When Did Healthy Homes Get So Expensive?

It seems these days that you have to spend big bucks to get all this stuff to be healthy.

Lovell Health House, 1929
Lovell Health House, 1929Public Domain.

Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

When Richard Neutra built the Lovell Health House in 1929 for a health food evangelist, it was all about sunlight and fresh air. But it also cost a lot of money and had a lot of stuff in it; he is quoted in "Sun Seekers: The Cure of California," via Curbed:

"There are plenty of opportunities throughout the house for nude sun baths privately taken for each member. Many of the windows are of the latest invention of glass, admitting ultra-violet light. The bathrooms are completely equipped with hydrotherapy equipment, including such things as sitz baths, multiple marathon showers, and the latest type of sanitary fixtures... The ventilation, sunshine, and light ideas are exceedingly modern... every inside bedroom has its accompanying sleeping porch so that sleeping can be done outdoors."

Apparently, not much has changed in 90 years; rich people still spend a lot of money on silly stuff in the name of wellness, and today much of it is electronic. Debra Kamin of the New York Times describes Doug Feirstein's house in Fort Lauderdale, with 8,400 square feet full of $300,000 worth of "wellness intelligence technology" from Delos. Founder Paul Scalia (who also created the WELL Building Standard that we have covered many times on Treehugger) tells the Times that the Covid-19 crisis is getting people more concerned about healthy homes.

"'What this has done,' he said, 'is get everyone to understand that what surrounds us matters, what we touch matters, what we breathe matters and how we gather indoors matters.'"

So now we need wellness tracking devices, air purification systems, custom water filters, and "dawn-simulation lighting that mimics natural sunlight." Others are wiring houses with sensors so that people can keep track of their health. Architect Kobi Karp tells the Times: "We can use the home to get into your guts, your health and your blood system."

Circadian changes
Circadian changes. Nobel Committee

Meanwhile in Canada

Up in Mississauga, Ontario (next to Toronto) Tracy Hanes writes for the Toronto Star about houses built by Hummingbird Hill Homes that don't have bedrooms anymore, they have a "sleep sanctuary" that's quiet thanks to "noise-reducing windows, offset wall-framing and extra insulation."

Of course, circadian lighting is a must; the home has "Ovid 'healthy' lighting that has true whites and is infused with red hues to counteract the effects of blue light emitted by devices such as computers, phones and TVs. Blue light interferes with circadian rhythm." The lighting technology "is available that can simulate sunrise, blinds can raise slowly to allow light to gently enter a room and apps that can play nature sounds."

Why is Circadian Lighting Such a Big Deal?

Circadian lighting is a thing with all the wellness people; it's designed to replicate the change in the color in the sky as the sun moves from being low in the morning and the sky being redder, moving through noon where it is blue, and back to red. Our bodies are attuned to this change, and for centuries have got their hit of circadian light through a more primitive device called a window, but that that's evidently not enough anymore, you have to buy fancy lighting too. I am frankly skeptical, thinking that daylighting does a better job naturally. Or as my colleague Ilana Strauss noted:

"A whole cottage industry is springing up around products that imitate sunlight, including alarm clocks, therapy lamps, and even glowing green goggles. The thing is, humans can try to imitate sunlight all they want, but the actual sun will always 'outshine' them."

What Do You Really Need?

Big window with a dog
Device providing Circadian lighting and biophilic relief. Juraj Mikurcik

My biggest problem with these homes designed around wellness is that they ignore the fundamentals, the building envelope or fabric. Instead, it is all about adding complicated stuff that requires service and training and of course, electricity. It's why I like starting with the Passive House approach to healthy homes. My list of healthy home features, written before Covid-19, builds on Passive House and is pretty straightforward:

  • 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.

I have had other ideas about home design, interior design, and bathroom design after the coronavirus, but they don't change the picture that much from this list. The conclusion, and the point of all this, is that circadian lighting, motorized blinds, vitamin-infused showers, and all these goopy wellness add-ons are expensive. Stick with the fundamentals and build them into the fabric of your home; when the power goes out you will still have something.