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My Story: An Introduction

For this first in a series of columns titled The Healthy Home Corner, I would like to tell you a little about myself and the journey that has led me to specialize in the design of biological homes. This path began in 1972 when I happened upon the University of Toronto School of Architecture, almost by chance, with a good handle on math, a love of art, and very little understanding of architecture.

There I began a life-long inquiry into what makes space beautiful and good. Fast forward to 1992: I was a practicing architect in Santa Fe with a troubling and mysterious chronic illness that had remained undiagnosed for years, even though I had seen many doctors.

Finally my new doctor, client, and soon to- become dear friend, Erica Elliott, discovered what was wrong with me.

Unfortunately, this information was as a result of a shocking discovery about her own health; she too was troubled by a constellation of disabling symptoms that eluded diagnosis by her colleagues.

Although the particular array of symptoms was quite different for each of us, she perceived that they both had the same root cause: chemical overexposure had made us hypersensitive. Subsequent testing proved her theory to be correct. A person with multiple chemical sensitivity ( MCS), as the condition is called, becomes symptomatic at very low levels of exposure to a wide variety of toxins, allergens and even electromagnetic fields commonly found in our modern world.

My symptoms included fatigue, frequent respiratory infection, hypersensitivity to certain odors, muscular pain, increased food allergies, and poor digestion.

Aside from not feeling well most of the time, the more monumental realization was that, as an architect who frequented homes under construction, I was constantly being exposed to, and made sick by, the thousands of products and building materials used in new home construction that emitted toxic chemicals. I reasoned that if these chemicals were so devastating for me then they must not be very good for everyone else who gets exposed to them including the factory workers where these products were produced, the contractors who installed them and the new home owners to be.

I felt an ethical duty to become fully informed so that I could protect my clients. I researched different aspects of building that could affect human health. I gathered information about the chemical composition of conventional construction materials and found healthier alternatives. I also studied building science and gained understanding of current building practices that could lead to “sick” buildings through mold growth, accumulation of combustion bi-products or lack of proper ventilation. In addition Dr Elliott and I engaged in endless discussions combining her medical knowledge with my design/building knowledge to try to determine how we could help people to create safer environments once they had already become ill.

I received many calls from chemically sensitive people from all over the country, people who needed information. In 1997, I teamed up with Dr. Erica Elliott and John Banta, an experienced “house doctor,” to write a book entitled “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” in response to these countless inquiries. We brought the architectural, medical and building science disciplines together in order to explain why healthier homes were necessary and how to build them.

Now, fast forward to 2008:  The third edition of our book “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” has just been released. My long personal journey back to health has been a successful one. The term “Green Building” has thankfully become common parlance. Many people in the building industry have worked hard to come up with systems for assessing the “greenness” of building. These scorecards almost always contain a section on “indoor environmental quality” and require or reward reduction of the use of toxins in construction and the introduction of better mechanical ventilation for the home. However health has become a small subcategory of a larger agenda. The main emphasis, in the green building movement, is to create more energy efficient homes. Saving the planet from the excessive consumption of human beings is the driving force and a green rating is not a guarantee that a home will support and nurture radiant health in its occupants or that someone suffering from MCS or asthma will be able to live in it.

In my quest for healthier ways to build I discovered Building Biology ( a building philosophy and science that originated in Germany in the early 1960’s, as Bau-Biologie. At that time, long before we recognized the problem in North America, it was becoming alarmingly evident in Europe that a growing segment of their population was chronically unwell from being indoors in the mass produced industrialized housing that went up post WWII. With an ancient building history and surrounded by historical buildings, a multi-disciplinary gathering of concerned professional systematically compared newer construction techniques with the solid, often earthen, pre war building stock. What resulted was a set of scientific standards for evaluating indoor environmental quality and 25 principles for building new homes and workplaces.  In Northern Europe Bau-Biologie has become a household word synonymous with built environments that are healthy and ecologically sound. Born from its unique sociological and building context the movement developed a standard for health and ecology that is fundamentally different from the way we have approached “green” in North America. I believe it holds some very relevant answers for us.

Building Biology, views the natural environment as the gold standard against which built environments should be measured. It honors the genius of nature and notes the failure of industrialized building technology to create vital environments with the synthetic materials that are so prevalent in conventional construction today. An important precept of Building Biology is that “there is a direct correlation between the biological compatibility of a home and its ecological performance.”  In other words, environments that are deeply nurturing to human health, by their very nature excel in ecological performance.

In Santa Fe we are fortunate to have a long history and wide array of alternatives to conventional construction. While earthen homes are viewed with suspicion throughout most of the nation they are appreciated and sought after here. It was only after studying Building Biology that I began to understand our local treasure of traditional and alternative home building culture. It was only after living in a natural home built according to these principles that theory translated into positive daily experience. It is with this experience that I write about this valuable standard for creating home.

Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect and a certified building biology practitioner. She is the principle of Baker-Laporte and Associates and EcoNest Design. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”. She can be reached through the website