In this podcast, Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA, EcoNest Architecture Inc. Healthy Home Design and Consulting, talks about the emerging and important field of healthy, green architecture, and the steps we can take to improve health in our environments.
Baker-Laporte was educated at the University of Toronto’s School of Architecture and The International Institute of Bau-Biologie and Ecology. She is a recognized leader in environmentally sound and health enhancing architecture.
Baker-Laporte provides an overview of ‘healthy’ architecture. She discusses the sensitivity she had to various chemicals for years that caused her to suffer through many terrible health problems. Because of her own personal experiences, she was motivated to learn more and she began to study how environments, specifically architectural ones, can sometimes negatively impact health.
Baker-Laporte talks about the problems homes can have within them, from various chemicals, to mold, to electromagnetic radiation. She discusses possible avenues for improvement of the living environments we utilize, from standalone filtration systems, to reorganizing where we sleep, to vacuuming and cleaning, etc.
Richard Jacobs: Hello, this is Richard Jacobs with the future tech and future tech health podcast. I have Paula Baker-Laporte. She works at Healthy Home Design and Consulting. She graduated from the University of Toronto, school of architecture and the International Institute of biology and ecology. And she’s dedicated her architectural practice as a registered architect and a fellow. So the precepts of environmentally sound health enhancing architecture, which sounds good to me. So I get a feeling from going into the buildings, either a good or a bad one. And I thought for a while it was surprising how much a building environment affects me mentally and emotionally. It does. Maybe I’m a sensitive person, I don’t know, but I have a feeling that her work is super important. So Paula welcome.
Paula Baker-Laporte: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Richard Jacobs: So within the world of architecture, why, why this focus that went through you to it?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Oh, well, I came upon this focus when I became ill 30 years ago. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I went from doctor to doctor to doctor and finally discovered that I was sensitive to chemicals. It was an eye-opener because no one has ever mentioned anything about health. The whole time I had studied Architecture.
Richard Jacobs: Is it just chemicals in your home or everywhere?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Everywhere. I was one of ’em a growing number of people who became pretty sensitized and so reacted to chemicals at a very small amount in any environment that was thought to be a safe amount.
Richard Jacobs: When you say you reacted, what would happen? Would you sneeze or cough or feel sick?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Well it’s different for everybody or there are many different paths it could take for me. Because I was living in an environment that was not a healthy environment. Unbeknownst to me, I was getting pneumonia every year. And then when I was exposed to raw chemicals I would lose focus or feel dizzy or a number of symptoms. I was just feeling unwell. I was tired. And once I understood that chemical could affect me this way I could see the one-on-one relationship. For example, I would go to the shopping mall and get a headache cause I was in there and often couldn’t remember what I’d come to get. And it turns out that the formaldehyde levels in shopping malls, at least back then were fairly high because they use formaldehyde in and all the clothing to size it neatly on the stores. So once I understood where chemicals were in an environment, it would just become, Oh yes, this is causing that. But until then it was a big mystery and it was a mystery to any of the doctors I went to because they’d never heard of this.
Richard Jacobs: So one place, I guess you could control was at least your home environment and probably your car.
Paula Baker-Laporte: Exactly, yes. At first, I thought, well I can’t be an architect anymore because I’m exposed to chemicals all the time. And then I said, wait a minute, if they’re bad for me, aren’t they bad for other people who aren’t as symptomatic? How can we do this healthier? So that became a wonderful new start to a career that’s 30 years ago and it’s just been our focus for all of that time.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Did you start with your own home? How did you start to implement? How do you change the architecture rebuilding or how do you alter the environments? How did you start the process?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Well, it’s ironic because I was doing home for a person who was a doctor who later became my dear friend and my coauthor of our first book. And she discovered she was chemically sensitive. She was working at a clinic that was using pesticides and the fresh air return was sucking up from the sterilization of the medical equipment. And she was getting sicker and sicker and didn’t know why. And so by the time we were starting her house, she said, Paula, I know what’s wrong with me and guess what? That’s what’s wrong with you too. And so that was our first healthy house. And I thought it was going to be my only healthy house. We started to learn what we could at that time. And then people started calling us, Hey, we’re coming out of the woodwork and saying, I have the same thing. I heard that you two know what to do. Can you help me? And so that was the start of this path. And then we thought, well, we know so much, we’ll write a book. And then the prospect of writing a book, we realized we were just skimming the surface. And so lots of research came after that.
