5 actions to make your home healthier

We’re in allergy season right now. For those with fall allergies, you’re probably taking vitamins and medicine to help your body deal with the irritants in the air and prevent your allergies from turning into illness. Some may be ramping up the amount of exercise and water intake.

A lot of attention is given to our health and wellness, and it’s only when we get sick that we start to consider the influence that our environments, and specifically buildings, have on our bodies. We clean to get rid of dust, disinfect to eliminate germs, set up air purifiers and maybe even go so far as to look for signs of mold and other underlying problems.

What if we approached our buildings in the same way that we (should) approach our bodies? Where instead of treating sick buildings, we focus on keeping them well?

It’s possible, and it’s really important.

I’m passionate about sustainability and healthy environments so it’s easy for me to dive deep into a conversation about materiality, carbon footprints and resiliency. I’ve devoted my career to studying these topics and making changes that improve the health of humans through our environments.

But most people’s eyes start glazing over when I talk about healthy buildings because it’s conceptual and less tangible than eating right and exercising. So let me make it tangible for you.

what are the CAUSES of a sick building?

One of the top news story this past year was the Flint, Michigan water crisis, where the water that residents were using in their homes was contaminated with lead. We didn’t need to explain how dire the situation was; everyone knew the negative effects of exposure to lead. Bottled water was distributed across the city.

asbestos testingHave you heard of asbestos? Even if you don’t know what asbestos is, you know it’s not good to be exposed to it. Both of these chemicals are for the most part banned from use in building materials today, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Asbestos was used in flooring materials up until the 1980s, and both lead and asbestos are common in buildings and homes of a certain age. It wasn’t until years after they were installed that we realized the negative effects these elements have on our health. Now, we have abatement plans and wear hazmat suits to get rid of them.


Have you considered that there are other chemicals found in products today that also have adverse effects? Leaders in our industry are thinking about how to prevent the next asbestos crisis through education and transparency. By partnering with manufacturers, we’re finding ways of exposing the contents of the products and materials we put into our homes, our schools, our hospitals and theaters.

More importantly, we’re working with them to eliminate the materials that contain hazardous chemicals from our buildings, and thereby improve our health over the long term.  By forcing the conversation of transparency in our building products we are starting a new tipping point of advocacy and awareness just as the food industry did when it started labeling ingredients on our food products.


Hopefully you are convinced that it’s important to know the contents of what we put in our buildings and are ready to make some changes in your own home. If, so below are some quick and easy changes you can make starting today:

  1. Change out your light bulbs to LEDs… start with one fixture and change them over time.
  2. Go to your local nursery and choose from NASA’s list of indoor plants that help purify the air.
  3. Invest in a Nest thermostat that learns your behaviors and adjusts the settings for you. It also allows you to program the system from anywhere on your mobile devise. Some local utility programs are even offering rebates.
  4. Re-caulk around windows, which will help with moisture and air control as we approach colder weather.
  5. Choose cradle-to-cradle certified cleaning materials, such as Method.


In my home, we are currently renovating our kitchen. It takes extra time to do it right and ensure that the materials we are bringing into our home are safe. We are using Red List-free materials. The Red List was established by the Living Building Challenge to track materials that contain chemicals that are harmful to humans or the environment.

So, for our kitchen, we’re using formaldehyde-free and carb compliant products for paint, flooring and cabinets. We’ve chosen LED lighting to avoid mercury. For the installation, we’re following Pepper’s Nothing Hits the Floor program, where we’ve worked with the contractor to deliver and install the product in the same day as well as protecting the rest of our home from construction dust. For the insulation, we’re using an alternative to fiberglass, such as that made by Knauf.

To find alternative materials, I reference the following databases for information:

Mindful Materials - free database that was started by design firms to search for alternative healthy materials

Declare – a database of product ingredients designed to encourage transparency, much like a nutrition label. It relies on manufacturers to share their product information.

Cradle to Cradle Certified – signifies brands and products with a promise of continual improvement and sustainability.

Greenguard – database of products certified by UL Environments for low emissions.

Bonus tip: over the years, emphasis has been placed on flame retardant materials to keep us safe in case of fire. However, we’ve learned that the chemicals that make them flame retardant aren’t safe. In my home, we opt for furnishings that do not have flame retardant coatings. Lesson learned: educate yourself on what the titles really mean.

Cost of “upgrading” materials and systems

Typically, there is no upcharge to upgrade to safer materials – and sometimes you’ll even find savings. Right now, formaldehyde-free paint is one of the only products that is more expensive… but at three percent, it still seems rather insignificant compared to the benefits. Sometimes alternates are available you just have to research options.

For example, my brother-in-law’s basement flooded, and they have to replace everything. To keep cost down, he was looking at vinyl flooring product but was worried about the  formaldehyde that goes along with it, especially since he has four kids running around. He opted to go with the more natural choice of linoleum, giving him the same performance as vinyl but without all the toxins. It was a minimal cost increase, but to him, having an environment for his kids that didn’t expose them to carcinogens was worth it.

The major upfront investment of switching to healthy materials is the time it takes to research the right products (and hopefully I’ve just handed you some savings). However, the return has the potential to be astronomical.

You can’t really put a price on good health – nor should you take it for granted.


Susan Heinking
Director of High Performance and Sustainable Construction

A licensed architect and LEED Fellow with a specialty in existing buildings, Susan has nearly a decade of experience designing and managing sustainability programs and initiatives. She serves as a resource for Pepper's sustainable projects in progress and is also an active advocate for sustainability. Her many areas of involvement include Chicago's Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, the AIA2030 Chicago Working Group, co-chairing Chicago's AIA COTE knowledge group, participating in RETROFIT Chicago and working with the Chicago Biomimicry Group. In addition, Susan serves on the USGBC Illinois Board of Directors. Most recently, Susan was named to ENR's 20 under 40 list.

Prior to joining Pepper, Susan was Vice President and Sustainability Leader for VOA Associates in their Chicago office. Among her accomplishments, she founded VOA’s first sustainability market, +IMPACT, which is focused on advancing green theory and firm-wide sustainability services. She guided the building certification process under various rating systems including Living Building Challenge, the various LEED Rating Systems and the Well Building Standard.

Susan's current vision for Pepper includes expanding the company's sustainability efforts to fully embrace the high performance aspects of both building performance and human performance. This includes enhancing existing efforts with energy modeling, ROI analysis and local utility incentives, as well as building on Pepper's "Nothing Hits the Floor" program and promoting the use of healthy materials.

 Susan holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Oregon and is an active presenter at industry conventions.