Environmentally Safer Spec Houses: A Healthy Investment

interview with Joy Beach Thomas, builder of non-toxic houses


Exterior covered walkway
Exterior covered walkway


Julie GenserJulie Genser: Hello Joy. Thank you for agreeing to this virtual interview with us about your experiences as a spec house builder/investor specializing in housing for people with chemical sensitivities (MCS). Can you share what a “spec” house is?


Joy Beach ThomasJoy Beach Thomas: The textbook definition is pretty good – it’s a house built on a speculative basis, without an order on the books.




Julie GenserJG: Ah! Thank you for clarifying that, I always thought it meant it was built to certain standardized, pre-approved specifications. How long have you been building and selling houses that are designed for those with environmental sensitivities?


Joy Beach ThomasJBT: It’s been a six-year process – I bought land in an MCS neighborhood in the Southwest and formed a corporation in 2004.




Spec House 3 Back
Spec House 3


Julie GenserJG: Were you involved in construction prior to this?




Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Not at all! When I started building non-toxic spec houses, I was working for a high tech firm in the Silicon Valley.




Julie GenserJG: Interesting…had you ever built your own home?




Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Not personally, but my builder is currently putting up a small cabin for me in the same area as the spec houses were built. Part of my original purchase included a parcel that has power lines running along the south edge. Even though the lines are very far away from a house site, a gaussmeter picked up enough emissions to disqualify the location for someone with environmental sensitivities. I’ve met many MCS/EI folks who say that electricity isn’t an issue for them, but I wouldn’t feel right marketing a house that wasn’t as safe as possible. So I’m building something for myself there and paying close attention to electrical fields.


Julie GenserJG: Where do you currently live?




Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I currently live in California, not far from San Francisco.





Julie GenserJG: You’re the only one we know who currently does this sort of thing for the environmentally sensitive community – how did you come up with the idea?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: It started one New Year’s Eve in California’s wine country! Some friends put together a dinner in a nice restaurant, and one friend brought their house guest, who happened to be a true MCS housing advocate and spokesperson, and she was absolutely fascinating to talk to. As fate would have it, we sat next to each other – and I barely remember what else happened that night.

She fell right into explaining environmental sensitivities and her current projects. More and more questions tumbled out of me. There was decorative paper on top of the table cloth and she wrote out her plans and explanations. Thinking back, it was my most perfect New Year’s Eve: great food, an exciting new friend, and a major shift in my life.

Shortly after that, I visited my new friend’s “safe” home in a small town in the Southwest. I felt fabulous there – it’s got clean air and great people. Part of her advocacy involves encouraging people to build safer housing – so she put me in touch with everyone I needed to get started.


Julie GenserJG: After your initial conversation, how long did it take you to become convinced it was a financially viable investment – and what sort of research did you do before committing yourself to buying property?


Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I bought the property quickly – and probably for the wrong reasons: I’d fallen for the land and fallen for my friend’s vision of having more safe homes in that area of the country. Nothing like making an emotionally based business decision! When I went home, I did the hard work – I ran the numbers and developed a business plan. For research, I read letters and talked to people who needed safe housing – and I looked at some of the successes and issues with the Ecology House project in San Rafael, California.


Julie GenserJG: Certainly having the support of a safer housing advocate was a big coup for you and probably brought many resources to you that would have taken a lot of work to get had you not known her. What I love about this story is how you acted with your heart initially; rather than financial research. We need more heart in our culture, for sure. Especially when it comes to housing support for the environmentally sensitive community which has such a high rate of homelessness and suicide. Is it difficult to manage your construction projects from a distance?

Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Surprisingly not. The builder and I get along very well, and so we make decisions easily. He and the craftspeople he uses have done work for MCS folks before, so they are respectful and know the drill. But the most significant help came from the MCS community, the folks who live nearby. They helped during all the phases – design, material selection, course corrections after we started building, and finding potential buyers. We joke that they even watched the concrete dry!



Laying the foundation
Spec House 2: Laying the foundation and vapor barrier


Julie GenserJG: Something tells me that isn’t very far from the truth! Given that most of the people with MCS currently living in that community all built custom houses for themselves, there certainly is a lot of expertise and experience to be shared. That’s wonderful you were able to tap into that. What is your personal experience with chemical sensitivity – are you sensitive at all yourself?

Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I think I’m fairly robust, but I’ve always hated pesticides, fabric softeners, etc. I have friends in California who are sensitive, and I have now met many others. In selling my houses, I’ve talked to lots of folks and heard their stories. I’ve even experienced some MCS prejudice – a number of my California acquaintances think I’m misguided in worrying about contaminants. I can get pretty wound up with things some people would find “innocuous” – like stepping out my front door and being bombarded with fabric softener from my neighbor’s dryer.


