Mary Cordaro's 1950s ranch house fits snugly into its Sherman Oaks, Calif., neighborhood, a pleasant three-bedroom yellow stucco with gray trim and a large camphor tree shading the front yard.
Nothing outwardly sets it apart from the other houses on the block, but looks are deceiving.
This is a radical house. It's a mold-free, mildew-free, dust-mite-free, lead-free laboratory for healthy living, with air so pure and ducts and filters so clean that a visitor who comes in wheezing with allergies feels better immediately.
It's a work in progress for the soft-spoken Cordaro, 46, a dogged reformer who has spent the last 10 years fine-tuning an environmental-consultant career she backed into while seeking help for her allergies.
Since she and her husband, screenwriter Scott Davis-Jones, bought the house in 1990, she has painstakingly converted it to a model of a healthy home. Along the way, she has developed an inventory of natural furnishings, paints and building products to help her clients deal with allergies and chemical sensitivities triggered by indoor pollution.
"The point is to get [the home] as tuned to nature as possible," she says of her showcase house. "Your house should be a healing environment."
Cordaro is one of a new breed of designers who look at a house, in her words, "as a living organism with interrelated parts, not just a structure to decorate and fill with furniture."
Matt Freeman-Gleason, owner of Environmental Home Center in Seattle, a major supplier of natural building materials, says the number of environmental consultants nationwide is starting to grow.
"Mary has been an early adapter," he said. "She has a really clear contextual understanding of environment, design and material and how to put them together. She knows a lot."
Environmental consultants are on the cutting edge of a healthy-home movement that continues to grow as more Americans fall prey to "sick building syndrome," which was once viewed largely as a workplace problem.
People are discovering that the American home, which should protect them from the stressful world, is not always a haven. Instead, from roof to basement, a home can be an alarming mix of fumes from paint and dozens of other chemical products, carpeting, vinyl, pressed wood, mold and mildew, along with contaminants such as dust and other microscopic particles, often tightly sealed up in the name of energy efficiency.
"Think of it as a toxic soup," says Mary Ellen Fise of the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, which has targeted indoor air as a priority. The culprits are not only the plastics, glues and petrochemicals in building materials, but the luxury carpet, the designer wallpaper and the very sheets and comforters we sleep in.
Such materials can generate unhealthy gases, molds and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that indoor pollution levels can be anywhere from two to 100 times higher than those found outdoors, as residences are increasingly sealed for air-conditioning.
For some people, that's not a problem, but for others, the house they live in is literally making them sick. The American Lung Association puts allergy sufferers at 40-plus million, a rise of almost 15 million since 1995.
Cordaro, whose Integrated Environmental Solutions takes a team approach to solving allergy problems, thinks a homeowner-education effort is in order.
"My clients are a lot of desperate people, and by the time they call me when they are sick with allergies, it's almost always too late. The new coat of paint or the adhesives in the framing or whatever is making them sick is already up."
When she and her husband (a nonsufferer) bought their house, it was a chance to change her environment. She slowly began renovating, combining everything from the ancient art of feng shui to recent advances in the building sciences.
And though the house is still a work in progress, Cordaro says she is entirely well, except for an "occasional sensitivity." The clients she works with are encouraged to take a tour of the Cordaro house, (leaving their shoes at the door) for an overview of what goes in, and comes out, when a healthy house is created.
"The first thing people notice is that there is no carpeting anywhere," Cordaro said, opening the door to a Shaker-simple living room with white walls, natural wood floors, a fireplace flanked with bookcases and wood blinds at the windows.
Instead of carpet, with its thousands of surfaces to trap and hold household volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the floors throughout are maple hardwood finished with a nontoxic, water-based environmental sealer.
Throw rugs throughout the house are "green" cotton (undyed, untreated and unbleached) and silk.
There's a definite serenity to the airy, beamed living room, with its art-lined walls and large piano (Cordaro is an amateur musician), but most of the eco-features have to be pointed out.
A round cherry table, like other wood items throughout the house, is oiled with linseed and beeswaxed. Chair cushions are upholstered with organic wool. "That means the sheep are not dipped in pesticide," said Cordaro.
Such substitutions are expensive. While a solvent-free natural wall paint may cost only 20 percent more than a high-quality conventional type, she said, natural oil finishes for woodwork range from 50 percent to 100 percent more than petroleum-based oils.
