The Toxic Home Conversation America Needs To Have
Pollution in homes can be five times higher than it is outdoors. At Serenbe, a sustainable community in Georgia's Chatahoochee Hills, building eco-friendly, and toxin-free homes has become the norm. Here's what we can learn from this experiment in healthier living.
Part I: The State of Homes in America
It's easy to understand why organic food is important: we put it directly in our bodies, we can see it, and the way it's grown affects the land and our environment.
But, who cares about an organic house?
You should. Maybe more than you think.
The Environmental Protection Agency has found that pollution in homes can be 5 times higher than it is outdoors—regardless of whether the homes are located in rural or highly industrial areas—you could live in an idyllic countryside house, or a rowhome in a smoggy city, and the air in your home could be silently making you sick.
Indoor air pollution can lead to sick building syndrome (also called toxic home syndrome), which can cause dizziness, allergies, and asthma. The culprit: volatile organic compounds, or VOCs: compounds like acetone, benzene and formaldehyde that are emitted as gases that can cause short- and long-term health effects when inhaled.
VOCs can come from cigarette smoking and pesticides, from printers, cleaning supplies, and dry-cleaned clothes. But a lot of them come from the home itself—from the paint on the walls, solvent-related emissions, furniture, and bedding. And as of today, no federally enforceable standards have been set for VOCs in non-industrial settings.
The way we build homes isn't only bad for us—it's hard on the environment as well. Buildings account for 40% of worldwide energy use — much higher than the much-maligned transportation industry, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Yet, in spite of the tolls on human health and the environment, most houses are still built the same way, with the same results.
But people are waking up. Organizations and services promoting natural, eco-friendly, and sustainable housing, are popping up all over the country. What would it look like to pull all of those things together and create the ultimate healthy home?
Enter: the Organic Life House at Serenbe.
The kitchen of the Organic Life House. The glasses on the table are made from old wine bottles by a sustainable German company. The pottery on the kitchen shelf is from Italy. The imitation plastic bottle made from glass serves as a reminder that glass is recyclable. The sticks in the left-hand corner are vintage oyster rods once used to cultivate oysters. Barstools are by Arteriors, and lighting is by Schwung, both available through BEE.
In 2016, our publication, Rodale's Organic Life, partnered with Serenbe, a sustainable community in Georgia, to create a house that would embody the values of environmental stewardship and sustainability, and foster personal health and wellbeing, to set a bar of a way living that is more conscious of the environmental impact of both building and living in a home. The project broke ground in 2016; the house was completed in January 2017.
This spring, before the new owners moved in, I flew down to Georgia to check it out.
This vintage beehive, on display at the Organic Life House, is from the south of France. It was left intact after the bees left the hive and serves as a reminder that bees are now endangered. The master bedroom chandelier is made from Venetian glass beads in a former lace factory in Belgium.
II: Is Serenbe Too Good To Be True?
Serenbe, a community in the Chatahoochee Hills of Georgia where the Organic Life House was built, is about 35 miles from Atlanta. Originally the property was just 40 acres, which Steve and Marie Nygren, Atlanta restaurateurs, purchased in '91. The family sold off their restaurant chain to settle outside of Georgia and create a new urban sustainable utopia.
Serenbe's planning is ultimately an experiment: what if land developers were seeking good, along with profit margins? Today, Serenbe covers 1000 acres, and is home to around 400 residents. Serenbe has a 25-acre organic farm, a CSA program, and a seasonal Saturday Farmer's Market. All of the properties at Serenbe must meet certain sustainability requirements, and the Nygrens changed the legal zoning to only allow for 30% of the land to be developed on—ever—so 70% of the land will forever remain protected natural green space, forest, and farm. Serenbe has been lauded as a grand utopian experiment and won multiple awards recognizing its sustainability and conservation efforts.
When I flew to Georgia to see the Organic Life House, I wasn't quite sure what to expect of the idyllic planned countryside locale. I wondered whether a luxurious, manufactured return to the earth could still feel real. I took a cab from the Atlanta airport and watched the meter rise for what felt like forever, as we journeyed onto ever smaller roads, through big green fields, eventually past split-rail fences with pretty chestnut horses grazing inside, then on winding gravel roads through a development in the woods. The location was remote, and the homes grand and modern.