Julie GenserJG: It’s so refreshing to hear from someone who has developed a healthy awareness of the toxicity of everyday products and has made lifestyle changes before being forced to by health problems. Can you tell us – was your interest in building MCS spec houses solely as a financial investment or were you also interested in helping people in some way?

Joy Beach ThomasJBT: It was both. I knew that there was a need, and I knew I had assets that could help. One of my assets is the fact that I’m robust – I’m not plagued by some of the MCS symptoms that might make house building hard.



Julie GenserJG: I love your perspective, to recognize you had assets that could be helpful to others, and also benefit yourself in the process. What kind of return do you get on your investment?


Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I got exceedingly rich in the ways that matter most – more fun and meaningful experiences than I can count! But I assume that you mean financial. That varies because I still have ongoing expenses – and I like to look at the returns long-term. There were some huge unexpected expenditures up front, such as bringing underground power to the land. That wasn’t as easy as I’d estimated; I wound up having to take a back hoe through 1,300 feet of a stranger’s property! Also, part of my business plan was to keep the house prices affordable. As you know, fighting MCS is financially draining. I also wanted to be fair – some money for the people who physically built the homes, and some for me.


Julie GenserJG: It appears that you have had no trouble selling any of your three MCS spec houses, and they have even all sold prior to construction being completed. Why is building housing for the EI community such a good investment, even in a poor housing market like we are experiencing today?

Joy Beach ThomasJBT: That’s right, they sold very quickly, and with no real estate agent. People were waiting for the houses to finish! It’s a niche market, and there is a strong need. The old supply and demand rule.



Julie GenserJG: It’s true. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble selling EI houses if you keep building them. Do you hire someone local to project manage or do you do that yourself?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: The builder served as project manager, and he was on site most of the time. And thanks to technology, I felt like I was there! Between cell phones, digital photos, and email, I was very connected. Even Facebook helped…I got posts from folks who kept an eye on construction.


Julie GenserJG: Incredible, Facebook is helping everyone these days! How do you design the layout and choose the materials for your houses?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I started with a design and materials that were already successful in that area. We made changes, of course, as some materials were better or no longer available. And we thought of enhancements to the design.



During construction
Spec House 2: During construction


Julie GenserJG: How long does a construction project typically take to complete?




Joy Beach ThomasJBT: The average is 15 months, from breaking ground to certificate of occupancy. It could have been done faster, but it wasn’t a race. The craftspeople took their time and part of the year was unsuitable for construction.



Julie GenserJG: How often do you visit the construction site during this time?




Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Not too often, maybe not even twice a year.




Julie GenserJG: You make it sound so easy and seamless! Are there any added complications in the process due to the health requirements of EIs?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Oh yes! But the biggest complication is the fact that health requirements shift – by person, by day, and by hour! I was guided by my original charter, to make a turn-key, minimalist house. I realized that the more things I did, the more potential homeowners I would lose. So I kept construction as simple as possible, with the idea that people could move in, get acclimated, and then customize.


Julie GenserJG: That sounds like a smart plan for a spec house that is being built for no specific owners in mind. What are some of the top must-have features for an EI house?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Tile or concrete floors, a specialized electrical system, foil or non-toxic walls, an isolation room (sometimes called a dirty room), a clean water system, a safe exterior, and a site that is isolated from possible contaminants.



Julie GenserJG: If money was no object, what additional features would you want to add on to your projects (e.g. covered carport, in-floor heating, outdoor utility closet)?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Each of the houses is on 20 acres, so let’s see…a grand ballroom? Actually, I never thought too much about it. I figured the embellishments were up to the homeowner. Buyers wound up putting in more storage space and making the interior fancier by adding pretty tiles and trims, etc.


Spec House 2: Interior
Spec House 2: Interior


Julie GenserJG: Yes, storage space – and a place to offgas items – is definitely in high demand by people with environmental illness. How much of the design and materials selection is dependent on the locale – the local climate and geography?


Joy Beach ThomasJBT: There is some influence. One example is that we were able to design without fans by using windows and the prevailing winds to move air through the house. We situated the patio so that it was protected from the wind, but so that someone could put a grill on the corner and have the winds carry the fumes away.


Julie GenserJG: I love that sort of smart, environmentally responsive design. Are your homes built with passive solar principles in mind?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: No, but it’s a good idea for future projects.




Julie GenserJG: I think it is a must for climates that get sun for most of the year. Especially for people who don’t do well chemically and/or electrically with machines like air conditioners, overhead fans, and heating systems. The one thing you have to be careful of though, is that people with environmental sensitivities are vulnerable to becoming sun sensitive as well, so the design needs to be flexible. For example, if you have large southern windows, installing shutters or other types of blinds to control how much light enters the house. How did you find a construction crew that could adhere to a fragrance free work site?

Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I was very lucky to find people who had done work for the community before and they understood the importance of following the protocol.




Spec House 2: Kitchen
Spec House 2: Kitchen


Julie GenserJG: What are some of the biggest construction mistakes you’ve made, and how were they fixed?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: On one house, we used aluminum foil and wheat paste on the walls and ceilings. The house smelled like an apple pie! And, with the summer heat, the foil started to bubble. I panicked – I had visions of someone sound asleep in their bedroom when suddenly a big sheet of aluminum fell on them. In addition, I lost a number of potential buyers who couldn’t live with that much metal. Some people are quite bothered, and they can taste the metal in their mouths. So, we took down the foil, textured the walls, and used safe paint.

Oddly enough, my last house now has foil-lined walls. We were about to texture the walls, and the folks who eventually bought the house stepped forward. They said that they were very interested, but only if the walls had foil. It was a true crossroad – either foil or texture/paint – and the options were mutually exclusive. If I foiled, I’d lose potential buyers, if I textured, I’d lose these folks, who were perfect candidates for the house. We worked out a verbal arrangement built on trust, and they began customizing the house long before I could legally sell. There was risk on both sides if the agreement fell though: they risked customizing a home that didn’t belong to them, and I risked having someone make my investment unmarketable. It worked out for everyone – the home is lovely and both of us are extremely proud of how it turned out.


Joy Beach Thomas
Joy Beach Thomas in the foil-lined house


Julie GenserJG: That’s great. Can you share what some of your favorite/most successful features are?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I like the dirty room concept; concentrating everything that could hurt you in one spot. I also like the protection from electrical fields: using metal clad or twisted pair wiring in the walls and having the ability to cut power to the bedroom with one switch. The large patio is wonderful – if visitors are too smelly to come in, you can entertain outside!

The houses have RV hookups for visitors, caregivers, or extra income. They’re wheelchair accessible; the foundation is extended 4 feet around the edge of the house so that someone in a chair can wheel around the house and wash windows or watch the sunset. I like the look of the extended foundation – someone said the house looks like a tiny teacup sitting in the middle of the desert!

Julie GenserJG: For others who might want to follow in your footsteps and start building non-toxic spec houses, what advice would you give them?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: The most important factor is to be respectful of people with MCS and listen to their needs, and not be dismissive of one single thing. It also helps to use a minimalist approach. Build something small and controlled, and let the owner add the bells and whistles.

Being “respectful” includes interactions with the larger, more established local community. If local business and tradespeople feel they are being treated well, the homeowner gets more cooperation. It’s easy to alienate the outside community. As my housing advocate friend says, ‘building special needs housing only gets real when the townspeople and local Chambers of Commerce don’t block it.’


Julie GenserJG: That is an excellent point. It’s so important to have a good relationship with those in the larger community. How do you advertise your homes for sale?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I advertised the first house in CIIN.org’s monthly newsletter, Our Toxic Times. But the MCS community is highly networked, and I never had to seek buyers.




Julie GenserJG: If there are people out there interested in you building a spec house for them, how should they contact you?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: Well, spec houses aren’t built with a specific person in mind. But if people want to contact me, it’s joy@snowflakebeach.com.




Julie GenserJG: What are your future plans – will you buy more land in the area and continue to build spec houses?



Joy Beach ThomasJBT: I have enough land for one more home on a 20-acres parcel, and I continue to look for additional sites. The project has been rewarding on many levels, and a great adventure for me.



Julie GenserJG: Thank you so much for sharing your adventure with us all. Good luck on future projects!




Julie GenserJulie Genser is the founder of PlanetThrive.com, a hip, rockin’ community for those who are ready to kick convention to the curb and reclaim responsibility for their health, and MCSsafehomes.com a free service provided by Planet Thrive, Inc.


This article was originally published on the now defunct website MCSsafehomes.com on April 10, 2010 and transferred to the re|shelter website on February 22, 2011 under the original publication date.

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posted April 10, 2010

Community Feedback

  • Valerie Martinez

    August 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    For someone who doesn’t have mcs you are a very special person. I just had to move from my house I bought because of my neighbors. The smoke from their wood burning stoves and the growing of pot and the chemicals used to grow. I bought the house because it was up in northern California lots of clean air and beautiful. I lost 70,000 my investment to buy the house and because I couldn’t live there and had to walk away my credit is ruin also. Having mcs has totally changed my life in so many ways. Thank you for being a good person. God bless you

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