Patrick Hamman didn’t plan to be on the leading edge of a housing boom driven by covid-19.
“Our journey with [building healthy homes] started about four years ago, and it basically came about because we had so many customers inquiring about what they could do to mitigate the allergies and hard water we have here,” said Hamman, president of healthy home builder UrbanLUX builders in San Antonio, Texas, where he builds certified Pure Wellness homes that focus on indoor air quality, water quality, low-VOC materials, and lighting. “We didn’t know we were going to go into a pandemic and that this would become a much more important aspect of everybody’s life.”
And there’s no doubt that the pandemic has changed the equation for many buyers and builders. Across the country, builders have worked flat out on the job site and in the home office to meet the new demands and address the changing worries of pandemic-era home buyers, who are looking for houses where they can live, work, learn, and remain healthy, regardless of what’s happening in the world. Among Meritage Homes shoppers alone, nearly one third (31 percent) said that their interest in indoor air quality has increased during the pandemic, according to company research.
It represents a big change in the industry.
“From a builder’s perspective, the shift toward health is a differentiator in a market that has been predominated by commodities,” said CR Herro, vice president, innovation, for public builder Meritage Homes and an expert in healthy homes. “A home is, first, about a needs-based solution for consumers. They need a bigger home, a smaller home, or a home closer to work. So it is a location and a floor plan and a price, but in most markets, when you sort the available homes down through these three primary needs for the consumer, you still end up having a dozen homes that meet the fundamental needs of a consumer. The question is: How do they choose, among the good enough homes, the home that is best for them? When I think about that as a building scientist, I think about how I can enable a consumer to make a better choice, how to choose the best home, the best value, the best quality of life for themselves and their families.”
Herro and Hamman, along with healthy home expert Barbara Spurrier, executive director of Delos’ Well Living Lab, and Russell Pope, product management for Panasonic Life Solutions’ IAQ Division, discussed how and why to build healthier homes in July during The Healthy Home Boom: How Builders Are Meeting Demand for Healthy and Clean Homes, a UTOPIA webinar. Dave Barista, UTOPIA’s content director, moderated the smart homes discussion. The full webinar is now available for viewing on demand.
Based on their discussion, here are 9 things builders need to know, from trends to technology, to build a healthy home.
9 Ideas from Healthy Home Experts
1. Rely on established best practices for building and designing healthy home systems.
“Third-party standards like the EPA’s Indoor airPLUS [gives builders] broad technical shoulders to stand upon to reduce sources of pollution, radon, humidity, and particulate VOCs,” said Herro, who added that builders can then add additional air filtration, ventilation, or other processes as needed or desired.
2. Clearly and persuasively communicate the health benefits of the healthy homes you build.
“There are so many substantial benefits … when you significantly reduce exposure to toxins, viruses, and chemicals,” Herro said, but buyers aren’t necessarily conversant--or interested--in all the details of how that happens in a home, but they can understand and appreciate the broader message of healthier homes that are also energy efficient homes.
3. Recognize that our understanding of how home environments can support health is growing.
At Delos and the Well Living Lab, Barbara Spurrier has been working with KB Home and health researchers to develop a healthy living concept home in Arizona. “We are really starting to think about remote health in the home,” said Spurrier, whose work covers everything from home office design and wellness areas to ways of remotely monitoring homeowners’ health and reducing the transmission of viruses. “There are so many things that we can do as we think about our home environments that are optimized for health and well being,” she added.
4. Remember that lighting can be part of a healthy home package.
Depending on your buyers, you may want to offer home automation options with lighting that supports circadian rhythms, creates a restful sleep environment, or aids in work or school performance without causing eyestrain. At UrbanLUX Builders, Hamann and his team will even adjust color temperatures, lighting kits and ceiling fans that create problematic flickers, and other features as needed. “We try to stay attuned to what our buyers’ needs are with [lighting] and work with them … to make the home as comfortable as possible for them.”
5. Include air purification in your healthy home.
“You can walk into a house with filters, and it just smells clean. That’s been a big selling point for us,” says Hamman, whose homes use the Super V whole house air filtration system. The Super V captures particles as small as .007 micron, dramatically reducing dust, dander, pollen, mold, viruses, and other pollutants in the home.
6. Be prepared to customize ventilation to create a healthy home.
“One size does not fit all,” advised Russell Pope of Panasonic, who noted how climate zones, allergy concerns, and even regional events (like wildfire smoke or radon levels) can affect best ventilation practices for a builder. He suggested builders think about indoor air quality and ventilation in terms of developing an “umbrella policy” approach that would be broad enough to handle the major IAQ worries but flexible enough to adapt to the local or personal needs of a homeowner.
7. Look at demand-based ventilation systems.
Help maintain the indoor air quality you worked so hard to build by installing ventilation systems where pollutants are created, such as a range hood in the kitchen, and venting that appliance directly, rather than spreading those contaminants throughout the house. Just be sure those localized systems can do the job.. “Our homes have gotten a lot more complicated,” Pope noted. “We’re doing bathrooms in the middle of the house, which requires long and complicated ductwork, and we really want to make sure our fans are capable of handling those longer and more complicated ductwork.”
8. Help buyers be ready for challenging situations.
With the ongoing concern about covid-19 and its variants, “one thing we are starting to see a lot of attention on is the consideration of how a sick family member can be isolated at home,” said Pope. It’s a true challenge; a 2020 study found that quarantining at home away from other members of the household was simply not possible in 21 percent of U.S. homes. For those homes where it could be possible, ventilation strategies can help. “Even though your home may be managed by a central air handling system, you may want to consider dedicating a room of that house to a mini split, for example, so that if somebody’s sick, you can isolate them in that room,” Pope explained. “You can keep them in that space and limit as much as possible the opportunities to spread [an illness] throughout the rest of the household.”
9. Deliver a fresh house to your buyer.
After spending time, money, and effort to build a healthy home for your buyers, don’t hand over a dusty house. One strategy suggested by Herro: pre-ventilating the house to blow out “all the dust and moisture that is created during the construction process.” But don’t stop there. “With VOCs, you are going to want to use a balanced ventilation strategy,” Pope says. “Ventilate more than you normally would for the first six months or maybe even a year … as those new construction materials are off-gassing.”
Want more detail, insights, and advice about building healthier homes? Watch our free on-demand webinar The Healthy Home Boom: How Builders Are Meeting Demand for Healthy and Clean Homes (short registration required for UTOPIA non-members.)