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  • Writer's pictureTim Rhodes, RA., AIA

Designing a Healthy Home

Updated: Jan 2

For Rhodes Architecture + Light, designing + building spaces promoting wellness means discussing choices that prioritize healthy materials, indoor air quality, reduce exposure to harmful chemicals, and promote our clients' health. Architects should recommend and incorporate these practices in all design discussions, as part of a holistic approach to wellness-centered design.

Choose Zero-VOC Paints and Finishes: Fragrances, furniture, fixtures, and materials produce volatile organic compounds. VOCs are chemicals commonly found in many materials, paints, and finishes that can release harmful gases into the air, contributing to indoor air pollution. One essential and simple step is to choose Zero-VOC paints and finishes. Opting for zero-VOC paints and finishes can significantly minimize these risks.

“Zero-VOC” finishes must by law contain less than 5 grams/gallon of volatile organic compounds (or none at all). The definition of “low-VOC”, for all materials, is not regulated, providing no knowledge of the level of VOCs in the material. In addition to zero-VOC paints, we explore eco-friendly finish options like clay-based paints or milk paints, which are naturally derived and non-toxic.

Rhodes Architecture + Light specifies non-VOC paints and primers, especially for interiors. Many standard brands produce these paints (Benjamin Moore’s Aura and Natura line and Sherwin Williams Harmony interior latex, Behr Premium Plus lines are good examples); these paint lines are available in a broad range of color and sheens.

Home designed with low VOC paint and architectural finishes

Leaving natural materials (brick, concrete, tile) unfinished and unsealed is another way to ensure that your home is supporting the health of your family through the reduction or elimination of VOC’s. Interior uses of tile, brick and concrete do not usually require sealing and reduce any use of additional finishes (and finish costs).

Home designed with low VOC architectural finishes
Home designed with low VOC paint and architectural finishes

Select Natural Flooring Options: Additionally, our client’s consider using natural and non-toxic flooring materials like hardwood, bamboo, cork, concrete or natural stone. These options are generally free from synthetic chemicals and are easier to clean.

Rhodes Architecture’s four residences at Norway Hills utilize natural concrete slab-on-grade construction, radiant-heated floors and natural (non-VOC) concrete stains (such as Eco-Crete’s Soy Crete stain and sealer) to color the floors, resulting in warm, natural and vibrant floors that last many years.

Home designed with low VOC paint and architectural finishes

The Wingspan Residence uses reclaimed stranded-pressed-bamboo floors throughout the upper floors, promoting sustainable materials (bamboo reclaimed during processing) and contributing to its 5-star+ Build Green certification. Many reclaimed stranded-bamboo floors (Teragren Essence, for example) are certified non-VOC, using tough + healthy surface finishes.

Modern Seattle area home with Build Green certification

Avoid Synthetic Carpets: Another aspect of a healthy home is carpeting. Synthetic carpets can release harmful chemicals into the air. If you prefer carpet, choose natural fiber options or those with Green Label Plus certification, indicating low VOC emissions.

Wool carpeting lasts longer, is a naturally zero or very low-VOC choice, if untreated and undyed. Natural carpet pads are another area to consider reducing synthetics, VOC off-gassing, and contributions to unhealthy environments.

Low VOC architectural office

A research study in 2016 at Bangor University showed that wool fibers in natural rugs and carpeting absorbed and reduced other VOCs in the interior environments.

Rhodes Architecture + Light rarely specifies carpeting, instead relying on natural floor materials and finishes with space-defining area rugs, often wool, jute, grasses such as sisal or other natural materials instead. Our offices use natural wide-plank floors, simply exposed as is, and natural sisal area rugs to create a healthy (and inspirational) environment (hats off to The Pavilion Company, specifiers of the flooring).

Modern waterfront Seattle area home

Prioritize Natural Lighting: Prioritizing natural lighting lends both energy efficiency and well-being to Rhodes Architecture + Light’s spaces. Maximizing natural light reduces the use of energy for artificial lighting and positively impacts mood. Those of us who live in PNW winters know that maximizing natural light becomes especially important as days shorten and our weather reduces sunlight and increases seasonal affected disorder.

Modern home in Medina designed by Rhodes Architecture + Light

Our Medina Residence centered the primary spaces (entry, central circulation, living) on large skylights above both stories, letting daylighting bathe and define these spaces and encouraging family/community interaction in the core of the home.

Natural light in modern Seattle area home with great views

The Anderson Gardens residences feature large windows and huge central commercial skylights that offer breathtaking views of the Puget Sound and bring tremendous natural light into the spaces where the community lives their lives.

“What I love most about this house is the light. The entire home is bathed in it.”

–Anderson Gardens Homeowner

Natural light in modern Seattle area home with great views
Natural light in modern Seattle area home with great views

Consider Proper Ventilation: Ensure your home has good ventilation to exchange indoor air with fresh outdoor air. Design of buildings and spaces to promote natural ventilation using operable windows requires no energy. Low awning-type windows facing prevailing winds (southwest in Seattle), taking in air that crosses courtyards and green spaces, and high ventilation openings on opposite walls are used in Rhodes Architecture + Light’s designs. Use exhaust fans, open windows when weather permits, and consider an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) for efficient air exchange.

The Fish Hatchery Road Residence, designed by Rhodes Architecture + Light in 2020, located low awning and high clerestory awning windows facing a natural valley and predominate winds and high operating clerestory openings on the opposite site. With an open plan, good cross-ventilation all year long (even in northwest rains) was achieved.

Modern, sustainable small home near Seattle, WA
Modern, sustainable small home near Seattle, WA

Choose Eco-Friendly Insulation: When renovating or building, use insulation materials that are eco-friendly and non-toxic, such as recycled denim or natural wool. Hemp wool is a natural product that has many advantages as an insulating material and, unlike fiberglass, is not made from skin and lung-irritating glass fibers.

