Bringing Green Ecology Home

The Healthy House Institute leads the way in educating homeowners and builders on how to keep their homes from making people sick.

November 01, 2007
November/December 2007
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2007 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Healthy Homes

Gone are the days of mindless gas consumption and endless potable water. We live in complicated times. Even the products we bring into our houses are making us sick. No wonder the green movement is enjoying a resurgence! According to experts who track building and lifestyle trends, interest in green is fast reaching the tipping point—the point where the majority of people decide to change the way they live.

Growing interest in all things environmental has encouraged a renewed interest in home ecology. That’s where the new Healthy House Institute
(HHI) comes in.  The goal of this Internet site, which went online in early 2007, is to become the premier source of healthy home information, providing deeper content for the consumer, the media, and the building community than is currently widely available.  HHI does not offer or endorse products;  its mission is purely educational.

“In order to live healthfully, in order to live happily, we need to live more mindfully,” insists its creator, Idaho businessman Allen Rathey. “We need to educate ourselves. Evaluate our actions. Develop options. The Healthy House Institute helps people do that.”

A New Evolution

Rathey entered the field of home ecology in 2004, when he developed, a Web site devoted to faster, healthier housekeeping. He soon learned that the category that generated the most traffic was the Web site’s health category. “Cleaning is a good metaphor for what we are trying to do with indoor environments,” he explains. “It extends beyond scrubbers and mops to ventilation, material selection, energy efficiency, air and water quality, lighting, and beyond.”

Researching the health aspects of home ecology led Rathey to the doorstep of John and Lynn Bower, founders of the original Healthy House Institute. The Bowers’ passion for healthy houses was prompted by the 1980s remodeling of their Indiana farmhouse using traditional methods, materials, and types of finish. After the couple moved in, Lynn became desperately ill. The diagnosis: chemical sensitivities. That event led the couple to research alternative methods of construction, finishing, and furnishing—and this, in turn, led to John’s first book, The Healthy House: How to Buy One, How to Build One, How to Cure a Sick One (Bloomington: Healthy House Institute, 1989).

Building Green TV
The Healthy House Institute’s partnership with Kevin Contreras, host and producer of the Building Green TV show, is a good example of Rathey’s expertise in bringing like-minded people together.

Contreras is a builder gifted with a keen eye for good design. When he got the idea of building his own house out of strawbale, the plan for a television series was born. After completing six initial episodes (which ran as successful pilots in a few PBS markets), Contreras partnered with Max Mead, a former CNET Networks executive. The pair set out to finish season one of Building Green and to develop a media company based on sustainability principles.

“Learning from my years of building conventionally, I came to realize there was a better way to build, being smarter about the way we use our natural resources and the chemical compositions of materials used in our building methods,” Contreras says. “Friends made fun of me for finding old cabinetry, doors, windows, and fixtures for my houses, but I couldn’t stand to use new particleboard products that were of lesser quality and less healthy. I naturally gravitate to the quest for building materials and techniques in harmony with the environment.”

The first season’s 13 episodes document Contreras’s  personal journey planning and building his 4,000 ft2 eco-contemporary strawbale house. The camera looks over his shoulder as he visits factories, stores, city permit offices, and chats with experts in an effort to learn about cost tradeoffs, health concerns, and the nuances of building green. The camera even follows Contreras home to eavesdrop as the family discusses choices and makes decisions. Season two, targeted for early 2008 release, examines more green building projects, including homes, schools, and workplaces.

“Our goal is to inspire people to adopt these principles into their own lives,” explains Mead. “We’re not pretending that we’re perfect or that we know where on the green continuum people should be. In telling real-life stories, we want to give people awareness, ideas, and tools so they can decide for themselves how to incorporate these concepts into their own lives.”

