Air Quality in the Home: VOCs and Envelopes

Air Quality in the Home: VOCs and Envelopes

Recently, Charles spoke at “Living Well in Your Lifetime Home,” a workshop featuring three certified aging-in-place specialists and industry experts: Charles; Amy Homan Depoy, OT/L, founder and owner of Cardinal Care, LLC; and Gabby Koontz, principal of Rendered Homes. This event was sponsored by VPAS in partnership with Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation. What a wonderful opportunity to share with the community. 

While Charles discussed a wide range of designs and considerations, he highlighted indoor air quality as a very important design consideration for everyone. This is especially true as you age because you can become even more sensitive to poor air quality. 


Charles speaks in front of people sitting at tables about Aging-In-Place design.


There are many considerations when it comes to indoor air quality, and one is VOCs, which are present in all of our homes and potentially hazardous to our health.

VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. Many products used in home construction have these chemicals that are released into the air post-installation, called off-gassing. You might be surprised to know that VOCs are in every house and can be found in many common products including paints, lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, printers, correction fluid, and glues. This is something to be taken seriously. VOCs can trigger asthma, eye irritation, cough, dizziness, and other adverse long-term health effects, and they are known to cause certain cancers. 


Envelopes and Energy-Efficiency

Concentrations of VOCs are often found to be higher indoors than outdoors (an obvious conclusion looking at air circulation and volume of space). To compound the problem, the level of these chemicals could even be higher in an energy-efficient’ home that does not have a dedicated fresh air system. 

This is because the more air-tight a building envelope is, the more likely it is energy-efficient. (A building envelope refers to the walls and other materials separating the indoor air from the outdoor air). Creating an airtight home reduces energy leaks at all the gaps and cracks in your home’s walls (around windows and doors, where materials meet, plumbing penetrations, and more). This traps the air inside the home and doesn’t allow in outdoor air. While this prevents energy loss (or gain depending on the season) it also prevents the house from “airing out.” Air pressure around the home and in the home also plays a part in that, but that is for another blog on another day.


What should you do?

So what should you do if you want to save money with an energy-efficient home and you want to decrease VOCs and their harmful effects? Is this a catch-22? As scary as this may sound, it is not all doom and gloom, and there are ways to mitigate the amount of VOCs you will come into contact with in your home.

  1. In the construction stage, carefully select products. VOCs can be found in many products including paints, lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and glues. We typically select products that have low to No VOCs in them for our clients when possible.
  2. Include a dedicated fresh air system integrated with the heating and cooling system. This will draw in conditioned and filtered air into your home rather than relying on leaks in your home for “fresh” air.
  3. Open your windows occasionally (if your allergies are not too triggered by the pollen levels).

Until products are no longer made with VOCs, these strategies will not eliminate 100% of VOCs, but they will diminish a known health risk to your family. 

Holiday Decorating, the Sustainable Way.

Holiday Decorating, the Sustainable Way.

It’s that time of year again and many of us are are spending time joyfully decorating our homes. Before running out to big chain retailers for more decorations, consider a few of these tips to deck your halls this year. Don’t get us wrong, we love our store bought decorations as much as anyone else, but we also try to work in a few seasonal touches that reduce our footprint and save us money.

Candles and greenery are a great way to add festive touches to any space.
  1. Candles are a great way to add comfort and visual décor. Arrange tall candles on top of your mantle or table for a warm glow, or purchase a soy-wax candle that smells fantastic and is clean burning and non-toxic. Pictured above is a table at Annie’s house where she includes numerous natural elements and candles. Some of our favorites can be found at Lineage Goods.
  2. Try your hand at making your own decorations! A homemade wreath or garland can be a special focal point in your decorations. Bonus points if you can make this into a fun family or holiday gathering party to enjoy with others! If you are intimidated at the thought of making homemade items, YouTube can be your go-to guide. Here is a great tutorial on making a wreath.
  3. Opt for natural decorations and don’t be afraid to forage. Here in Virginia, there are plenty of species that add holiday charm around your home. Tuck your finds into a wreath, garland, or in a vase for some natural and seasonal beauty. Some of our favorites are magnolia leaves and seed cones, pinecones, and holly berries. Aside from foraging, a bowl of clementines with cloves or even a few pieces of cut firewood wrapped in festive ribbon can cozy up your space.
  4. Purchase quality, simple pieces you can customize each year with your evolving style. A simple sign made of quality materials can be customized with various ribbons, bows, and greenery.
  5. When decorating a tree or lighting up your windows, choose LED Christmas lights to use less energy.
  6. Think beyond visual decorations and awaken your senses with a stovetop potpourri. Annie’s favorite recipe calls for a few sliced oranges, fresh cranberries, cinnamon sticks, and cloves that gently simmer on the stove. This warm blend aromatics can make your home instantly feel warmer and cheerful.
A holiday potpourri is a great way to add comfort and warmth this holiday season.
  1. Save wrapping paper and frame it! Sometimes wrapping paper is just too beautiful to throw away. Try framing some of your favorite pieces for a beautiful holiday piece or even make a collage.
This wrapping paper was too beautiful to be tossed. After cleaning up the edges and mounting it in a frame, it’s now a beautiful piece that can be reused for years to come.
  1. Don’t be afraid to shop for vintage or thrifted pieces! Pre-loved pieces can add instant character to your home. In Harrisonburg, we enjoy perusing Heartworn Vintage, Gift & Thrift, and Green Valley Auction for unique holiday finds.


