Category Archives: Green Practices

Formaldehyde-Free Flooring (and Roofing and Walling) Part I

This is OSB/Chipboard. Picture stolen from Wikipedia.

This is OSB/Chipboard. Picture from Wikipedia.

This is MDF. Picture from Wikipedia.

This is MDF. Picture from Wikipedia.

As you know if you’ve been following the blog, we’re committed to building a healthy house. Guess what gas makes up most indoor air pollution? (Hint: it’s right in the title of the post…) Yup, it’s formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a component of glues used in making most types of engineered wood products: plywood, OSB (aka chipboard), MDF, particleboard, etc. Formaldehyde is used because it’s cheap and strong. Unfortunately, it’s also toxic in large quantities and can cause cancer in small quantities. More importantly, various types of engineered wood can outgas formaldehyde for years and years after they’re made.

Also unfortunately, engineered wood is everywhere! Major sources of formaldehyde indoors are:

  1. Furniture. Pretty much all furniture nowadays uses particleboard, and particleboard leaches formaldehyde. Of course, Megan and I haven’t gotten around to furnishing our house yet, but when we do we’re going to try and use as much solid-wood furniture as possible. Some of it we’re going to make ourselves, some of it will be re-vamped antiques and some of it we’ll buy new. Believe it or not, there are a couple of companies out there that make ready-to-assemble furniture out of solid wood, and they’re not even that much more expensive than the particleboard stuff.
  2. This is a composite wood I-beam. Picture from this website.

    This is a composite wood I-beam. Picture from this website.

    Walls. Specifically, the sheathing, which is the layer around the outside of the house to which the siding is attached. Fortunately we’re building with ICFs, which means we’re not using sheathing, so this is not a problem! (By the way: the expanded polystyrene — EPS — used to make ICFs also outgasses. But it outgasses pentane, which is nowhere near as toxic as formaldehyde and has no long-term health effects.)

  3. Floor Joists. Traditionally, floor joists were just great long boards of untreated timber that came straight from the lumber mill and didn’t outgas anything. Nowadays, wooden I-beams have become very popular. Their advantage is that they can bridge larger spans without needing extra support (such as our wide-open dining room/living room area). The disadvantage is that they use engineered wood, which means formaldehyde-based glue.
  4. Sub-floor. In older houses (such as the one we’re living in now), these were just regular untreated boards nailed down over the floor joists. Nowadays, plywood is used because it’s cheaper, flatter and changes less due to swelling, drying and warping. Plywood releases formaldehyde.

    Workers putting down roof sheathing. Tarpaper and shingles go over this. Picture from this website.

    Workers putting down roof sheathing. Picture from this website.

  5. Hardwood Floor. We want to have hardwood floors throughout most of our house. The traditional way to do this is to nail down regular hardwood boards and then finish them with some kind of sealant. But you can also get engineered floor, which has the advantages of being less work to install, easier to soundproof and doesn’t have to be sealed (most sealants outgas as they cure), which are all important things for us. The drawback? Most engineered floors use plywood bases.
  6. Roof. Roof sheathing, which is the outer layer of the roof to which you attach the shingles, is usually some kind of engineered wood.

So what are we doing to deal with these sources of formaldehyde? Several things! But I’m leaving that for another post, because this one is getting long.

And now, we interrupt our broadcast to bring you pictures of a beautiful baby:

"This shovel doesn't contain formaldehyde, does it?" "No son, it probably contains BPA instead..."

“This shovel doesn’t contain formaldehyde, does it, Dad?” “No son, it probably contains BPA instead…”

How to Get a Trailer Taken Down for Free and Other News…

So if you recall from our earlier posts, this thing is sitting on our land, and needs to go:

Sorry that the photo is a little blurry.

Sorry that the photo is a little blurry.

Now, it’s not the prettiest (inside or out), but the walls and roof are sound, and it’s a “trailer”, right? So my first thought was that maybe someone could use it to live in and I put up an ad on Craigslist offering it for free to anyone who can get it out of there. And I got some interest. A few people came out to look at it. Unfortunately, transporting a mobile home is pretty expensive unless you already own the equipment: thousands of dollars, depending on mileage. So ultimately, that got no takers.

At the same time, I got several offers from people who wanted to pull it down for scrap. So after giving it a week or so, I called up the first person who e-mailed me about that… they also promised to clean up and not leave a mess, which was the main reason I picked them. They got to work pretty soon. These pictures are from day 2:

Trailer Tear-Down Day 2


We’ve had some heavy thunderstorms for the past few days, so the work has been on hold, but the trailer should be torn down with plenty of time to spare.

