Designing with Chemical Sensitivities in Mind

Dan Bawden, Legal Eagle Contractors, Co.

Most remodeling design projects begin by drafting and prioritizing the homeowner’s wish list. At the top of the list you will typically find more storage, better lighting, updated finishes, etc. However, when a homeowner has Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), the priorities change with indoor air quality and chemical free maintenance hitting the top of the list.

Asthma sufferers or people with severe chemical sensitivities often design and build their own houses with some of these specifications in mind.

  • Proper ventilated fan
  • Properly installed title to avoid mold
  • Quality indoor air quality

Remodelers, designers and builders have an ethical obligation to educate homeowners on their options for incorporating low/non-toxic materials that will render any project safe and healthy for its occupants.

Here are some primary selection criteria for consideration:

Natural hard surface flooring such as cork, linoleum, wood or tile instead of carpeting, laminate or vinyl to minimize off-gassing and the harboring of dust mites, mildew and/or bacteria.

Low/No VOC paints and finishes over their high VOC brethren – look for third party certifications such as Green Seal ( or Green Guard ( for assurance of low VOC levels.

Vintage furniture has likely already off-gassed its toxic components so consider buying used. If new furnishings are what you need, look for a manufacturer’s membership in the Sustainable Furnishings Council ( which promotes the manufacturing of sustainable, low toxicity products.

Stock or semi-custom cabinetry that has earned the Environmental Stewardship Program seal from the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA –

Custom made cabinetry and furniture that uses only no added formaldehyde plywood, particle board and/or medium density fiber board (MDF) along with low VOC finishes and adhesives.

Countertop materials that don’t contain high VOC glues, resins or other toxic binding agents and can be maintained without the use of high VOC sealants and cleaning agents. Look for untreated natural fibers such as wool, cotton, jute, etc. rather than synthetic fiber materials for window coverings and furnishings.

Other considerations would include using materials that do not require toxic cleaning agents for routine maintenance and installing prefinished millwork.  It is also recommended to analyze and supplement, where necessary, the home’s ventilation including upgrading kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, installing a filter on a forced air furnace and/or installing a room air exchanger.

Working with professionals who are well versed in the area of environmental design and construction, is one way to ensure that selected materials and finishes meet the needs of those with chemical sensitivities.