To find out when your local PBS station carries Building Green, go to Click on Station Finder for a listing of scheduled shows.
In 1992 the couple founded the Healthy House Institute as a follow-up to the book. Over the next 13 years, they published four more books and six videos.  In addition to healthy materials, they researched alternative construction methods and were among the leading proponents of tight houses. In 2002 John wrote, “By building very tight, very energy-efficient houses, homeowners can pay for the cost of extra insulation, the cost of tightness, and the cost of a mechanical ventilation system with what they save by installing a much smaller heating/cooling system.” The couple became regular speakers at conventions and respected resources for consumers, the media, and building tradespeople.

The Bowers closed the Institute in 2005 to pursue the arts. That’s when Rathey approached them with an offer to buy the domain name and all the institute’s publications. The Bowers recognized that Rathey  was a good philosophical fit and decided that he was the right person to pick up the baton.

An Active Advisory Board

Home ecology is a broad, complex subject, one that is often fraught with controversy. Because credibility and accuracy are the main tenets of good journalism, bringing a community of professionals together was a vital first step. Rathey did that with a 31-member advisory board, comprised of an impressive array of knowledgeable sources. The board includes professionals from the health and medical fields, health sciences, home building and remodeling, architecture and interior design, and sustainability.

“We are a philosophy-oriented and relationship-driven enterprise,” Rathey explains. “It’s all about passion for the topic and connection. With connections we can further our mission; we can make things happen. That’s a niche that was not being filled.”
Fight Back!

David Horowitz brings a trusted name, a wealth of knowledge, and a commonsense approach to the Healthy House Institute. Over the past 35 years, he’s been involved with almost every subject that has to do with how people live their lives—choosing the right vacuum cleaner; cleaning with healthy products; and learning what goes into their food, how to shop for different products, and how to make life easier.

A former Vietnam War correspondent, Horowitz began his career in 1973 as a consumer reporter working for NBC News. His Emmy-award-winning Fight Back! television series, popular for 18 seasons, made him famous worldwide. Equally popular are his syndicated newspaper columns, his radio features, and his Web site,, with its Ask David feature, where he personally answers consumer questions.

When Horowitz began his career as a consumer advocate, the issues were product safety, liability, and commercial claims. “Today the issues are more convoluted,” he admits, “requiring you to read, understand, check things out, and be really careful about the products you buy. It’s an entirely different level of complexity.”

Horowitz tackles some of those thorny issues in his monthly column on the HHI home page. “To be healthy, today’s home needs to be cared for constantly,” he maintains. “When you buy anything, you need to know beforehand what it’s made of. If it smells funny when you turn on the air conditioner, do you know how to find the cause? Do you know better than to plug two major appliances into one socket? All this needs to be looked at. Most people don’t do it. Most people are not aware enough, not informed enough to live in a healthy way.”

Kevin Contreras, host and producer of the PBS Building Green TV program series, is a member of the HHI advisory board, a partnership he finds mutually beneficial (see “Building Green TV”). “Both our teams are assembling complementary expertise, content, and distribution. Because we share similar goals yet have different approaches, it allows us to collaborate and strengthen each other’s properties in creative ways. We’ve already begun tapping into these areas but are excited about the potential that lies ahead.”

Another advisory board member is Arthur Weissman, CEO of Green Seal, an independent nonprofit organization providing science-based environmental certification standards for products and services. For Weissman, Green Seal’s partnership with HHI boils down to their mutual mission: educating consumers so they can make better choices. Green Seal occasionally provides content to the HHI Web site, identifying leaders in products and services from an environmental perspective. 

“For 18 years Green Seal has been trying to promote a healthier, better environment, both indoors and outdoors, nationally and globally,” Weissman explains. “The home environment, especially, is important because that is where people spend most of their time. So there is a high degree of correlation in the purposes of both organizations.”

Assembling a Team

Knowing that HHI couldn’t exist without financing, Rathey solicited sponsorships in the form of prepaid advertising from companies that believe in the healthy house mission—companies such as the makers of nontoxic cleaners and  air cleaners, as well as environmental cleaning and other service providers. He tries to raise money without selling the farm. No backscratching promises. No quid pro quo. Simply a long-term presence on the Web site, based on the assurance that the Institute is going to grow and get better.