In the town center, people drove electric golf carts down tiny streets flanked by iron sculptures that served as light fixtures. I passed an organic juicery, a Serenbe general store with painted wooden signs that read "Georgia is always on our mind," a theater and playhouse, and a quaint café and bake shop called the Blue Eyed Daisy. A group of six people rode by on horseback and waved at me, and I bemusedly waved back. Quinn Nygren, the youngest daughter of founders Steve and Marie, greeted me.
Quinn, who is also the brand manager at Serenbe, believes earnestly in what her family is doing. She says that you can't stop development of land, but you can figure out how to work with it: "You walk out the front door and you're connected to people and walk out the backdoor and you're connected to nature," she says. (Here's more on 8 amazing ways nature can heal you.)
Serenbe's master land plan is based on sacred geometry and British rural systems, and planned by Phillip Tabb, a professor at Texas A&M and author of Serene Urbanism. All the neighborhoods, or "hamlets," are in the shape of a horseshoe, which intentionally makes the trail system easier and faster than the roads, encouraging people to walk instead of driving their cars.
The design seeks to actively create a sense of connection for its residents, and starts with the small things: homes have front porches and mailboxes in centralized locations so neighbors have to go walk to get the mail at the same place, to the big things: the houses are built close together, and all backyards open up to the woods and a 15-mile community trail system that passes by wildflower meadows and two waterfalls, rather than elaborately well-manicured or closed-off lawns.
Serenbe Farm overlooks a row of family townhouses (left), with farmland instead of backyards, in the Grange hamlet. Photograph by J Ashley Photography.
As you walk, you can buy organic produce at the farmers' market, see a play at the Serenbe playhouse, and peer at horses and llamas behind wooden fences at the 8-acre farm. As if that wasn't incentive enough, Serenbe features completely edible, organic landscaping: blueberry bushes and fig trees line the sidewalks.
III: Exploring The Organic Life House
As I explored the Organic Life House, a 6,000 sq. foot house in Serenbe's Mado hamlet, named after a Creek Native American term for balance, I was cognizant that I wasn't just walking through someone's future home: I was walking through a living blueprint for sustainable and nontoxic home building. I entered in through a mudroom, past a refurbished carved wooden sliding door, into a wide-open, high-ceilinged living room and a kitchen I deeply envied. I took in the big, undraped windows open to light playing through the Chatahoochee Hills woods in the back.
Outside the front door there were blueberries off the shrubbery in the front of the house. Out the sliding glass door at the back of the house there were trails through the forest. (You can go for miles through Georgia backcountry, which I discovered the next morning on my trail run at sunrise. I passed by horses and llamas, and got semi-lost on the dirt paths trying to find a circular stone labyrinth, which ended up, as such things often do, being back where I'd started.)
Inside the house, I noticed the naturalist, rustic design, the high ceilings, which allow the hot air to rise away from the living spaces, and heavy presence of wood and earth, preserved vintage natural found things like beehives and oyster shucking rods and antique farm tools. It felt luxurious and modern, but also intentional and right: it was luxury with a conscience, not for luxury's sake.
Jillian Pritchard Cooke, who helped design the home's interiors, asked me as she showed me around, "Do you smell anything?"
I told her no, slightly confused by the question.
"That's because," she said simply, "it doesn't smell like a new house."
I wouldn't have noticed this until she told me, but it was true: the Organic Life house didn't smell "new" (Read: chemical.) It was strategically designed and built so that there would be no VOCs and chemical off-gassing. (Read more on 7 steps you should take to detox the air in your home.)
Left: The cleaning supplies, bathroom products, soaps and candles in the home, as shown in the second floor bathroom, are from Mrs. Meyer's, which is a top choice for Wellness Within Your Walls; painting by Maggie Hasbrouck from Bill Lowe Gallery. Right: In the first floor bathroom, a concrete sculpted sink by Bill Thornton; "The Water Series" photography by Corrine Adams.
Pritchard Cooke is the founder of Wellness Within Your Walls, a standard that aims to connect homebuilding families with healthy, eco-sensitive products, that result in sustainable, non-toxic interior environments. "We've opened a dialogue on how to handle toxins responsibly," Pritchard Cooke continued, "It's a mission to bridge the gap between the builder, the designer and the furniture companies, the manufacturers, and then finally with the consumer."
