Virginia Salares tells how her childrens’ allergies led
her to build an e-friendly, allergy-friendy house which
has become a blueprint for E houses worldwide.
The way I see it, sustainable housing is not just about the environment. It is a holistic approach to construction that requires a house not only to be in harmony with its environment but with those organisms that call it home. My story shows how these elements can be successfully combined.
A typical night in the early eighties went something like this – I’d get up in the middle of the night with Aileen, our older daughter, coughing and vomiting in her bed. Barely back to my bed, I would be roused by our younger daughter, Rachel, sitting in her bed with coughing fits. I don’t ever remember having a full night’s sleep.
My children were described by their doctor as the most allergic and hypersensitive kids she had ever seen. Things were so bad at one point that it became a weekly occurrence for my husband and I to carry Aileen and Rachel to the A&E or doctor with asthma, eczema, bronchitis and recurrent pneumonia.
By the time Rachel was four and Aileen was eight, I was also pregnant with our son and had my own allergies to pollen in the spring. I knew I had to do something to help us all.
My daughters were ‘atopic’ with exceedingly high levels of antibodies involved in allergic reactions – 21,000 and 7,000 compared several hundred in non-atopic children of the same age. Furthermore, they were sensitive to almost everything you’d find in a typical household: carpet, paint, and MDF furniture.
The doctors had told us they’d ‘grow out of it’ but it was getting worse, and prescribed medication only treated the symptoms: as soon as the medication stopped, the symptoms reccured worse than ever.
This is a job for...
With a doctorate in chemistry, I decided to approach my children’s problems the same way I would approach a problem in a laboratory setting.
At the time, we were living in an old house. It was damp and it had a basement, which was an issue as below ground areas allow moisture to enter a house, create mould and trigger our daughters’ allergies.
Although my husband and I could have fixed some of the problems in the house, we didn’t feel confident that we could improve the indoor environment sufficiently. This meant we needed to build a new home from scratch.
I began to talk to local builders about building a house with specific requirements and got nowhere until I met Oliver Drerup, a renowned housing expert, who had just built the first house for an individual with special needs. This house not only had all the energy-efficient features and ample ventilation but was built with materials known to have no poisonous components or harmful emissions that could cause adverse reactions.
The house that Oliver built
Oliver’s prototype healthy house was fairly luxurious but we had a limited budget and just wanted the healthy housing essentials: the best indoor air quality and a high quality outer shell. Energy efficiency was secondary, but we discovered that the best way to address indoor health problems is to increase the home’s energy efficiency.
Our new house was completed in November 1984. Every material in its construction was carefully considered. Its exterior resembled a modern bungalow with a stucco finish and its interior featured ceramic floors, unpainted plaster walls and carpentry made with solid wood. The building also featured a heat recovery ventilator that ensured a continuous supply of healthy, fresh air to every room in the house and helped maintain optimum humidity levels.
The heat recovery ventilator acts as the house’s ‘lungs’ and means that we could keep windows closed all day and still get fresh air in every room. The house air is continuously filtered in contrast to conventional housing, where open windows or ventilation slots not only let in fresh air but also cold draughts, dust, dirt, a lot of noise – and burglars!
The mechanical ventilation also controlled humidity levels, which is crucial when creating a healthy indoor environment. High humidity levels can lead to the growth of moulds and encourages the proliferation of house mites.
When we moved into our new home the effect on the children was remarkable. Within a month they slept through the night, had fewer coughs and colds, our visits to A&E stopped and we only had to go to the
doctors for check-ups.
The majority of people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors and when there are health problems the proportion of time spent indoors is even higher. As Rachel and Aileen no longer had to battle against indoor air pollutants in the home, the effects of unavoidable outdoor containments, such as pollen, were much lower as their immune systems had had time to recuperate.
After a year in the new house we had the children’s antibody levels tested again and there was dramatic reduction, which meant Aileen and Rachel’s bodies were getting less hyper-reactive. It was the first case, as far as I’m aware, of an improvement in the home environment having a proven effect on a marker in the blood for
Twenty-five years later, my daughters have grown up to live full and productive lives. Aileen is 34 and works for an investment company in Boston. She and her husband live in a home with proven healthy housing features, such as hardwood floors and odour-free paints, to ensure her allergies are not
triggered. Rachel is 30, has a masters degree in English literature and works in Toronto.
For them to be working in the real world is remarkable as, when they were young, I was not sure that they would even be able to go to university.
In 1991 the Government of Canada commissioned a five-year programme to research ways of accommodating the housing needs of the environmentally hypersensitive; the benchmark for the indoor air quality was its suitability for people disabled by normal environments. With my family’s unique personal experience and my training as a chemist, I was hired to conduct the study.
It soon became apparent that the indoor requirements for the environmentally hypersensitive are also the ideal for the general population. In other words, most people suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from
indoor air pollutants.
A house should be healthy even if the occupants don’t have allergies. A young couple would not know whether their children will have allergies, but they can plan on having a supportive environment that would nurture their child. As people get older, their immune system gets weaker. A well-built house is insurance from infancy to old age.
My research also highlighted the components that affect indoor air quality. My team and I have been able to pinpoint allergy triggers and can use these to guide builders on how to make better, healthier houses. It was as a result of my work and other international
research that the Super E house was developed and it has been hugely rewarding to learn about children across the world whose lives have been transformed by living in a Super E home.
My husband, Raphael, and I still live in the original healthy house in Canada and we would never sell it. Aside from the emotional attachments we have for it, it is extremely comfortable to live in and plays an important role in keeping us healthy. Incidentally, it has never been painted and still looks as if built yesterday!
Super E houses
Super E is a state of the art,
energy-efficient healthy house, which was developed by the Government of Canada and is now being built across the world – over 10,000 in Canada and over 500 in the UK. Healthy housing is particularly relevant in the UK where the humid climate creates a perfect breeding ground for mould spores, which may be one of the reasons asthma rates have been soaring in recent years.
If you are interested in a Super E house you can talk directly, on a toll free line (00-800-3999-9969), to the Super E office in Canada. Ideas and designs for houses can be sent to them and
adjusted to the Super E system. The Canadian office will put you in touch with the most appropriate builder in the UK, of which
there are a number. Alternatively, check www.super-e.com
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First Published in 2009
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