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Ecology House

List of Building Materials

Ecology House Inc.
San Rafael, California

November, 1997

Development Team

Ecology House, Inc.
375 Catalina Blvd.
San Rafael, CA 94901-4467

Kodama Associates
1701 Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA 94111-1010

The report is organized as follows:

Purpose of Report
Site Selection
Design and Construction


In November of 1994, residents moved in to the first apartment building in the United States constructed and maintained with materials which can be safer for persons with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). This report gives background on the design process and materials used and evaluates the apparent tolerability of those materials.


Ecology House planners recognized the often conflicting needs of people suffering with MCS. Therefore, planners understood that many, but not all, persons with MCS could be helped in a single building.

The success of Ecology House may be measured through occupancy data. Ecology House's eleven units are currently occupied by eleven residents with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, eight of whom moved in immediately after the building was completed in November, 1994. During the first year of occupancy three residents moved out because they could not satisfactorily tolerate some of the materials used in their apartments. Three others have since moved in, and they seem to better tolerate the apartments.

Residents seem to tolerate most materials and design techniques used. Some residents report that their health has substantially improved by living in a safer environment. However, some residents have had difficulty with the interior wall finish, a hard gypsum plaster with no paint or sealer. Others like the plaster. Many residents have not tolerated the paint smell from the factory-baked enamel finish on the steel cabinets. The attached report lists the special materials and features, together with comments on the tolerability of each.


The benefits of Ecology House must be weighed against its costs. Eleven per cent ($200,000) of the total $1.8 million development cost is attributed to the extra cost of special features to accommodate persons with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. This extra eleven per cent seems a reasonable cost, especially for a pilot project. As developers gain more experience with non-toxic building, costs for future projects will likely be reduced.


Tolerability of some of the materials seems to have noticeably improved in the 2.5 years the building has been occupied. Ecology House would have greatly benefited from a lengthy outgas period (six months to a year) after construction before residents moved in. Unfortunately funds were not available for maintenance of the building while it outgassed. Future developers of newly constructed buildings should raise funds for maintenance during the outgas period. To maximize outgassing, a complex procedure should be followed which includes daily opening and closing windows, operating heat with windows cracked, operating fans, etc., during the entire outgas period.

Multifamily vs. Detached Units

Ecology House planners dreamed of a large site with appropriate zoning for small detached cottages. Unfortunately, Bay Area land use restrictions and cost constraints precluded such a design. Experience with the occupied building indicates that persons with MCS could be more successfully housed in small detached cottages with generous space between the cottages. Perhaps future developers in lower-cost areas with less restrictive land use policies will try cottages.


Purpose of Report

Ecology House is an 11-unit affordable apartment development in San Rafael, California which houses persons with Environmental Illness/Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). This tiny apartment complex has attracted national media attention. Many misstatements of fact have been reported. Ecology House, Inc., the developer and owner of Ecology House, produced this report in an attempt to provide accurate information regarding building materials, costs, and results. We hope the report will provide useful information to others building housing for persons with MCS. The report reflects input from the architect, contractor, development consultant, members of the design team, current residents, onsite property manager, as well as the Ecology House, Inc. Board of Directors. However, the information and conclusions in this report are the responsibility of Ecology House, Inc.


Six years of work by volunteers, who were later the incorporators of Ecology House, Inc., occurred before residents moved in. In 1988 Marin Homes for Independent Living (MHIL), a Marin County, California nonprofit housing corporation, began the process of developing new affordable and safer housing for persons with MCS. Later MHIL asked Ecumenical Association for Housing to serve as cosponsor for Ecology House.

Ecology House, Inc. obtained grants from nine public and private sources, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Marin County, the San Rafael Redevelopment Agency, Marin Community Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation. Major funding for Ecology House came from HUD's Section 811 program. Therefore Ecology House was developed according to HUD Section 811 regulations.

Perhaps the most important funding component for Ecology House is the ongoing HUD rental assistance reserved for the development. Ecology House residents pay only 30% of their income for rent. HUD rental assistance pays the difference between 30% of the resident's income and the actual rent.

Site Selection

HUD Section 811 funds were reserved in late 1990 with the requirement that construction begin by September 30, 1992. Our goal was to find a sunny location in rural Marin or Sonoma County. We searched these counties for two years for a low-density, rural site. We found many wonderful sites. Unfortunately local land use restrictions and/or water and sewer moratoria precluded using any of these sites.

Finally, in late 1992, with HUD in the process of canceling the Section 811 fund reservation because of the delay in locating a site, Ecology House, Inc. acquired an urban site already zoned for apartments. Although the site benefits from good air circulation, it is in a high-density location with traffic fumes and neighbors using herbicides. Additionally, the site is close to power lines. Gauss meter readings for the electromagnetic field levels (EMF's) from those lines are relatively low. However, those with extreme EMF sensitivity may have difficulty tolerating the site.

