What does it take to “green” an urban dwelling? That is my newest question because of my own moral and ethical concerns over using certain products to rehab a pre-existing home we are considering purchasing. In my last blog post, I talked about how we are searching for a home in the city of Albuquerque. We went to see a house that at first I was apprehensive about, but as it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised at what I found. While the house was old and built in the 1950’s, it had a certain charm and if I can be really honest, it had a great “feel” about it. It wasn’t a creepy old house. Was there mold there? Yes, and every home we have seen so far has had the same issues of roof drainage creating water spots that penetrated into the home. We have seen two homes that were infested with mold due to roof leaks or water wicking into the foundation that spread to hardwood floors warping them horribly. Major mold issues are not something that I am willing to tackle when it comes to the health and well being of my family, but minor mold issues are fixable.
One of the reasons we wanted some land out in a rural area, was so that we could build our own home made from products that came from our own land. We wanted to live in a temporary home such as a fiberglass yurt, and slowly build our permanent home as time afforded. Our plans were to use earthbags and build a large pueblo revival style home that would accommodate all our family’s needs. It was to be ground zero for having a place that parents could bring their children suffering with multiple chemical sensitivities as well as food allergies. We wanted to have a homestead that uses permaculture principles, and eventually also provide a means of working from home as producers of honey, aquaponic systems and products, mushrooms, animal fibers, fresh produce, worm tea, and many other things. Many of those things are still very possible and viable in an urban setting, with one big huge “but!” in there…”but how do we make our home as chemical free, safe and green as possible?” This has been plaguing me as I research the different alternative products that could allow us to rehab an urban dwelling.
Being that I am extremely allergic to many different household molds (I almost lost my life because of mold), going into an existing structure was almost a “no-no” in my mind. Right now we are renting a house that does have mold, but as we keep the moisture levels very low, the mold is not a problem nor is it reproducing. However, there is one concern living here in the southwest that is quite alarming. Many newer type homes with a concrete stucco on the exterior have had mold problems existing in the facade due to improper adhesion of cement stucco to the building. This creates a pocket of air where condensation builds in the wall which can encourage mold growth. You don’t know its a problem until the health of the family gets worse or visible signs of mold become present. I have met a number of families in New Mexico who have lost not only their health, but also everything they owned due to mold contamination. Their stories were similar to our own, since each of our family members living in our previous home on the east coast was affected by the contamination of mold and we too lost everything we owned. So as you can see, our concern over buying an existing home comes with the danger of also buying the mold present in the house. Mold is inescapable and a part of life. You can’t be “mold-free” but you can take steps to reduce the prospect of mold developing in the first place.
So how do we go about creating an environment that doesn’t encourage mold growth? The house we just went to see backs up to the Rio Grande and the relative humidity in that region is slightly higher than in other places around the Albuquerque area. This is due to being near the water, and therefore doing everything possible to keep the house dry would be of utmost importance to us. The exterior of the house is a stucco type surface, and it is built on a crawlspace. I found this to be interesting since the majority of homes in this region are typically built on a slab foundation. The interior of the home is extremely dated with shag rugs, plaster walls (not sheet rock) and also wood paneling. There were very cool little niches, built-in cabinets, wall systems and space saving features added. The windows are original single pane glass with gaps and cracks. As we walked around this house, we sort of fell in love with it. As unappealing as the interior looked, it felt like a house that had lots of love in it. Maybe it sounds like new aged hooey saying that, but just as I have gotten a “feeling” of creepiness from other dwellings, this one felt very peaceful. The roof needs to be replaced and I am sure that insulation is minimal if not absent all together.
In my search for how to rehab this particular home, I thought to myself “how sustainable or eco-friendly are these new products really?” The old plaster and wood paneling would need to be replaced and we didn’t want to use drywall because if it gets wet, it can breed mold, so we looked at papercrete as a viable option to rehab the interior walls. But papercrete is porous as well and could invite problems down the line. Feeling discouraged about that, I discovered that ferrocement could be used. Could this be the answer to all our problems? I did some research on it, and found that it is a super eco-friendly product. Water cisterns, homes and boats can be made of ferrocement, so my next question to myself was “why couldn’t we use this for our walls AND our roof? The roof needs to be replaced, which leads us to the next dilemma…what the heck do we use on the roof? We didn’t want to use asphalt shingles since we are planning on doing rain catchment and because of what it can do to the environment (but it is the most economical choice), and metal roofing tends to leach zinc and other things in the roof, and clay tiles seem to be the best choice but they are very expensive…so what do we do? Well, how about ferrocement roofing? Wouldn’t that be a reasonable alternative? Then there is the trouble of insulation! I have the biggest bone to pick with conventional products and some of the new “green” products out there to insulate the home. We all know the potential dangers of fiberglass insulation, and while there are alternatives such as recycled denim and natural fibers, the insulative value often falls short. Is this a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul? If the materials used to insulate the home is more “eco-friendly” yet cause us to still use more heating and cooling, how is it eco friendly unless you have the latest and greatest alternative energy source. I don’t have anything against using natural fibers to insulate the home, but for our home, we couldn’t take the chance on them from a health standpoint. Condensation, air gaps, cold spots in walls all become potential breeding grounds for mold, pests and other unwanted creatures. We began looking at sprayfoam insulation as a good alternative. After all, it is “green” right? There are quite a few sprayfoams on the market, and most of them are petroleum based. Yet to stay in step with the growing trend of being eco-friendly, some sprayfoam companies are offering soy, sugar, castor bean based products to reduce the use of petrochemicals. But are these products really green? We are all becoming aware of the dangerous affects of genetically modified food crops to our health as well as to the environment, so why should I support such a product being pumped as insulation into the walls of my home? There is no doubt that sprayfoam insulation will save you money as well as the environment in terms of personal greenhouse gas emissions from your home, BUT the corn, soy, castor bean, sugar beets and sugar products still have to be grown, harvested and processed into that sprayfoam. In the long run, if everyone is running out to sprayfoam their home, how much good is actually being done? These companies have created a “need” and boy do we ever need good insulation. It sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? What do we do with this kind of dilemma? Morally, I’m apposed to the sprayfoam insulation that contains bio products such as corn, soy, sugars, castor beans because of genetically modified crops used, and the conventional farming practices that are destroying the ecosystem. Ethically I’m apposed to how the big producers of these products are destroying the fabric of small farmers as well as biodiversity. What’s the solution? I found a product that is a sprayfoam insulation but is unlike all the others. Its called AirKrete. Here are the results of 3rd party testing of AirKrete:
Federal Conservation Inc.
