Building a Breathing Wall: The Why & How

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I recently had the honor of speaking with George Swanson, a Consultant for natural home and commercial building, design, and construction. He is also a building biologist and advocates passionately for magnesium oxide wallboards, which is an alternative to gypsum-based drywall. These magnesium oxide boards, also known as MgO boards, allow walls to breathe.

You may be asking yourself: 'How can a wall breathe?' Well, I've asked myself the same thing, so after speaking with George I thought I would share my findings.

According to him, a “breathing” wall is not the wall’s ability to pass air through it, but the ability to pass water vapor. This is an especially important distinction when talking about insulation, because if your wall passes air through, you lose heat in the winter. In the summer months, the reverse happens - that hot, muggy air can pass through into your air-conditioned home. Walls must breathe to let the moisture out, or else that moisture becomes trapped. This makes your A.C. system work harder to dry out the insulation.

By building homes with MgO boards, you’re able to avoid these kinds of issues. Here are some more benefits of a breathing wall:

1. It has the highest mold and fire-resistance rating

The MgO board is non-combustible, a Class A building material, and virtually impervious to fire. It actually has the highest fire standard in the world, without any added chemicals or substances. It is also mold, fungus, and bug free because it is ‘non-nutritious’ to insects, fungus, and mold. Mold is simply not able to grow on it due to its salt content.

2. It’s non-toxic

It is free from asbestos, formaldehyde, and does not emit volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), such as lead and cadmium. These chemicals are toxic to human health and have short or long-term adverse health effects. Plus, some chemicals such as VOC’s even contribute to indoor air pollution. Many other insulations are generally free from formaldehyde, but often contain carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and require a hazardous materials suit to be worn for installation.

Well, guess what? No hazmat suit is needed for MgO board installation due to its natural, chemical-free properties.

3. It’s versatile

Just like gypsum and cement sheathings (other construction materials), MgO boards are highly versatile. However, MgO boards can be used in many damp places because they can absorb water without reducing performance. Therefore, it can be used indoors and outdoors in areas such as ceilings, firewalls, partitions, shower stall tile backer board, and structural sheathing for metal or wood boards. Although it is not as flexible as drywall, it is more flexible than cement boards and has a high impact resistance.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has registered more than 80,000 toxic chemicals for use in construction, and 16,000 of those chemicals have been identified as chemicals of concern. That’s A LOT of chemicals! MgO boards are classified as a mineral and have a low carbon footprint, making them highly energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Introducing MgO boards into your home also introduces a cleaner breathing space.

For more info on breathing walls, Check out George’s book here.

Five-Star Green Home Visit Part 2

Last week we talked about a beautiful five-star green home owned by Tom Kolnowski, Founder of Digitized House Magazine. So, this week I wanted to share information and tips about the water, electric and geothermal systems installed in the home from Kolnowski himself. 

Creating an Efficient Water System

Tom: The home is located in drought-prone Central Texas Hill Country region, where a 30,000-gallon rainwater system is its only source of water. It has proven to be a rock-solid solution, never dropping below 70% of its capacity over the 3 years it has been in place.
 
He says that a rainwater harvesting system should be near the top of your checklist when you are contemplating the build or purchase of a high-performance, sustainable, and environmentally-responsible home. Ideally, the collection system, rainwater storage tank, and filtration setup should be designed and sized to supply 100% of your water needs both inside and outside of the home.

A Home Run on Solar Electricity

Tom: This dwelling, that we also use as the Zero Net Energy Living Lab house, was designed from the ground up to be nearly all-electric, with the intention to offset the bulk of that electrical usage with rooftop-mounted solar photovoltaics. The only exception to that was in the kitchen, where the cooktop was fueled by propane, as the gourmet-chef-in-residence was not willing to live with one of the new induction cooktops or a more conventional electric cooktop.

Everything else was designed to be 100% electrically-powered, including the remainder of the major appliances and all mechanical systems: aerobic waste treatment, rainwater harvesting, potable water treatment, water heating and recirculation systems. And, of course, the HVAC and fresh-air intake system.