By the way, to get this thing torn down by a professional demolition crew is around $3,000 – $3,500, and you need to get a demolition permit. I know because I asked one of the guys who was giving me a quote for excavation and septic. So I think everyone got a pretty good deal.

In Other News:

  • The building permit application was submitted on Friday, May 24.
  • I have another ICF block to consider, which is Fox Blocks, mostly because of their “Fox Buck”, which is a neat and elegant way to make door and window bucks. (When I first heard the term “window buck”, it sounded vaguely unstable and dangerous. Like a bronco or something. But actually, it’s the frame that forms the window opening to which you attach the actual window when you install it. And ideally, there is no danger involved.) Anyway, bucks are kind of a weak point in the ICF construction process, at least so far, though a few companies are coming up with better ways to do them. I’ll be writing in more detail on the subject at some point.

Tornado-Proof Housing and Quick News Update

Grace and I didn’t talk about this when we discussed why we picked ICFs, since it’s not really a concern in our area, but after the horrible events in Oklahoma over the past couple of days, I thought I should mention it. ICF construction is “tornado-proof”, or at least tornado resistant. Six inches of concrete reinforced with rebar are pretty tough, and if you build the roof correctly, you would be in pretty good shape. Some ICF manufacturers claim that ICF buildings can withstand up to 200 mph winds. This might not help if the tornado barrels right through your home, but it could be the difference between life and death if you’re a little further away. The same applies if you live in a hurricane-prone area (and since Hurricane Sandy came through southern NY last year, only a few hours away from us, I’m not sure I can really say that our area is “hurricane-safe”).

Hopefully this technology becomes more popular in the tornado belt. I know that a lot of people already use ICFs to add tornado shelters to existing homes (something like this). As Grace and I hope to prove, ICF construction is not more expensive than stick homes, and I think it can really make a difference when Mother Nature is unhappy.


Quick News Update:
So I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s been quiet for a couple of days. We’re in the process of applying for a building permit (I’m dropping the paperwork off tomorrow). We’ve also been getting quotes for site work — excavation for the foundation, driveway, that sort of stuff — and doing some more research on ICF blocks, since it’s around that time where we need to settle on a brand. The short list so far seems to be (in alphabetical order): Amvic, BuildBlock, IntegraSpec, Logix and RewardWall. These products are broadly similar. They’re generally considered pretty good. Each has its little pros (which the manufacturers’ websites will be more than happy to tell you about in great detail). I’m sure there are little cons as well. Three of them are Canadian. Two are US-based. All of them can (theoretically) be used to do what we want to do. So we’ve some reading to do and some choices to make. We’ll keep you posted!


Meanwhile, here’s a picture of the baby looking cute and fat:

Cute fat baby!

Cute fat baby! Look at the little toes!

Building a Healthy House

My commitment to building a healthy house is the latest in a long line of projects I’ve undertaken to limit my and my family’s exposure to potentially harmful things. Some family and friends might call it an “obsession” (you guys know who you are!); but I prefer to call it being careful and particular about what I use and am around 😉

This journey started out in college, and it began as a result of me being a huge fan of wet wipes. I used them all the time, and I went through a lot of them every week; they were a staple on my weekly shopping list.

One day I woke up with an extremely dry mouth. I was thirsty the whole day, and no matter how much water I drank the dry feeling wouldn’t go away. This continued for several days and I was really puzzled, but figured I was just dehydrated, and it went away as suddenly as it began. A week or two later, I reached for a wet wipe and almost as soon as I used it, my mouth dried up and my sinuses started burning. It was an “A-ha!” moment. I realized that the chemicals in the wipe I was holding were causing an immediate negative reaction in my body. I tested out my theory twice more that day, just to check, and the same thing happened each time I used a wipe. After that, I stopped using wet wipes.

That incident changed the way I thought about, well, pretty much everything. Every product I used, I gave a thought (or 50) to what ingredients went into making that product. I wanted to do my best to avoid a lot of the things that most people don’t pay attention to or even realize are found in commercial items (synthetic materials, chemicals, pesticides, etc.) I looked at my food, clothing, body care products, baby products- the whole nine yards. So of course when we began planning our house, I wanted to make sure it would be the healthiest house that it could be. Because of this guy:

This is what the baby thinks of toxic substances in household goods

This is what the baby thinks of toxic substances in household goods

We want to shield him from as many health problems as possible, and to keep ourselves healthy so that we can be around for him for a long, long time. By chipping away at the things that can make us sick, hopefully we’ll be doing just that.