Results show that the “ air krete® Insulation Sample” was resistant to mold growth at both 75% and 95% relative humidities. Neither molds were found to amplify in the materials at either humidity.
Modified ASTM E814/UL 1479 Fire Resistance on an air krete® wall panel
Tested: February 21, 2008 VTEC #100-2862
The initial ambient temperature was 57°F.
Hose Stream Test: No holes formed in the unexposed side of the
sample after being exposed to the hose stream for 24 seconds.
The sample met the acceptance criteria of the “F Rating” for 120
minutes per ASTM E814/UL 1479 specifications.
Hardwood Plywood Manufacturers Association
Report on surface burning characteristics determined by ASTM-E 84 Twenty-five foot tunnel furnace test method.
The normal 10 minute test was extended to 30 minutes with the following results:
Flamespread Factor: 0
Fuel Contributed Factor: 0
Smoke Density Factor: 0
The apparent thermal resistance of a specimen of a cementitious foam insulation material density:
2.07 lbs. per cubic foot @ 24C (75F)
K factor = .257 per 1 inch thickness
R factor = 3.9 per 1 inch thickness
Twin City Testing Corporation
Report of shrinkage test conducted according to ASTM:L C951, Par. 8.5 results:
Shrinkage, Inches: 0.00
Percent Shrinkage: 0.00
Consumer Product Safety Commission
Result of sample analysis report on air krete® :
Totals Formaldehyde: None detected
Formaldehyde in air: Non detected
Penniman & Brown, Inc.
Chemists, Engineers, Inspectors – Baltimore, Maryland, Analytical Division
Report of analysis sample of reacted foam insulation identified as air krete® , was qualitatively checked for formaldehyde:
No evidence of formaldehyde was found.
Hardwood Plywood Manufacturers Association
Report on smoke density characteristics determined by NBS-Aminco Smoke Density Chamber.
These test results demonstrate:
air krete® is non-toxic.
Mold Proof Test
Air Quality Sciences, Inc.
A Microbial Resistance Evaluation of Indoor Materials
air krete® Insulation Sample
Executive Summary / Project Description
Air Quality Sciences, Inc. (AQS) is pleased to present the results of its microbial resistance evaluation of air krete’s indoor material identified as “ air krete® Insulation Sample”. AQS conducted this study using a microbial test protocol following the requirements of ASTM Guideline D 6329-98 (1). This ASTM method is established to study indoor materials for their ability to support mold growth. Testing of the indoor material was conducted using static environmental chambers operating at 75% humidity(considered a *high normal” for indoor commercial spaces) and 95% humidity (considered an extreme moisture condition within buildings). air krete’s indoor material was inoculated with two representative indoor molds, Stachvbotrvs chartarum and Eurotium amstelodami, and growth rates were measured over a three-week period as the materials were exposed in the two humidity environments. Mold growth is considered significant if it exceeds 20% of the initial baseline levels. Test methodology and results are given in the attached summary reports.
Our next step is to get a structural engineer in to find out if its possible for us to use ferrocement as a wall and roof material. AirKrete would be used for insulation. Both my husband and I are quite familiar with lime plaster after working with it quite extensively and we would use this instead of painting the interior or exterior of the house. We would want to install adobe floors and radiant heat run on a solar heater. Can a potential nightmare be turned into our dream home? I believe it can…now lets hope that an engineer can work with us to make that dream into a reality!
I was amused by the following two videos…”Monsonto’s House of the Future”
I read your post with great interest and had some comments for you. I have been working with papercrete for a few years now and have come up with a formula that works well for me. I use cardboard that I get from behind Walgreens with a little cement and some pumice if I can get it. I have also been concerned with mold and flammability issues and came up with the idea of using the cellulose insulation that you can buy at any home improvement store. It is already mold and fireproofed by adding borax or boric acid. I was looking into this mostly for the benefit of those who want to build with permits. By using the commercially available product you don’t have to have your papercrete blocks tested. I contacted Richard Applegate of Applegate insulation and he offered me a great deal on bales of his insulation. The catch is I have to get a full semi load. If I get a contract for a house I will definitely do this but for the small amount I would need it’s not practical.Now that I know about your blog I’ll check it out regularly to see how it goes with the new place. It looks very cute and I’m sure you will be able to do a lot with it.
Wow, I stopped by your site and I love how your place is coming along! I’ll email you because I know that my husband and I would love to come and help you sometime (if you’re not too far away).