Richard Jacobs: So what are some things that people can do or what are some things that you found are essential to do to make sure the environment is better than it could be? So someone’s affected by the chemical sensitivity, what do they start with? How do they start figuring out if they do or not, or assuming that they do, how they start the process of improving their environments?
Paula Baker-Laporte: So how do you make a healthy house is really the question and I’ll give some highlights. Basically you do a thousand things differently. Those thousand things have gotten easier and easier to do as the public and manufacturers become aware that helping materials should be used in the construction of a home. What goes wrong with homes? Well, there are three basic things that we see over and over again. Either the house has too many chemicals in it or the house gets moldy, or there’s electromagnetic radiation either generated by the household wiring or coming into the house from surroundings. So if you already live in a house that isn’t supporting health, there are several things you can do if you’re going to do renovation and your funds are limited, people’s funds are limited for this kind of project. Then we start with a bedroom and create what’s called a bedroom sanctuary. So it beast when that person is sleeping for their eight hours, seven hours in bed there, they don’t have sheets with chemicals, they don’t have a bed with chemicals. They’ve turned off the electricity to the room and the room has been checked for mold. Once people get sick, they have trouble finding places to live because they can’t tolerate what many people think they’re in a fine home. But to someone who’s already ill and is hypersensitive at home is a sick home. So start with the bedroom, start with standalone filters. If we’re starting from scratch, we do eliminate the most probable causes of things that will turn into moldy houses. Later where do we find mold? Crawlspaces basements addicts leak. So we build in measures that will prevent that from happening. Specify every camp, every product going into the buildings to make sure that they’re the nine and don’t have chemicals of concern and introduce protocols into the construction. And the result is that you will walk in a home that has no odor. Electromagnetics has been tamed and it’s a home that overtime won’t get moldy.
Richard Jacobs: So what if you’re too overwhelmed by the whole process and you’re not feeling well ready? How can you take the first baby steps towards helping yourself and you’re on a limited budget?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Welcome to the world. And most people who are in this situation, as I said, if you have a home that’s at least workable, in other words, the home may have some chemicals, there aren’t any overriding mold problems and you’re not living next door to a cell tower or something that you have no control over. Then the first baby step is where am I sleeping? As I mentioned secondly, get standalone filtration. So there are portable air filters that on combined that do a really good job of filtering out chemicals, opening windows, just deeper cleaning with non-toxic cleaning products, getting a HEPA vacuum, making sure that there’s not a lot of dust and chemicals in the dust that you’re breathing all the time. All of those things are simpler things that you can do.
Richard Jacobs: What is like the hidden sources that seem to be the worst offenders for people? Let’s say start with the bedroom. Is it sheets and the pillows and cases or is it just the air in the bedroom?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Well the answer is going to be yes. What could be in a bedroom? Well, the walls could be moldy. It could be exterior walls or it could be hidden mold that you wouldn’t know about, couldn’t smell, and couldn’t see. It could be there are electromagnetic issues with the home wiring that can be corrected or at least shut off at night. And it could be that the bed most standard beds have a lot of chemicals in them, including fire retardants. So you start with what you have, you take the obvious electrical, you don’t need a plug-in alarm clock beside your head. You can afford a better mattress. Go there. If you can’t, then get a mattress cover that’s benign. Get cotton sheets that are organic, they’re readily available now. Make sure the home is clean and the room is clean and uncluttered. So those are baby steps that one can take.
Richard Jacobs: What about the architecture of the home itself is the way to layout the rooms? Obviously you could open the window, et cetera, or open the doors, but is there a way to design a home so that airflow’s better and is not stagnant? There are probably a lot of things to consider. Like what are some of the architectural things?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Absolutely. Sure. If we’re starting from scratch just for I’ll say a normal healthy house for a healthy person. We want to examine is there a basement or crawl space? Does there have to be one? If one has to have one, what steps do we make to create it healthier? What often happens is people move into a brand new home with a brand new basement, put sheetrock in the walls of the basement. Those basement walls are still drying for many, many years and sheetrock would get more cause that’s paper faced. So I won’t get into too many details, but there for each, there are many steps you can take to finish out a basement, for example, if you have to have one if you can do without one or crawl space. Wonderful. The attached garage is another obvious source of pollution that is so common that people don’t even think twice about it. So can you have a detached garage with a breezeway leading into your house that would be healthiest? Yes, the garage has to be attached when you exhaust the air out of the garage, can you make it airtight, the connection to the house, et cetera. So there are many, many levels we can work on. One is, there’s the ideal home and then there’s how do we work the cultural compromises? Now I’ve had people tell me we can’t detach the garage because it’ll lessen our real estate value. How do we work with that to make the best out of the not so good built-in cultural problem? Rooms can be designed so they each have cross ventilation. Now for someone with special needs, we can introduce higher levels of filtration. I like to create a screened-in porch where people can sleep outdoors. If anything happens to the home. They’re not homeless. They have somewhere they can. We take care of definite electromagnetics, et cetera. And some people, for example, can’t even be around kitchen smells, the smell of food cooking show them that needs to be a nice way to the group. Some people need absolute decontamination of their visitors. Their house is fine. And then someone comes in who lives in a moldy house in that could they be ill? So sometimes we created decontamination for guests.
