Bau Biologie (Building Biology)

In the early 90’s Paula’s entire approach to building design was transformed, when she studied the Building Biology principles for human health and ecology. After several years of applying these principles to her design work and experiencing the results she began to work closely with the institute to develop coursework for North American designers, builders and homeowners. Since 2005 Paula has been teaching seminars for the Institute of Building Biology and Ecology. Paula co- teaches the Natural Healthy Building Seminar annually to candidates for the Institute’s Building Biology Environmental Consultant (BBEC)  and she is co-developing the coursework for the Institute’s new certification track for architects and builders, Building Biology New-build Consultant (BBNC) accreditations. 

What is Building Biology and how does it differ from Green Building?

Many people in the building industry have worked hard to define and systematize the tools for assessing the “greenness” of our buildings. While saving the planet from the excessive consumption of human beings is the driving force, almost all environmental scorecards contain a section on indoor environmental quality. These include requirements to reduce the quantity of toxins used in construction and ensure that a sufficient amount of fresh air is supplied to the home. This is certainly an improvement over conventional home building, which has all too often lead to sick building syndrome and chronically ill occupants.

But does this go far enough? Just as wellness is far more than absence of disease, a home that truly nurtures health and well-being is far more than an environment that is free of toxins.

Have you ever experienced that special feeling of peace and serenity upon walking into a home made of natural materials? Bau-biologie is a science-based building study that explains the benefits of this time-honored way of creating shelter.

Bau-biologie, or building biology as it is now called in the US, originated in Germany in the early 1960’s. At that time, long before we recognized building related illness in North America, it had become evident that a growing segment of their population was chronically unwell as a result of living in the mass produced industrialized housing that was constructed post-WWII. A multi-disciplinary gathering of concerned professionals systematically compared these homes with the traditional housing of pre-industrial homes, made of natural materials, using various forms of clay. What resulted was a set of scientific standards for evaluating indoor environmental quality and 25 principles for building new homes and workplaces.

In Northern Europe Baubiologie has become a household word synonymous with built environments that are healthy and ecologically sound. Born from its unique sociological and building context, the movement developed a standard for health and ecology that is fundamentally different from the way we have approached the healthy home in North America. Here we build conventional homes out of light wood frame construction. With what seemed like a never-ending supply of cheap energy, we didn’t worry too much about air- tightness or insulation and so the original light frame homes received plenty of uncontrolled fresh outside air. With the energy crisis of the 70’s insulating and sealing homes became a priority. In these tightly sealed improperly vented homes moisture and air quality problems became rampant. As a result a significant segment of our population now suffers from MCS, allergies and asthma.

In the 1980’s John Bower, a healthy home pioneer, formulated an approach to creating a healthier light frame home. Its essence can be summarized in three words: eliminate, isolate, ventilate. Eliminate as many pollutants as possible from within the building envelope. Ensure an airtight barrier on the inside (isolate) so there is less need to worry about the chemical composition of the structure and insulation and so that accidental air infiltration is arrested. Mechanically ventilate to ensure that enough controlled outside air is introduced and pollutants and moisture created by the building and its occupants are exhausted. The adoption of these principles to conventional home construction, as advocated by green rating programs, is a huge improvement over conventional homes that do not apply these principles.

Much of the green movement, in working with conventional materials and methods of construction, has sought to achieve healthier and more energy efficient homes by introducing more sophisticated technology. Ideally mechanical equipment with sensors would control temperature, humidity, light and ventilation creating the optimally efficient “machine” for living in. However mechanical systems inevitably fail over time and perhaps this level of mechanism, although creating measurable energy savings over our norm, is not enough to attain that elusive and immeasurable evolutionary turning point called “sustainability”. Concurrently we are creating occupants who no longer know how to interact with their homes in a meaningful way.  From a building biology perspective this is far from an ideal way to build a home!

Building biology also advocates eliminating toxins from the building process. But, in contrast, it views the home as an organism that interacts with its natural environment, and it views the natural environment as the gold standard against which indoor environmental quality should be measured. The exterior wall is analogous to a third skin. Natural organic cottons and wool clothing, our second skin, create a more comfortable “biological interface” than most synthetic fabrics because they are breathable and don’t create static electricity. Natural building materials are viewed as the ideal solution by Building Biology for the same reason. Wall materials are selected for their capacity to allow for the passage of vapor without deteriorating and without the need for synthetic vapor barriers. This can create a comfortable interior climate by moderating natural conditions without distorting nurturing aspects that are present in fresh outdoor air.

