Design Tips For A Healthy Home From an Architect

By: Kate HambletSeptember 26, 2023

Designing a healthy and sustainable home is a dream for many, but it's not something you should rush into without careful consideration. While some may have the skills and knowledge to tackle such a project on their own, most will benefit greatly from the expertise of an architect.

There’s a lot to think about but you can do it on your own, and preparation is key.

Here’s a checklist of things to know or do. This is not an exhaustive list, but enough to get you going and know that you're going to make a healthier, more comfortable home by following these strategies.

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Pre-Design: Laying the Foundation

Before you even start designing your home, there are crucial pre-design considerations to keep in mind. These initial steps help set the tone for the entire project.

  1. Check Your Zoning Requirements: Local zoning regulations dictate setbacks, building heights, and sizes. Understanding these rules is essential to ensure your design concept adheres to local laws.
  2. Know Your Budget: establishing a budget early on helps you determine the scale of your project. Whether you're building from scratch or renovating, knowing your financial limits is important.
  3. Define Your Goals and Priorities: Identifying your specific needs and priorities is crucial. Whether it's a focus on healthy air quality, energy efficiency, or other features, knowing your goals will guide your design choice. 
  4. Study Your Site: Understanding your property's orientation and surroundings is vital as it will greatly impact your home's energy efficiency, comfort and well-being.
  5. Choose Your Team: Figure out what design professionals you'll need to work with and choose your contractor.

Image: Miller Hull Architects, The Loom House 

Design: Creating A Healthy Home

Now that you've laid the groundwork, it's time to delve into the design phase. Here are some key considerations:

Air Quality & Ventilation: 

  1. Simplify the Shape: A straightforward house shape, such as a rectangle, promotes passive heating and cooling. A rectangle with a triangle on top is the most economical house to build. 
  2. Balanced Ventilation: Invest in a whole-house ventilation system like an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) or heat recovery ventilator (HRV) to maintain healthy air quality and control for moisture in an air-tight house. 
  3. Avoid Harmful Materials: Opt for non-toxic building materials and finishes such as zero-VOC paint and natural flooring. Look for GreenSeal-11 Certification. Stay away from PVC (vinyl) and other petroleum products. Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is often used in furniture, cabinets, and doors and usually contains formaldehyde which will off-gas toxins.
  4. Prevent Indoor Air Pollutants: Separate your garage by having it detached or don't include a garage at all. (Car ports are awesome!)  Avoid having a connecting door between the house and the garage. This will help reduce fumes from toxic materials and exhaust from vehicles entering the house.
  5. Storage of Materials: Basements can be expensive due to their insulation needs and often are used as a place to store chemicals which isn't ideal. Consider a shed as it will provide separation from potentially harmful chemicals, and if possible, eliminate the basement.


Water Quality:

  1. Test Annually: Whether you're on a well or city water, be sure to test your water once a year. 
  2. Filtration Systems: Add water filtration if necessary, even if it's just to make the water taste better. If your water tastes bad, you won't drink it which is not good for your body, or the planet should you buy bottled water as a replacement. 


Lighting:

  1. Maximize Natural Light: Incorporate windows for daylight in all living spaces and position key rooms (usually living, kitchen, dining) to receive southern sunlight.
  2. Place rooms for best daylight: Put living spaces like living room, dining, kitchen, office if you work from home, on the south side of the house with windows for access to all day sunlight. It is good for your body to have natural light (your circadian rhythms) by following the natural light path. It's also good for passive heating in the winter. But remember to shade those windows in the summer time so your house doesn't overheat.

Comfort:

  1. Cross-Ventilation: Try to arrange windows on opposites sides of a room to allow for cross breezes when the windows are open.  This will naturally cool your house on warmer days.
  2. Energy Efficiency: Invest in superior insulation and create an airtight building to enhance comfort and efficiency. You'll need to going above and beyond the code minimum for insulation, even if you live in mild climates.
  3. Sound Isolation: Plan room layouts to minimize noise disruptions. Don't put a utility room next to a bedroom or office. If using a heat pump water heater, it will be noisy and make the surrounding area cold. Think about where outdoor air conditioning or heat pump units are going since you don't want them by bedroom windows. Be mindful of creating separation between quiet and loud rooms, such as office space next to a tv room.


Nourishment:

  1. Kitchen Layout: Optimize your kitchen design for efficient food preparation and storage.
  2. Food Storage: Prioritize storage for healthy fresh foods over pantry space by having a good size refrigerator (I find 36" wide to be a great size) that lets you easily see the healthy foods you have on hand.  I prefer French Door fridges with the freezer on the bottom because it puts the fresh veggies at eye level. 
  3. Indoor Gardening: Consider allocating space for indoor gardening to grow fresh produce. It doesn't have to be a large area as herbs require a small space yet are very beneficial. 
  4. Lighting: Natural daylight and views are important for well-being and happiness while working in the kitchen.

Movement:

  1. Outdoor Movement: Think about indoor outdoor connection for play and outdoor movement. Having living space on the second floor creates a barrier from outdoor play, and you can't see children playing.
  2. Exercise Space: Design a dedicated workout room for consistent use and visibility. Also, don't create it as a multifunctional room or hide it in the basement or somewhere that you don't walk by on a daily basis - seeing it will remind you to work out.


Mind:  

  1. Connection to Nature: Views of the outdoors from all rooms that are occupied. 
  2. Bathrooms that Rejuvenate: Consider bathrooms equipped with spa-like features to promote relaxation and space to recharge.
  3. A space to recharge: Meditation nook or a quiet place to read.  Think of a quiet space that let's you be by yourself.
  4. Organization: Think about all the things you need to store within your home and where you'll place them.

 

Safety:

  1. Universal Design Strategies: Include wider doors on the first floor, along with wide hallways, and clearances in the kitchen. Include at least one bathroom for accessibility, and a built in step stool or a place to tuck a step stool for kids.
  2. Reduce Slipping and Tripping Hazards:  Make sure flooring levels line up when one flooring type transitions to a different flooring type (for example a wood floor transitioning to a tile floor).  Consider a zero threshold shower so there is no lip to trip over when getting in or out.  Add safety lighting to stairs, bathrooms, and hallways so it's easy to see when moving around in the dark.
  3. Storage of cleaning products: Plan for cabinets out of reach of children (even if you don't have children, they may come into your home sometimes) to store household cleaners.  Sadly poisoning is the #1 household accident in the US.  All other chemicals like paint should be stored outside of the house.

Additional Considerations: Planet & Community Factors

Beyond the core design elements, there are broader considerations that align with sustainability and community.

Planet:

  1. Passive Design: Strategies to reduce energy consumption.
  2. Sustainable Materials: Select durable and eco-friendly building materials
  3. Native Landscaping: Incorporate native plants into your landscaping.
  4. Waste Management: Implement composting and waste-sorting systems.


Community:

  1. Support Local Economy: Use local materials and labor to stimulate your local economy.
  2. Consider Neighbors: Ensure that your home's design doesn't negatively impact your neighbors' privacy, views or access to sunlight.
  3. Health-Focused Materials: Source materials that are clean and healthy from production to disposal. 


Final Thoughts:

Designing a healthy home is a multifaceted process that involves numerous considerations. With a well-considered plan and the right team, you can turn your dream of a healthy home into a reality that benefits both you and the planet. 

To learn more about the steps of the design process, grab my free start-to-finish guide that walks you through each step of the journey.

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