When Ron and Linda Hoeksema were picking materials to use in their house construction, Linda did a smell test on each one. She would take a small piece of the solid parts like wood or a dab of the liquids like grout and paint, put each in a jar, close the lid and wait for a while.When the jar was opened, if Linda got a headache or other negative physical reactions, she knew that material could not become part of her home, Log Hill Mesa.
The sense of smell is often taken for granted, but not by the Hoeksemas. She has a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), and he is also chemically sensitive. The off-gassing of the various chemical products typically used in modern life make them sick.
Chemical sensitivity is an immune and nervous system disorder from the body’s response to acute or chronic chemical exposure. One person may get it from a neighborhood-wide commercial pesticide spray, while another may get it from living next to a chemical spill.
For many people who have chemical sensitivity, the disorder develops gradually with long-term exposure. Depending on variables such as genetics, symptoms can be minor or more severe. Examples of mild symptoms are nasal congestion, sleep disturbance, occasional headaches, flu-like symptoms and difficulty concentrating, while severe examples are migraines, extreme fatigue, depression, panic attacks, short-term memory loss, dizziness and asthma.
“Other people may notice odors a little, but I am at 10 on the scale of sensitivity. For me, it’s like, ‘Please turn down the volume,’” Linda explained. “I have MCS because I had no idea what it was, so it went on for years without mitigating or resolving any of my physical issues.”
Her home environment in the late 1980s and early 1990s were the stimulus for her severe reaction. Not only did she discover and get rid of several harmful elements in her life, but she found some homeopathic relief as well. Then, when the opportunity appeared for her and her husband to build a new home, the couple hired a builder who worked closely with her to create a chemical-free home.
“I really appreciate it because I am home more than I was. I’m not working anymore. Even before the pandemic, I always knew I could come back to a healthy home and now that I’m not going anywhere, I’m especially glad to have it,” she said.
Ron agrees. “Maybe with the pandemic we’ve become more aware that we are really fortunate. People are trapped in their homes and cannot get outside as much as before. I have an appreciation now that maybe I didn’t realize until we were in it for four to six weeks, thinking at least we don’t have the added contaminants in our home. It’s a subtle thing that we have grown accustomed to.”
A TOXIC AWAKENING
In 1987, Linda and Ron married and moved into his home. She was counseling at the Women’s Resource Center in Montrose, and he was an artist specializing in serigraphy, silk screen printing large Western landscapes that were sold in galleries stretching from the West Coast to the Midwest.
Ron’s art studio was in their basement, where he used highly toxic paints and thinners. Fumes filled the studio and then rose up into the house.
“In the early ’80s, I was right in the fumes and took it for granted. It was sort of like, ‘Yeah, when I’m smelling this, I’m feeling good because I’m making art,’ but it’s not healthy,” said Ron. “I was getting minor effects of chemical sensitivity before Linda and I met, so I started wearing a facemask, working in a fume hood and installed a fan. Then I didn’t notice the physical symptoms as much.”
Linda’s physical reactions were almost immediate when she moved into the house. No longer able to function at work, but not understanding where her symptoms originated, she stayed at home with migraines and major stomach discomfort.
She began helping Ron in the studio. They also decided to buy new carpeting with an extra thick foam pad and created a dance studio with wood flooring coated with polyurethane above the garage.
“All of these things were contributing to my demise as a person working in the world. Who I was previously I no longer was. I was very unassuming about what was happening to me, and I think there were a lot of people who didn’t know about MCS at that time,” she recalled.
Over four years, she gradually became incapacitated, with a constant headache and unable to eat without feeling ill. Doctors had no answers about what was making her sick or how to remedy it.
Then, she met someone who had similar symptoms and attributed them to chemical sensitivity. Armed with new information but not finding answers in traditional medicine, Linda began treatments from the alternative medical field and finally found some relief.
The first thing that she and Ron did was move the art studio out of their home. The carpeting and the studio flooring had outgassed already, so were relatively harmless. They bought air purifiers and ozone machines to clean the air, and replaced chemical-based personal care and cleaning products with natural ones. She was also getting healthier by taking herbs, vitamins and minerals that support the immune system, and eating a more diverse, whole-food, organic diet.
“Then, once I got physically strong enough, I started doing yoga in 1990. Yoga really, really helped strengthen my immunity and decrease my sensitivity. I was feeling better, but not 100 percent,” she said.
