. What counts is how many you can sell for how little.
— - William Levitt

This Zeitgeist lives on today and is evidenced in almost every single growing city in America. The values that have been, for generations, instilled into the construction industry are centered on first cost and speedy delivery. It's a baton-hand-off, everyone passing on the liability to the next person down the chain.

And so we've grown to assume that the product we're getting is the best. It's become part of our vernacular through real estate sales with concepts like a "starter home." We think, "well it looks like a house and it has that tile I like" so we buy it. But there's still some part of our brain that recognizes there's more that we don't know about the house, but it gets put on the back burner. And as the political economy changed in the early aughts, many of us began to value the illusory "energy efficiency" that marketers exploited to give a sense of added value, but we rarely experience a truly well designed and built home. Even fewer still know how to assess the air quality and thermal comfort considerations that went into our home's construction. 

It's a tragic reality. But why does it happen? 

Consumers don't know and so they don't ask for it - we've been conditioned not to. But consumer behavior is something that changes through time. We saw in the "green building" movement, a glimmer of something new. And now that we're gaining knowledge about the negative impacts of poor air quality and indoor pollutants, it's only a matter of time before your home's health score becomes a regular part of the list of factors that determine whether you'd buy a home or not.

The question is not the inevitability of better homes. It will definitely happen on a long enough timeline. The question is whether or not you find the current practices acceptable and whether you're ready to start asking for something better. 

Just like organic produce, there are a lot of good reasons to ask for better homes. We know that elevated humidity levels in indoor environments are causally related to developmental asthma in kids. We know that elevated indoor CO2 levels can cause cognitive disfunction. We know that phthalates and VOCs are known endocrine disrupting chemicals - and they're literally all over your house. We know that designing better humidity control and ventilation control systems inherently improves the resiliency and ecology of a home. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that better homes equals better living for everyone.


Mold is just the tip of the iceberg...

...when it comes to problems that occur in poorly designed and built homes. The full microbiome in our indoor spaces consists of bacteria, protozoa, archaea, and a whole host of other particulates, dust mites, and tiny invisible things that are directly interacting with your physiology.

We have to stop waiting for someone else to ask for it. The problem doesn't go away just by avoiding it or pretending it's not a big deal. If you're an architect, hire good consultants. If you're a builder, advocate for good consultants. If you're an HVAC installer, distinguish yourself by knowing better systems. If you're a homeowner, don't settle for "well this is just how it's done." 

So what are you waiting for?

Whether you're a professional in the industry or someone looking to purchase a home, you should be asking for better options. The technology to make it happen isn't the problem - there are plenty of amazing products out there. We fundamentally need to start asking the industry to pay attention to human health (meaning you and your family's health) so that the outdated processes and thinking changes.

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustained.
— Mahatma Gandhi, Young India 1924-1926 (1927)