#EcoFriendly product round up!

#EcoFriendly product round up!

Choosing to live a more sustainable lifestyle can start by swapping out some of our everyday items for more eco-friendly options. We surveyed our team as to which are some of their go-to products they use in their own homes that help reduce their footprint. Check out this list and see if any of these items can be swapped out in your household!

  1. Stasher reusable silicone bags. A few of us use these great reusable bags for our snacks and small travel items instead of regular disposable bags.
  2. E cloth cleaners. Use these washable micro-fiber cloths for numerous cleaning surfaces around the house and ditch the disposable ones.
  3. Wool dryer balls. These eco-friendly dryer balls are a go-to product and are a great alternative to traditional dryer sheets.
  4. Nuuly clothing rental. This has been a fun new venture for Annie who appreciates the concept of reducing waste by renting different styles of clothes each month.
  5. Reusable Grocery bags and crates: A few of us try to make it a habit of keeping reusable bags in our vehicles so we always have them available. Cut down on using plastic bags and grab a few the next time you are checking out! Collapsible crates are also a helpful option to load heavier items without using extra plastic bags.
  6. Quality Reusable Water Bottles: when we aren’t guzzling down coffee, many of us have invested in insulated water bottles that cut down on single-use plastic water bottles.
  7. The best way to cut energy fast is to switch out your old light bulbs to LED. Charles says to use Cree bulbs.
  8. Refillable soap dispensers are a great way to cut down on singe-use plastics. As an additional design tip, look for decorative soap dispensers that coordinate with your bathroom or kitchen aesthetic. Companies such as the Grove Collaborative will deliver refills of your favorite soap and cleaning products to help you cut down on extra packaging.
  9. If a larger swap is possible, considering upgrading your HVAC to a ducted mini-split. Charles recommends this as an everyday item because it consistently keeps his house comfortable! This was an initial investment he made when moving into his older home a couple of years ago.
Taped ducts during construction protect your investment

Taped ducts during construction protect your investment

As we continue to see costs increase for construction it becomes even more important to follow proper protocol during construction. On a recent visit to a job site, I was thrilled to see taped ducts during construction protecting my client’s investment. If the ductwork is left open on the floor and walls then drywall dust and construction debris will fill those ducts, even if the system is not turned on. Then once the HVAC system is turned on dust and dirt will go through the mechanical system and hurt the durability and possibly destroy the brand-new HVAC system.

blue ridge mountain home

Seeing the ducts taken care of during construction speaks highly of the HVAC company and contractor and shows they not only understand the installation standards but care about the client. This simple practice does not take much time, but it is often not done. As we continue to see the cost of construction increase, it becomes even more important to protect the systems being installed. So remember: taped ducts during construction protect your investment.

Designing for the Trees at Meadow Branch

Designing for the Trees at Meadow Branch

These photos are from our Meadow Branch project in Winchester, Virginia where “green design” meant focusing on tree-saving measures. At first glance, these aerial photos capture the beginning phases of construction, but the real story is these beautiful oak trees and the surrounding trees around the property boundary. Preserving these trees and incorporating the centuries-old landmarks into the center of the site was critical to this design.

The above photo shows the trees remaining at the center of the site.

These photos show Phase II of the Meadow Branch project progress and you can catch a glimpse of our design for Phase I completed in the background. If you look closely, you can see the orange fence line outside the boundaries of the drip line. This extra care to preserve the historic trees along with the technical expertise of the arborist involved will give the trees the best chance of survival. We always enjoy seeing aerial photos of our projects taking shape, thank you KBS Builders for these photographs!

Phase II of Meadow Branch Apartments with Phase I completed in the background.

As this project continues to take shape, we are looking forward to seeing these trees become a central part of the design!

The Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project: Completing an Energy Audit

The Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project: Completing an Energy Audit

The Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project (SVBH) is a non-profit organization in Harrisonburg that exists to recover and share resources on African American history in the Shenandoah Valley. The impactful work put forth by these community members is coordinated and housed in the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Center located on Hill St. in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The Gaines Group partnered with SVBH in their efforts to improve the environmental stability of their building by completing an energy audit. This complimentary service helped identify areas that can be modified to reduce energy usage and increase the overall efficiency of the building.

Charles with members of the Carpenters Guild talking through improvements to Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Center.

After identifying areas of improvement, the Carpenter’s Guild of Harrisonburg donated their time and efforts to making energy-efficiency improvements and preparing the roof to install solar panels. Give Solar is promoting fundraising efforts to support the entirety of this project which includes the installation of solar panels. If you are interested in supporting this project, please visit their website to learn more about these efforts.

Members of the Carpenters Guild of Harrisonburg worked to make energy-related improvements.

Energy audits are a free service and a great opportunity to support organizations such as SVBH who are doing important work in our community. We have experience providing these audits in numerous homes, non-profit organizations, and various churches in our surrounding areas. We want everyone to feel comfortable in their living or working spaces and cut down on the overpayment of energy bills. Reach out if you or your organization are interested in this free service!

Renew Rocktown

Our last collaboration with Give Solar and the Carpenter’s Guild resulted in a more energy-efficient building at Our Community Place in Harrisonburg. This pro-bono work benefits the community by lowering the monthly utility bills of area non-profits making them more sustainable and our community more resilient.