BUILDING A HEALTHY HOME
In 1999, the couple started researching home-building materials that were free of chemicals. Linda was communicating with a small network of people knowledgeable about chemical sensitivity, and somebody recommended the book, “Prescriptions for a Healthy House: A Practical Guide for Architects, Builders & Homeowners.”
The book was authored by Paula Baker-Laporte, an architect who had struggled with MCS and become deeply interested in creating the most health-enhancing built environments possible. The first edition had been published in 1998.
“When the first edition came out, most people had never heard of MCS and didn't believe it was real,” said Baker-Laporte, who is the founder of Econest Architecture Inc. in Oregon. “The fourth edition (fingers crossed) will come out in 2020-21.”
Non-chemical home-building materials were mostly special-order items 20 years ago, but today, healthier products are more widely available than ever, she said.
“Building a healthy home isn't that hard. There is a lot to know but it is all attainable,” she added. “Sadly, it is still very hard for someone with MCS to find a home to live in.”
The Hoeksemas contracted with David Holubetz of Blue Sky Builders in Montrose, who specializes in environmentally conscious custom homes.
Thirty years ago, “we started realizing that building products were getting more and more toxic. At the same time, in order to conserve energy, building structures were getting tighter and tighter, with no cracks or holes to allow air exchange between the house and the outdoors. We were concentrating these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from such materials as insulation and drywall inside the building envelope, and impacting indoor air quality,” Holubetz said.
When he meets with clients, he goes over a list of options to determine their perspectives on what a green or natural home is. Each project has different priorities from energy efficiency to locally sourced materials, as well as efficient resource use and healthy indoor air quality.
“I think nowadays everyone is aware of green building through local green building code implementation and national programs such as LEED and Energy Star,” he said. “There’s hardly a client out there not asking about energy efficiency or recycled materials. Basically, I tell them there’s a whole spectrum from doing nothing to the ultimate, completely off-the-grid, self-sustaining, non-toxic house. Each client will fall in different places on the spectrum depending on what they want and what they can afford.”
Every building project is a compromise at some level between natural, energy efficient components and other factors such as location, property, codes, budget, timeline and client priorities.
“With Ron’s and Linda’s house, their number one priority was a chemically inert house. That drove everything: choice of materials, strategies for indoor air quality, the heating and cooling system — all decisions were looked at through the lens of a healthy indoor environment,” he recalled.
Every feature ended up being chemical free and many are energy efficient, from the in-floor heating to the whole-house charcoal water filter, electric stove with the downdraft fan, the glass shower doors, the roof tiles and the roof insulation made from recycled blue jeans. Plus, some features such as the wall paint and exposed concrete floor in a sunroom on the south side provide passive solar features.
The rest of the floors on the main level are made of tiles with natural ingredients, and the upstairs floors are bamboo with a water-based sealer. The wood was set outside for a while, just in case, to outgas before installation. The only carpeting is two area rugs, one of wool and the other of cotton.
CREATING A BREATHABLE SPACE
Before the Hoeksema’s house, Holubetz had never worked with someone who had chemical sensitivity, but he has since then. For a client with MCS in Boulder, he used many of the same building solutions discovered for the Log Hill home.
Linda gave him a copy of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House,” and they both used it as a foundation for further research. They worked collaboratively, leaning on his expertise and her own testing of the materials.
“Linda and I had a pretty good library of resources, and had gone to conferences. We had some pretty good knowledge compared to others, but the process of finding and getting the right materials was still very labor and time intensive,” admitted Holubetz, who has for many years done community outreach about green building, including volunteer science lessons at the Telluride schools centered around his self-constructed, portable solar smoothie stand.
If his clients had not been semi-retired, independent workers as the couple were, the project may not have been possible or would have taken years longer. The types of healthy building materials, without chemical components or treatments like formaldehyde, chlorinated plastic, stain repellants and antimicrobials, were difficult to find from any source, let alone those in the local area.
Building on a remote property heavily treed with pinon, ponderosa pine and juniper, and far from a fire department, the house also needed to have naturally fire-resistant materials. Because they couldn’t use flame retardants, which are among VOCs that release unhealthy vapors, they decided to use as few wood products as possible.
