Entering a brand new completed space provokes a feeling of freshness. The space is crisp and clean, untouched by hands, dust and other messes that come with our day-to-day lifestyles. To many, it provokes the ultimate feeling of cleanliness.
This feeling couldn’t be farther from the truth.
At last week’s Sustainable Development Conference, environmental architect Joost Bakker offered the surprising revelation that the interiors of our built spaces, and more importantly the air quality inside, is far dirtier than the air outside. This claim may be astounding, but it is truthful nonetheless.
In his book ‘Indoor Air Quality and Human Health’, author Isaac Turial notes that indoor air quality in American homes is far worse than outdoor air. The overall poor quality of the air can be contributed to bad ventilation; what he describes as the ‘tightening’ of homes, which makes them more airtight and thus controls interior temperatures better; and chemicals.
The latter is one of the greatest contributors to decreases in interior air quality. That ‘brand new’ smell that comes with a new building often denotes the idea of cleanliness when in fact the chemical scent is one of the most overt signs of excessive chemical ‘dirtiness’.
This was the point made by Bakker, who alluded to the fact that chemicals used in high VOC materials such as paints and plaster boards are thoroughly poisonous, yet we breathe them in every day.
While a green or sustainable lifestyle has in the past been stereotyped as being dirtier than those in the mainstream, given the lack of chemical reliance and use of organic materials seen in extremely sustainable builds, this too couldn’t be further from the truth.
Bakker explains that replacement materials used in green buildings allow for indoor air quality to be at the same level, or even better than exterior air quality. Features that can make this possible include insulation that is chemical free (the architect’s preferred material is straw), eco-plywood, glue made out of soybeans and Bakker’s own creation of magnesium oxide board which is impregnated with biochar.
This last material performs the dual function of not adding to the chemical mess that is an interior space while producing a carbon footprint that is one-tenth that of fibre cement sheeting, all the while actually storing carbon within itself.
There are solutions to cleaning up our interiors. The stereotype that chemical means ultra-clean is also very wrong, which should not come as a surprise for a well-educated industry. Too often, the excuse to not get on board with green building is that there is no alternative to these heavy-duty chemical products.
That excuse is now deemed null and void. There is no excuse for interior air quality to be worse than the air quality outside, and an industry that delivers projects with that mentality will be an industry that truly cares for their own living conditions and those of their clients.