When confined to your home, how can you make sure the spaces you spend all your time in are good for your health, as well as the planet's?
This crisis has quite literally brought home the importance of having a decent space to live and work in. Do you remember what life was like when we used to leave the house every morning to go to the office? In just a couple of months we've shifted to a home-centric lifestyle, but with little variety in workspaces and limited access to the outdoors, can the spaces we occupy do more for our physical and mental health?
Buildings can affect our wellbeing in several ways: air quality, humidity, thermal comfort, daylight, views, acoustics, and spatial quality all play their part.
Studies have shown that as levels of CO2 climb above 1000ppm, people’s cognitive performance severely reduces (Mumovic et al, n.d.) Therefore it is vital that the spaces in which we work are well ventilated. There is also significant evidence to suggest that buildings with high levels of natural daylight, views to nature and a natural material pallet are far better for our mental health (Mind, 2018).
Many commonly used materials release Volatile Organic Compounds [VOCs] and other toxic substances into the air, which can be extremely damaging to our bodies. Even if they are not toxic, many construction methods and materials involve plastic and cement, both of which prevent natural humidity regulation (breathability) and can therefore cause a build up of moisture leading to damp. Not to mention the high embodied-energy and lack of recyclability of such materials.
So what steps can you take to ensure that your home is a healthy environment for you and your family to live and work in?
Perhaps you've recently relocated your office to the dining table, or maybe you've got ideas to create a new home workspace. Before you do, we've put together some useful tips to help create the healthiest environment.
For quick fixes, locate your workspace on the north or east side of your home for a more consistent light and reduction in screen glare. Setting up by a window is great to give your eyes regular breaks from your screen with a more distant view.
If building a new extension or garden room, consider what materials you will use in terms of their impacts on human and planetary health. Often the best solution is to use timber for the structure and insulate it with a natural product, such as sheep's wool, hemp wool, or wood fibre batts. All of these soft insulations are readily available at stores or online, have a low embodied energy (or 'low carbon') and are safe to handle and install yourself. If building new, you might also consider materials such as straw bales, hempcrete or limecrete, although these require more specialist skills.
Sketch detail of how to retrofit natural insulation into a standard shed wall. ©Grain Architecture
Or if you're on a tight budget and you’ve got an old garden shed that's under used, then why not retrofit it into a comfortable garden office or den to retreat to?
During the lockdown, Janna from Grain Architecture has been busy converting the shed at the bottom of the garden using natural insulations and a range of scrap materials. She's using solid cork to insulate the floor, rigid wood fibreboard to insulate the walls, and has also installed a reclaimed window. Even just a small amount of insulation reduces energy demand and keeps the space comfortable, so try to get as much in as possible.
Ideally any timber floor should have ventilation underneath it, so try to ensure the gap under your shed isn't blocked. Solid cork is great for floors because it deals with moisture so well, and you can lay boards straight on top of it. While there are many products you can use for walls and roofs, a solid wood fibre board with a tongue and groove edge gets great air tightness, and can be installed as a continuous layer inside the shed structure, leaving a ventilated gap between cladding and insulation, and you can put lime/clay plaster straight onto it, or finish with panelling. Heavy shelves should be fixed through it into the timbers behind, so remember to make a note of where they are.
Installing cork board as solid floor insulation and tongue and groove wood fibre board wall insulation for a shed conversion into garden office. ©Grain Architecture
While Grain's new garden office is still underway, our friend Rob has already completed his artist's retreat; we asked him what his top tip would be:
“I challenged myself to build something from the panels of an old 1980s summer house. The project cost nothing other than the stove, flue and bits, which I bought several years ago for £35. The most satisfying part was using whatever I could find and giving long lost odds and ends a new use. My top tip would be to just do it, and build!”
So with a bit of knowledge, the right attitude, and some natural materials, you can ensure that your DIY skills create a healthy home or workspace for you, your family and the planet.
Mind. (2018). Nature and mental health. [Online]. Available from: https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/2931/nature-and-mental-health-2018.pdf [Accessed 28th April 2020]
Mumovic, D. Chatzidiakou, L. Williams, J. Burman, E. (n.d.) Indoor Air Quality in London’s Schools. London: Greater London Authority