Mission Statement
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Eval/Building Materials
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Healthy By Design:
Building and Remodeling Solutions
for Creating Healthy Homes

David Rousseau
James Wasley


New Low-income Apartment Building
for People with
Multiple Chemical Sensitivities


Ecology House


San Rafael, California
(temperate, dry)

Design Team:

Kodama and Associates, Architects
(Steve Kodama, Principal in Charge;
Kenneth Bishop, Project Architect)


Joseph Digiorgio and Sons

Developer and Owner:

Ecology House Inc.
(Jon Marchant,President of the Board;
Katherine Crecelius, Development Consultant)

Ecology House is the first HUD (Housing and Urban Development) funded apartment building designed, constructed and maintained for people with extreme environmental hypersensitivities. A groundbreaking project, Ecology House has attracted a great deal of controversy since opening, but is proving to be a successful step toward healthy, low-income housing. The 11 apartment units are occupied, and although three of the original tenants found the air quality unacceptable and moved out, other tenants report that their health has substantially improved since moving in.

The board and the architects searched for two years before settling on the location for Ecology House. They wanted a rural site, away from potential sources of air pollution, which was difficult to find given the local zoning laws and economic constraints. The final site represents a compromise. The site is on a parcel of land that had been set aside for low-income housing within a larger residential development. The entire development is built on reclaimed marshland adjacent to San Francisco Bay, which provides the cleanest possible air within an otherwise urban area.


Ecology House presented a formidable design challenge--creating an acceptable environment for future clients, each with unknown specific health requirements. To meet this challenge, the board of Ecology House Inc. assembled a group of chemically sensitive advisors who volunteered to provide input on design and to screen potential construction materials. The architects were selected based on their long and successful track record of designing nonprofit and special needs housing in the San Francisco area. The general contractors were brought on board early in the process and


(1) The Ecology House building for the environmentally sensitive .

(2) Street gate. The project is integrated into the neighborhood, yet maintains the separation necessary for the environmentally sensitive to control their surroundings .

(3) The courtyard provides individual outside entrances for each unit and a sheltered and semipublic space.

selected without a bidding process in order to have them participate in the development of the design. Their early involvement was crucial to the success of the project, which depended on the general contractors working with the architect to solve the project's unique problems, and educating the subcontractors about the special health-related requirements of the job.

Ecology House is a two-story building housing 11 apartments, which are grouped around a central courtyard and connected by exterior walks. The courtyard scheme was chosen to facilitate passive ventilation, and each unit has operable windows on two sides as well as in each kitchen and bath. An alternative approach would have been to seal the building to allow filtering of the supply air. But the site has a steady breeze, and there was concern over the maintenance of filters in a closed system so an open building was chosen. The open plan was ultimately less expensive.

An elevator makes each unit accessible to the disabled. The elevator, and the building's trash and recycling room, are housed in a separate building from the apartments, guaranteeing isolation of equipment odors and noise. The separate structure also houses an open-air community storage room which allows residents to air out personal belongings before bringing them into their units.

The units are designed for accessibility, and have generous passage dimensions. At the same time, they make the most of their limited size. For example, the coat closets at each front door are metal units which can be moved to make room for a wheelchair-bound occupant.

A great deal of attention was devoted to minimizing the electromagnetic fields. In the kitchen the refrigerators and electric stoves are set against the outside wall rather than the wall between units to ensure that their fields aren't directed toward habitable space.


This interior has been personalized with carefully chosen elements, based on individual acceptability.

The result is rich and welcoming.


The choice of materials for Ecology House sets it apart from a conventional project. Like many healthy housing projects, it avoids asphalt, formaldehyde-emitting materials, pressure-treated wood, finishes that require on-site painting or gluing, carpeting and finishes which could trap odors and dust.

Long-term durability was another important issue, because even routine maintenance was likely to expose the residents to unacceptable irritants. The desire for both irritant--and maintenance--free materials conflicted with the financial constraints of the project, and the need for manufacturer's warranties. These often disallow substitute materials that would eliminate offensive components, and warranties may require specific materials such as sealers, which may not be acceptable to the sensitive.

