Is your home making you sick?

Our home has never been under so much pressure to perform. As homeowners we have been tested and our limits pushed well beyond the norm as we adapt to spending the most time we have possibly ever done within the four walls of our homes.
With the spotlight firmly on space, lack of, too much wasted, not enough storage, too much stored all over the house every conversation seems to be measured in sqm and the new national obsession with our homes is well and truly at fever pitch.

With every shop and workplace from Malin to Mizen Head checking our temperatures at every minute of the day, I feel as though nobody is asking about what happens to our health with all of the time we are spending at home and has anyone actually bothered to test our home temperature and check out the overall home health.

You might think I’m being daft or veering towards hypochondria but a deep dive into Sustainability and looking for answers to a chronic cough that just won’t abate, I found myself entering a whole other world that provides rigour and scientific rationale for The Healthy or rather Unhealthy Home. As architects we have a moral obligation and duty to design consciously and the ‘ First, do no harm’ Hippocratic Oath taken by the medical profession is something we need to uphold when beginning a design journey with a client.

Because the repository is so vast and the topic of our home health is so interesting each week I will be delving into a particular topic ranging from the first in the series about Off-Gassing and onto Vinyl, MDF, knowing your phthalates from your Formaldehydes, Sick Building syndrome, the mental health benefits of Optimising Daylight, The long-term emissions from VOC’s and many more.

Last week I asked in a general poll if people had heard of off-gassing and a whopping 96% indicated NO. I have been deluged with DM’s asking about this and what exactly does it mean?

The term off-gassing is a term to describe when newly manufactured items brought into our home emit VOC’s and other chemicals. Remember that ‘ new’ smell from that sofa you purchased or the new floor you put down, maybe it’s the building smell after the carpenter has been to your home or maybe you can’t smell anything at all. According to empirical research Off-gassing happens because organic chemicals in liquid or solid form can be trapped during the manufacture of certain goods. Eventually, the product will release these chemicals as particulate matter and gases, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).The EPA estimates that VOC concentrations in indoor air are typically two to five times higher than those found in outdoor air. Because of the prevalence of VOCs in manufacturing, a wide variety of products can be potential sources of off-gassing in your home, including paints, mattresses and carpets. One product that springs to mind and quite literally, is the ‘ bed in a box’ mattress that absolutely should come with a label showing the VOC’s you are being exposed to, given the foam and adhesive content.

If you’re fond of a trip to the largest furniture store in the world then you need to be aware that they use largely pressed wood to make all the lovely bits you have dotted around the house. Pressed wood includes MDF, particle board and typically manufactured wood substitutes and can emit formaldehyde for many years after. So I undertook some research of my own and the first article that appeared ‘ The Deadly secret of DIY’s Dream Material’ , which chronicles the WHO and leading research currently being undertaken by Leicester University on MDF. We are, it appears light years behind the States, where the Californian Building Industry Association have issued warnings and guidelines for the use of such wood products in the home. While we are being told that levels in household items or consumer products are low I don’t ever recall when choosing furniture or my new kitchen asking to see the VOC content or labelling, I was never advised to leave my furniture in the warehouse or uncovered longer for the gasses to emit before being brought into my home.

Here’s some advice I’m going to abide by in the future:
• Avoid furniture made with urea-formaldehyde resins and without labelling explaining the products used; buy vintage or sustainably-made products.
• Air out new furniture made from composite wood products containing formaldehyde, preferably away from the home and in a well-ventilated area. The area must have fresh air passing through it, or formaldehyde will not be removed. Consider asking the manufacturer or store to leave the furniture unsealed in the warehouse for a few days before delivery.
• If furniture made from composite wood containing formaldehyde is the only available option, consider looking for used items, because release of formaldehyde gas from composite wood decreases over time.
• Apply a surface barrier (for example, latex-based paints or formaldehyde-free varnishes) onto formaldehyde-containing furniture.
• Assure adequate ventilation and open windows and doors regularly to bring in outdoor air.
• Maintain low humidity and temperatures. More formaldehyde is released when it is hot and damp.
The World Health Organisation has published several articles on the topic of off-gassing ( should anyone like a copy get in touch) and other notable and well-cited articles of note include A Canadian study of houses with urea-formaldehyde foam insulation found that formaldehyde levels as low as 0.046 ppm were positively correlated with eye and nasal irritation. A 2009 review of studies has shown a strong association between exposure to formaldehyde and the development of childhood asthma.

