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Are We Unwitting Guinea Pigs?

Just as post WWII petrochemical industry has revolutionized food production and transformed the Standard American Diet, it has dramatically changed the palette of materials and production methods of the Standard American Home. In fact, how we now make homes has very little in common with how our civilization has historically created shelter. In this same brief time span that we have gone from an agrarian society to one of nutritionally challenged urban and suburbanites, we have parted ways from the communities of craftsman who knew how to build and maintain home from local resources in response to the local environment.

Just as we have been seduced and misguided by the clever marketing of the prepared food industry, we as a culture, exhibit the misplaced nostalgia for the feeling of home which has lead to a profusion of “old-fashion looking, mass-produced, house-icing”. In New Mexico, a production home may look superficially like a real adobe home but it no better satisfies our longing for the real thing than a freezer-to-micro-wave-apple pie is a satisfying substitute for mom’s home cooking and the nurturing family gathering of our fondest memories or imaginings.

Many of us have made the journey to more meaningful food. The popularity of farmers markets and the authentic food movement is a testimonial to a realized need unmet by the food “industry”; but what does the journey to authentic meaningful home look like? I would offer that an authentic home would be one that nurtures the health and well-being of its occupants while stewarding the environment. This special home would use benign, non-toxic construction materials that are locally and sustainably harvested. The home would be built by a community of proud craftsman to last for centuries. It would require little energy to live in comfortably and would reinforce the occupant’s health and connection to nature.

Unfortunately, homes do not have labels revealing their ingredients. If they did, then this list would be far more disturbing than the fine print on a box of frozen junk food desert because it would expose the use of carcinogens and neurotoxins. What goes into our homes in the way of chemical additives is virtually unregulated. The EPA lists more than 88,000 chemicals in common use today and to quote the Environmental Working Group “As amazing as it may seem, there are no mandatory pre-market health testing or approval requirements under any federal law for chemicals in cosmetics, toys, clothing, carpets or construction materials to name just a few obvious sources of chemical exposure in everyday life.” (

How has this affected us?

Allergies have gone from 1 in 30 people in 1950 to 1 in 2.5 today and much of this increase has been attributed to poor indoor air quality.

Asthma cases have doubled since 1970, most among young children.

Prevalence studies have indicated that as much as 18% of the population knowingly suffers from chemical sensitivities.

Eliminating the toxins in building materials should become a minimal mandated standard. This would decrease suffering from building related illness. However absence of poisons alone will not satisfy our longing for an authentic home. It would be comparable to the pre-packaged frozen pie that one can now buy at the health food store. The list of ingredients would be shorter, many of the chemicals will have been removed, but the trail from farm- to-table is still long and we who purchase and consume it remain perpetuators of an environmental problem.

Next Healthy Home Corner…”Back to the Future”

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