The project was framed with wood rather than metal studs for cost reasons and insulated with fiberglass batts. The walls, including uninsulated interior partitions, were encapsulated with aluminum foil to ensure that insulation and wood odors would not contaminate the living spaces. Some plywood sheathing containing glue was used in the exterior walls to meet California earthquake codes, but all of the interior shear walls and subfloors use traditional diagonal wood bracing and planking.

Conventional gypsum wallboard was eliminated due to the unpredictability of the facing paper's chemical content. Painted wall surfaces were ruled out because repainting for each new tenant could cause adverse reactions among others in the building, even if the paint would be acceptable when dry. The eventual choice was a veneer plaster system applied to a gypsum backer board.

The one potentially compromising material is the fire sprinkler piping, which is PVC pipe assembled with PVC glue, but various precautions seem to have prevented any problems. All of the exposed components of the system are metal and the plastic is isolated from the living space by each apartment's continuous foil lining. Most of the piping is in the attic, which is fan ventilated, and all of it was installed long before occupancy to allow the solvents in the glue to offgas.

The courtyard is the centerpiece of Ecology House. The use of resinous trees or pollen-producing plants was out of the question due to the sensitivities of the occupants, and planting was further constrained by local water conservation ordinances. The result is a patterned hard surface courtyard with planters that are sculpturally interesting in themselves, containing only low-pollen, naturally pest- and drought-resistant plants. Irrigation is provided by a buried drip system.


Although individual gas-fired forced air furnaces are typical for low-cost housing in California, Ecology House uses a central gas-fired boiler to supply hot water to baseboard convectors. This eliminates natural gas odors and the potential for contaminated ductwork in individual units.

The kitchens and baths are mechanically vented to the roof with the fans mounted far enough away to allow acoustical and electrical field isolation. Fans also vent all attic spaces to cool the building and prevent odors from sun-baked roofing and insulation from entering the units.

The project conforms to California energy codes, except for the substitution of incandescent for fluorescent lighting.


The job site was kept very clean, and regular meetings were held with subcontractors to explain the health-related goals of the job. Careful precautions were taken to avoid introducing potential contaminants to the job site. Smoking was not allowed on the site. Paint spray cans, often used for marking rough construction, were not allowed. Only nontoxic cleaners were used during and after construction. Workers were asked to park away from the building, and even concrete trucks were kept at a distance when delivering their loads. The limited amount of plywood that was used in the building was stored offsite so it could air before being installed.


While 3 of the original 11 tenants were unable to tolerate the newly completed units and the resulting publicity was extremely negative, Ecology House is now fully occupied and the board feels increasingly justified in calling it a success. As noted, several current residents report that their health has substantially improved due to the safe haven that the building provides. Ecology House cost approximately 11% more than conventional HUD funded housing for this site, or approximately $8,000 US extra per unit in a $1.8 million project. Most of this money was for material substitutions.

The natural ventilation has worked well, as have most of the material choices, though the use of additive-free concrete has resulted in minor cracking. The use of the veneer plaster system has had mixed results, with half of the residents in favor of it and half not tolerating it well. The walls


A meeting room in the common area is designed to be acceptable to all occupants.

and ceiling of one unit have subsequently been sealed with four coats of nontoxic acrylic sealer on a trial basis. The tile floors are appreciated by all residents, but the grout was left unsealed and now tends to rub loose, creating a minor annoyance. The baked-enamel kitchen cabinets have proven to be the most contentious item, peeling and producing complaints about odors. No one is certain about the source of odors or why the cabinets are deteriorating. Ecology House Inc. would now recommend stainless-steel cabinets.

The whole house water filtration system is a success, though the carbon filter is somewhat expensive to keep charged.