The decision to go ahead with a less-than-perfect site was made because Ecology House, Inc. determined that it was better to benefit some with MCS than to let the Section 811 funds go back to the Federal Treasury and give up the idea of developing affordable housing for persons with MCS.

Design and Construction

Ecology House, Inc. Board members, including individuals with EI/MCS, participated in a complex design process, coordinated by Development Consultant, Katherine Crecelius. The architect, Kodama Associates, researched published materials about non-toxic building. However, the primary research used to design the building and select materials was the personal experience of persons with EI/MCS and volunteer consultants. Every building component was discussed. On occasion a clear favorite would emerge; other times not. Many alternate materials were analyzed. Some materials could be made available to be "sniff-tested" by a team of up to 4-5 persons with MCS before selected for use. On the whole, those which were thoroughly tested and approved are those which have proven the most tolerable.

Some participants in the design process were frustrated by the lack of time for design and the lack of funds for paid safe-building consultants. HUD regulations limited developers to a three-year development period after HUD Section 811 funds were reserved. Since it took 2.5 years to find a site and then get local preliminary design approval, the time for detailed design and selection of materials was short.

Ecology House, Inc. used a Bay Area architect with a track record designing HUD-funded, low-cost housing for persons with disabilities. The architect we selected had not previously designed housing for persons with MCS. At the time, we found no Bay Area architects with safe-building design experience in affordable housing. Unfortunately, time and cost constraints precluded using paid safe-building consultants to work with our architect.

The General Contractor, Joseph DiGiorgio and Sons, used great care in construction techniques to keep the apartments clean and safe. No smoking was allowed on site any time during construction. Only non-toxic cleaners were used.

Ecology House, Inc. based its choice of materials on input from persons with MCS, cost constraints, and a multitude of HUD regulations. Others who build multiunit housing with safer materials may make different choices, based on this evaluation. Different choices will meet the needs of different people.


There are three general categories of multifamily development costs--land, soft costs (architect, engineering, fees, legal, title, etc.) and construction costs. Ecology House land, architectural, and other soft costs are the same as for standard HUD-financed apartments on this site.

The data relevant to unusual costs is the increment between Ecology House construction cost and the construction cost for a standard HUD-financed, 100% wheelchair accessible, apartment complex. The total extra construction cost increment for the special materials is approximately $200,000, or approximately 20% more than the construction cost (or 11% of the total development cost) for these units if they were to be occupied by disabled persons without MCS. The total of the differences in cost between concrete and asphalt, tile and carpet, steel cabinets and particle board cabinets, etc.. is $200,000 for 11 units or about $18,000 per unit.

Total development cost for Ecology House (including land, soft costs, and construction cost) was $1.8 million. When comparing Ecology House per-unit costs with per unit development costs for other buildings, several factors should be considered:

  1. High development costs characterize all new construction in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bay Area land costs, city and utility fees are extremely high.
  2. Extra costs are associated with HUD funding. For instance, HUD required that all apartments be 100% wheelchair accessible, not just ground floor apartments. Therefore, an elevator was required.
  3. All small developments have much higher per-unit costs than larger projects because common costs such as site work, elevator, community room, office, utility lines, etc. are spread over a small number of units.


The 11 rental apartments in Ecology House were developed to be occupied by 11 very low income individuals with MCS. During the past 2.5 years, three residents moved out because they could not satisfactorily tolerate the building. A few others have declined to move in after staying in the apartment for a test period of 1-5 days.

Ecology House, Inc. anticipated turnover because residents would find after they moved in that they could not tolerate the unit. Therefore, during the initial rent-up process, Ecology House, Inc. encouraged prospective residents to stay temporarily in their unit to determine if they could tolerate the unit before moving in. Had all the initial eleven residents made the decision to move in following a 1-5 day stay in their potential units, the three, who ultimately moved out, might have determined unit intolerability prior to moving in.

When Ecology House was initially occupied, HUD regulations required that preference be given to applicants who were homeless, displaced, paying more than 50% of their income for rent, or living in substandard housing. Partially because of this regulation, some of the initial residents came to Ecology House from desperate circumstances. They were sick. They had not been able to locate safe housing. They had little or no support or understanding from family and very little income. When offered a new, very affordable apartment, it may have been impossible to turn it down, even if they had difficulty tolerating the apartment during the test stay.

Go to second section: Property Management and Design Criteria

For more information about Ecology House, please write eh@ecologyhouse.net
Last updated 9/13/99