This article was originally published in the March/April 1998 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online March/April 1998


Home Performance for the Lungs

A Health House builder installs ground-source heat pump coils in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. To avoid using ambient air for combustion, Health Houses use heat pumps or sealed-combustion appliances.
The Health House program pushes for high standards. In this case, foam insulation is very carefully cut to fit the rim joist, and is then sealed in place with expanding foam.
Feeling victorious in the war on cigarettes, state affiliates of the American Lung Association (ALA) are taking on indoor air pollution. In recent years, more and more people have noticed the connection between inferior home systems and poor health. In 1993, the Minneapolis affiliate of the ALA began a program called Health House that has built a series of demonstration homes and developed a training, certification, and commissioning program for builders of healthy homes.

Rather than discouraging tight building envelopes, often identified as the cause of poor indoor air quality (IAQ), the Health House program uses a whole-house approach. According to Liz Wortman, spokesperson for the Minneapolis affiliate of the ALA, Energy benefits and the health side go together. For example, pollen, mold growth, and radon are all addressed by reduced air infiltration. The Health House shows homeowners and builders how to go about addressing these complementary issues.

Teaching the Consumer In 1993, the Minneapolis affiliate built the first Health House. This demonstration home was visited by potential home buyers and builders. The affiliate also produced a brochure entitled Healthy Home Alert, which informs consumers about the sources, health effects, and steps to reduce exposure to such pollutants as respirable particles, organic pollutants, formaldehyde, pesticides, lead, and carbon monoxide.

According to their consumer brochure Blueprint for Health, Health House criteria include house tightness, air handler and ductwork tightness, zonal pressure balance, whole-house filtration and mechanical ventilation, sealed combustion HVAC appliances, and humidity control. The program also considers how the house as a whole is designed, including any attached garages.

The standards are in place to ensure low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), whole-house ventilation and filtered air, indoor humidity control, and high thermal efficiency. Other improvements are also encouraged. For example, some homes have ground source heat pump heating and cooling, eliminating potential problems with combustion gases from the heating system.

Training for Builders The affiliate has been reaching out to builders who might want to build healthier homes, producing training materials, consumer education materials, and a two-day training program for contractors. It has also produced a set of climate-specific standards that qualify a home as a Health House. The national Health House office in Minneapolis has also used local home and garden shows, utility programs, corporate partnerships, housing conferences, professional trade associations, and direct mail campaigns to reach builders.

As of the end of 1997, the training program had given 60 builders training in whole-house practices, with an emphasis on Health House standards. Nationwide, Health House intends to conduct four builder training sessions per year.

After going through the training, builders can have their homes certified as Health Houses. To get a house certified, they must submit the plans for review before construction, comply with the ALA's performance standards, and open the home to ALA performance testing after construction. The performance testing consists of blower door and Duct Blaster tests, a total volatile organic compound (TVOC) test, and a worst-case test for combustion gas spillage.

In 1998, Health House will begin training site inspectors. People going through that program will be trained in national Health House performance standards, advanced building science, testing equipment, and testing protocols.

Getting Them Built Since the first Health House was built, other affiliates have followed Minneapolis' lead. There are now 16 demonstration Health Houses; the most recent to open was a luxury home in Coppell, Texas, near Dallas. This home includes a whole-house dehumidification system, a polyethylene membrane under the foundation slab, and a direct-vent gas fireplace.

As of the start of the year, three homes had been built and certified as Health Houses--two in the Minneapolis area and one in Seattle.

For more information about the program, contact Liz Wortman or Kathy Guidera at the national Health House office. Tel:(612)885-0338, Ext. 130; Fax: (612)885-0133; E-mail:

--Steven Bodzin


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