A brand of Aerated Autoclaved (super-heated) Concrete (AAC) called E-Crete was used for the home’s walls. The concrete blocks are manufactured from common and abundant natural and reclaimed raw materials, and have numerous environmentally friendly features.
The Hoeksemas chose it for its breathability, and because it is completely inert, not emitting toxic gases, even when exposed to fire.
“It sounded really good to me. Not only is it energy efficient and environmentally friendly, but its breathability means the walls have the ability to diffuse moisture and air pollutants,” Linda enthused. “We like this for all kinds of reasons. It is good for insulation, durable and incredibly soundproof.”
AAC was also used for their window and door trims. The walls were covered with a natural stucco with traditional, breathable fiber mesh, and the front and side entrances were decorated with rocks collected from the property.
All the grouts, adhesives and water-proof coatings are the AFM brand, because Linda had 100 percent success with her closed jar tests. Clay paint was selected for most interior walls, so it could match the breathability of the AAC, unlike most house paints that are nonporous. She and Holubetz originally sourced them from Building For Health Materials Center, a very knowledgeable, independent distributor in Carbondale that has since been sold and closed.
Handcrafted House in Durango also carries AFM products and clay paints. The store’s co-owner, Sheryl Lock, opened her store 10 years ago to sell products with very low and zero VOCs.
“Everything I carry is nontoxic, from the adhesives to the caulking compounds. Regular wall paint is a top seller, as are oils and stains for wood and concrete. Plaster is pretty popular, too,” said Lock, who has 20 years of building experience including apprenticing under a master plasterer.
“Chemically sensitive people are a small percentage of who I sell to, maybe 3 to 5 percent of my customers, and I ship all over Colorado,” she said. “The main reason that I would say people would want to use my products is they can feel good about their air quality, and being able to use the products and not feel like they are harming themselves by breathing in chemicals.”
When using chemical-based products, the air quality in newly constructed homes has a toxicity level 10 times higher than inner city air, she added.
RECONNECTING WITH SPIRIT AND SOUL
Among the benefits of the clay paint is that it releases negative ions, which create a calming feel. “When you go into a home that has American Clay, it feels different. People notice it, but they don’t know why,” she asserted.
In fact, whether it’s from the clay, the quiet or the whole combination of materials in their 2,600-square-foot home, Linda and Ron say people notice how peaceful it is. One of their foster sons calls it their “Zendo.” One of her relatives, who suffered from several symptoms similar to MCS, stopped having gastrointestinal problems and headaches after staying in the Hoeksema’s home for two weeks.
“By not having chemicals in our home and by reducing our use of electromagnetic devices, our nervous systems shift, and there’s a calming down of the systems,” Linda said.
In fact, there is a cut-off switch in the master bedroom to completely disable the electrical in the bedroom when they choose. This eliminates all electromagnetic fields in the area surrounding the bed.
All of the furniture contributes to that calm feeling, too. The two options for furniture in a healthy house are antiques that have already outgassed long ago or been reupholstered, and products made with all natural batting and upholstery, Linda explained.
“Your body is more relaxed, because chemicals are not giving you a buzz that causes anxiety. It’s a restful thing to live this way,” Ron added.
He admits that parts of their home were more expensive to build than a typical home, but the savings came later in the lower energy and health care bills.
“Having chemical sensitivity is in a way a red flag for even more physical effects that can become even worse in older age. Having it also gave me that awareness that I had to change things,” he said. “I think people should be aware of what their bodies are saying. Older artists are developing cancer. We do have choices we can make as adults about how we live.”
He gave up screen printing long ago, because it could not be done without chemicals. Since then, he has been using water-based paints to produce impressionist and abstract artwork. He works in a studio built on the same property but separate from his home, and sets up outside to paint on nice summer days.
“I’m no longer painting for other people. I’m focused on what I want to paint. I’m really getting back to enjoying painting,” he said.
As for Linda, she is definitely feeling more comfortable, even during the pandemic. She reflected, “Dance had been a big part of my life as a means of exercise and creative expression. As a result of the physical symptoms from the chemical exposure, I became over focused on my body, forgetting that I am also a spirit and a soul, which was always evident when I danced. When I was able to begin dancing again, I was again a spirit and soul moving through space just as before. It was abundantly clear that whatever goes on in this physical body or in the outside world I am always here as this spirit and soul. Nothing can change that.”