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The Benefits of Natural Building Materials in the Home

How the materials of your home affect the overall quality of your health, from physical to psychological...

Beautiful neutral toned living room with wooden planked walls and a wood burning fireplace

The self-quarantine and stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 crisis have exposed the complex relationships we have with our homes, underscoring how important it is to have a healthy space in which to live and work. Many are reassessing the balance between aesthetic value and functionality from room to room, eschewing more cluttered styles in favor of clean, streamlined designs. However, as sales in the home decor industry continue to soar, few have paused to consider the building materials they are bringing into their homes.

While the building materials in your home may matter to you only from an aesthetic point of view (brick for a brownstone, cedar for a mid-century modern, shiplap for a contemporary farmhouse) or occur to you only if a beam fails or a leak appears, they have a significant impact on your mental and physical health whether or not you recognize the effects. However, the materials used to construct your home are inexorably linked to your overall health.

Physical Health

Synthetic Materials: Unsafe and Unsustainable

Some building materials degrade over time, especially those based on synthetic polymers (plastics and others), while others, organic materials, age gracefully, adding character and life to the home. Off-gassing, lack of sturdiness, and overall risks to health that some synthetic materials pose have been increasingly brought to the public’s attention over the last few years, from their inclusion in fiber-board furniture to their presence in paints. And while direct combustion speeds up and intensifies the effects of harmful chemicals present in synthetic materials, they are often left to quietly off-gas over time just sitting around the home.

The article “The Biggest Killer Of Firefighters? Toxic Smoke From Your Synthetic Furniture” by Fast Company describes the increasing danger posed by synthetic materials in the home as the world heats up and fire season lasts longer as a result of climate change. Charlie Sorrel of Fast Company explains that the “problem is that our homes are no longer filled with simple wood, metal, and natural fabrics. Instead, they’re stuffed full of synthetics, which release toxins and fill the air with carcinogens.” These carcinogenic chemicals, found in non-organic fabrics, the flame-retardant coatings on furniture, and more, are difficult to get rid of once they have been released into the air as they are not easily filtered from the air and settle on clothing and other objects in the home, requiring special, professional cleaning to remove.

The carcinogenic chemicals in newer furniture and clothing are also present in synthetic building materials. A Procedia study from Vietnam conducted by researchers Zarina Isnin, Sabarinah Sh Ahmad, and Zaharah Yahya, published in Science Direct in 2013 found that “some of these man-made substances have been found to cause adverse effects to human health, [with] large amount[s] of building materials...identified to contain some form of toxicity.”

Furthermore, the makeup of synthetic materials is often privatized, making it difficult to determine which chemicals are actually in your building materials and what the concentration of each chemical is. The researchers also warned that even if you cannot smell or otherwise sense the chemicals, “synthetic materials [can] enter the body through inhalation, skin contacts or digestion….emit[ting] low-level toxic exposure or produce carcinogenic substances that can cause cancer.”

Natural Materials: Good for the Environment and for Your Body

Home interior built with natural materials

Natural building materials, while not as cheap as some man-made materials, are often better for your overall health, as they off-gas less and positively affect mental and emotional health by rooting residents in nature. They are also the more sustainable option, as most natural building materials are renewable, are better understood by builders and scientists, and typically last longer.

Kelly Hart of Green Home Building explains that “natural materials can be sourced locally, have very little, if any, embodied energy, do not off-gas toxic fumes, and in the case of wood and bamboo, are definition, they are very green materials.” The opportunity to source the materials locally makes them much more sustainable than imported synthetic materials because, not only is the manufacturing process less intensive, but fewer fossil fuels are required to transport the materials.




Mental Health

Psychological Damage from Synthetics

Toxic chemicals released by harmful synthetic materials are also harmful to mental health because they cause stress on the body by refocusing the body’s energy on detoxifying its systems and by reducing the amount of oxygen in the air that we breathe. Stress can cause both physiological and psychological impairment, as explained by ATSDR’s report on “Psychological Responses to Hazardous Substances,” which described difficulties with attention and concentration; and alteration in heart rate, blood pressure, levels of urinary catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine), and blood cortisol levels,” all related to the stress caused by the absorption of toxic chemicals. The report goes on to reveal that researchers found “a linear relationship exists between the degree of gas exposure and increased psychological distress.”

Positive Impact of a Relationship with Nature 

Beautiful interior inspired by the natural surroundings with gorgeous view of mountains

Materials inside your home can impact your psychological health regardless of their chemical makeup; some of the human response to materials is related solely to their perception of the materials themselves. For example, people are more likely to have a positive emotional relationship with natural materials not only because these materials connect them to the outdoors (the source of most human needs), but also because many natural materials in the interiors of our homes improve with age. 

An article by Earth 911’s Madeleine Somerville explains that “time improves the look and luster of most natural materials, and that makes it worth having them around.” Somerville also notes that even secondary exposure to nature, through the timber frame of your home or the stone floor in your living room, “benefits learning processes...enhancing cognitive abilities, improving academic performance, reducing ADD symptoms, and even improving eyesight.”

Organic materials calm and center us emotionally and mentally simply because they remind us of the peace and tranquility of the natural world, while their chemical-free makeup reduces our exposure to harmful gases, safeguarding our health in the long-term. As such, a biophilic approach to designing your home will protect your body, your mind, and your heart for years to come.

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