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 firstname.lastname@example.org.