A Happy, Healthy Tiny Home - Tiny House Blog

A Happy, Healthy Tiny Home

Guest post by Trey Van Norstrand

The recent post “Looking for Carpenter/Builder” by a person seeking to build a house free of chemicals caught my attention.  It inspired me to share some thoughts—although I am not an expert—and even put out my own request for a builder.

I first became interested in tiny houses when I stumbled upon a book called “Portable Houses.”  There was a small section on Jay Shafer with photos of his beautiful tiny home on wheels.  The idea immediately appealed to my desire for simplicity and my desire to reduce costs, thereby increasing time for fun and meaningful activities.

For several years, I have continued to explore the idea of building a tiny house.  I took a workshop with Jay Shafer.  I met Leslie Lawrence of SafeSpotCottages.com and saw in-person the lovely chemical-free house on wheels that she built for herself.  I consulted with bau biolgists (experts in building biology) and learned that when it comes to tiny houses there is more to consider than first meets the eye.

First, the materials used in standard constuction of homes (of all sizes) contain chemicals that can be harmful.  Indeed, Europe is taking steps to ban the chemicals found in many common products such as foam board, OSB, and PVC.  Even wood—especially softwood—can be irritating to people sensitive to it if the entire interior of a room is finished with it.  The problem is magnified in the small, enclosed space of a tiny houses.  Frequently, I open the Tiny House Blog, smile upon seeing the latest beautiful creation, and then cringe when the photos of the construction process reveal questionable materials.  It is true that chemicals in a new building do outgas over years, but is it a good idea to be in there with the fumes until this process has occurred?  Of course, the effect of these fumes can be lessened with good ventilation, my next subject.

The EPA website cites that, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), a person needs 15 cu. ft. of fresh air per minute to mainain health.  So, a home either needs to be large, or have mechanical ventilation, or have open windows.  The latter is a good solution in a moderate climate, but, in winter, open windows lead to cold air meeting warm with condensation as the result.  Moisture provides the opportunity for mold–another health hazard.  From what I have read, this issue can be addressed by building with earth (as in a cob house) or with magnesium oxide boards and wool insulation in a mobile house.

I believe the construction industry will inevitably shift toward building healthy homes of healthy materials.  Of course, companies that profit from the status quo cannot be expected to be at the forefront of that movement.  I think that builders of tiny houses who commit to taking health considerations fully into account will have a niche that will only grow—both because of increasing awareness on the part of consumers, and, sadly, because more and more people are discovering they have become sensitized to the chemicals that surround them in the environment.

Finally, if you are an experienced carpenter/builder (especially, if you are experienced with MgO or hardieboard and/or trailers) and are located in the Northeast U.S. and would like to explore the idea of working with me on a tiny, mobile house, please contact me at fairfieldtinyhouse@yahoo.com.

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PHIL KAKO - March 17, 2011 Reply

I just think “WONDERFUL” things about your site. But, I have one very large problem, laced with another somewhat sizeable problem. 1} I DO NOT have a plot of land (anywhere). 2} I do not have a large cache of cash. But thanks

Mark A - March 17, 2011 Reply

Gorgeous little home, thank you for sharing it and your thoughts with us.

I think good ventilation will be a priority for me when I build my tiny home.

Thanks again for this information.

Cody McAllister - March 17, 2011 Reply

Very thoughtful article, with good points to consider when building any home or space. I am glad things seem to be shifting in the mainstream perception about green and sustainable practices in construction and design. While I was in Architecture school we were very focused on these ideas and principles, but I noticed a huge lag in real application upon entering the ‘real world’. Fortunately more and more people are understanding the long term benefits of sustainable design……. mainly because it’s impacting their wallets! A huge issue is when developers turn over projects quickly, not considering the lifetime costs of the building. When people have long term interest they will tend to spend more on upfront costs.

gregor - March 17, 2011 Reply

I am particularly aware of the ventilation need. For the past several years I have had to bodge various ventilation solutions because the houses and apartments didn’t have *any* provisions for bringing fresh air in mechanically. In one you couldn’t even open the window.

People hear about the importance of good ventilation to avoid asthma etc. but there is almost nothing out there about how much it just sucks to have poor indoor air quality. It’s fatiguing. You don’t sleep as well. Food doesn’t taste as good. It’s awful.

I am currently building a noise blocking heat exchanging ventilator unit to put in the porch door of my apartment. I anticipate the complaints from the landlord about it because it will be visible from outside, but there is no other way whatsoever to get fresh air in here without opening the window all the time, which lets a ton of noise in. If I have to fight them over it I will.

That said, there is not really any need to use expensive or specialized materials to build a home that avoids toxic materials unless you have an unusual sensitivity, although there are some problems with outgassing for almost all synthetic materials, though. Fiberglass insulation is biologically inert – it’s glass. Only if it gets wet does mold grow on impurities and dust that has collected on it, and wool will be no better and potentially worse in that way.

I’m afraid that although there are a lot of legitimate concerns about toxic building materials etc. there are also a lot of shysters out there that will sell you expensive stuff that is not needed. Proper ventilation and low VOC stuff can get you a long way from what I hear.

    Cody McAllister - March 17, 2011 Reply

    Excellent points Gregor…. Proper ventilation design upfront (natural and mech) can be one of the most cost effective ways to make a space more livable.

BigGoofyGuy - March 17, 2011 Reply

That looks really nice. It is like a little cottage from a fairy tale story.

JT - March 18, 2011 Reply

Very nice

Benjamin - March 18, 2011 Reply

Wow! A cubic foot of fresh air every 4 seconds to maintain health. That sounds like a lot, and a lot more than most modern houses provide, especially in winter. A good heat exchanger would be needed and it might be pretty expensive and power hungry for a cold climate. Some compromise might be necessary.

Katherine Templer - June 14, 2015 Reply

I have looked at many homes that are new but unhealthy.I am desperate for a truly healthy house tiny houses on wheels alloweing one to move away from undesirable contaminated neighborhood like Florida.I lost my safe house 2004 to hurricane and have been forced to live in contaminated sick housing this has caused adverse health issues.I have MCS reactive airway, popheria fibro mialiga. I cannot function I’m disabled poor disadvantaged senior looking for help Many claim to know but have shown their intreoss is only money to purposley deceive it is a difficult business as we all have different intolerances often a safe item gets improved making it unsafe.recycled sounds great except what kind of environment did it come from pestasides moldasides petrol chemicals VOCs volitol chemicals obsorbed its i world of unsafe untested building materals

Why Tiny Houses are Better for Your Health - Tiny House Blog - November 13, 2018 Reply

[…] A happy, healthy home is the ultimate goal for most people who are part of the tiny house revolution. And choosing to embrace the tiny house lifestyle is a conscious decision that will help improve your overall well-being as well as the health of the planet. […]

Designing a Tiny Home That Supports Optimal Health - Tiny House Blog - September 14, 2022 Reply

[…] of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the average person needs 15 cubic feet of fresh air per minute to maintain their […]

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