Next, he needed to assemble a team. Since HHI is Web based, it didn’t matter where people worked from, as long as they were top-notch, proven professionals. First on the team was Rathey’s son, Paul, who lives in North Carolina. An accomplished IT engineer and graphic designer, Paul was  hired to create and maintain a new, easy-to-navigate Web site, with handy links to other sources of  information. “We don’t care if people leave our site. We want them to find as much information as they can, to go right to the source, if possible,” says Rathey.  
Profile of a Healthy Home

As the author  of The Healthy Home: An Attic-to-Basement Guide to Toxin-Free Living, and as the senior editor of the Healthy House Institute, I have spent more than 20 years researching the subject of home ecology, using my 2,000 ft2 century-old Iowa farmhouse as a laboratory. Over the years I have encapsulated asbestos pipe, removed lead paint, installed water filters, and remodeled using low-toxic building materials. In addition, I oversee a regular program of energy maintenance—a program that includes, insulating, weatherstripping and caulking windows and doors, and using energy-efficient appliances.

I do this for reasons that are both environmental and personal.  I address both reasons when I seek solutions to my home’s efficiency and healthy functioning. I believe that our houses should be regenerative places. They shouldn’t draw our energy away. They should be safe and healthy. Many of our houses aren’t.

From the outside, my house looks much like its neighbors on our picturesque tree-lined boulevard in Des Moines, Iowa. But as soon as you walk through the front door, you realize my house is different. What’s missing is carpet, harsh cleaning chemicals, pressed-wood furniture, and plastic. What you see instead are water filters, plaster walls, steam heat, all-natural cleaning products, and a rubber bed shipped from a company in California.

Of course, I’m not perfect—not everything in my house is green. However, I’m always trying to improve my house, slowly and steadily. Healthy isn’t just a matter of using certain materials. It’s the relaxation provided by the basement sauna, the extra light that floods the dining room from a small addition, and the joy I get from the rock driveway, which allows rainfall to penetrate the earth instead of running off into the sewer.

Although I’m always looking to improve my house’s sustainability, I’m also happy in my home as it is now, which is key. Each of us needs to find our own comfort level. It’s a process, a series of steps. You don’t have to do it all at once.

Next Rathey engaged David Horowitz, an internationally known consumer advocate based in Los Angeles, to headline the home page (see “Fight Back!”). Horowitz has spent his 35-year career researching and reporting on consumer issues and product safety, educating American consumers about their rights in the marketplace. In his monthly Fight Back! column on HHI’s  home page, he not only tells consumers what to avoid, he also tells them why,  and offers healthy alternatives—just the information people need to live happier, healthier, more productive lives.

With a presence on the Internet, an advisory board in place, sponsorships in hand, and a trusted name to headline the home page, Rathey needed an editor to update the Bowers’ content and keep the site current. He asked me, as a veteran journalist and a pioneer in the home ecology movement, to help (see “Profile of a Healthy Home”). I’m excited about this opportunity because the Healthy House Institute promises to be a more reliable source of home information than sites with something to sell. We offer credibility and real old-fashioned, dependable journalism. I believe that’s what makes us different.

Linda Mason Hunter is the senior editor of the Healthy House Institute.

For more information:

To learn more about HHI, go to

In February 2008, HHI will begin to develop its publishing division. One of our first projects will be revised and updated editions of the five original HHI titles by John and Linda Bower:

Creating a Healthy Household: The Ultimate Guide for Healthier, Safer, Less-Toxic Living. Bloomington: Healthy House Institute, 2000.

The Healthy House Answer Book: Answers to the 133 Most Commonly Asked Questions. Bloomington: Healthy House Institute, 1997.

The Healthy House: How to Buy One, How to Build One, How to Cure a Sick One. Bloomington: Healthy House Institute, 1997.

Understanding Ventilation: How to Design, Select, and Install Residential Ventilation Systems. Bloomington: Healthy House Institute, 1995.

Healthy House Building: A Design & Construction Guide. Bloomington: Healthy House Institute, 1993.

Much of the content of these books will be available free online as well.
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