The 4-bedroom, 4.5 bath home was designed by architect J.P. Curran of Curran & Co. and built by Bobby Webb of BCC Construction with an sharp eye on sustainability, use of only organic and nontoxic materials, and an emphasis on connection to nature and to the larger Serenbe community. "It's not a community where you pull into your garage and enter your house and never see your neighbors," says Curran.
IV. Every Inch Of This Home Has Something To Teach Us
Houses cause a lot of environmental damage. The EPA reported in 2008 that buildings in the U.S. contribute 38.9 percent of the nation's total carbon dioxide emissions, including 20.8 percent from the residential sector. This includes 12 percent of the country's water consumption, 68 percent of its electricity consumption and 38 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions.
To cut down on many of these factors, the Organic Life House was built to be geothermal-heated and solar-powered. It's EarthCraft-certified, which is a certification based on the house's insulation and tightness, similar to LEED, but for residential application. This tightness and intentionality in the design cuts down on the way houses typically suck up energy.
The house has solar panels installed by Hannah Solar in Georgia. The panels are not obstructive—in fact, lately, less and less solar panels are required to produce a large amount of energy. They include a battery pack that allows for storage of the solar energy and that will generate power even on less sunny days. (Read more on 5 ways to get solar power without putting panels on your roof.)
Geothermal energy cannot be retrofitted, so it's a front-end cost for the Serenbe home buyer, but it's returned to the home owner as time goes on. Geothermal energy involves the home being heated and cooled by the ground. When building the home, they drill huge pipes into the ground and push water through. It's energy efficient, and it's not only saving the planet—it's quieter than buzzing heating and cooling units, too.
Woven paper pendant chandelier lights, custom-designed and made in France through BEE, hang above the central staircase, with single Edison bulb attached to a custom live edge wood ceiling medallion.
The Organic Life House also has a smart thermostat, which is becoming a more common investment for homeowners in any house. "A smart thermostat like the EcoBee can completely change your energy efficiency," says Nygren. The EcoBees cost around $250, and consumers often make their money back in six months through savings on energy costs.
In place of a typical suburban backyard, there's the woods, and the roomy Southern wraparound porches designed by architect J.P. Curran, who explains that they were one of the first things planned for the project: his clients wanted a way to connect with the outdoors, plus expand the interior living space.
"The south-facing porch in particular is a passive design element that helps keep the interiors cool during our hot summer months," Curran said, explaining how it keeps the hot sun from hitting the windows of the house, "and its roof above doubled as a great location to integrate the solar panels."
The medicinal and edible herb garden was carefully planned and installed by Katie Pigott, a landscape designer and community agriculture specialist at Farmer D Organics in Georgia. The house also contains stunning elements like a yoga and meditation studio with natural cork floors, a green labyrinth of dwarf mondo grass for meditation, and a saltwater lap pool by Malibu Pools, as well as its two-story wraparound porch.
It also has low-flow WaterSense faucets and toilets; spray foam insulation to promote energy efficiency and prevent air from leaking outside the house; and MERV 13 air filters, a high quality filter required by EarthCraft standards that ensures pristine indoor air.
"One of the biggest challenges was incorporating many different elements into the house such as the yoga room, lap pool and home office and the more mundane mudroom and laundry, all while maintaining good flow," said Curran. "The central stair hall and two story porch helped tie all these elements together."
V. Meet The Organic Homeowners
The homeowners themselves, Jeny and Gil Mathis, and their daughters, Davis, 15, and Elliot, 13, fit perfectly into the finished home.
Jeny Mathis teaches yoga and meditation at the girls' high school, Pace Academy in Atlanta, to help teens manage stress, increase body awareness and athleticism and improve their overall wellbeing. She also teaches yoga in Serenbe through her company, Zoetic, and plans to offer smaller, private classes in her new home studio.
Gil Mathis, a former Chief Investment Officer in the insurance industry, said the most important aspect of the home to him was balance. He wanted to leave behind the former "highly analytical, left-brained" corporate life of his past few decades, and transition to a new space.
The homeowners, Jeny and Gil Mathis. The sofas are by Lee Industries. The upcycled custom rug is made of old coffee bags woven together. The basket of quartz rocks symbolizes balance with the planet and gravity. The coffee table is a vintage camel cart from the Middle East.
