What Is a “Healthy” Home?

Public Domain. Lovell Health House, 1929. Credit: Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

In 1929 Richard Neutra built the Lovell Health House, which was really a manifesto about how to design a healthy house, key elements being lots of sunlight and fresh air. But Neutra was also influenced by Freud and believed that his houses could cure neuroses, that houses could affect the occupants’ psyches.

Today, a lot of people are thinking about how to build healthy houses once again, as we learn about the dangers from chemicals within the home and pollution without. And once again, architects people are realizing that our houses and workspaces have to do more than just provide shelter, and health is more than just physical.

Healthy House


A great summary of this thinking is the new report by the UK Green Building Council, Health and Wellbeing in Homes. It’s a significant document because it looks at both the home itself and the community it is part of:

Our home, both the location and the physical building itself, influences almost every aspect of our lives – from how well we sleep, to how often we see friends, to how safe and secure we feel. If we want to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities, there can hardly be a more important place to start than the home: it is where most people spend most of their life.

They also stress that there is more to it than just the physical stuff that’s in our building codes:

The World Health Organisation defines health not as merely the absence of ill-health but as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”. Therefore, we have interpreted “health and wellbeing” to include social, psychological and physical factors.
It is also about more than just a home, but also about community.
Physical health can be described as the absence of disease, as well as optimal functioning of our body. Mental health is about much more than just the absence of mental illness: it encompasses positive issues such as peace of mind, contentment, confidence and social connection. Social wellbeing is determined by the strength of an individual’s relationships, and the way in which they function within their community.


A great example of how sophisticated the thinking has become is a look at lighting. In Neutra’s day (and in the California climate) you couldn’t have enough natural light. But we have learned that with windows, you can have too much of a good thing; houses can overheat in summer, freeze in winter without lots of mechanical heating and cooling. Windows are not just glazing, but more complex:

Windows are ‘machines’, in the sense that they combine multiple properties: they should be considered not just as transparent sections of wall, but as important multi-functional elements of the home. Good window design can enhance occupant wellbeing, both physically and psychologically. However, there are a number of common pitfalls which do quite the opposite. Inappropriate glazing design can impact privacy, furniture layouts, amount of solar gain and heat loss.

Internal Air Quality

This is much more complicated than it was in Neutra’s day (and California’s climate) where you opened windows for fresh air. In fact, it is much more complicated than it was when we started writing about it on TreeHugger, when we stressed tuning windows, cross ventilation and living without air conditioning. We are also living more closely together and have learned more about the dangers of particulates and other air pollutants outside our doors. To save energy we have tightened up our homes, and many of us are living in smaller spaces.

However, it is possible to provide sufficient clean, cool, outside air without allowing the ingress of external pollutants, whilst at the same time providing an adequate air change rate to remove these various pollutants. One major challenge we face in the UK is that of balancing the need for more airtight, energy efficient houses with the need for adequate ventilation. We need to ensure that new homes are not only energy efficient, but also provide optimal ventilation rates for good internal air quality.

In many parts of many cities, mechanical ventilation and air purification is becoming a necessity because of air pollution. All the more reason to get rid of diesels and electrify our transport systems as soon as possible.

Thermal Comfort

overheating causes

© UKGBC This is perhaps where the biggest changes have to happen, and soon. For years, the worry in northern climes was keeping warm; more and more, over-heating is becoming a problem.

In recent years, we have seen a marked rise in the incidence of overheating, particularly in the new build sector. As the frequency and severity of heatwaves is predicted to increase due to climatic changes, addressing this issue is vitally important. Although most evidence on the impacts of overheating on health is based on outdoor temperatures, with less information regarding safe indoor temperatures.

But even this UKGBC report does not get into detail about what comfort actually is, and how it is much more than just an issue of regulating temperature.


Moisture in our homes is generated by activities such as cooking, drying, washing, bathing, and breathing. It is important to control moisture levels because too much moisture in homes can increase growth of bacteria, house dust mites, and mould, all of which represent health risks. Furthermore, dampness could also cause degradation of materials, further polluting the air in buildings. All of these can result in problems with respiratory systems, for example infections or exacerbation of asthma.

It used to be that the biggest problem related to moisture was having too little of it; many leaky old homes actually had humidifiers to raise the level. Now, as homes are more tightly sealed, we have the opposite problem. We also keep building with materials that actually promote mould growth, and even our building codes get it wrong when it comes to dealing with moisture in our walls.


As we live more closely together, noise isolation becomes more important. And again, we are just beginning to really learn about how much of an effect it has on us.

Unwanted noise in homes can be at best a nuisance, but at worst can cause longer term health issues. In the short term, unwanted noise can cause activity disturbance, speech interference and disturb rest, relaxation and sleep. In the longer term there is evidence of more insidious health effects, because the presence of noise can cause increased levels of stress hormones, increasing the risk of cardiovascular effects (heart disease and hypertension).

This is an issue that can be addressed relatively easily in new construction, but that so often is a problem because of quality issues; the architect can specify a wall with a terrific STC rating but just a little gap, a little bit of missing caulk can ruin it.


This is such a hard one. People need a kitchen that promotes healthy eating and family interaction:

According to research, eating together as a family on a regular basis has some surprising effects. When sharing a meal together family bonds become stronger, children are better adjusted, family members eat more nutritional meals, they are less likely to be overweight, and they are less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs[22]. Eating together can be encouraged by making the dining area pleasant (e.g. with views out and good daylight) and more accessible from the kitchen (compared to the living area) in order to nudge people to sit around the table rather than in front of the TV.

Space should be designed for accessibility as residents age; bedrooms should be quiet and promote healthy sleep; they should be big enough to avoid overcrowding.

Children need space to play, develop, and do their homework. They also need privacy. Adults need space too, to foster healthy relationships with their partners and enable them to care for their families.

Striking the Perfect Balance

Much has changed since Neutra in terms of what we call a healthy home. Today we need different approaches:

  • Careful placement of high quality windows that maximize view and light without risking overheating;
  • High levels of insulation to keep warm or cool with a minimum of mechanical intervention;
  • Mechanical heat exchange and ventilation system that provides controlled, filtered fresh air;
  • Healthy materials that are easy to clean and do not emit VOCs;
  • Resilient designs that can survive the increasingly common disruptions and changes in climate;
  • Simple systems that occupants can actually understand and operate themselves:
Where occupants have been presented with complicated heating, lighting or ventilation controls they may struggle to maintain internal temperatures, fresh air rates and appropriate light levels – all of which can have health impacts. The consequences of residents not feeling in control of their systems can lead to homes becoming too hot or too cold, reduced energy efficiency, and in some cases it can then lead to exacerbated levels of fuel poverty

While this document has been written in the UK, most of its content is universal. One message that certainly travels well: A home is more than just a box to be bought and sold; it, and the community that it is part of, seriously affect our health, happiness and wellbeing.