One on One With Dianne Walsh Astry

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Initially, home builders thought participants in the Health House effort for better indoor quality were crazy radicals, remembers Dianne Walsh Astry, one of the folks taking the brunt of that early negative reaction.

September 01, 1999

Initially, home builders thought participants in the Health House effort for better indoor quality were crazy radicals, remembers Dianne Walsh Astry, one of the folks taking the brunt of that early negative reaction. However Astry, national director of the American Lung Association’s Health House program, has survived to see attitudes change from the first effort in Eden Prairie, Minn. in 1993 to 18 homes being built around the United States today.

PROFESSIONAL BUILDER: How did the Health House program get started?

DIANNE WALSH ASTRY: Research studies showed that there had been as much as a 60% increase in asthma in recent years. Jerry Orr, who was the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the ALA, thought it would be a good idea to take a look at how homes were being built and whether there was a connection with the increase in asthma. He talked to an allergist whose son was a builder. Jeff Schoenwetter of JMS Homes had asthma as a kid and thought it was a great idea to build a Health House.

What seemed to be the problem?

We believed there was a correlation between the soaring asthma rate and changes in home building techniques, particularly in constructing homes tighter for energy savings and changes in materials. For instance, there seemed to be a problem with products using formaldehyde glues.

We thought that improved ventilation and filtration would improve indoor air quality, but we saw there was a bigger picture. We realized that we had to control moisture and then improve ventilation and filtration. The house performed better and the humans inside it performed better. We discovered the need to look at a house as a system, including such factors as grading on the property to make sure water moved away from the house.

How does a Health House cost compare to regular construction? Do today’s houses cost less than the first one built in 1993?

We’ve seen a significant drop in cost. The products and materials used are much more main stream. For the first house the cost was around 15%higher and that was pretty significant. Now the cost has dropped to within 3% to 5% of traditional construction. Today, participating builders are more familiar with steel framing and structural insulated panels (SIPs). These different ways of building walls are an example of one of our goals: not to be product specific. One of the two houses in Tucson uses Rastra block for the walls. Also, in the houses built this year in Tucson and Milford, N.H. we have teamed with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Building America program to reengineer the houses to reduce costs.

What other government agencies, associations and companies have you worked with on Health House?

In addition to DOE, the other federal agency is the Environmental Protection Agency. Associations are the National Association of Home Builders and the Energy Efficient Building Association. Company partners include 3M, Andersen Windows, Bissell, Broan, Bruce Flooring, Carrier, GE Appliances, Heat N Glo, Kenmore, Kohler, Lucent Technologies, Pergo, Owens Corning and Whirlpool. We also work with local utilities and local government agencies.

How do builders deal with the implication that if they build healthy houses now, they were building unhealthy houses before?

Part of the answer is a builder’s willingness to say what he knows and when he knew it. It is like people asking a physician why he didn’t prescribe a medicine last year but is now. Most likely, that product wasn’t available then or the knowledge about its effectiveness wasn’t complete.

We are giving people an opportunity to learn about this type of construction with our formal program for training and education. Progressive builders are advancing themselves and learning this new practice.

We have found that many of the builders in our program are energy efficient builders who have experienced a lot of the issues that triggered Health House: building degradation, moisture problems, window condensation and more. These builders have discovered the necessity of mechanical ventilation and a waterproof foundation. Those features create a more durable house with a healthier indoor environment. The result is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

What other marketing topics are issues with builders?

They want to be assured that this is an opportunity to differentiate themselves from other builders in the area. Being associated with American Lung Association, with its 95-year history, is a very reassuring link for consumers and strong marketing angle for builders. Builders also recognize the value of the technical certification and training ALA provides as well our blueprint review and performance testing of the finished house.

What are some of items you might ask a builder to change after looking at blueprints?

One would be a sealed combustion furnace and water heater. We try to make sure there are no backdraft problems in the house. We focus on eliminating indoor air quality problems first, then filtration and then ventilation. Another example is windows. Builders occasionally spec windows that don’t meet program guidelines.

Who does the performance testing?

We contract with qualified site inspectors. The process starts with a blueprint review. The inspector visits the site three times during construction and at completion performs a blower door and duct tightness test. After builders have demonstrated that they can build three to five houses that meet testing requirements, they don’t go through the full-blown process on every home. We then do spot checks. Every house does get the final performance test.

How long has the builder training program been in existence?

It was launched in the fall of 1997 and to date, we have trained about 2000 builders. Most have been in the cold climates, though that is starting to change now.

Up until last year most of our builder trainees have been small, custom builders. In the past year we have had builders come to us with whole developments. Vernon McKowen of Ideal Homes in Norman, Okla. is an example. He is the largest production builder in the state. Then there are the Giant builders, who are also expressing interest. Some employees of Centex and Pulte have gone through training.

What are the goals for the coming years?

When we started, our goal was to change the way houses are built in America. I would very much love to stand up and take credit for all of that. I don’t think that is the case. There are certainly a lot of people and organizations out there doing that every day. I do think the Health House program was a catalyst for change in the industry.

DOSSIER: Dianne Walsh Astry

Organization: Since the Health House program started in 1993 she has been national its director. Prior to that assignment she was director of public relations for the American Lung Association (ALA) of Minnesota, which started the program. Before coming to the ALA, she was marketing director for the State University of New York.

Personal: The 1975 graduate of Mercy Hurst College (1975) in Glenwood Hills, Pa. likes to cook. She also spends time running and reading housing magazines. "I am a magazine addict," she says.

Just For Fun: "My favorite place is Cape Cod. That is where I hope to end up some day with my own little Health House."

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