For Whom?:

A range of environmentally hypersensitive occupants

Climate and Site:

Mild Mediterranean-like coastal climate.
The site is on San Francisco Bay in San Rafael, California

The Building:

Eleven units of low-income housing for people with multiple chemical sensitivities

Design Emphasis:

Climatic Design -- courtyard plan for optimal passive ventilation.

Energy Efficient Design (envelope systems) -- envelope meets California Energy Code Requirements.

Resource Efficient Design -- deemed a conflict because the use of recycled-content materials might introduce added chemicals.

Air Quality Design -- cross-ventilation of all units. Community open-air storage room for initial airing out. Private balconies with privacy screens accommodating exterior storage of personal belongings. Extreme care in materials selection to eliminate sources of potential contamination and facilitate house cleaning.

Design for Isolation of Pollutants -- elevator and trash/recycling room completely isolated. All wood framing isolated from the interior by foil encapsulation.

Design for Light -- all units are well daylit.

Design for Noise Protection -- elevator and trash/recycling room physically removed from apartments. Kitchen and bath exhaust fans isolated.

Design for EMF Protection -- Ecology House sits near high-voltage lines that make it unworkable for people with high EMF sensitivities. The power lines were tested and their fields were found to be within generally acceptable limits. Within the project, no fluorescent lighting is used; appliances are located on exterior rather than common walls; interior wiring is aluminum cable; power to individual units is distributed through the attic rather than walls, metal shielding is used to isolate the transformer, electrical switch boxes and exhaust fans; and power lines to the elevator mechanical room are buried underground in continuous rigid conduit.

Design for Low Maintenance -- fiber cement shingle roof and colored cement stucco/metal siding exterior walls will require no repainting. A shop-painted metal roof was desired for lowest possible maintenance but rejected on the basis of cost. Additional funds were raised to substitute powder-coated aluminum for wood exterior trellises, fences and gates.

Materials Selection:

Foundations -- additive-free concrete slab on grade thermally isolated by rigid polystyrene foamboard to prevent moisture problems. The project is built on structural fill.

Frame -- standard wood stud construction. Diagonal bracing and diagonal plank flooring used except where earthquake codes required plywood as exterior sheathing.

Roofing -- fiber cement shingles on plywood roof sheathing and asphalt-saturated roofing felt. The manufacturer's 50-year guarantee on the shingles required the use of the asphalt underlay or an alternative would have been used.

Exterior Finishes -- steel siding with factory-baked enamel paint and cement plaster stucco with integral color. Aluminum trim was fabricated for miscellaneous trim and powder-coat painted offsite. Roof fascia, down-spouts and watertable trim were fabricated on site from galvanized sheet metal and painted with low-odor paint.

Insulation -- fiberglass bart insulation and aluminum foil vapor barrier.

Windows and Doors -- double-glazed, aluminum frame, sliding windows and patio doors. Aluminum mini-blinds with baked-enamel finish. Steel exterior and interior doors. Insulated doors use foamboard insulation. Doors factory primed and painted off site with fast drying automobile paint. Frames factory-baked polyester paint. Bifold closet doors steel with baked-enamel finish.

Interior Finishes -- two-coat veneer plaster system, unfinished. Three-coat plaster on cement board in baths. Shower tile set in thickset mortar bed.

Floor Coverings -- glazed quarry tile set in a full bed of additive-free cement mortar. Cement grout with sand, unsealed.

Kitchen Cabinets -- steel with baked-enamel finish.

Other -- countertops of stainless steel, all electrical fixtures ceramic, all plumbing either cast iron or copper.

Heating, Air Conditioning, Air Filtration and Ventilation:

Heating, A/C Type -- centrally located and remotely vented gas-fired boiler supplying hydronic baseboard convectors. No A/C provided.

Ventilation System Type -- passive ventilation supplemented by exhaust fans for kitchens and baths. Fans mounted remotely to isolate electromagnetic fields, noise, and motor offgassing. Attic spaces similarly vented by fan to prevent contaminant buildup and aid cooling.

Filtration System Type -- no air filtration provided.

Other -- whole house water filtration system supplies all domestic water, including water used for showers and toilets.

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