"It's so much more expensive, I encourage people to start by focusing on the bedroom, where you can get the most benefit," she said.
"The idea is to get people thinking about change."
Reducing indoor pollutants
Worried about the air you are breathing in your own home? Ways to create a healthy environment to help reduce allergies range from making a major investment to minor behavioral modifications. And you may be amazed to find how many nontoxic or "green" products are now available.
Although truly "natural" products (chemical-free and derived from plant sources) are difficult to find, many low-toxic or nontoxic choices are now available.
Debra Lynn Dadd, a green-products pioneer, has been writing books about nontoxic houses since 1982. "I researched everything and was able to fit every product I found into the book, because there weren't that many," she said. "Now there are so many, I couldn't catalog them all in my latest book, 'Home Safe Home,' let alone evaluate them. There's just a lot you can do yourself."
Here is a sampling of tips:
Because so much time is spent sleeping, you may want an air-cleaning unit (there are several types available) in your bedroom. Use a filter model and make sure it is a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) unit, which is 99.9 percent efficient on particles (dust, pollen, plant and mold spores) that are .3 microns in size. Change filters on schedule.
In other parts of the house, there are numerous ways to reduce pollution at its source.
* When using personal-care products such as hair spray or nail polish, open a window. If you're stripping paint off an old table, do it outside or where there's ventilation.
* Use substitutions for toxic products such as pesticides whenever possible.
* Fix plumbing leaks to avoid mold and mildew, which release bacteria into the air.
* Reduce the number of dust mites, the tiny, microscopic animals that are found in house dust. Put bedding in allergen-impermeable covers; wash bedding weekly in hot water of at least 140 degrees; replace carpets with hard-surface flooring, and clean up surface dust as often as possible.
* Invest in organic bedding in cottons and wools that are not treated with chemicals.
* Look at your vacuum cleaner. Does it do anything more than move the dust around? Ideally, it should have a sealed bag and at the least should be cleaned regularly.
* Reduce indoor mold. Clean bathrooms, kitchens and basements regularly to eliminate indoor molds that result from high humidity. Make sure these areas have good air circulation. Keep humidity levels low; dehumidifiers may help.
* Use exhaust fans when cooking, bathing or showering.
* House plants are air cleaners, removing pollutants and gases in the process of photosynthesis. High on the list are aloe vera, English ivy, ficus, golden pothos and spider plant.
* Avoid storing books, magazines and papers in the bedroom because they offer refuge for dust mites.
* Take off shoes before entering the house, or at least have a mat at the front door.
To take a major step toward a nontoxic home, said author Dadd, replace toxic, flammable or corrosive cleaning products -- ammonia, drain cleaners, furniture polish and scouring powders. "I do all my cleaning with a squirt bottle of 50/50 vinegar and waater, liquid soap and baking soda," she writes. "It couldn't be simpler."
"There are so many choices now" in healthy building and interior materials, said Matt Freeman-Gleason, owner of the Environmental Home Center in Seattle. "Green building is absolutely mainstreaming."
That doesn't mean it is automatic. His advice to consumers is to make sure the environmental aspect is maximized in any project. "Ask the contractor, the handyman or the designer if they have looked at the environment. If you get a blank stare, find somebody else."
-- Connie Koenenn
* Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Air Quality Hot Line: 800-438-4318
* www.lungusa.org: American Lung Association has tips on indoor air quality.
* www.enviresource.com: Environmental Home Center offers natural building materials and information.
* www.fscus.org: Forest Stewardship Council verifies companies that manufacture wood products from environmentally responsible forests.
* www.naturalhomemagazine.com: Bimonthly magazine devoted to creating healthy dwellings.
* "Prescriptions for a Healthy House: A Practical Guide for Architects, Builders and Homeowners," by Paula Baker, Erica Elliott and John Banta (Inword Press, 1998).
* "Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living," by Annie Berthold-Bond (Three Rivers Press, 1999).
* "Home Safe Home: Protecting Yourself and Your Family From Everyday Toxics and Harmful Household Products," by Debra Lynn Dadd (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
* "The New Natural House Book: Creating a Healthy, Harmonious and Ecologically Sound Home," by David Pearson (Simon & Schuster Fireside, 1998).
* "The Green Guide: Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet," a twice-monthly newsletter on health and the environment. 40 W. 20th St., Ninth Floor, New York, N.Y. 10011; 212-242-0010.