31 July 2014 — We typically spend at least a third of our lives in our homes, but while there have been many studies done into the impact of sustainable environments in the workplace, the domestic realm has not had the same degree of attention. A new book by interior designer Melissa Wittig from Healthy Interiors and sustainability consultant Danielle King from Green Moves Australia aims to fill the residential information gap and provide a blueprint for creating energy efficient and healthy homes.

Launched at the recent Build and Renovate Expo, The Smart Living Handbook brings together insights from Wittig and King’s professional practices, following a five-step approach – building and renovating; products and furnishings, including gardens and outdoor living areas; behaviour and consumer choices; lifestyle practices; and the impacts on health and efficiency of how a home is maintained.

Melissa Wittig

Wittig says that while the commercial property sector has been embracing the message that sustainability is better for the future of a business, when the same insights are applied to private homes, there are also benefits for health and quality of life.

“A sustainable personal lifestyle is a form of health insurance,” Wittig says.

Of particular concern are the toxic chemicals that are a feature of many of the finishes, furnishings and fixtures in the average home, including volatile organic compounds, persistent organic pollutants such as brominated flame retardants and known carcinogens such as formaldehyde.

In her practice as a healthy interiors designer, Wittig has learned to navigate the product maze, decipher the material data sheets and determine which options come with minimal risk. Of particular concern are the more vulnerable members of society – children, pregnant women and the sick, who may spend up to 80 per cent of their time indoors at home.

“No one organisation is being the voice for these people,” Wittig says, adding that linking the health of the home environment to broader public health outcomes has not been done. In the case of asthma, for example, which can be triggered by VOCs, there is a big picture public health benefit in reducing the level of VOCs in homes.

She also explains that the product lifecycle has implications for public health in terms of disposal at end-of-life.

“It is very much about applying the precautionary principle,” Wittig says.

“The cocktail of chemicals in everyone’s home is unique. The book addresses this in terms of sustainable living. It also looks at the types of products available and the consequences of those products in terms of ongoing pollution in landfills. This is particularly important in relation to building materials.

“People want to have a beautiful home, and we want to help them make sure that beautiful home is sustainable.”

Danielle King

Both Wittig and King stress that consumers need to be informed when selecting any product for their home, and look for validation of any “green” claims a product might make. This can come in the form of material data safety sheets, or checking if a product has been endorsed by any recognised independent audit or verification schemes.

Because this can be an information labyrinth for the layperson, the handbook gives lists of questions to ask, things to look for and links and references for further information sources. These cover items ranging from domestic renewable energy systems, glazing, blinds, heating and cooling, furnishings, paints, household electrical goods and refrigerants through to wall systems, insulation and design aspects such as optimum window placement for passive stack cooling and maximising the benefits of orientation for new homes or extensions.

There are also checklists and cheat sheets for core issues such as reducing allergy and asthma, energy efficiency, water efficiency and what to look for in a new home.

“It is meant to be an easy to digest handbook, for content that can be quite heavy,” Wittig says.

By connecting energy efficiency and sustainability in terms of reducing toxins in the home, she says the book is creating common ground for consumers to ask for better products, better design and better buildings.

King says that because the home environment is comprised of systems, understanding the sustainability of each element within those systems is important. This means, for example, with walls the system comprises the exterior building facade, framing, waterproofing, lining boards, paint, windows and any insulation. Each of these elements has something to add to overall sustainability.

“Home needs to be somewhere you are safe,” King says. “So you need to take a closer look at what goes into the building fabric, and know what to look for, what questions to ask and what to opt for.”

In the heating and cooling section, the pros and cons of each option are outlined, so consumers can be better informed of the issues, and consider them in the context of the building’s structure and fabric.

“There’s also quite a large section on appliances, including how to read the energy labels and how to calculate the cost to run each item per annum,” King says.

She says they also explain about the different wood products and composite wood products, and what to ask about to ensure a low- or no-formaldehyde product is obtained for DIY projects.

“The entire residential DIY handyman retail sector needs to get on board with all of this and provide more information,” King says.

“Some are starting to – and there is a lot more available that there was five years ago. The industry is moving very fast.”