Advice: Low toxic materials

With advances in technology, there are now many more construction materials available to us today than there were 100 years ago. Man has developed ways to produce new materials, which are able to perform many different tasks that historically would have been a challenge. Sadly, many of these new materials are formed from synthetic materials such as plastics, cements and glues, which can be harmful to human health if breathed in.


Some materials such as plastics and some glues contain high levels of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) / chemicals. These can off-gas into the atmosphere over time, which will be breathed in by occupants. Research has suggested that the inhaled gasses from such materials can lead to health problems such as asthma, fatigue, headaches etc.


Other materials, such as cements, fibrous insulations, plasters and carpets etc can release micro particles into the atmosphere, which like VOCs, we breath in. Particulates of at a PM2.5 size are gaining particular recognition for the damage they can have on human health.


With multiple potentially harmful products being used in buildings, there can be something of a cocktail effect, where it becomes difficult to isolate one product over another as a pollutant.    


At Fox Eco Architects, we place low pollutant material specification as high on our priority list as we do minimising the use of energy. It's that important to us! We therefore strive to specify the least harmfully pollutant materials in our buildings, thereby providing healthy and comfortable internal environments for all occupants.


Monitoring indoor air quality within a French CobBauge building. Photo by Fox (2023). 

Decentralised mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery. Photo by Lunos (2022). 

In the past, our homes were very draughty, which would have meant that polluting particles from building materials and day-to-day activities (such as cooking over a stove) would have ventilated more quickly.


However, we have seen our overall building standards improve dramatically in more recent years, as the building regulations demand ever improved standards of thermal performance and airtightness. With the addition of the PassivHaus standard, where airtightness levels of ≤ 0.6 air changes/hour are required, buildings in general are becoming much more sealed. This is fantastic for minimising energy use.


To control indoor air quality and pollutants in highly airtight buildings, we use sophisticated mechanical ventilation systems. These are excellent at replacing poor indoor air with fresh air whilst retaining the indoor heat through heat exchanger units. However, they are only as good as the level of maintenance they receive. A well-maintained ventilation system will provide years of controlled clean fresh air. Sadly, not all systems are maintained and can result in very poor levels of indoor air quality. We therefore believe that even if you have a good mechanical ventilation system in place, you should also consider the material specification so that you can be sure of the indoor air quality for you and your family. 


Photo of the Plymouth CobBauge building where we specified materials with indoor air quality in mind. Photo by Fox (2022). 

What about ventilation to control indoor air quality?

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