An Experimental Poet's Quest for a Non-toxic Home

With indoor air quality as the driving motivator, a determined poet sets out to build a low-impact, healthy home.

Written by Lynn Morgan.  Photo credit to the homeowner,  Alicia Cohen.     

When Alicia Cohen and her husband Tom Fisher decided to divide their double lot in SE Portland and build a new home, Alicia didn’t want a big, beautiful house that did harm in the making. “Afterall, it’s not all about you,” she said.  She was not interested in gestures of luxury, but in creating a sense of camaraderie and community, and minimizing the negative impact this project might have -- all the way to the forests.

Over the years of living in an old Portland home, Alicia became concerned about the toxic elements of her built environment and the effects they can have on physical health. She worries about air pollution, climate change, and her children’s futures. Concerns many of us share. Having a son with respiratory issues, indoor air quality became an obsession as they started planning for what and how to build. She did her homework, enrolled in an Urban Studies Program to learn how to build green, and talked to several of Portland’s most reputable experts in the Green Building Industry.

Full Plane Passive House, designed by Michelle Jeresek, Ivon Street Studio

In her research, Alicia came across the Full Plane Passive House, designed by Michelle Jeresek of Ivon Street Studio. Michelle is very comfortable working in the confines of ambitious sustainability goals. The Full Plane House is “called one of the most sustainable homes in the US, and was designed and built to both the Living Building Challenge and Passive House standards, incorporating net-zero energy, net-zero water, and all healthy and responsibly-sourced materials.” While Alicia did not feel the need to “achieve” any certification, these standards served as a guiding light throughout the building process, and she referred to the LBC Materials Petal as a point of reference.  Jeresek was hired to design the home, and Alicia lead the materials and indoor air quality research and construction management for the interior part of the project.

“Materials can illuminate connectedness and wholesomeness. Materials can have a soul. So much is reduced to the visual that the things that are embodied are often missed. The hands that touched and created each part, the forest it came from, the journey from there to here – a house holds all that energy of creation and will live far beyond the people that build it.” These are things this experimental poet said to me the day I caught up with her to talk about her project.

Among the goals for this 2200 square foot home were to optimize every square inch of the much smaller footprint than the original home, to source ultra-low emitting materials for the highest indoor air quality, and to utilize as much FSC® certified wood as possible. The Forest Stewardship Council ® has a mission to promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world's forests. At Sustainable Northwest Wood, we very much align with that mission, with a focus on local, responsibly sourced Pacific Northwest forest products. We have been FSC Certified since opening for business in 2008, and provide more FSC Certified lumber than any other retailer on the West Coast.  Our shop is conveniently located just minutes from the site of Alicia’s new home. After talking with dozens of suppliers, pushing for materials and ingredients information and transparency, with varying degrees of frustration and success, Alicia told me that Sustainable Northwest Wood needed no vetting. She went in fully confident in our shared values and quickly came to see us as a trusted partner. 

Over the course of several months of research and construction, Alicia worked closely with Sustainable Northwest Wood’s in-house FSC expert and VP of Sustainable Impact, Terry Campbell. Terry is a Living Building Challenge ambassador, a champion for materials transparency, and a founding member of Portland’s Sustainable Building Week. He knew how to speak the technical and nerdy language Alicia required for her project, in his authentically human, solution-oriented way. He helped her source the right forest products for each of her goals. He researched and found FSC resources for ultra-low emitting (ULEF) plywoods, locally produced FSC Certified Maple plywood for cabinetry and FSC Douglas Fir for the flooring, trim and exterior siding.

Knowing what she wanted to achieve with indoor air quality was a challenge to decipher considering the technical complexity of how ingredient off-gassing is measured. Sometimes Alicia didn’t know what questions to ask. “This is still very new territory for residential projects, and sometimes I knew more than the supplier did about their own product, which was not always comforting! Something as seemingly simple as sourcing a non-toxic sofa took months of research.” But she was determined.

The interior of her new space has an inviting minimalist vibe, with a Scandinavian influence reflective of the time her family spent abroad in Norway. The focal point of the open living space is a floor to vaulted ceiling bookcase that houses an impressive collection of books, records and treasures from their travels. She opted for exterior siding in FSC Douglas Fir, pre-finished with TimberPro Internal Wood Stabilizer to provide a natural look and welcoming appearance, and permanent protection of the substrate in a non-toxic finish.

After many months of exhaustive research and construction, Alicia’s diligence has paid off in the form of a beautiful home in which she and her family are comfortable, cozy, and breathing easy -- literally.

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