COVID-19: Focus on Homes

June 4, 2020 | Tom Bassett-Dilley

The shelter-in-place order meant that homes were far more continuously and intensely used than in the recent past; this makes us consider how well they’re taking care of us. Home offices sprung up in mudrooms, bedrooms, basements; many families are cooking much more; and with parks and playgrounds closed, we look to our streets and yards to provide that much-needed outdoor time and Nature connection. As an architect, three issues I’m thinking about due to these new arrangements are air quality, privacy gradients, and nature connection.

Air Quality: this report from Rocky Mountain Institute sheds light on numerous facets of indoor air quality, including racial and income disparities and impacts on children; gas cooking turns out to be a big issue, even in homes with ventilation. To drill down, here’s a good Allison Bailes article specifically on kitchen ventilation and its flaws. The RMI article makes another interesting point—while we have created standards for limiting outdoor air pollution (the Clean Air Act, for example, threatened by the Trump administration), there are no maintenance* standards for indoor air, and in general, it looks pretty bad—though studies are needed. (*By maintenance, I mean what’s actually being lived in, separate from building code and ASHRAE requirements for ventilation, which do not necessarily ensure good air quality.)

One of the important improvements the Passive House standard makes over a typical home is the inclusion of a balanced, filtered ventilation system. A typical modern house only has exhaust for ventilation at bathroom and kitchen, and of course it only works when you turn it on (see the chart from the California IAQ study); and it doesn’t supply fresh air or filtration to bedrooms or living spaces. But a Passive House ventilation system continuously cleans the air at pollution points (baths, laundry, kitchen), and supplies filtered air to bedrooms and living spaces. These filters can be fine enough to reduce some virus-carrying droplets, as described in detail on this other fine post by Energy Vanguard. In all of our new houses and gut remodels, we design ERV systems; typically we specify MERV 13 filters, though the PHIUS standard requires MERV 8.

So what can you do now? First off, ALWAYS use your kitchen hood when you cook, and use the back burners first. Even boiling water can release CO and other toxins (not the water, the combustion byproducts), and the hood picks up fumes from the back burners better than the front ones. Open windows when you can. Get outside. Consider a finer filter for your HVAC system, but heed the advice on Energy Vanguard’s blog about potential effect on your fan (check with your service tech). Consider installing an energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Here’s the thing: less expensive ones like Panasonic’s spot ERV don’t work below 32F or so—you need to get one that can handle cold weather, like Panasonic’s Intelli-Balance, which means you’ll be into ducting; or you can get a pair or two of Lunos units, very clever retrofit devices; or you can get a unit that will connect to your house’s forced air system like the Renewaire unit (it will require new ductwork from your exhaust locations, but puts fresh air into your existing ductwork); or a stand-alone unit like the Zehnder, or, the gold standard in my opinion, the CERV from Build Equinox, a demand-controlled ventilation system with conditioning and continuous air quality monitoring.

Privacy Gradients: This may sound like architect-jargon; what I mean is that it’s good to have active areas where common activities (cooking) happen and family and friends can gather, and it’s good to have spaces where people can get away from the crowd and noise. It’s a general principle that can result in a space being called “home office” or “music room” or “library;” a good example of this is the “Away Room” or “Place of Your Own” as laid out in Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House concept. At TBDA, most of our houses, in response to client desires, have include a living-dining-kitchen area that is joined in one big rectangleL-shape, or other joined configuration; but these houses also feature a quiet non-bedroom space that can be used as office, place for a quiet conversation (or a Zoom meeting, these days. I’m finding in my house that it’s nice to have the kids at the table close to the kitchen (in nearly continuous use!), but the attic studio is a welcome feature when my wife gets on a Zoom call with 20 fourth graders.

What can you do now? Well, if it’s relatively easy, you’ve probably figured out a solution already; maybe you were able to re-think function and see your space in a new light. If it’s not so easy, remodeling may be worth considering, especially if it can solve other problems or otherwise help you upgrade your living environment. Often it’s a matter of space planning expertise and the experience a residential architect brings to see the big picture and make the best use of space, light, and structure.

Nature Connection: This dovetails to the remodeling comment above: it may not be a quick and easy fix. A house can be designed or remodeled to make the outdoors, or a courtyard, feel very much like a part of the home, which is good for us in many ways. Biophilic design is becoming more important as we spend more time indoors—our genetics aren’t that far away from our hunter-gatherer past, so we expect those inputs from the natural world, the variable sounds, smells, air movement, textures, and natural materials and patterns, to be fully alive. Our stress levels rise when we don’t get those and instead get the sound of the refrigerator humming, cars honking, an HVAC system blasting on, the soul-deadening environment of featureless drywall painted with plastic paint.

The concept of home must continue to evolve away from boxes-with-holes to shelter-in-nature; it’s more subtle than a glass box approach, best exemplified by buildings like Fallingwater and other Wright masterpieces; and we must recognize that our neighborhood structure of car-oriented grids with rectilinear family slots leaves much to be improved upon.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself and my family taking more walks around the neighborhood and appreciating the great Spring here; granted, this is in part because we have a new dog, but it’s also because we feel the need to change our environment and can’t go to a gym, library, restaurant, museum, or theater. We’re feeling grateful for our health and for a back yard and neighborhood that are enjoyable to be in. I hope you are (safely!) enjoying good places too, and keeping in good health.

Tom Bassett-Dilley Architects | Contact