Time for a holistic approach to health, environment and construction

Catherine Bulow

Humans need a few basic things in order to survive. A roof above our heads is one of those things, and how we build our houses therefore concerns everyone. The construction methods most commonly used today are not based on a holistic way of thinking, and therefore create environmental and health-related problems. Good solutions do exist. What is needed now is that the construction business applies them.

Modern buildings are environmentally taxing. Risky construction solutions and materials that are damaging to both health and environment are utilised on a grand scale. Large amounts of energy are needed for production and transport of building materials, and for heating the buildings.

In previous times houses were built using natural materials and time-proven methods. But new products were launched during the industrial boom of the 1950’s, and the use of plastics exploded. Wooden floors were covered with plastic, kitchen counters with high-pressure laminates and the wooden houses with eternit plating containing asbestos. Radioactive blue lightweight concrete, casein-containing levelling compound on moist concrete and mouldy houses are some of the construction scandals of that time.

Unfortunately, the construction business has not learned much from its mistakes. The full-scale experiments continue. Modern examples are the relining of pipes with epoxy containing bisphenol, and the sealing of facades with rendering applied directly on to EPS foam insulation, resulting in the growth of mould and a need to decontaminate the buildings before they are even completed.

Today’s extensive use of plastic insulation (PIR, PUR and EPS) continues, despite existing knowledge of the fire hazardous, environmentally destructive, poor moisture-managing and non-durable qualities of the materials. According to architect and researcher Erik Stenberg many newly built houses have a lifespan of about 60 years. This can hardly be called durable structures.

The dangerous chemical cocktails of modern houses

Modern houses contain a cocktail of chemicals from glue, lacquer, paints, sealant, plastic flooring, furnishings etc. We know that some of them are harmful to our health. They are carcinogenic, reproduction-impairing, or mutagenic. But many of the chemicals we know little about. The knowledge of how some substances enhance the effect of others, and of how they interact, is also limited. Scientists recently announced that the so-called cocktail-effect is more harmful than previously assumed. The health-risks are not always related to dosage. Hormone-disruptive substances are harmful even in extremely low doses if the exposure occurs during vulnerable stages of development in the womb or during childhood.

Research and legislation are always a step behind, as there is an endless torrent of new substances entering the market. And the chemical lobby is strong. With companies like BASF and Bayer in the lead it has succeeded in halting a restrictive alteration of REACH, EU’s chemical guidelines, and the Swedish ban on PVC that was proposed in the 1990’s. The manufacturers do not have to declare the use of chemicals in their materials, as long as the concentrations are low. The result is that painters who develop allergies towards preservatives in plastic paints have no way of avoiding the substances they are allergic to.

Greenwashing or actual greening?

The environment has become Big Business. The recently held «Ekobyggmässan» in Kista outside Stockholm was sponsored by big polluters like the coal consuming energy company Vattenfall, the chemical manufacturer BASF, and Tarkett, a large manufacturer of PVC-flooring, the most environmentally harmful type of plastic. Many want to join in the greenwash revelries, and despite a myriad of environmental classification systems, most things seem to be let through.

The reason behind this may be the lack of knowledge among both the consumers and the environmental movement. The green consumer avoids conventionally produced bananas, but do not hesitate before purchasing chemical paints or poisonous sealant. The business can thereby continue to dictate the terms of the greening undisturbed.

Plastic insulation – not a green choice


“Sustainable construction” is today a question of energy efficiency, healthy indoor climate and ventilation. In the name of energy conservation various environmentally destructive fossil materials like EPS foam, PIR and polyurethane are used as insulation. The production of these materials is energy-intensive. PUR is produced using the poisonous gas phosgene, and contains hydrogen cyanide and isocyanates that can cause life-threatening isocyanate asthma when heated. PU is not broken down by the elements, and stays intact in nature for thousands of years. As insulation on the other hand, the lifespan is short. With time the material is pulverised and loses its function. The production of mineral- and glass wool is also energy-intensive, and it has to be covered in plastic in the structure. After about 50 years the plastic sheeting has withered and the mineral wool, that handles moisture poorly, is destroyed and needs to be replaced.

Large-scale and rational ecological house construction – not only possible, but necessary.

A small army of eco-builders have for a long time been utilising methods and materials that benefit both humans and the environment. Natural environments and resources are exploited as little as possible. The use of plastics in minimised in favour of robust natural materials with long lifespans. Energy efficiency and renewable sources of heating are other important factors. The solutions exist, and they now need to be applied on all fronts.

Large houses of massive wood are already being built. These houses only demand about 25% of the energy needed to build with concrete. Wood stores CO2, is renewable and stores heat. Moisture free factory production and simple installation are other advantages.

The production of lightweight concrete is also less energy-intensive than concrete. The material consists for the most part of sand and lime and does not need armouring. Using load bearing lightweight concrete blocks it is possible to build massive outer walls with a U-value of 0,11 W/mK. High-risers can be built using beams made of concrete, or even better, limestone.

Using Träullit, massive constructions of floor-height, prefabricated elements can be constructed. High-risers can be built using a pillar-beam system of concrete. The material is light, heat-storing, moisture- and fire-resistant.

Industrial, ecological construction is already a reality for prefabricated timber-frame houses. Healthy low-energy houses with cellulose insulation and foundations made of recycled glass called Hasopor are in production. Plant-based insulation like cellulose, linen and hemp is, as opposed to plastic insulation, renewable and less energy-intensive to produce.

Other green materials are natural stone, tiles, linoleum, brick, lime- and clay rendering, and plant or mineral-based paints. Long-lived and preferably maintainable materials are the best. Watch out for the expression ‘maintenance free’, it usually means ‘maintenance impossible’. A laminate floor can for example not be renovated, while a wood floor can be sanded many times.

The business needs to awaken and apply a holistic, ecological way of thinking. A readjustment based on super-insulated buildings constructed using petrochemical materials is impossible. Real ecological construction unites energy efficiency with reduced use of plastics, detoxification and green building materials. The only ones who have anything to lose in that process are those who have built their business on inferior materials and unsustainable solutions.

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