for Safer Construction and Renovation
By Preston Sturgis
AEHA Quarterly, Winter 93-Spring 94

Renovating or adding on to a home will involve considerations that are of special importance to the homeowner with chemical sensitivities.  Even if the project appears to be a simple one, the expertise and project-management skills of an experienced design professional and builder may be desirable.  In my experience, they have the potential to save the chemically sensitive homeowner from additional costly problems involving contamination and contractual misunderstanding.  If it is decided to forgo experienced allergy design services, another option is to retain the services of an experienced consultant on an hourly basis at the beginning of the project and at key times during the project to assist with the construction process.  In any event, any chemically sensitive homeowner planning a new home or renovation project will be well served to get a thorough background in safer construction materials and techniques [EDITOR’S NOTE:  The Human Ecology Action League (HEAL) Service List sheet on “Home and Building Pollution”, available through the HEAL office, includes a bibliography and is a good place to start.]

A successful project of this type involves close communication and cooperation between the architect, builder, the chemically sensitive/allergic client, and the client’s representative.  It is vitally important to self-test materials rigorously and to keep written records of every decision that is made in the course of this project.

Living Arrangements
During construction of a project in a portion of a building, chemical gases from curing paints, sealants, adhesives, drywall mud, and other materials will be present in the air.  Dusts from sanding and other construction activities will also become airborne.  Tolerable materials may not be tolerable until the emissions from them have dropped below a certain threshold, which is different for each allergic individual.  These contaminants can create a health threat to the sensitive individual attempting to coexist in the building during construction.  If possible, arrangements should be made for the allergic person to temporarily live and work elsewhere and to enter the project only when the air quality is tolerable.  Usually, this time can be determined by an examination of documentation provided by the manufacturer of a certain product, discussions with their technical departments, cautious entry onto the premises of construction, and vigorous implementation and enforcement of a pollution control program (PCP) during construction.  (See below.)

Owner’s Representative
Select a person who can tolerate the pollutants generated during construction to represent the interests of the homeowner with MCS.  At this time there are relatively few builders who understand MCS and allergy construction.   Situations will arise where the builder’s interests and the homeowner’s interests do not agree.  Someone, and as mentioned previously it may not be wise for the chemically sensitive individual to fill this role, should be available to visit the site during construction to examine work completed for approval of requests for payment by the builder or work at a standstill because of a problem.  This person, who represents the homeowner and understands the intent of MCS and allergy design, will enter a “contaminated” space where chemical gases, dust and other particulate debris are airborne even if a PCP is in effect.

The Builder
Use a builder experienced with MCS/allergy design if possible.  A project may be successfully completed when the builder is new to this type of work but it will involve a closer review of the work, review of procedures, constant communication, and education of the builder.  It also requires the builder to have an educated understanding of the purpose and proper application of materials selected for their low toxicity.  Check the references of any builder (and, for that matter, and design consultant).  Do they understand MCS/allergies?  Did they question the use of an undiscussed product?  Were they cooperative when problems arose?  Did they finish the work on time?  Did they follow measures taken to control dust and pollution during construction?

All products used in construction must be self-tested.  If they are not and are assumed to be safe because someone else found them acceptable or the manufacturer said “no problem”, they may well fall prey to Murphy’s Law:  “Whatever can go wrong will.”  Keep a record of which products have been self-tested, and be prepared to use alternatives if necessary.  Remember that effects of materials may increase as you live with them or in combination with effects from other materials, so pay particular attention to ventilation in the home.

Permits and Codes
The homeowner should also be sure that all necessary permits are obtained and that codes are followed, because local jurisdictions can require work to be torn down if it is not in compliance.  This also provides a degree of quality and safety for the work.  If doubtful about how to proceed regarding this, contact your local building inspection department.

Plans and Specifications
Construction documents form part of the contract for construction between a homeowner and a builder, and they include the plans and specifications.  Problems will inevitably arise during any construction project for a variety of reasons.  In a project for a chemically sensitive client, insufficient drawings and specifications leading to polluting procedures or the installation of contaminated materials and construction components will guarantee that problem will occur.

Construction documents for the “typical” residential renovation or addition project often contain minimal detail and explanatory notes because they rely on the expertise and experience of the contractor to use commonly accepted construction procedures, materials, and equipment necessary for a component of construction.  This is not acceptable for MCS and allergy design projects.  More drawing and specification detail is required for projects involving MCS/allergies.

A MCS/allergy design specialist will include these considerations in construction documents.  Residential builders unfamiliar with this type of design work, however, may feel uncomfortable with such detailed specifications.  Their uncertainty about this type of work may result in their quoting higher fees for the work or the offer to do the work for their cost plus a fee.  This means that the homeowner agrees to pay for any additional construction costs that arise during the project.  Because of financial problems due to previous medical expenses or loss of job or family, many with MCS and allergies will find a cost-plus arrangement financially difficult.  If enough information is provided and the builder is experienced, there is no reason why the job cannot be constructed for a lump-sum fee agreed upon before construction when the contract is signed.  Do not allow the level of detail in either drawings or specifications to be reduced by a builder’s attitude.

Pollution Control Program (PCP)
A pollution control program is a set of written guidelines in the specifications for controlling the spread of dust and other pollutants.  Items that might be contained in a pollution control program include the covering of existing or new air duct supply and return diffusers prior to construction, the denial of smoking on the premises, air volume isolation of the remaining structure for the renovation or addition work, a ban on on-site burning of materials, arrangements for or denial of the use of combustion-powered equipment, the cleanup and disposal of construction debris, ventilation and exhaust of chemical gases and construction dusts, and control of generated humidity.  Other factors include protection of materials to be installed from contamination at the manufacturer’s storage facility or on the job site.  Drywall, for example, can act as a sink absorbing chemicals in its vicinity and later releasing them.

During the construction of the project, it is important to keep a record of which products have been selected, which of these have been self-tested by the person with allergies, and what alternatives have replaced those materials originally selected.  It is also important to document any telephone conversations that have occurred between the builder and the owner’s representative as well as any meetings that have occurred between the parties.  All parties involved in the project should be given copies of these documents on a regular basis and asked to respond with corrections within a certain period of time.  This documentation will clarify verbally discussed issues before they become a misunderstanding.  If new air-handling or other equipment has been installed, the contractor should be required to explain the operation of the equipment and how to maintain it, in addition to providing all of the manufacturer’s documentation and warranties for the equipment.

Review of Construction Progress and Key Inspections
Prior to construction, the points at which special examinations must occur should be identified.  These might be just after the air barrier, insulation, and vapour barrier have been installed.  Other special construction components may require their own review prior to being covered up by additional construction.  Before paying a request for payment by the contractor, the owner’s representative should examine the work and approve payment only for work completed.  This won’t guarantee that there is enough money remaining to finish the work if the contractor defaults, but it makes it more certain that you will get what you pay for.

The process of construction has potential pitfalls for persons with allergies and chemical sensitivities, regardless of the size of the project; but if education and research are conducted and all parties are aware of the intent, it can be successfully managed.  The intelligent homeowner will factor into a construction budget the fee of a knowledgeable consultant.  And remember, careful self-testing of materials and close-knit communication between the building designer, contractor, the MCS/allergy client, and the client’s representative are crucial elements in the project’s ultimate success.

Preston Sturgis, AIA, is an architect specializing in MCS/allergy design in Atlantic, Georgia.

Reprinted with permission from the Human Ecologist, Spring 1993, P.O. Box 49126, Atlanta, GA, 30359-1126 (404) 248-1898.