Using Geothermal Cooling and Heating

Tom: We installed a single ClimateMaster Tranquility ground-source geothermal heat pump system to meet all cooling and heating needs, which is enabled through the drilling of four 300-foot deep geothermal wells on the property. This HVAC installation is controlled by three second-generation Nest smart thermostats—which are programmable, self-learning, sensor-driven, and Wi-Fi-enabled.

How well does this setup work with the Nests? Splendidly. When living in a near-zero net energy (ZNE) house, one must be ever-vigilant about energy consumption. The Nests go a long way toward minimizing kilowatts consumed for cooling, heating, and circulating fresh air. For example, the Auto-Away feature, where the Nests automatically set themselves back when they sense the house is unoccupied, is a notable energy saver. And the now-standard ability to remotely adjust the Nests anytime through a smartphone app, is much appreciated - particularly on those days when life throws you a curve.

And on those 100℉+ Texas summer days where cooling is king, the super-efficient geothermal system and the Nests do their part to deliver admirably on energy-saving goals.

Digitized House Magazine is an online source for homeowners who are interested in smart, sustainable, and zero-energy efficient homes.

Five-Star Green Home Visit

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Tom and Peggy Kolnowski at their five-star green home in Driftwood, Texas. Tom is the Founder of Digitized House Magazine, so I knew I would be in for a treat.

The peacefulness and calmness of their home captivated me from the moment I saw it. Everything was in harmony and – more importantly – everything was built to maximize sustainable practices and minimize destruction of valuable resources. And it is just beautiful.

The house capitalizes on natural light and was built to minimize harmful effects on human health and the environment, safeguarding air, water and the earth. Tom and Peggy built their home using optimal location on the land, overlooking stunning Texas vineyards that transport you to Tuscany – and they did it all without removing a single oak or cedar tree from their property.

Both the open and screened-in verandas are a perfect place for starting or ending your day, whether that’s relaxing with a beverage, reading, entertaining, dining or watching the sun set in that famous Texas sky.  

The flow throughout the home, the use of space and the ventilation systems were all designed for efficient heating and cooling. A 30,000-gallon rain harvesting tank that holds the equivalent to 1750 average showers was installed and, within two months, was filled with rain-water in our drought ridden climate.

To this day, it has never dropped below 70% of its capacity in the 3 years it has been in place.  

The Kolnowskis set out to create a safe, sustainable five-star green home, and that’s exactly what they did. To reduce electricity, they installed energy-efficient lighting and appliances. To lower water consumption, they installed water-saving plumbing fixtures.  And, to eliminate the emission of volatile organic compounds, they built their home with non-toxic materials.

The end result is a home that uses very little energy, conserves water and is free of toxic off-gassing. 

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about the rain harvesting system, solar panels and geothermal features. Stay tuned!

Digitized House Magazine is an online source for homeowners who are interested in smart, sustainable, and zero-energy efficient homes.

Rainwater Tea and a Green Home Tour

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I organized a home tour so those interested in learning about green products and professionals could hear first-hand from a homeowner on the benefits of building one for yourself. It was a fabulous afternoon spent with a great group of people that are passionate about learning more about what it means to live in a sustainable, non-toxic world. 

We saw first-hand how rainwater can be captured and used onsite. And the homemade orange-infused Texas rainwater prepared by Peggy Kolnowski for the tour was simply delicious! It prepped us for the enticing questions and answers that lay ahead. We sipped and listened while Tom Kolnowski educated us on the green sustainable features in their home. 

He covered everything from the paint to the minute details of the inner workings of their heating and cooling system.

One thing I particularly loved, though, was Tom's demonstration of their Integrated Vacuum system, which helped everyone understand how best to keep dust out of their home. He explained that, in their last home, when Peggy would start to vacuum he immediately had to reach for his inhaler and leave the house. He wasn't being overly sensitive - as it turned out, the micro dust was sneaking through the HEPA filter.

 The photo above shows more details and insights shared from the event:

4 Ways to Naturally Increase Air Quality in Your Home

This year has brought about some pretty nerve-wracking revelations regarding air pollution. For instance, the Global Burden of Disease project estimated that - on an annual basis - over 5.5 million people are dying prematurely from illnesses associated with increased levels of air pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that Americans spend between 80-90% of our time indoors and that indoor air pollution can potentially be more harmful than ambient air pollution. The EPA has even named indoor air pollution as one of the greatest public health risks!

