This blog explores changes in the energy industry from an insider’s perspective as it transitions from the old centralized utility model to the new paradigm of distributed generation.
This blog was previously called Inside the Housing Evolution and focused on energy efficient homes. Ultimately, it’s all linked. Soon, every building will have the potential to generate, store, and sell energy. Welcome to the era of the transactive grid – the greatest shift the electricity sector has seen in over 100 years!

August 7, 2014 5 Comments

Designing Homes for Cleaner Air


Designing Homes for Cleaner Air

Cross posted from the Ottawa Citizen on July 30, 2014.

The air in our homes can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s kind of scary when you think about how much time we spend indoors. Toxins in the air can lead to headaches, sore throats, runny noses, allergies and more.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Homes can be designed to provide cleaner indoor air. Studies by Health Canada show that people who moved into houses built with a focus on clean air found that their health improved compared to those living in conventional houses. In these homes, air quality was improved in three ways: by reducing sources of indoor air pollutants; by bringing in fresh outdoor air; and by filtering the indoor air.

Reducing sources of indoor air pollutants

Indoor air pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted from many traditional building materials. You can reduce the sources of these toxins by specifying materials that have fewer VOCs. Paints, carpets and adhesives should all be specified to be low-VOC. If you aren’t sure, look for a third-party label such as “EcoLogo”, which differentiates these products from their competitors.

Did you know that conventional cabinetry is made with formaldehyde? That’s the same chemical they use to embalm corpses. Be sure to ask if the kitchen supplier uses formaldehyde-free cabinetry.

By reducing the sources of indoor air pollutants in all of these important building materials, you will reduce the amount of toxins in the air.

Bringing in fresh outdoor air

Proper ventilation is the key to bringing in fresh outdoor air. In most homes, fresh air comes into the home through air leaks in the walls and around windows. This is an inefficient way to ventilate a home and allows cold drafts.

If you buy a new energy-efficient home, the homes are made to be more airtight so they require some form of mechanical ventilation to bring in fresh outdoor air.

A heat recovery ventilator (HRV) is used to draw in fresh air from outside while expelling stale indoor air. A specially designed heat exchanger pre-heats the cold outdoor air with waste heat from the warm indoor air being exhausted, so that the indoor air is constantly being replenished with fresh outdoor air without sacrificing energy efficiency.

Filtering indoor air

There are a number of different types of filters available but some will do a better job than others at cleaning your indoor air. Electronic air cleaners are more efficient than standard filters because they don’t become loaded with dirt, which can cause the heating and cooling system to work harder.

An electronic air cleaner will remove up to 98 per cent of bacteria, dust, pollen and other microbial indoor air pollutants from the air you breathe. This technology is especially important for families with pets, or for people with allergies.

With both traditional air filters and electronic air cleaners, regular maintenance is key. Filters need to be replaced every few months or they will get clogged with dirt. Electronic air cleaners have metal screens and grids that can be cleaned and reused.

If you’re looking to buy a new home, don’t just assume the builder will go out of their way to ensure that the air in your home is going to be free of toxins. Ask questions and consider the factors outlined above. It may cost a little more, but the peace of mind in knowing that your house isn’t making you sick will be well worth it.


Posted by Matthew

5 Responses to "Designing Homes for Cleaner Air"

  1. Gary Martin says:

    Great overview and general information Matthew. I am pleased to see a developer presenting this information, because most seem to bypass IAQ. Let me add a few things which didn’t fit in your brief article. The first is that this is not just about respiratory irritants. Certain adhesives, sealants, caulking, coatings and plastics contain known carcinogens. And it’s important to think about all the people who handle this stuff from manufacturers to installers to the folks who will take it all apart at the end of the building’s life. Is it poisoning them too? In addition, fire fighters are now worried as much about chemicals in building materials (and carpets,drape and furnishings) combining and exploding as they are about flames. Ventilation and filtering are important, but it’s just as important to look at the whole life cycle of building materials.

    I recently toured a new condo, and the chemical stench nearly knocked me over! Think twice about that “new home smell”!

  2. Luis says:

    I have read conflicting information on the need for a humidifier on new homes build as with R-2000. Some indicate that the HRV is enough and no humidifier is required, others indicate that is still required.

    What is your take on HRV + humidifier for new homes from Urbandale? Also, what kind of air filter is included with the new homes?


  3. Matthew Sachs says:

    Hi Luis,
    Humidifiers as well as dehumidifiers can both play an important role in maintaining the proper indoor air conditions, even in houses that have an HRV. HRV’s are not very accurate in terms of maintaining a set indoor air humidity. You can’t, for example, set an HRV to keep the house at 45% RH and expect it to stay exactly at that level. In the summer a dehumidifier (or AC) would be needed to reduce the amount of moisture in the air, and in the winter you may want a humidifier to add moisture. Urbandale does not include humidifiers, dehumidifiers, or air conditioners as part of our standard price, however we do offer them as upgrade options. We do however include an electronic air filter as standard in all of our single family homes.

  4. Russell Ibbotson says:

    Great article and glad to see your message reaching a wider audience. I would like to add that natural ventilation is a good option when outdoor conditions allow it. Simply opening a window can help cool the house during summer evenings, bring in fresh air and allow stale air to exit. This also uses less energy.

  5. Matthew Sachs says:

    Definitely! It’s sometimes easy to overlook the most simple solutions!!
    Thanks for commenting Russell.


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Matthew Sachs


  • COO of Peak Power since July 2016
  • General Manager of Urbandale Construction (May 2008 – Oct 2014)
  • Vice-Chair R-2000 Renewal Committee
  • Member of Energy Star Technical Advisory Committee
  • Greater Ottawa Homebuilders Green Committee
  • Recipient of Canadian Homebuilder’s Association 2009 R-2000 Builder of the Year Award
  • Participant in Natural Resources Canada’s Technology Roadmap for Sustainable Housing
  • Energy Consultant with Marbek Resource Consultants (Feb 2002 – May 2006)


Peak Power is a Microgrid project development company focused on delivering innovative solutions to offset the most expensive hours of electric demand. We specialize in optimizing the revenue streams from energy storage, advanced building automation, and renewable technologies for customer sited and utility scale projects. Please visit