Mineral wool is another insulation material that provides advantages for sustainable structures (Rockwool is the best-known brand and is tested, certified and utilizes up to 75% recycled material). Mineral wools are produced from heated and spun rock, offer energy savings through superior insulating properties, do not promote mold and mildew growth, and can be certified low-VOC products (Rockwool certifies low-VOC content and is a Green Guard Gold sustainable insulation system).

Rhodes Architecture + Light specified Rock Wool insulation systems exclusively throughout the commercial mixed use YMSA center in Seattle, achieving superior insulation levels and allowing application of insulation outside the weather barrier of the building due to its imperviousness to moisture.

Harbor Avenue Campus designed in collaboration with Miller Hull Architects

Harbor Avenue Campus designed in collaboration with Miller Hull Architects

Avoid Formaldehyde: Check for the presence of formaldehyde in wood products, adhesives, and insulation materials. Opt for formaldehyde-free alternatives.

Cabinetry and interior trim, especially conventional and stock “millwork”, is often built from medium-density fiberboard (MDF) producing large amounts of formaldehyde and off-gassing for a long period after installation. Specifying cabinetry and trim carefully and checking the materials being installed in your environment is important.

Opting out of these polluting materials in millwork means utilizing higher-quality, sustainable materials (no MDF or chipboard), choosing formaldehyde-free glues, eliminating VOCs in paints and varnishes, sourcing no endangered wood species.

Achieving a certified 5-Star + Built Green level, the Wingspan Residence utilized VOC-free plywood cabinetry boxes and supports and natural poplar trim throughout the home. Rhodes Architecture + Light chooses poplar and non-VOC construction for trim, cabinetry, and millwork in our projects, removing this source of VOC’s and air pollution from the interior of our buildings. The Beach Drive Residence used natural fir trim and expressed the beauty of this northwest wood in veneers and solid casing trims.

Modern 5 Star Build Green sustainable home near Seattle

Consider Eliminating Natural Gas: The City of Seattle has banned the use of natural gas to heat larger buildings for energy and climate pollution reasons. Seattle physician Annemarie Dooley, testifying before the City Council noted “Public health can’t wait, every day we delay means more illness and lives lost from air pollution and climate-related heat stress.” The Washington State Legislature is considering a similar action on natural gas in commercial buildings, with a ban to take effect in nine years.

Natural gas is mainly methane; burning it, and the gas itself as it leaks from our delivery systems, contributes to greenhouse gasses causing global warming. Methane, when burned inside our homes, also adds several toxic gasses in significant levels to our interior environment-significant levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. NO2 is listed by The Environmental Protection Agency as a toxic gas that even in low concentrations can trigger breathing problems for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. An investigation by National Public Radio found that “The gas utility industry is fighting to preserve its business by downplaying existing science on gas stoves and indoor air quality.”

Alternatives that Rhodes Architecture + Light is considering in new projects include cooking with electric induction ranges and electric (convection) ovens, heating and cooling with high-efficiency electric reverse-valve heat pumps, and electric hot water appliances. Great alternatives exist to adding natural gas to your home and eliminating gas is a valuable contribution to the environment we all share as well as your home’s interior environment.

Eco-Friendly Building Materials: If you're building or renovating your home, consider eco-friendly construction materials such as reclaimed wood, recycled glass, or sustainable countertops like bamboo or recycled paper.

Counters are a focus of interior space and must maintain beauty and function for years. Our architectural team often recommends quartz counters. Quartz, essentially manufactured stone, is consistent, available in many colors, and is tough, creating good surfaces; they are nonporous, non-toxic, require no sealants, do not host bacteria, mold, or mildew, and are harder than many natural stones, remaining stain-resistant and not producing chips and particles that can enter foods prepared on them.

Modern home with natural light Seattle

Rhodes Architecture + Light designed the waterfront Beach Drive and Indianola Residences, combining quartz counter, recycled glass and natural trim and cabinet materials to promote a healthy interior environment.

Modern home with natural light Seattle

Modern home with natural light in Seattle

Consider Indoor Air Purifiers: In some cases, using air purifiers with HEPA filters can further improve indoor air quality by removing airborne particles and pollutants.

To meet the highest Built Green Certification, the 5-Star+ Wingspan Residence utilized an all-electric (photo-voltaic powered) high-efficiency variable-speed reverse heat pump system to heat and cool the home. Using a zoned dampener system allowed the HVAC system to be zoned for specific spaces. Energy Recovery ventilators with air-purifying HEPA filtration insured a healthy ventilation. Thanks to the Sunergy Systems photo-voltaic system, the house uses less energy to produce, filter and condition the interior air while ensuring the wellness of the family living within. Working with the general contractor (DLH) and their mechanical and electrical contractors was critical to making this interconnected system work.

Mid century modern home design by Rhodes Architecture + Light

Modern home office with natural light Seattle

Rhodes Architecture + Light works with owners to make the home design and building experience as smooth and fun as possible, utilizing a series of planned and guided meetings to consider and discuss each part of your home from doors and windows to insulation, trim and finishes. Through the many choices and selections involved, we work alongside you throughout the process to recommend and then ensure you understand and approve the design and its execution, including its sustainability, environmental systems and interior materials. Building a home and remodeling are projects that can be complex; our guidance and support through the process is focused on a process achieving wellness for our clients.

In conclusion, at Rhodes Architecture + Light, our commitment to designing and building spaces that promote wellness goes beyond aesthetics. Throughout a smooth and guided design process, we prioritize healthy materials, indoor air quality, and reducing exposure to harmful chemicals to support our clients' health–all resulting in a warm and beautiful home that supports your overall health and well-being.

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