It is essential, then, to reduce your home of indoor toxins in order to better your own health and the health of the planet. As Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said: “A healthy environment underpins a healthy population.”

So, here are four easy and efficient ways to make the air within your home cleaner and more conducive to a healthy lifestyle:  

1. Open your windows

The easiest and most inexpensive way to improve indoor air quality is to simply open your windows. Just a few minutes of fresh air can reduce the accumulation of damaging pollutants which - left undisturbed - can stagnate inside of a home. Just be mindful of the allergy count in the area you live in. Some regions have seasons that are more likely to activate your allergies and cause more irritation for your health.

2. Decorate with Houseplants

Beautiful and cleansing, indoor houseplants are not only great for brightening up your home but are also powerful detoxifiers of various air pollutants. The American Society for Horticultural Science reported that plant species such as snake plants, spider plants and golden pothos are most effective in reducing pollutants such as ozone. Add a few to your home decor and you'll obtain a spa-like botanical aesthetic while cleaning the air from within!

3. Start Using an Essential Oil Diffuser

Essential oils smell great while inducing a sedative effect that can increase positive feelings. As if that doesn't sound great enough, these oils are also proven to clear your mind AND harmful toxins from the air. How? Essential oils have antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic properties which can significantly inhibit the growth of airborne bacteria. So, when diffused throughout your home, they are actively working toward cleaner indoor air.

4. Exchange your Current Lamp for a Salt Lamp

Salt lamps are made from Himalayan salt crystals and work as a powerful air purifier. When the lamp is lit it emits negative ions that bind to positively charged toxins while helping to remove them from the air. Additionally, they have been shown to naturally remove allergens such as smoke, pet dander, pollens and other air pollutants - all while radiating an amber glow that is beautiful and relaxing!

- Stacia Sheputa

Give Your Furry Friends Some Extra Love for National Pet Day

Today is National Pet Day and, as if we needed another excuse to spoil our pets, it's a perfect opportunity to take a look at some of the products and toys they use each day. Just like humans, animals are susceptible to the illnesses and diseases that are caused by harmful toxins and off-gassing. One particular culprit is their bed. 

Finding that just-right pet bed is often hard as there are so many fabric choices, sizes, thicknesses and colors to choose from. But have you ever thought about what the beds are made of and treated with?

Did you know that many pet beds are treated with flame retardant chemicals - which are highly toxic to both humans and pets? Some even contain chemicals such as triclosan, which is an antimicrobial chemical that also acts an endocrine disruptor. For those who don’t know, an endocrine disruptor interacts with the body’s hormone system, and in this case, alters it.

Now, why would we want our precious pets to sleep on such harmful chemicals? What if they chew on the bed and ingest these toxins? Our pets love to sleep on couches and carpets throughout the home that may be manufactured with harmful chemicals, and they can spend up to 18 hours a day sleeping, so why would we want to expose our furry friends to anything but toxic-free materials for prolonged periods of time?

Fortunately, there are many alternatives for finding that just-right organic pet bed.

That word “organic” is thrown around a lot these days, but what does it truly mean? Well, it depends on what you’re buying. In this case, it means that your product is made from organic cotton or another organic material, and it’s not manufactured or filled with products that contain harmful chemicals. In short, by choosing organic and toxic-free pet beds, you are giving your pet a clean and healthy space to rest on.

So, what kind of things do you look for when choosing a toxic-free pet bed?

  1. Check if the inserts and covers are made from organic materials.
  2. Know that products may say, “Made of Recycled Plastic Bottles.” However, just remember that plastic bottles are also made with chemicals.
  3. Make sure the products are not manufactured or produced with toxic chemicals.

Earlier this year we received an inquiry regarding pet beds. So Green For A Reason set out to research where we can find better alternatives. And we found a few great ones. Here are some of our suggestions:

1. We talked to a happy pet owner who purchased Holy Lamb Organics and she and her pup are thrilled with the pet bed. In addition to using all natural materials and organic cotton fabrics, Holy Lamb Organics reuse, recycle, or compost every material used in production.

