Thursday, 18 August 2022

Why not try renting a house that's actually good for you?

Why not try renting a house that's actually good for you?

We’ve all heard of a house that’s good for the soul, but what about a house that’s good for the heart? The lungs? The whole body? LUCY BOON investigated, and found a house in Henley that’s good for everything and everyone

HIDDEN dangers are said to be everywhere in our modern age — or at least that’s what the papers tell us. But they’re usually talking about the dangers of self-driving lorries or online trolling.

Not a lot has been said on the amount of “unnatural” components we are touching, inhaling, eating, in our very own homes.

Indeed, although much progress has been made in improving outdoor air quality over the years, no one seems to be talking about indoor air quality.

And yet as the building industry makes homes more airtight to improve energy efficiency, worries are increasing about the amount of harmful chemicals and pollutants that are accumulating right under our very noses.

Chemicals and toxins come in all shapes and forms — not just the usual suspects of cleaning products and plug-in artificial air fresheners.

Materials used in insulation, flooring and pressed wood products pose a danger to health, as do those found in most furniture and technology.

The worst culprits are found in most wet finishes — paints, glues, etc. Those that contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are known by scientists to have an adverse effect on health, being “nerve and organ disrupting”.

Quite a few studies worldwide have suggested that indoor pollutants have resulted in an increase in health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and various skin conditions.

Yet research organisation the Gaia Group states that out of 55,000 building products available on the market right now, only three per cent are currently tested for toxicity.

And if your home is constructed with a multiple of these products, all in one place, does toxicity amplify?

It’s a concern that’s arguably being somewhat overlooked by today’s large-scale housebuilders.

Peter Howarth, professor of allergy and respiratory medicine at Southampton University, has called for increased awareness of what is being termed “toxic home syndrome”.

He says: “Toxic home syndrome occurs when individuals and families are exposed to a potent mix of airborne pollutants within the home, arising from poor ventilation, causing respiratory and skin diseases to occur more frequently.”

In a study on the future of indoor air quality in UK homes, Professor Hazim Awbi at the University of Reading reported that the number of asthma sufferers is on the increase.

He said: “Building regulations have not taken into consideration the adverse impact of improved airtightness and increased energy efficiency on indoor air quality (IAQ) and the health of occupants.” All of which is why Standard Property was so excited by the news of the Healthy House — a “concept new-build” in the centre of Henley.

This brand new three-bedroom end-of-terrace in Ravenscroft Road (in between Henley library and King’s Road) was specifically created to showcase how going “chemical- and toxin-free” really should be the way forward for the building industry. The house is the brainchild of Medmenham resident Clare Sherriff, who describes herself as an architectural historian.

Clare has a passionate interest in health and the environment and has been researching the connections between health and architecture for the past six years.

“As we seek to create more energy-efficient, tightly insulated buildings — often using synthetic building products — we introduce more chemicals into our homes that are not as easily dispersed,” says Clare.

“Older properties were generally built using more breathable materials, which allow chemicals and pollutants to escape more easily.”

Clare’s Healthy House — at number 17 Ravenscroft Road — shows what is possible if your brief is to build a healthy yet regular normal-sized home. “Nothing fancy, big or posh — just a three-bedroom family home,” says Clare.

Clare and husband David got the chance to build number 17 from scratch, being the owners of number 16 next door.

“When we got the chance to build a house on the end of this terrace, we realised it was the perfect platform to find out how easy it is to create a building with minimal toxins and chemicals,” says Clare.

On top of the raw materials being chemical-free, recycled and energy efficient, Clare also chose, for instance, doors made from sustainably sourced poplar, toxin-free bentwood lampshades and mirrors from eco-friendly designer Tom Raffields.

Interestingly, the kitchen cabinets were made from a combination of old panelling from a London house, and Ecologique formaldehyde-free MDF.

“We all need to be asking our builders for this kind of MDF!” says Clare. “It’s such an easy swap, to minimise toxins.”

As little plastic as possible was used in the build, and there is deliberately no underfloor heating as this is believed to create an electrical grid which some say affects health negatively.

Instead, there are electric heaters and a wood-burning stove (insulation is such that not a lot of heat will be needed, anyway).

Electricity comes from solar power cells that are hidden on the roof, and extra energy is stored in a Tesla battery.

The property has been constructed with timber rather than bricks (there is a brick façade) as well as Geocell (a recycled glass material used for the foundations) and Fermacell for the walls (made from raw gypsum and recycled paper fibre). Insulation is from good old sheep’s wool and high quality finishes were achieved with clay plaster.

And of course, for paints and lacquers, VOC-free/low-VOC versions were used, as well as zero-VOC adhesives for tiling and sealing. Even the water pipes are copper — a naturally germ-killing substance.

Clare’s ethos continues into the garden with formaldehyde-free fencing and meadow-grass “wildflower turf” for the lawn (not only great for wildlife and to encourage bees, but good for air quality) as well as air-purifying silver birches.

“These are believed to be particularly efficient in absorbing diesel particles,” says Clare.

Windows have been given chemical-free, solid wooden shutters — of lower toxicity compared with fabrics that house all manner of toxins. The only fabric blind is positioned across the bi-fold doors to the garden veranda, and this has been fashioned beautifully from pale, raw linen.

As you’d expect, the choice of colours and finishes inside are in line with the ethos of the house, so along with raw linen we have warm but neutral slate, stone, stainless steel and so on. It’s pretty gorgeous and will appeal to most tastes too.

The bathroom and kitchen are particularly beautifully done — all neutral raw materials mixed with high-spec equipment, thanks to input from interior design team Life at Nettlebed.

And this is another thing that Clare is proud of — managing to keep Healthy House a local project, using and supporting local companies.

Along with Life at Nettlebed, there was huge input from Classic Builders of Watlington and Castle House Joinery from Huntercombe — the latter of which managed to source the formaldehyde-free MDF.

“Using local companies, we’ve managed to make Healthy House a showcase for change,” adds Clare.

So will things be changing in the building industry any time soon? Clare thinks it’s coming, although it will be a slow process.

“As always,” says Clare, “cost plays a factor in these kinds of situations. Myself and Andrew Stone, the quantity surveyor for Classic Builders, estimate Healthy House cost us 20 per cent more to build than a similarly equitable house.

“A normal house would generally have plastic windows and doors, chemical insulation, etc. However, as we have seen with the price and popularity of solar panels, the more people buy — and attitudes shift — the more prices will fall.”

Attitudes are indeed already shifting. It’s not just Clare who is concerned by this state of affairs. Standard Property only had to go online to find a whole host of information pertaining to the same conclusion.

BEAMA, the UK’s electro-technical industry body, is even calling on UK house builders to display a “Healthy Home” mark in all new homes to identify that the dwelling has been fitted with effective continuous mechanical ventilation, which delivers healthy indoor air quality.

“Ultimately, I’d like the building industry, including architects, to be asking themselves ‘What are we using? What is it made from? And could it be harmful to human or environmental health?’” says Clare.

“With my Healthy House I’ve aimed to show the public and the building industry a new way forward, which will hopefully lead to a large-scale reduction of chemicals in our built environment.”


Bedrooms: three

Bathrooms: one

Reception rooms: 1/2

Other: downstairs WC, garden

Parking: off-road for two cars with wiring for an electric car charging point

Available to rent now for £2,250pcm (plus fees)

Agency: Knight Frank on (01491) 844900

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