"Prescriptions for a Healthy House"
A Book Review by Barbara Harris
UPdate Spring 2003

"Prescriptions for a Healthy House", by Paula Baker-Laporte, Erica Elliot and
John Banta, Second Edition, New Society Publishers, Canada $36.95, 2001

If you're planning on building or renovating this summer, Prescriptions for a Healthy House should be by your side from the moment you begin the planning process. The book is useful, practical and packed with information.

Each of the authors comes to the field of healthy building after life-changing personal experiences with poor indoor air quality. "If someone had told me in the early years of my career that I would be writing a technical 'how to' book about healthy homes," writes Laporte, "I would have looked at them with total incredulity. I would have explained that, as an architect, my main concern was the creation of beautiful and interactive spatial forms and that my aspirations were artistic rather than technical.  It seems that fate had a different course for me. I joined the ranks of the chemically sensitive."

Laporte traces her illness to overexposure to formaldehyde when she lived for a short period in a brand new mobile home. Erica Elliott, an MD and world class mountaineer, traces the beginning of her illness, and consciousness of the importance of healthy building, to a period when she worked in a medical clinic in a new building with non-opening windows and wall to wall carpet. John Banta was introduced to the impacts of conventional building materials when he and his wife painted and carpeted a nursery to welcome their first child. The baby developed serious medical problems which turned out to be acute sensitivity to chemicals.  Banta, a medical technician working with formaldehyde, benzene and toluene later
became ill himself. His experiences with renovating a home for his family led him to train for a new career as an indoor environment specialist.

"The homeowner who desires to create a healthy building or remodel an existing one is still a pioneer facing ... major obstacles including the primary one; building for health is not the current standard of the construction industry,"  points out Laporte.
Her own introduction to this field came when she was asked to design a healthy house for her physician and now co-author, Erica Elliott. Laporte had to research the subject. "Once I learned the facts, I could never again allow certain products, techniques or equipment to be used in any projects in which I was involved. I understood the health threats that they posed to my clients, to other inhabitants, construction workers and the planet."

Architect Laporte understands the thousands of details that make up the process of building, most of which are so ingrained they are seldom questioned.  She has used her training to develop sets of instructions which the reader can incorporate into a contract with a builder to specify what products and practices are acceptable and unacceptable in a building project. In addition to providing a clear framework for contractors and subcontractors in language they can understand, such specifications also provide a written record which can be invaluable if problems do arise. This is one of the book's strong points, information which is not found in other
healthy homes books.

"The average person lacks a background in chemistry and has a false assumption that in order for building products to be allowed on the market they must be reasonably safe," writes Laporte. Prescriptions provides lists of brand names of products found to be less harmful, and explanations of what makes these products healthier. This provides a valuable shortcut in the time-consuming process of finding less toxic building materials.

Although the books contains mainly US products, many of them are available in Canada. The explanations provide the reader with a enough understanding to know what questions to ask in looking for alternative products if the ones listed are not available locally.

Interspersed  with building information are case studies of people who became sick from exposure to poor indoor air. Reading them underlines the significance of healthy building, and the importance of careful material choice. This book exposes how many of the invisible choices which are made
can have significant long term effects on health. "The purpose of this book is to take the mystery out of healthy house building by walking the owner/architect/builder team through the construction process. It explains where and why standard building practices are not healthful, what to do differently, and how to obtain alternative
materials and expertise," write the authors. The book fulfills these objectives superbly. It is well organized, informative, easy to understand and interesting.  Highly recommended. Should be in every public library. 

Two additional must have  books on this subject are The Healthy Home: How to Build One, How to Buy One, How to Cure a Sick One, by John Bower and Understanding Ventilation, also by John Bower .


Barb Harris is chemically sensitive and acutely aware of the value of a healthy home.