Finally, If you’re embarking on a build project don’t just ask for a detailed set of plans for a builder to price; ask instead for a Conscious Design that includes your physical and mental well-being along with Home energy and good design. You are paying for as much time researching as you are drawing! And DO give a lot of time and consideration to ventilation in your home- at the most basic a wall vent or trickle vents and for the most sustainable option Mechanical Air Exchange systems (MHRV & DCV).
Too many say they can’t afford to invest in these but can you really afford not to?

This article is the first in a series of ‘Designing for a Healthy Home or Workplace’ by Karen Douglas, MBS, Partner at Douglas McGee Architects. Karen is passionate that building or renovating a home or workplace is about more than a set of drawings and an exercise in sustainable health optimisation.

Our Top 10 Tips for Good Design

Happy New Year to you! If 2021 is the year that you decide to embark on a new home build or renovation/ extension of your current home we feel that in the spirit of list-making here’s our Top 10 for Good Home Design that we live by ( we in fact eat, breathe and sleep them).

So here goes- Good Design…

  1. Is both psychological and aesthetic and not only functional.
  2. Is long-lasting and sustainable- no trends!
  3. Solves problems first- solutions follow.
  4. Flows!
  5. Is environmentally friendly.
  6. Is as little design as possible.
  7. Brings out the best in you and your family in how you live and interact with one another.
  8. Is future-proofed.
  9. Exites you for the future.
  10. All about form-use-beauty.

Let’s take a closer look at the list.

The process of design is about a grouping of minds that come together intrinsically, sharing similar goals and values and one that requires a synergistic and rigorous contemplation of problem solving.

Designing a home with little thought for client perception, attention, language, memory and thinking means the design will not meet the expectations for the home-owner either now or in the future. As architects our role is to fundamentally problem solve by exploring constraints in the owners current home and space and not limiting to life either. Home design is one part of a greater piece of our life design puzzle and to make a puzzle we need all parts. In our practice we use a range of psychological tools to help clients uncover whay they like and more importantly why they like it. This allows them to join the conversation with our team and we capture a brief that is firmly centered on ‘ Human Centered Design’.

When we are asked to copy another home that has been built or handed magazines, while we like to see what the client aesthetically enjoys we know it’s only one aspect. Following trends means you never get to the core of how you live as an individual, a couple nor a family and we see the role of coaching as core and central to the process to allow the client to feel comfortable and secure that we understand their vision.

Think about a space or place you really like ( it can be a holiday destination, a shop, a museum, a friend’s kitchen etc). There is a good chance that while you may express you like certain colours or pieces or furniture the stronger likelihood is that it’s based on a feeling at a deeper emotional level. A lot of substantial research points to this and suggests that our home design and furniture choices emanate from an emotional base. Great design is rooted in rhythm and incorporates texture, harmony, proportion, dynamics and articulation. Using shadows and light allows us to play with the rhythm of a design, introducing repetition in functions allow us to create a spatial rhythm which in turns allows movement and great flow.

So if you are deciding on working with an architect to build or improve on your new space, consider asking the following questions.

  1. What Human-centered design tools do you use to uncover a clients needs and wants?
  2. What do you understand Flow and rhythm to mean for a new space?
  3. Do you have your own style or are you open to designing the client’s vision?

Feel free to contact me for any new home or renovation queries you may have to karen@dmgarchitects.ie

Thanks for taking the time to read.

Karen