It might seem like a simple thing to decide to only buy and live organically, but it takes a ton of intentionality, willpower and investment—plus commitment after the house is finished. The homeowners are signing a contract saying that they will maintain a healthy environment within the home, which means things like only toxin-free cleaners, continuing to use LED lighting, and being mindful of what they bring into the house. The idea of this is to pass the agreement from the builder to the designer to the manufacturer to the furniture companies, and finally, to the consumer.
Even increased energy efficiency in homes "inadvertently creates a tight box, trapping toxins released by building supplies, home furnishings, and products," says Jillian Pritchard Cooke.
The house is filled with a naturalist neutral color palette, lots of creams and whites, light browns and tans, with pops of natural hues like the indigo found in the kids' tea room and play area.
Indigo blue pillows and naturally dyed textiles by Surya, available from BEE, decorate an upstairs nook designed for the Mathis' daughters.
Rubio Monocoat was used on the floors in the house—it provides a matte finish without using a toxic coating, to protect the custom-milled Canadian white oak wood floor.
The interior designer, Dana Lynch evaluated and selected all of the finishes and their installation processes based on natural practices, while the furniture was curated by Pritchard Cooke. Pritchard-Cooke also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. She used her store BEE Home, a toxin-free furnishings boutique in Atlanta, for many of the rugs, furniture, draperies and accessories. These nontoxic interiors, finishes, and furnishings are an important feature in combatting poor indoor air quality in the house.
"Serenbe clearly encourages getting outdoors, but we still spend a lot of our time indoors, so it was equally important to our clients to provide responsible options like the stain on the flooring to window treatments and everything in between that help create healthy indoor environments," says Curran.
VI. A Different Way Of Living
Serenbe, admittedly, felt a bit like Pleasantville to me—unreachable, perfect, utopian in its carefully plotted and engineered connection to organic living and nature. And it's only growing: there are plans for a spa and hotel expansion, as well as apartment buildings.
But the Nygren family, and the hundreds of families that currently make their homes at Serenbe, don't think a planned utopia is a bad thing. After all, the sprawling, sidewalk-less suburbs of America were also carefully planned, and built around certain principles: money, money, and money.
So why not instead refocus that developmental energy into a new serene urbanism, where the natural is blended with the manmade, the air inside your home won't make you sick, and organic is the order of the day?
Nygren says, "We live in a society where we feel like we can't have all of these different things, or it should be hard to live this way. But it can be easy to access nature and to not drive all the time—if it's planned that way. This house, and this community—it's just an example to show people how to build and how to live a happier and healthier life. I think it all goes back to why not? Why not live this way?"
Why not live this way, indeed.
VII. 10 Very Good Ideas To Steal From The Organic Life House At Serenbe
1. In new construction
To reduce your home's impact on the environment, you can turn to green, sustainable building methods. These methods include the use of recycled or post-consumer content and easily renewable resources such as certified wood and locally available components. Non-toxic building materials and products that emit minimal amounts of volatile organic compounds reduce harmful chemical emissions, while solar panels and water-conserving plumbing fixtures reduce long-term energy use. (Read more on ultra stylish solar roof tiles that can power your entire home.)
2. When repainting, go natural
Use nontoxic paint, primer, and protect wood floors naturally. VOCs are volatile organic compounds, which can be released into the air at normal room temperature, filling your house with unwanted chemicals through off-gassing. When painting an interior with no or low-VOC paint, it is important to remember to also use a no or low-VOC primer. Rubio Monocoat was used to protect the wood in the house—it provides a matte finish without using a toxic coating to protect the wood.
3. Enhance existing natural light, and open your windows
Reduce the amount of window treatments and draperies in order to filter natural light into the home. Window treatments should be used only to shield from intense sunlight, provide privacy, or add warmth to a room. If the home is energy efficient, it should, in fact, create opportunities to reduce window coverings and brighten up the interior of the home. Rooms with natural light, with open windows whenever possible, help create a healthier home environment. Too often, people end up trapping toxins and chemicals, which regularly build up in their homes. Make sure you air out your home as often as possible, and especially after cooking or cleaning. (Read more on 11 kitchen tips that could save your life.)