Building biology is unique in that it considers a variety of environmental quality parameters. According to building biology an ideal home environment should achieve a natural balance of ionization, reduce the influence of human-caused electromagnetic fields (ideally to zero in the bedroom while sleeping), avoid building over naturally occurring geopathic disturbances, heat with radiant source without creating heat monotony, dust, noise or heat stratification, use light and color as is found in nature, balance humidity, heat and cooling naturally and much more.

This is nothing new.  Humans have built climatically responsive buildings of natural materials for millennium and although a certain level of mechanism may be a welcome addition, it is not a replacement. Old World architecture has continually served its occupants for generations having endured the cycles of nature for centuries.

In North America homes built this way are the exception but the natural building movement is alive and well in North America and if you are in the privileged position to build a home from scratch consider one of these solid walled natural alternatives.

There are also many ways to follow the valuable principles of building biology in an existing conventionally built home. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Hire a building biology inspector to do a general wellness inspection on your home.
  • Turn your bedroom into a regenerative, organic, petro-chemical-free and electro-magnetic free sleeping zone.
  • Add mass and natural color to your home by plastering the walls with a clay-based plaster.
  • Build-in a masonry heater for less dependence on forced air heat and fossil fuels.
  • Open windows whenever possible; add plants, natural fabrics, and finishes to create a more natural negative ion balance.
  • Extend your home beyond its skin. Create natural surroundings that shade, filter air and noise pollution and provide for extended outdoor living.

For more information on building biology resources and for Paula’s 213 class schedule with the Institute visit the IBE (International Institute for Bau-biologie and Ecology) website.

The 25 Principles of Building Biology

Site and Community Design

  1. Verify that the site is free of naturally occurring health hazards.
  2. Place dwellings so occupants are undisturbed by sources of man-made air, soil, water, noise and electro-pollution.
  3. Place dwellings in well-planned communities that provide ample access to fresh air, sunshine, and nature.
  4. Plan homes and developments considering the needs of community, families, and individuals while respecting the natural environment.

 

Occupant Health and Well-Being

  1. Use natural and unadulterated building materials.
  2. Allow natural self-regulation of indoor air humidity using hygroscopic (humidity buffering) materials.
  3. Assure low total moisture content and rapid desiccation of wet construction processes in new buildings.
  4. Design for a climatically appropriate balance between thermal insulation and thermal storage capacity.
  5. Plan for climatically appropriate surface and air temperature.
  6. Provide for ample ventilation.
  7. Use thermal radiation strategies for heating buildings including passive solar energy wherever viable.
  8. Provide an abundance of well-balanced natural light and illumination while using color in accordance with nature.
  9. Provide adequate acoustical protection from harmful noise and vibration.
  10. Utilize non-toxic building materials that have neutral or pleasant natural scents.
  11. Use appropriate water and moisture exclusion techniques to prevent interior growth of fungi, bacteria, dust and allergens.
  12. Assure best possible potable water quality by applying purification technologies if required.
  13. Utilize physiological and ergonomic knowledge in interior and furniture design.
  14. Consider proportion, harmonic measure, order, and good shape in design.

 

Natural and Man-Made Electro-Magnetic Radiation Safety

  1. Minimize indoor interference with vital cosmic and terrestrial radiation.
  2. Minimize man-made power system and radio frequency radiation exposure generated from within the building and from outside sources.
  3. Avoid use of building materials that have elevated radioactivity levels.

 

Environmental Protection, Social Responsibility and Energy Efficiency

  1. Construction materials production and building processes shall provide for health and social well being in every phase of the building’s life cycle.
  2. Avoid the use of building materials that deplete irreplaceable natural resources or are being harvested in an unsustainable manner.
  3. Minimize energy consumption throughout the life of the building utilizing climate-based and energy efficient design, energy and water saving technologies and renewable energy.
  4. Consider the embodied energy and environmental life cycle costs when choosing all materials used in construction.

 

To learn more about Bau Biologie attend an educational event with Institute of Building Biology and Ecology instructor Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA.