Healthy Home Construction

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Spring is right around the corner; which for many means the start of allergies again, along with the sneezing, running noses, red eyes, and headaches. The side effects of allergies can be similar to those when you have construction going on in your home. The fumes of paint and flooring finishes can induce headaches, the excessive dust created from demolishing walls or sanding floors can cause sneezing and coughing as harmful pollutants are released into the air, and the influx of different people performing work in your home can introduce germs and spread illness, especially during the winter months when the flu season is in full swing. These common issues during remodeling and construction jobs can be more complicated for our senior population undergoing renovations to help them “age," or "live in place", especially since so many of them will be remaining in their home while the renovations are taking place. 

Here are some strategies to discuss with your contractor before beginning work in your home to help prevent and reduce the most common health issues during renovations.  It’s important when selecting your contractor, to discuss and understand how they handle dust and related health risks to ensure they are kept to a minimum. Contractors that use some of the equipment referred to, may also come in with higher bids, so balancing the cost and benefits during the contractor selection process should be performed. 

1. Forbid the Fumes: 
Most paints and floor finishing products contain chemicals that evaporate in the air. As with any chemical, the likelihood of a reaction and the extent and type of health effects will depend on many factors. These factors include the number of compounds in the indoor air, the length of time a person is exposed, and a person’s age. Eye, throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vision problems are among the immediate symptoms that some people can experience soon after exposure. When picking paint for your home interior, make sure you select one that is for indoor use only.  There are two categories of interior paints:

  • Water-based: referred to as “latex” paints
  • Oil-based: referred to as “alkyd” paints

In general, water-based paints will emit fewer chemicals and lower levels of chemical vapors. Select primers and paints with low-volatile organic compounds (VOC) as these products release fewer fumes. Low-VOC materials are applied the same way as conventional paints and primers and cost about the same as most manufacturers' top-of-the-line paints. They can also be cleaned and disposed of easily without the use of active solvents; which is always a plus! As paint dries, harmful VOCs are released into the air at high levels, so this would be an essential time for seniors to open all windows, place fans around the house to direct the fumes outside, or better yet, get out of the house for a few hours or overnight. 

Another paint or finish option is to look for products that carry the “Green Seal.”  These products are guaranteed to meet precise environmental standards and contain VOC levels even below those of already low VOC products. Green Seal products are forbidden from using a long list of toxic chemical compounds and must meet specific performance requirements; so ask your contractor about selecting products with this certification, and to understand how best to incorporate these products in your project.

2. Defeat the Dust
Dust is everywhere on construction sites and will always exist. From cutting and sanding materials to excavation, drilling, and demolition, it’s an impossible substance to avoid. However, dust is an unnecessary health risk that can be efficiently managed on every construction site. 

The two most common and effective ways to reduce the risk of dust when performing standard tasks on construction sites are:

  •   Water dampening
  •   Extraction and filtration 

Water dampening is an effective method,  but can be challenging to manage. It requires the site to be thoroughly soaked before the work starts and a constant flow of water to be maintained during the task to prevent dust particles becoming airborne. A  sufficient supply of water and access to it are crucial elements. The second method is using specialist extraction and filtration units. Power tools and air scrubbers use dust extractors and collect dust as the work is performed and can reduce the dust that is emitted into the air by almost 90%.  Air scrubbers capture dirt before it circulates through your home.

Additional tips to reduce dust and dirt in your home include:

  • Place plastic dust barriers with zipper openings at all entry points to a room or space under construction and seal them tightly.
  • Review how debris will be eliminated from the home.  Will it be brought in and out through the central space, or can it be removed directly from the room in which it was created? 
  • Contractors should only walk through areas of the home where work is occurring.
  • Place sticky mats outside the doorway to pull the dust off shoes, and place floor paper from the construction area to the exit door to capture additional dust. 
  • Dust generating tasks should take place outside.
  • Adequate clean-up at the end of the workday including vacuums and sponge mops should be used to gather dust that has settled in. 

During the work, vents should be blocked off with plastic, and if there is a return vent in the room in which work is performed, that’s a bit trickier, so it may be easier to schedule the task at a time when the unit can be turned off.  Once the work has is completed, clean the HVAC system and air vents to ensure that you aren’t continuing to breathe in the dust. With the right dust extraction and filtration systems in place, along with barriers and enclosures, construction dust can be efficiently managed and contained.

