The benefits of new construction, particularly in terms of greater energy efficiency, are well-known.
But a less visible innovation in newly built homes is the improvement in the air we breathe.
“Before the 1970s builders didn’t pay much attention to the air tightness of homes, so there was natural ventilation,” says Mark Scott, president of Mark IV Builders in Cabin John, Md. “As everyone became more conscious of the benefits of energy efficiency and regulators began requiring homes to be built tighter and with less air flow, an unintended consequence is that toxins built up in homes.”
Now builders have learned new ways to improve air quality without compromising energy efficiency.
“Building technology has advanced significantly and is catching up to meet the challenge of doing the right thing for energy efficiency, while also eliminating the problem of too many toxins getting trapped inside the house,” says Jim Traxinger, Florida-area president of Kolter Homes in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Why indoor air quality matters
If you have a family member with severe allergies or work with clients with asthma, you already know about the importance of indoor air quality.
Some buyers are aware of the issue, while others could benefit from learning about air quality and why it matters.
“Good air quality makes it easier for a diverse range of people, including kids and seniors, to be more comfortable in a home,” says Jim Kabel, president of Case Design/Remodeling in San Jose, California. “If a home is sealed up, it smells stale and can be bad for people with allergies, asthma and chemical sensitivities.”
Kabel says real estate agents should ask clients about who will be living in a house and point out the benefits of buying a place with healthier air.
“In an older house, if you open the walls to look at the insulation, it will be black from catching dirt in the air and trapping it,” says Scott. “In new-construction homes, insulation and air filters are in place to allow for air to flow through more slowly to catch toxins and yet be energy efficient.”
What builders do to improve indoor air quality
Builders take a two-prong approach to improving air quality, says Traxinger, including preventing the introduction as many toxins as possible into the home and mitigating the build-up of unavoidable toxins.
Indoor air pollution comes from obvious sources as cigarette smoke, smoke from a fireplace or cooking and cleaning solutions, and from less visible sources including off-gassing from paint, carpet fiber, cabinet varnishes and other chemicals.
“We reduce these toxins by choosing products and materials with less chemicals, such as low VOC (voltaic organic compounds) paint,” says Traxinger. “Then we put in air exchange systems such as direct vents, exhaust fans and systems that bring in fresh air through the air conditioning system.”
Traxinger says that buyers can sometimes add an energy recovery ventilation system that can be programmed to pre-cool the air being brought into a house for increased energy efficiency.
You or your buyers can ask builders about whether they participate in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Indoor airPLUS”, a voluntary partnership and labeling program that “helps new-home builders improve the quality of indoor air by requiring construction practices and product specifications that minimize exposure to airborne pollutants and contaminants.”
The Indoor airPLUS program requires the careful selection and installation of:
- moisture control systems,
- heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems,
- combustion-venting systems,
- radon-resistant construction and
- low-emitting building materials.
If your buyers are deciding which optional features they want for their new home, they could consider the benefits of attic fans and investing in as many operable windows and skylights as possible, so they can ventilate their house when the weather cooperates, says Kabel.
If they have flooring choices, Kabel says the worst choice is carpet, which is particularly bad for people with allergies. He suggests hardwood flooring or luxury vinyl tile flooring as a better alternative.
Scott says moisture is a direct cause of mold, which is particularly hard on people with allergies. He recommends asking about installing a dehumidifier function on an HVAC system to reduce moisture.
“I’d advise people to spend less on upgrading their energy-efficient windows and more on a better HVAC system,” says Scott. “There’s far less difference between windows than there is between HVAV systems.”
Maintenance tips to share with buyers
While your clients may be concerned with how energy efficient their new home will be, they should also pay attention to their new home’s IAQ, or indoor air quality. Clients with allergies or asthma will appreciate how a new-construction home’s IAQ can help improve the air they breathe. While maintenance chores are far less onerous for owners of newly built homes, to keep indoor air quality at its best, homeowners should maintain their systems by changing air filters, having their HVAC system checked by a contractor twice per year and flushing out their water heater twice per year.
“Systems only function to the extent of the care and maintenance they receive,” says Traxinger.
Traxinger also points out the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors need to be checked frequently to make sure they are in good working order.
“Keep all your ventilation sources clean, such as your fans and your vent hood over the stove,” suggests Kabel. “People don’t think about this much, but you should vacuum the dust out of your bathroom fan.”
Advising your clients as they compare builders or decide between a newly built home and an existing home should include sharing information about the importance of indoor air quality for every family member.