Here’s a breakdown of things in the house-building/furnishing process that can cause indoor pollution. I borrowed this list from the book Prescriptions for a Healthy House, by Baker-LaPorte, Elliot, and Banta, which is one of our guides in this process:

1- VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds. “Volatile” means that these compounds evaporate easily. Usually, they’re used as solvents in substances like paint or glue. Some household things that commonly contain VOCs are carpets, plywood, wood finishes, spray-on insulation, particleboard and, of course, paint, to name a few. VOCs can be natural (like turpentine) or synthetic (like acetone), but they’re much more likely to be harmful if they’re synthetic. Items that contain VOCs slowly release the chemical vapors into the air, which is called outgassing.

2- Toxic byproducts of combustion. Fireplaces, woodstoves, and appliances that burn gas and kerosene, such as water heaters and furnaces, use up oxygen in the house and release harmful gases and particulate matter into the air.

3- Pesticides/biocides. Not just sprayed on lawns and plants, soil under houses is often treated with pesticides before the houses are built. Wood and other building materials are often sprayed in an effort to prevent mildew and mold from growing. Pesticides can be very harmful to humans, especially to children, and can cause a wide variety of ailments.

4- Naturally Occurring Pollutants. This category includes things like dust, pollen, mold and mildew, radon and heavy metals. They are “natural” because they occur by themselves in the environment and are not brought in with building materials, but they are still harmful and should be as limited as possible within the home.

5- Electromagnetic fields (EMFs). The location of things like power lines and radio waves outside the house, and things like computers and microwaves/other appliances inside the house, or poorly done wiring, combine to create electromagnetic fields that can adversely affect home-dwellers. Scientists have only recently started looking into the effects of EMF on living organisms, but the research that’s available shows that the effects can be pretty major.

I’ll get into more detail with specific products in other posts, so forgive my generalization here, but these are the sorts of things that we’re going to try very hard to avoid and limit while putting our home together. This will entail a lot of research on our part, and close examination of various building materials and products from different companies to see which best fit our wishes and our budget. If anyone has any suggestions, do feel free to let us know, and as we go along I’ll list the materials we decide to use and the reasons why, and the benefits of each.

Why ICFs? (And what *are* ICFs?)

(… and what’s wrong with good old-fashioned wood anyway?)

So, you may be asking yourself: what the heck are these ICF thingys and what are the benefits of using them?

See? Doesn't look like a concrete bunker at all! (And the page I stole this from has some good stuff about ICFs and their insulating properties).

See? Doesn’t look like a concrete bunker at all! (And the page I stole this from has some good stuff about ICFs and their insulating properties).

Okay, so it’s really simple – ICF stands for Insulated Concrete Forms, and they’re like big legos for adults. They’re made of 2 polystyrene (think styrofoam) boards held together by plastic, and they stack easily together to create hollow walls. These walls are then filled with poured cement, and voila! you have an insulated concrete house that can be finished to look like pretty much any other building on the market (don’t picture Soviet Russia here – it doesn’t wind up looking like a concrete bunker, unless of course you WANT it to).

ICFs are, as I already mentioned, super insulated, due to the polystyrene the blocks are made out of. This means heating and cooling costs go way down (go green!) and it’s a lot cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Speaking of saving money, ICFs are (supposedly anyway) very easy to work with – again, think legos for adults – and my husband and I are REALLY excited to do as much of the work as possible ourselves. Will we need help with things like digging the foundation and pouring the concrete? Yeah, probably. But laying out and putting up the walls, we’ll be all over that, no additional work crew needed (edit: this does not include any close and dearly loved family members who will be conscripted politely requested to help us out here).

Another bonus? The insides of ICF homes are nice and quiet because of the thickness of the walls. This is a particularly good thing for us, because our lot is beside a county highway, and I’m not a big fan of hearing traffic go by 24/7!

Also, not that it’s really a concern in our area, but all that concrete pretty much makes these houses hurricane proof. Hundred-mile-an-hour winds? Not a problem, these walls will stay standin’. The Third Little Piggy would approve.

The Husband: “Nice post! Though I don’t know if it will convince all the unbelievers — like your uncle [he’s a carpenter]. He thinks that building with anything other than sticks is eccentric and unnecessary and will end in tears. Except you shouldn’t write that because one day he will come across this blog and then I will be in trouble.”