3. Get Rid of the Germs

With contractors and others in and out of your home during a renovation, the post clean-up is another critical component to remaining healthy. For those aging in place, we would recommend hiring a professional to get rid of all the germs (and dust!)  living in your home. So after any renovations be sure to:

  • clean your walls (including all moldings).
  • vacuum all floors (if carpeted go over them a few times, and if they're wood, tile, or linoleum, follow your vacuuming with a quick mopping).
  • vacuum all upholstered furniture (couches, chairs, and even mattresses).
  • take down and clean all light fixtures and window treatments.
  • unscrew and clean your vents.
  • check and change all air filters. 
  • Use disinfecting products to wipe down all surfaces (countertops, hand railings, toilets, vanities). 

It's important when planning a home renovation project to review health and safety concerns, and build these strategies into the project before the work begins to remain healthy, happy and ready to enjoy your new home!

Aging in Place Row Home Style

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Our job is to help our clients understand the benefits and challenges associated with making home improvements to “age in place”.  Often, we are called in to perform Home Safety Reviews, to evaluate the issues and offer solutions to help someone remain safe and live independently in their home for as long as possible. We encounter many different types of homes; ranging from single family homes, to apartments, to town homes, as well as city row homes. Each home comes with different design limitations, cost implications, as well as overall neighborhood concerns. The topic of this story relates not only to our ability to help our client create a beautiful and safe environment in her row home at a price that she can afford, but how to best help her address the overall safety in a neighborhood that has changed.

We recently met our client at one of our workshops, “Designing for Home Safety”, where we educate seniors, care providers and loved ones on how to keep a home safe.  The presentation focuses on fall prevention, as falls are one of the leading causes of hospitalizations for seniors, and eventual health decline. She approached us after the presentation and asked if we would help her not only freshen up the interior design of her home, but to provide recommendations and solutions to to help her safely remain in her home.

We were happy to help, and quickly scheduled an appointment. As we drove into the neighborhood, we noticed many homes in disrepair and many stairs to get to the front door. As we walked through the front door it was like taking a time machine back into the 70’s; the layout, decor, and overall feel was one that has been lived in and loved. For those of you who have never stepped foot in a row home, they are typically extremely narrow with few rooms per floor, very steep slender steps, little natural sunlight, and few, if any first floor bathrooms. 

Some significant home safety issues that we discovered on our tour of the home:

Exterior Steps : There are two sets of stairs leading to the front door, the concrete paving is uneven, cracked and in need of repair. We would recommend repairing the paving, installing rails on both sides of the steps, and installing motion detected security lighting.

Master Bedroom and Bathroom: Both located on the second floor, up very steep narrow steps. Although there is a double railing on the stairs, it’s so narrow that putting a chair lift in may be problematic when she is no longer able to walk up the steps. We typically recommend a first floor bedroom and full bathroom to avoid the safety issues surrounding steps, but due to space constraints, this may not be possible. 

Laundry Room in Basement:  Remaining independent involves performing your daily activities, including doing your laundry. Here, the laundry room is down poorly lit, steep stairs with no rails. We would recommend reconfiguring the kitchen and installing a small stackable washer/dryer to eliminate the need to use these stairs. 

Elevators and platform lifts are now a more affordable option, can add to a home’s equity, and can be one of the best investments homeowners can make, especially for seniors planning to age in place and remain in their home for several years. Since our client's home is so narrow, this  solution would take up a significant corner of a room on each floor and may not be an acceptable design solution. 

These are only a few of the issues and safety solutions we noted inside the home. In addition to the safety problems inside her home, we noticed that the neighborhood had changed. Once a vibrant and convenient neighborhood to both Center City and the Suburbs, it has become more transient, and she no longer has the long standing relationships in her neighborhood that could offer support and oversight in the case of a home emergency. 

Our client story is a common one; she has lived in her home for almost 50 years, raised her family there, and has been living alone for a number of years, since her husband's  passing. She remains independent and active in the community by volunteering and attending classes at a senior community center, and has family and friends in the local area. She can’t imagine living anywhere else at this point in time, but may not be able to afford either making the needed home improvements or moving to a new living situation, even if her home no longer supports her, a reality many seniors face. 

We work with our clients to help evaluate the cost and benefits of making these much needed home modifications, and also provide a much needed connection to other resources to help evaluate other living situations that may better support your age and lifestyle.