Richard Jacobs: Yeah. You know, it’s funny as is evoking a whole bunch of memories. Like my dad smoked for a while and when my first child was born, my wife said, you can’t hold the baby unless you like to change your shirt, at least wash your hands and all that stuff. And I’m thinking about like, if I have ever accompanied my life to a nail salon, I can’t even stand to go in there. And the other people that worked in those places are alive and that did have all kinds of horrible diseases breathing that stuff. I just think, now that as you’re talking, I just feel like over time I’ve gotten more sensitive to stuff like, Hey, my wife got into an accident and we got a new car and I couldn’t ride it the first two months because they must have treated all the interior stuff with seasonal horrible chemicals. And it just gave me terrible allergies. I have someone wipe down the inside of the car and leave the windows open overnight three nights in a row. I mean, just to let you get rid of that crap. It’s terrible.
Paula Baker-Laporte: It is terrible. And new cars are very, very challenging and there are things you can do. There’s a new car filter that you can get from the company Faust and they make a filter that has a canister in it for the kinds of chemicals that are found in new cars. And that has been the only way I’ve survived a new car is to drive around with that filter going for the first few months. And so you are typical then of someone who’s beginning to realize they are sensitive. One of the telltale signs is smelled bother you.
Richard Jacobs: My wife has switched to like a lot of natural cleaners, vinegar, things like that. And then all of a sudden like, someone else in my house probably leeches things in the toilets and I was like, made me sick. I was like, I cannot have that. You know, right away it was just awful.
Paula Baker-Laporte: You bring up a great point. Products that a person uses in their house are crucial. It’s not enough to just create a healthy home that an unaware homeowner could ruin it in a day by plugging in those, sent it to air things or using centered laundry products. So it goes hand in hand. You need to be educated about how you use the house and you’re mentioning some really good examples. So I didn’t want to look at that.
Richard Jacobs: Yeah, no, that’s fine. It’s just part of the problem is when you live with someone, if they’re not sensitive to you, they’ll tell you, Oh, you’re fine. I don’t smell anything. There’s also a psychological component where people have to respect. And I understand that some people have these problems, it may not bother you at all, but then someone else that may be as horrible.
Paula Baker-Laporte: Yes. Absolutely. And there’s a little bit more awareness now. Now you’ll see occasionally this is a scent-free premise or it’s just like smoking. People who smoked didn’t realize that when you’re sitting in a restaurant you really don’t want to be inhaling their fumes. But the idea of not allowing people to smoke in a restaurant was unheard of. What was it, 20 or 30 years ago? And now it’s the norm. And I’m hoping we’ll come to that same level of awareness just about scented products in general.
Richard Jacobs: When I’ve travel now I go to hotels and it seems like just every room has stuff in it. It’s frustrating. I’m sure it makes it very difficult if it gets bad enough to go anywhere.
Paula Baker-Laporte: It is. Many people are pretty homebound. I travel, I consider myself well now and I travel a lot for work, but I still call it head to the hotel and make sure that she turns centered and that they’re willing to clean the room with just vinegar and water.
Richard Jacobs: Oh you ask for that?
Paula Baker-Laporte: You can ask for that. And most places don’t think you’re crazy anymore. 20 years ago they thought it was nuts. Even have places hang up on me. But now there’s so much more aware that if you know, to ask you might be okay.
Richard Jacobs: Is there an MCS or multiple chemical sensitivity designation that people can get if they have enough problems so that when they travel when they go to places that they can show a badge or something and request basically modified and that would give some credibility to what they are saying?
