Your home is a place of calm, retreat and well-being. At least, it should be. Unfortunately, all to often people to become ill due to their homes. Sometimes the cause is invisible: there may be pollutants in the ambient air. We spoke with engineer Stephanie Güttinger about healthy construction and modernisation. Her area of expertise is the assessment of indoor air, building materials and furnishings.
Ms Güttinger, for some people it takes years to find out that their living or working environment is the cause of their complaints. Why is that?
When a house or an apartment is freshly painted, you can smell it in the air. But most substances that can cause allergies or other health problems are undetectable to us. Therefore, the home is usually the last place to look for causes when people feel unwell.
But cases are piling up. How come?
In the past we used a wide variety of building materials or wood preservatives, paints and adhesives. But since the introduction of energy saving regulations, our building envelopes have become even better sealed. There is hardly any exchange of air, especially if there is no ventilation system. In addition, there are often large windows that let in a lot of sunlight. However, this also leads to some building materials allowing more moisture to escape, thereby releasing harmful substances. These include volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde. All of this takes place in the microgram range and can only be detected by the sensitive measurement methods available to us today. But even these small amounts of pollutants have a lasting effect on the human organism.
But cases are piling up. How come?
Unfortunately we are often only called once the horse has bolted, in other words when construction of the house or the renovation has been completed. Then, of course, we can demonstrate exactly which substances are in the air and which building materials are responsible for them. But this can also have consequences, for example the wood flooring has to be taken out. This is annoying and often associated with high costs.
What's the alternative?
Firstly, there are calls for the construction materials industry to develop low-emission products and bring them to market. It has to be said that a great deal has already happened in this regard, even though there are no binding limit values and no European eco-labelling scheme. And secondly, it is becoming increasingly important for builders and renovators to bring environmental engineers on board during the planning phase and to take these issues into account.
But that means more work and additional costs, doesn't it?
It depends. More and more planners and architects are opening up to questions of healthy construction and there are already many corresponding products on the market. And the effort involved in selecting building materials according to relevant criteria, testing them in advance if necessary, supervising their use on site and finally measuring the result pays off in the end.
Is it just the building materials or does the way they are used also play a role?
Much can also be achieved with appropriate design proposals. It makes a difference whether a skirting board is glued in place or screwed, for instance. And this is just one small example.
Does this mean that it is best to rely only on steel, glass and concrete that emit few pollutants?
I wouldn't say that. As I said, there are enough building materials which do not pose any danger because they hardly emit any emissions and which can be used without hesitation. The only things that are important are pollutant management during construction and professional processing. This ensures that a good result is achieved in the end.
What does this mean for the future of construction?
I think you have to take a holistic and case-by-case approach to construction, not just focus on energy savings. We are experiencing this right now with the renovation of a 1960s villa, which is in relatively good structural condition. Should a house like this really be equipped with thermal insulation, which perhaps consumes significantly more energy in its production than this building can save in its remaining life time? Environmental factors are therefore playing an increasingly important role in the planning process. Ultimately, a harmonious construction result can only be achieved through the interplay of all planning aspects.
Subscribe to our email newsletter and never miss anything again!
Thank you for your subscription! Please check your email client for an e-mail to confirm your subscription.