Environmentally Safer Spec Houses: A Healthy Investment
interview with Joy Beach Thomas, builder of non-toxic houses
Exterior covered walkway
Julie 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?
JG: 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?
Spec House 3
JBT: 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.
JBT: 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.
JG: 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?
JBT: 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.
JG: 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?
JBT: 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!
Spec House 2: Laying the foundation and vapor barrier
JG: 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?
JBT: 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.
JG: 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?
JBT: 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.
JBT: 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.
JG: 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?
JBT: 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.
JBT: 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.
JBT: 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.
Spec House 2: During construction
JBT: 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.
JBT: 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.
JBT: 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.
JBT: 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
JG: 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?
JBT: 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.
JG: 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?
Spec House 2: Kitchen
JBT: 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 in the foil-lined house
JBT: 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!
JBT: 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.’
JBT: Well, spec houses aren’t built with a specific person in mind. But if people want to contact me, it’s email@example.com.
Julie 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.