4. Furnish naturally, and opt for more wool
When buying new furniture, make it a rule to go vintage, or only select natural products that do not require toxic dyes, lacquers, or glues. (The Organic Life House was furnished with items from BEE Atlanta.) For example, natural New Zealand strong wool can be used in many different applications, including insulation in homes and filler for pillows, bedding, as a barrier in mattresses, and in upholstered furniture. Wool can be used in insulation instead of spray foams full of toxins. Wool breathes and is a natural fire retardant, so it is not necessary to treat the wool with a chemical fire retardant. WWYW partners with the Campaign for Wool with Prince Charles to encourage using more wool
5. Get creative with your rugs
If your new area rug smells like chemicals, it's probably because it's full of them. Healthy, nontoxic area rugs can be made from many different materials, including recycled coffee bags (like the one in the Organic Life House living room), shredded t-shirts, all natural wool, dried fibers and grasses, animal skins, and hand-painted cotton drop cloths. Look to your local cottage industry for creative, inexpensive solutions for floor coverings. The healthiest of these is 100% cotton, small t-shirt rugs that can be thrown in the washer on cold and hung to air dry.
6. Ban toxic chemicals from your sink
What's under your sink? Be careful of bringing toxins into your home this way. Buy nontoxic cleaning solutions like Mrs. Meyer's, or try using homemade remedies to clean your home, including vinegar, baking soda, and soft wire scrub pads. A tea tree oil and water solution is a natural way to clean mold. (Read more on DIY cleaning recipes for every room in the house.) For kitchen surfaces used for food preparation, it is especially important to avoid toxic chemicals and to use a natural alternative.
7. Keep your clothes chemical-free
Use a natural laundry detergent when cleaning your clothes. You can also try natural handmade eco friendly wool dryer balls like the ones from Echoview, instead of using dryer sheets. (Read more on 11 everyday household items you aren't buying organic, but should.) A good practice is not to dry clean at all, but for those special pieces that require dry cleaning, pick a dry cleaner that uses low-impact chemicals in the dry cleaning process. Pick up your dry cleaning without a plastic covering and let the clothes air outside or in a garage before bringing them in your house.
8. Be smart about your child's room
You should think about putting nontoxic furnishings and decorations in your kid's room, from wooden toys to earth-friendly rugs, and also decorating towards their personality. What you put in a child's room will often affect their mood and their sensibility.
9. Refurbish granny's old things instead of letting them gather dust
Don't let granny's lace coverings sit in the attic. Studies show the current generation is holding on to less things from the past as they lean towards minimalism and several moves from place to place. Look at your heirlooms and imagine repurposing them. You can frame or sculpt granny's lace doilies to use wall decorations, or use a pretty antique tablecloth as a beautiful covering for a chair, or on top of a duvet on the bed.
10. Invest in a smart thermostat
This is one of the sustainability options which shouldn't break your bank to get you started, and which can save money in the long run by not running up your energy bill. The EcoBees are one option. They retail from around $185-$250, and consumers often make their money back in 6 months.
VIII: TAKING ACTION AGAINST VOCS
Use this quick guide to identify items that release volatile organic compounds, then take steps suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce your exposure.
• Synthetic insulation • Poor circulation and lack of fresh air • Smoke • Paint fumes • Dust mites • Synthetic carpet outgassing • Pet dander • Toxic household cleaners • Fabric outgassing • Natural gas and carbon dioxide • Construction materials • Bacteria from toilet bowl • Mold and mildew • Lead or toxic paint • Carbon monoxide • Oil and gas fumes • Paints, paint strippers, and other solvents • Wood preservatives • Aerosol sprays • Disinfectants • Moth repellents and air fresheners • Stored fuels and automotive products • Hobby supplies • Dry-cleaned clothing • Pesticides • Building materials and furnishings
How To Oust Them
1. Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs.
2. Meet or exceed any label precautions.
3. Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials.
4. Formaldehyde, one of the best known VOCs, can be readily measured, unlike many other indoor air pollutants. Identify, and if possible, remove the source. If not possible, reduce exposure by using a sealant on all exposed surfaces of paneling and other furnishings.
5. Use integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides.
6. Use household products according to manufacturer's directions.
7. Make sure you provide plenty of fresh air when using chemical products.
8. Throw away little-used containers safely; buy in quantities that you will use soon.
9. Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.
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