2. The Wool Bed Company has 100% natural organic wool inserts and organic cotton covers available in beige.

3. If you have a large pet The Futon Shop will customize a bed for you! They have four chemical free choices on inserts - depending on how firm your pet likes their bed; 1) Coconut husk and wool 2) Latex and wool, 3) Organic cotton and 4) Pure wool. Choose their chemical free mattress cover and your pet will be resting on a chemical free pet bed in no time!

What about you? Are you just starting your journey to rid your home of toxins, or do you already have pet products you use and love? I'd love to hear your recommendations!

Advancing Eco-friendly, Health-Conscious Cities in 2017

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As we say good bye to 2016, it is safe to say that the environment has experienced a turbulent year. From having record-breaking global surface temperatures to experiencing the most drastic Arctic melting in history, and suffering multiple severe storms, it is pretty easy to look at 2016 as a breaking point for our planet.

However - although this year has been full of challenging situations - there is still reason to stay optimistic in our environmental efforts. For instance, 74% of American adults believe that “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” and the vast majority of Americans reported that they “recycle or reduce waste to protect the environment whenever possible.” Additionally, cities like Austin and Boston have increased cross-collaborations within their governments to promote advanced healthy communities for both their residents and ecosystems.

This idea of communities that openly promote public and environmental health encouraged me to research 2016’s top ten healthiest and “greenest” cities in the U.S.

To my surprise, five cities - Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco and San Diego - topped the list in both the healthiest city and the greenest city categories. This data does perhaps reveal a correlation between the two - that healthy environments promote healthy communities and vice versa.

Based on these statistics, I also chose to look at similarities that the cities share to promote an environmentally sound and healthful community.

One of the most frequently seen factors was having vast green spaces and parks for residents to walk, bike and relax. City parks also work to combat the negative effects of climate change by providing powerful ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration - a process where trees, grass, and other plant species consume atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Many public park spaces have also banned smoking, which is instrumental in providing a city with clean air.

These cities actively promote efficient forms of transportation such as public transport, riding a bike and walking, encouraging daily exercise while also limiting carbon dioxide levels that are emitted into the atmosphere through car use. And finally, these cities are also notorious for providing fresh and local produce through organizing frequent farmers markets, allowing residents to eat nutritious meals while minimizing the transportation associated with acquiring food in far-ranging regions.

So, as 2017 gears up, it is immensely important to continue our environmental efforts for the sake of our health and the health of the planet. If possible, walk or ride a bike to work, spend a relaxing weekend in a park or purchase groceries from your local farmer’s market.

- Stacia Sheputa

Resolutions to Make for Your Home and Health This Year

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January is a wonderful time to evaluate the accomplishments you've made over the past year while assessing the challenges that still present themselves. With this sense of self-reflection, making goals for bettering yourself can be an easy task - believe me! Here, I've put together five simple New Year’s resolutions and actions you can take to increase your personal health and the healthfulness within your home throughout the new year and beyond.

Switch to nontoxic makeup and toiletries

Modern day cosmetics contain many harmful toxins that can seep in through your skin and negatively affect your health over time. A great way to avoid these unwanted chemicals is to purge your makeup and toiletry cabinet. If you are having a difficult time figuring out which products are safe and which ones should be thrown away, you can use the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) cosmetics database to see the toxicity rating of over 64,000 products.

Update your bedding

Your bedroom should be a sanctuary and a place where you can relax after a long day. The best way to ensure you are getting optimal and healthful rest is by having clean and non-toxic bedding. Commonly made bedroom materials are filled with toxic chemicals such as dyes and formaldehyde. Make sure that your mattress, pillows, and sheets are made of the highest quality materials to start each day rejuvenated and full of energy.

Switch to non-toxic cleaning products

Like many cosmetics, cleaning products also frequently contain harmful toxins, such as phthalates, ammonia, chlorine and more. To ensure the healthfulness within your home it is essential to use the best quality and most natural forms of cleaning products. To do this, you could buy non-toxic and organic cleaning products from your local store. To see the ranking of your current products (and some alternative options) you can check the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

Paint your home with Non-Volatile Organic Compound paint

It is amazing how a new paint color can bring a completely different mood to your home! For the New Year, I am painting a few rooms in my home neutral, relaxing colors that induce a spa-like, restful feeling. I plan to use Dunn Edwards paint because of the beautiful color selection and the brand's commitment to toxic-free paint ingredients.

