When her infant daughter was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago, Deborah Denome rolled up her sleeves and began greening her home.
“She’s fine now, but that was my turning point,” says Denome, director of Shimmering Light Farm & Renewal Center, an education center in South Bristol, Ontario County, that programs workshops, events and retreats designed to connect attendees to the natural world.
Whether she is soaking lemon peel or thyme in vinegar to make a nontoxic household cleaner or freezing vegetables from her organic garden so that she has a winter supply, Denome says she feels better mentally and physically when syncing her daily routine with nature.
Though greening one’s home is not on everybody’s to-do list, mounting research shows that a living space’s conditions and materials—from how much radon enters through small cracks in a home’s foundation to what the flooring is made of—affect health. How Americans live could even magnify those effects.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors—69 percent of that time is at home—and 6 percent in enclosed vehicles. The nation also leads a sedentary lifestyle, with only one in five adults meeting the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines.
Still, more Americans have become interested in home design that takes into account comfort and well-being.
“Good design is not about the building,” says Dennis Andrejko, associate professor and head of the architecture department at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability. “Good design is ultimately for the user and for the occupant, for the people.”
Homes designed with sustainability in mind offer both physiological and psychological health benefits, adds Andrejko, whose areas of expertise include high-performance buildings and ecological literacy.
“When you have a sustainable home that has a healthier interior environment because of reduced toxins in the air and wiser choices of environmentally-friendly materials and things like that, you feel better mentally because you are feeling better physically,” he says.
In a 2014 report, McGraw Hill Construction found that using less energy and saving money topped the list of reasons why American homebuyers asked single-family homebuilders and single-family home remodelers for green homes, but health and comfort ranked third and fourth, respectively.
The report also noted that public awareness of buildings’ impact on health has surged over the years due to environmental activism, research and regulation.
As green-home technology improves, there are challenges to overcome, Andrejko says. Building envelopes and skins, for instance, have become tighter and allow less fresh air to penetrate, thereby diminishing indoor air-quality. But good design choices, such as looking to air-to-air heat exchangers and energy-recovery ventilator units to bring in fresh air, can resolve many issues, Andrejko says.
Amid rising interest in home automation, more technology that helps people remain mindful inhabitants of their homes will likely come to market, Andrejko says. One example might be a device that emails or texts homeowners when they have used significantly more water in a month compared to the month prior.
“I think we need to still have active users (of homes and buildings) rather than passive users,” Andrejko says.
Local homebuyers’ interest in low-flow plumbing fixtures, tankless water heaters, low-VOC paint and other eco-friendly products has inched forward,
but “green building is a gradual thing,” says Rick Herman, CEO of Rochester Home Builders’ Association. “More and more people are asking questions about sustainability and living green, but I don’t think that I would dare to say that it’s being mass-marketed yet in our area.”
Statistics underscore that local homeowners have been slow to build or renovate their houses to meet official green rating-system guidelines. New York state has 728 homes that have been certified through the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Home program since 2008, says Amanda Komar, media and communications specialist at USGBC, but only eight are in the area—Monroe, Wayne, Ontario, Livingston, Genesee and Orleans counties.
One green-building feature, however, has begun shedding its novelty status here: geothermal technology for heating and cooling.
“Geothermal was once something that was just dreamed of, and, little by little, there was a company here and a company there” that installed it, Herman says. “Now there’s many companies that specialize in geothermal, so that will bring the price down.”
Even smaller steps can help with greening a home, says Denome, a former corporate training and publishing executive.
“I like to put plants in the house,” she says. “And I’m really good at outdoor gardening, but not as good at keeping things alive inside because, outdoors, the rain and the sun help me out.” Spider plants and ivies have worked out well in her home, she adds.
While she believes that living in a green home offers many health benefits, Denome has first-hand experience of what getting out of the house can do for body and mind. As a certified forest therapy guide trained in a Japanese practice known as “forest bathing”—or walking in a forest for the purpose of wellness or healing—Denome helps people who have trouble getting “out of their heads,” she says.
“It’s a practice that you can learn and utilize on your own, but it’s helpful to have a guide to bring you more into the present moment,” she says.
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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