Design Your Villa for Clean Air

We tend to think of ourselves as safe inside our modern homes. We walk through our front door and we shut out all the nasty things outside: the weather, air pollutants ………. office politics and we feel we can relax and be safe. #healthyhousedesign

Unfortunately maybe there are some nasty things inside our home that can threaten our health. This article is about pollutants and impurities in the air inside our homes that we may not be aware of, how they affect our health, and how we can avoid them.

The quality of the air we breathe is vital to our well-being yet the Environmental Protection Agency in the UK found that indoor air can be as much as 10 times more polluted that outside air. In 1986 The World Health Organisation officially recognised “sick building syndrome” as an illness. SBS is a chemical biological and mental / psychological phenomenon which if ignored may require intensive treatment.

Indoor air contains microscopic particles: perfumes, bacteria, viruses, animal dander from pets, dust mites, respiration particles, pollen, mould, combustion products and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde.

Pollution comes from paints, preservatives, insulation, adhesives, carpets, soft furnishings, furniture, cleaners and “cleaning” chemicals, air fresheners, cooking, pesticides, and open and closed fireplaces. Other sources include timbers, plywood, particle board and such like that have been treated with preservatives, glues, paints and varnishes.

Adverse health problems include headaches, respiratory problems, frequent colds and sore throats, chronic cough, skin rashes, eye irritation, lethargy, dizziness and memory lapses. Maybe that perpetual cold that the doctors scoff at, and that you have spent years trying to solve to no avail, results from the poor indoor air quality in your home.

It’s well documented that these illnesses are more acute in the winter when we tend to be indoors more with all the windows closed.

Newer construction techniques and materials mean that buildings and external walls have been designed to minimise air leakage and have stopped fresh air permeating to the inside. Without careful consideration of all the components this can allow a build-up of noxious air.

HVAC plant (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) has in the past been identified a potent cause of SBS with microbes and bacteria having been found in ducts and filters.

What can we do?

Ventilation is key either mechanical or natural. This could be cross ventilation such as might be used also to cool a building in the summer. In my experience the Spanish are masters at using ventilation and shading to cool the building in the summer as well as to introduce clean air.

My wife, who is Spanish, is completely on top of the situation. It took me a while when I first arrived, as a Northern European, to give it any importance at all. I just wanted the windows open all the time and as much sunshine in the house as I could get. In the summer Spanish heat you do not want the windows open all the time. You do want fresh clean air in your home though.

A Windcatcher: This issome kind of chanell with some kind of funnel attached pointed at the wind that provides natural ventilation. The way I have described sounds awful but in reality they can look very attractive and have a long traditional in middle Eastern (Egypt and Iran) architecture. I’ve never seen one as an architectural feature in Spain and I think there are probably far more practical solutions here but I thought it sounded interesting.

A “passive house” is an air tight house that uses a mechanical ventilation system to introduce clean fresh air into the building continuously. This air is also filtered and this is a great way to keep the quality of your interior air clean. The filters will need changing regularly and the machinery kept well maintained.

Follow the fitting and maintenance guidelines for all plant and machinery (air conditioners for example) to keep the equipment working at an optimal level for efficiency and health. This is important as the machinery could harbour bacteria.

Carpets and rugs – have you noticed an almost complete absence of carpets and rugs in Spain? My wife is aghast at my parents’ home in England which has fitted carpets. She asks how do you keep it clean? Well, I explain, every few years someone comes round and drenches the carpet in chemicals to “clean” it. What?……every few years?!!!! Chemicals!!??? I think you can see her point. Whenever I see a Spaniard cleaning a floor, pushing a mop into the corners to get everything out, I think of this.

The same principals apply to soft furnishings, drapes, and curtains. They harbour dust and dirt. Clean them or design without them.

Indoor plants are good. They remove volatile organic compounds from the air. They are good at absorbing toxins and raising humidity. They emit oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide whilst we breathe oxygen and emit carbon dioxide.

Static can be reduced by the avoidance of synthetic materials and the “earthing” of all electrical equipment.

Negative ions and sea air: have you noticed how much better you feel and sleep beside the sea? I certainly have. Is there any science behind this and if so can we replicate these conditions in the home?

Well, studies have shown that there can be as many as 2000 negative ions per cubic centimetre on the beach as opposed to a city that could have less than 100. Could this be the reason I sleep so well and feel so much better next to the sea?

It seems that negative ions in the air latch onto pollutants bacteria, dust, viruses, and particles and so on that are positively charged and, neutralising them, cause them to fall to the floor. I have read that beeswax candles release negative ions into the air with precisely this effect. I have also read they can increase a sense of well-being and mental clarity. I hope it’s true and that its that simple!

You can buy air ionisers that emit negative ions into the air. A quick look on line shows it’s a controversial subject. Maybe negative ions possess an anti-microbial effect and a mood-stabilizing one. Maybe negative ions can influence the serotonin in your brain that plays a role in your moods. Maybe it is worth buying an air ionisers and negative ion air purifiers.

Air filters: you can buy these and there are various different types but in my view this is not a design solution. If this is your solution then you probably have a design failure.

Choice of furniture and flooring: It’s a big subject…essentially avoid anything with formaldehyde which is used in resins glues and composite wood products. Look for non toxic water based glues, the green guard certificate http://greenguard.org/en/index.aspx

Author: John Wolfendale
Bio: John is a founder of Eco Vida Homes and is passionate about bringing modern design and construction practices to Spain. He believes a home which is warm in winter and cool in summer is largely a matter of design and selective use of materials. He is British and a Chartered Surveyor with over 24 years experience living and working in Spain.
Author: Eco Vida Homes is a team of Architects, Technical Architects, Builders, an Engineer, and a Chartered Surveyor. We help people design and build beautiful energy efficient home, designed for Mediterranean living, in Marbella and Southern Spain. There are two things that make us stand out: a sharp focus on our clients’ needs and everything we build is comfortable and energy efficiency………..It’s like Grand Designs………… only without the drama.