Clean unwanted clutter

The importance of indoor cleaning is unparalleled in terms of the healthfulness within your home. I find that there is no better way to bring in the New Year than by having a major cleaning in my home. I do this specifically by donating items that are no longer useful or relevant to me. This always provides me a clearer frame of mind, while also removing stagnant air pollutants from my home. To learn more about the importance of tidying your home check out Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” It will change your whole outlook on cleaning!

Grow an indoor herb garden

I love the idea of using different plants to decorate your home while ridding the indoor air of harmful pollutants. Why not add to that and grow fresh herbs that also taste delicious? Starting an indoor herb garden will ensure that your herbs are fresh, organic and healthy while increasing air quality within your home.

Cook organic (preferably local) meals

Cooking organic meals with fresh and local produce is a wonderful resolution for the New Year. This is a powerful way to make a positive environmental impact while also being conscious of the nutrition you are consuming. My personal goal is to cook a nutrient-packed meal for my friends and family members at least once a week. This will allow me to spend quality time with the people that matter most while sharing a delicious and nutritious meal.

With that, I hope all your resolutions will be manifested into healthy actions this year and beyond! 

- Stacia Sheputa

Healthy Home Tips

1. Keep a mat inside and outside of your door for wiping your feet.

2. Remove your shoes when entering your home so you don’t track chemicals and allergens in.

3. Do not use toxic air fresheners in your home, instead invest in an essential oil diffuser.

4. Do not use dryer sheets, instead use dryer balls.

5. Use non-toxic cleaning products in your home.

6. Open your windows and let the fresh air in (when pollen count is low).

7. Check out NASA’s clean air study and recommended houseplants. 

8. Use organic sheets and blankets We spend about 1/3 of our lives sleeping.

9. Purchase organic mattress topper and pillows.

10. Invest in an organic mattress.

11. Paint or stain with no or low VOC sustainable, eco-friendly, non-toxic, paints and stains.

12. Purchase curtain fabrics and window treatments that have no toxic chemicals added.

13. Remove carpeting, it hides chemicals and is a breeding ground for dust mites.

14. Use eco-friendly flooring like ceramic tile, cork or wood that has not been treated with a toxic finish.

15. Purchase an area rug that has no chemicals or toxic dyes and that can be easily cleaned.

16. Buy solid wood furniture that has been finished with non VOC products.

17. Hire a landscaper who does not spray chemicals.

18. Plant the correct plants for your area and climate.

19. Purchase products from a reputable retail store like TreeHouse who research all their products.

20. Check out the Green Professionals on Green For A Reason for bigger jobs like building or remodeling.

Why am I Passionate About Getting Toxins out of our Homes?

I am a cancer conqueror. I can’t just survive this disease, I cannot be a cancer survivor, I have to conqueror it.  

It all came to a head when I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. Like most people, when cancer returns it is far worse the second time around. This time, I was truly fighting for my life. My first diagnosis did not scare me into doing anything different, but my second one? It was so severe that I knew I had to do something different in order to save my own life.

So, I started by informing myself. My research started with my family of origin: 50% of my family members have been diagnosed with cancer. But none of my other relatives have had cancer. I was born and raised in a small village and none of our direct neighbors have had cancer. What was left but my - our - home environment?

It was through research that I uncovered the toxic products each and every one of us have in our homes, in what is supposed to be our safe havens. The products we use to build our homes, the furniture and paint we decorate with, our kitchen cabinets, carpets, flooring, curtains, mattresses, they are all releasing toxic chemicals into the air we breathe.  

While looking for less toxic products to put in my home, I found no directories, no resources and no common places where people could easily find builders, painters, interior designers, architects and products. So, I was inspired to start the first resource image directory of Green products and Green professionals.

We all have a part in the overall health of our personal, professional and global environment and we can take small steps like using Zero VOC paint, buying furniture, mattresses and fabrics that have low or no toxins. If you are building a new home or renovating, contact an architect and/or builder who has expertise in more sustainable products. And if you need some inspiration, check out Green For A Reason’s growing directory.

If you are a green professional or have green residential products contact us here.

I want to make a difference; I care and believe that we all can live in a healthier environment.  This is so incredibly important for us and for generations to come.