Penney Poyzer, ‘The Queen of Green’, reveals the Airtopia indoor air quality results from her ecohome
Penney Poyzer, 'The Queen of Green', tells us about her long-standing interest in indoor air quality and her Airtopia test results...
MY ECOHOME - A LIVING LABORATORY
Twenty years ago, my husband Gil Schalom, an eco-architect, and I embarked on a madcap project to transform a leaky, creaky, resource hungry, typical Victorian semi into an ecohome.
At that time we both loved modern green design, but also, like so many people, loved classic Victorian architecture with generously proportioned rooms and charming period details. We hit upon an idea - we could have both!
We turned to the internet and scoured books to see if we could find information on how to eco-upcycle a whole house. We found nothing. Having met at a new build eco housing project, what we did have was first hand knowledge of green building materials and techniques. We also knew something had to be done about the millions of older houses that have a massive impact on climate change and diminishing natural resources.
We had an opportunity to do something no one else had attempted: to pour vast amounts of cash we did not have into a money pit of a really rough Victorian house and to embark on a radical, ecological retrofit. Not surprisingly, our enthusiastic naivety was met with derision by family, friends and professionals alike. If anything, their response ignited our passion and determination to embark on what was to become a twenty-year experiment to treat our home as a laboratory, testing a new way of living.
We wanted a house that was warm, emitted low CO2, used very little water and had a garden to provide us with fresh produce. But we also wanted a house that was as healthy as possible to live in. We did not want to introduce toxic materials in our breathing environment.
As a member of the Women’s Environmental Network, I had access to information on the toxicity of chemicals present in everyday cleaning and personal care products for hair and body. It was this information coupled with my husband’s knowledge of natural building materials that led us to create a house that was not only kind to the environment, but was good for our health.
KEEP IT NATURAL
We undertook huge amounts of research to find building products that did not emit harmful chemicals, as well as cleaning and personal care products that were as natural and non-toxic as possible.
Leaping forward to the present day, there is thankfully much more information available about the harmful, unseen pollutants that attack our systems both through poor exterior air quality and the state of the air that we breathe indoors.
This information confirmed to us that our long held hypothesis was probably correct, but how could we really know if what we were doing was the ‘right’ thing? How could we scientifically test and prove, or disprove, that our lifestyle choices were actually working?
Turning back to the vast resource of the internet and the magic of social media, specifically Twitter, I found a thread that grabbed my attention, a domestic air testing service that was just what I wanted.
This is how I discovered Airtopia and realised that we might find the answers we had been looking for.
I must admit, though, I was sceptical. Was this smoke and mirrors? What did it involve? Just how good was the testing equipment and how could I trust the analysis?
The response from Airtopia to my online rant was almost immediate and it was clear they were very interested in our approach and keen to come test our air quality.
Prior to the air test, the only bit of homework we had was to ensure windows and doors were kept closed, that we made no change to our daily routine and that all internal doors were left open. When the Airtopia team arrived, I was expecting some big, chunky equipment and a lengthy set up process. I was gobsmacked when a tiny device, the size of a mobile phone was set carefully on my dining table. There was a sensation of, er, is that it? Turns out, this tiny sensor is a state of the art device that looks like a very small wand on a plinth. All it requires is to be left in one place for 2 hours to allow for the air to circulate around the house to be analysed by ‘the wand’.
Over lunch, (organic and from my garden, of course!) I asked how and where the data from the monitoring device would be processed. (Note – you are not expected to give the analysts lunch, but I wanted to have a good chat…) The sample would be sent to a facility in San Francisco, the centre of expertise for analysing air quality, and would be evaluated down to minute levels across a broad spectrum of chemicals.
After some enlightening discussions about why the public needs to wake up to the hidden dangers of air quality and the impact it has on the health of our families, the kit was very quickly packed up and off they went.
After a wait of just over two weeks, the report arrived! Would we score A? Would there be some surprises…?
The results were in: yes, we scored A - hurrah! 20 years of work got us top marks! However, there were some unexpected findings that had us puzzled.
SURPRISES IN STORE
The report revealed that the top of our house had higher than expected levels of CO2, meaning that our lodger’s rooms were not sufficiently ventilated. OK, our house is pretty airtight so we needed to do something about that - we know of a system that could sort that out.
That left two very puzzling elements: the measurement of solvents typically found in wipes used to clean surfaces and alcohol. Now I’ve never used one of these surface wipes and also we are practically teetotal so some detective work was required.
It transpired that our very new lodger had not yet got the hang of our request to use non-toxic cleaning products and being, as he freely admitted, a little OCD, it was his preferred cleaning method; but he was happy to use alternatives. The alcohol also led to our lodger… he liked a couple of beers at night and his empty bottle collection had sat in his room for a few days because he wasn’t sure what to do with them.
Let me point out that the lodging rooms are right at the top of house and the monitoring equipment was two floors below.
MAKING THE INTANGIBLE, TANGIBLE
We are all conscious of the importance of eating well to keep ourselves and our loved ones fit. However, it is not just food that we ingest, not just calories that we absorb. The air that we breathe has a critical impact on health both on a daily and long-term basis.
The public have greater awareness around the toxicity of polluted air on streets and roads and from industry, but the lack of awareness of the invisible pollutants in our homes is something that must be addressed.
I am personally committed to spreading the word to the public and construction industry - including architects - about the need to understand the impacts of poor air quality on health, and to share the knowledge that a few small changes to the way we live in our homes can radically improve indoor air quality and our wellbeing.
Our homes are our refuge, a place of safety – they should provide a resting, healing space away from the toxicity of road pollution rather than bombarding our systems with more chemicals. But you can’t get rid of what you don’t know is there.
Airtopia’s indoor air quality test helped us understand what we have done well, and, importantly, what we can do better to ensure our home is a healthy haven.
Penney Poyzer, AKA 'The Queen of Green':
- Presenter for BBC2’s groundbreaking sustainable living series 'No Waste Like Home'
- Named '1 of 100 British women of the last century who have changed the world', Independent on Sunday
- Multi award winning eco campaigner and pioneer. Co-owner of the UK’s first ecological retrofit of a Victorian home.