Houses Don’t Need To Breathe…
There’s a really interesting perception out there in the construction industry as building technology and practices have led homes to become what we consider “tighter.” The idea is that if we make homes too tight, they will somehow not be as durable or will slowly suck the air out of their inhabitants because there isn’t enough fresh air getting into the home. What I mean when I say “tighter” is the idea that you can build a home with materials and practices that result in less infiltration of external factors like temperature, particulate matter in the air, moisture, etc. Today I want to discuss that very idea and dispel the myth.
Coinciding with the recent GreenBuilder Magazine article on indoor air quality, I recently attended a building science seminar that was designed specifically for builders — custom home builders, spec home builders, even big multi-famiy construction — and I was genuinely shocked at how many in that crowd were operating under the assumption that they shouldn’t tighten their homes up because they believed it would inevitably cause durability and health issues. I don’t blame the builders themselves for the misconception, but rather I think the idea is one floating out there due to misinformation. There are a lot of “green” efforts out there these days, may of which aren’t actually good for the environment nor sustainable business practices, but are designed to make a quick buck off the lack of quality/standardized understanding in the construction marketplace. This is where I believe this misconception about tight homes has evolved.
Science, Measurement, & Control
When we think about the history of science all the way back to the 16th century, there was a clear movement from the notion of natural philosophy toward a more clearly defined and measured practice of the scientific method. Control groups became common practice and, in due time, the idea of universal measurements became the expected usage standard for anybody attempting an experiment. The reason this shift occured is due to the increasing acceptance of the scientific attitude, which to no surprise, is deeply rooted in the idea of impartialitiy. What better way to maintain impartiality than by adhering to a standard of measurement to test your theory!
What does this mean to buildings though?
Well, in short, it means that the more you can control something with precise measurement and methodology, the more predictable the outcome of the experiment. In building science terms, this implies that the more you can control the elements of a home’s construction — what kind of vapor barrier you create, how that vapor barrier interacts with the air barrier, how your wall system is going to affect the mechanical needs of a home, etc. — the more predictable the home’s behavior will ultimately be. You can design a theory for the house in your plans and then you can actually test the design with proper measurements and good installation to see if your experiment works out. Don’t think that’s particularly relevant? Maybe it sounds too complex/expensive for a house that you’re only going to live in for roughly 10 years? Follow the market place for answers.
There are manufacturers today who spend incredible amounts of money in R&D trying to scientifically understand and create the best performing products for the exact purpose of building a home to be durable and healthy. Beyond the manufacturers themselves, there are an ever increasing number of builders and architects who are looking very seriously at a more scientific and exacted approach to their projects. And it’s working.
There are tighter homes being built every day, keeping external air infiltration out and, by installing the appropriate mechanicals for air distribution and ventilation, are keeping the home’s indoor air quality very high and healthy. Of course, often times these projects are higher budget projects and are often taken on by “early adopters” of building technology (relative to the American market — these products have been around in Japan, China, and Europe for some time now). But there’s a bright light at the end of a very short tunnel. Products are becoming more affordable. Builders are constantly looking at more efficient ways to implement technologies that they may have never considered in the past. Architects are designing better homes with thought applied beyond just the visual aesthetic, really taking human comfort into account.
So don’t worry about whether or not your house is “too tight” because there’s really no such thing. Sure, there are limitations to more “traditional” ventilation when you tighten a house’s enclosure, but you’ve also created an environment in which you can exact control over what gets in and what gets out. Instead of air flowing in and out of your house without control, you’ll notice a huge difference in your ability to breathe and feel comfort. Science becomes your home’s best bet for helping you live a happier and healthier life. You just need someone who knows what they’re doing to help you design and build the thing.
It’s a bright future we’ve ahead of us — and one full of clean air in homes that last.