Paula Baker-Laporte: I wish there were, more doctors are finally becoming aware of MCS. I still don’t know if it’s a recognized condition by the AMA. And so know that doesn’t usually work, but people are aware of allergies and I, even flying in Canada, I’ve heard announcements don’t open any bags with peanuts in them. There may be someone with peanuts sensitivities and now things are labeled. So I don’t even bother to explain it. I just say I am allergic to refuse and contexts that they may begin to understand that once you do create a home that’s the sanctuary. It’s very hard to travel. It’s appalling really to realize the toxics that is out there in day to day living in many environments. Most environments.
Richard Jacobs: I was going to joke with you that the AMA would never be able to say that MCS is a condition because they would want to prescribe another chemical to fix it, but you wouldn’t work.
Paula Baker-Laporte: Yeah. Well, a lot of people are misdiagnosed and then when the diagnosis doesn’t work, they’re referred to a psychiatrist. Many people have chemical sensitivity, see many doctors before they finally find some who can work with them. Same thing with mold toxicity and electromagnetic. They’re complex conditions. I am happy that it seems we’re headed in the right direction medically. We’re just not there yet for people who are suffering
Richard Jacobs: How do people work with you or what is the name for a consultant that you could get, help you evaluate your homes? Air and EMS? Are they called building biologists?
Paula Baker-Laporte: Yes. Well, I work as an architect more. I’m not a home inspector per se. I work at the other end of the spectrum, but the building biology Institute is a great organization, it’s my mother organization and the faculty there and have been involved for many, many years because when all of these things were wrong with me, they were the only ones that understood what was going on. And on their website buildingbiologyinstitute.org. There’s a find an expert page and it’s listed geographically in there. Someone could go and find people with the certification to come in and look at their home in a holistic way and test it and see what’s wrong, what’s going on, what’s wrong with it, and then offer constructive suggestions about how to repair it.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. And then the last couple of questions. So on the architecture side, what do you find yourself doing and what kind of clients are requesting it? I mean, you get any commercial requests or are these all residential?
Paula Baker-Laporte: I really mostly specialize in residential. I’ve worked on some commercial things, but I wear two hats. We do architectural design from the very beginning for people who want health. And then I can apply all of the wonderful subtle principles of building biology that not only create a house that’s toxic-free, it’s nurturing in every respect. I love doing that work. But I also work as a consultant all over North America for people who have already sensitivities or other people who just know they want a healthy house. And then I work with their team, their architects, their builder, their officials and we work together and I help with educating the team and then prepare a manual for them. It’s about a 70 or 80-page manual that at best becomes part of the construction contract and lists all of the protocols and materials that are safe. And then we’re on hand to that other materials. If the builder wants to use them or it’s all that’s available or there’s some belief that is defined product, we’ll look at it and let the owners and the team know, yes, this is a healthy product. Go ahead and use it or we don’t know enough about it. From the information available or you’re some chemicals of concern that are red-listed by 20 organizations, I wouldn’t use this. This is worth sending away for something better.
Richard Jacobs: Are there any that you were able to mention on the hit list? Good or bad? Surprisingly good or surprisingly bad.
Paula Baker-Laporte: Chemicals? There are about 85,000 chemicals and we only have complete information on about 7% of them. So there’s a lot of information missing. But of that 7 %, there are chemicals like, well, good examples, formaldehyde. Now you will see products that say they’re formaldehyde-free. When I got ill, it was primarily from formaldehyde and it was in everything. Paint, glues. It was just used throughout the house and like, you, I started off kind of a sensitive person and it just threw me over the top. So if I see, I can guarantee that if there’s for every product that has formaldehyde in it, there’s another product made for the same purpose that doesn’t anymore. So there are several red lists better available by different organizations. And we pay attention to the mall and we call those the chemicals of concern. If someone wants a very quick view of education in this, I would send them to the green science Institute and their six classes. Arlene bloom came up with six classes of chemicals that we should avoid and there’s a little video on each of them. So in a short amount of time, someone can learn about the major challenges in a potentially inner environment and to avoid those. So I think that’s a great start for anyone.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Well, that’s fantastic. I’m glad to speak to you. Paula thank you for coming on the podcast.
Paula Baker-Laporte: You’re welcome. Look for our fourth edition of prescriptions for a healthy house. It’s going to be coming out sometime probably in the New Year and that’ll be the most complete and Up-to-date book that we’ve done. It should be very helpful to anyone.
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