Guide to Healthy Building Renovations & Remodel

Guide to Healthy Building Renovations & Remodel:

Preventing allergens, odors, smoke exposure, and poor indoor air quality

Before Beginning Renovations & Remodels:  

Prior to the start of a remodel or renovation there are specific considerations that have to be made in regard to hazardous material that could potentially be disturbed once construction is underway. Specific hazardous material such as asbestos, lead, and mold are the three things every contractor or homeowner should be considering before they begin renovations.  

1. Test for asbestos 

Asbestos is a component of some building materials and is known to be a hazardous carcinogen. Home owners, landlords, and contractors must perform testing or site surveys prior to disturbing or demolishing building any building materials that may contain asbestos. Although most people aware of the potential for asbestos content in popcorn ceiling, vinyl tiles, and pipe insulation; any building material that is not made of wood, metal, or glass may contain asbestos. An AHERA accredited inspector will help you to determine the appropriate sampling plan and protocol to ensure that you protect yourself from health impacts and liabilities, without wasting money on abating unnecessary materials. 

Any time you are remodeling, demolishing, repairing or otherwise disturbing materials that may contain asbestos, an asbestos inspection is required.  This requirement is for all buildings, regardless of the age of the structure. Unfortunately, building owners and contractors are often unaware of the needs for asbestos inspections until late in the project. A qualified AHERA inspector can help to limit abatement costs and provide a thorough report that will get the project done safely and within all relevant laws and regulation. Please note a formal  report includes photos, floor-plan, and description of all suspect materials. If you contractor simply looks around, takes a few samples, and sends you a lab report you are not getting your money’s worth! 

2. Test for / or assume lead-based paint 

Lead-based paint may be present in commercial properties or residential properties that were constructed prior to 1978.  In 2008 the EPA issued the lead renovation, repair, and painting program.  This new rule requires contractors to either test all painted materials and show them to be free of lead-based paint, or to assume that they contain lead-based paint and follow a prescriptive method to prevent the spread and contamination of the property with lead dust.  Prior to the commencement of a renovation project involving a property built 1978 or earlier, a decision must be made on whether to test for lead-based paint or to follow the EPA’s lead-safe renovation program rules. 

If the exterior of an older building is to be altered, it may be wise to test the soil for lead concentrations prior to the start of work. This data will create a baseline of the lead content in the soil before the older paint on the exterior of the building is disturbed.  A past history of flaking, peeling, or degraded lead-based paint may have caused a buildup of lead in the soil.  Owners and contractors may benefit from some baseline testing to avoid any liability in the future and/or prove that recent work on the building did not create a lead-soil contamination concern. 

In some locations, the state or waste disposal facility may require that construction waste be tested for lead leaching potential.  This is not a test to determine if ANY lead is present in the waste, but rather a composite test to determine how much, if any, lead will leach from the debris into the landfill.  Typically, when required, this testing is performed by the demolition contractor.  Lead leaching tests, also called a TCLP (toxics characteristic leachate potential) test can be performed prior to the start of demolition in order to expedite removal of waste. 

3. Assess for hidden water-damage and/or mold growth 

When remodeling a structure, there are often repairs that stem from a lapse in maintenance or building damage.  When these issues occur, and water is allowed to saturate the building materials, mold growth can become a concern.   Opening up a wall or ceiling cavity to uncover hidden mold growth can significantly delay a project or create a situation where mold spores are spread throughout the job site.   If water damage is known or suspected, a mold and moisture inspection prior to the start of renovation work can be helpful.  This inspection can outline what the mold spore levels currently are, what materials, are wet, and what remediation may be necessary.  Knowing what to expect before work will allow a contractor or owner to line-up the appropriate remediation company and set up site containment to prevent the spread of mold spores when affected materials are removed. 

Design with intent 

 Building materials 

The list of safe and healthy building materials is far too long to be included in any guide or handout.  Determining what products to use is a complicated process that must take into consideration safety, performance, durability, and application.  A qualified renovation contractor should help guide the client and choose materials that will meet the project specifications and remain within budget.  Below is an abbreviated list of some of the standards and certifying agencies that can be consulted: 


As we make our homes and offices more energy efficient, we strive to limit the loss of warm air and the infiltration of cold air.  The techniques used to create this energy efficiency are valuable in lower our heating bills, but if done incorrectly they may create indoor air quality concerns and uncomfortable spaces.  Building with an intent to create adequate ventilation will prevent many future odor, moisture, and indoor air quality problems. 

Buildings that are not sufficiently ventilated may suffer from persistent odors, visible condensation, stuffy and stagnant feeling air, and occupant sickness.  When a building is not getting sufficient fresh-air there may be a buildup of humidity, causing mold growth and dust mite infestation.  Poor ventilation will also concentrate “miscellaneous building pollutants” such as cleaners, fragrances, cosmetics, and off-gassing from paints, plastics, fire-retardants and other man-made building materials.  In addition to these conditions, which may cause respiratory, skin, and eye irritation, poor ventilation may lead to high levels of carbon dioxide which can cause lethargy, headaches, and general sluggishness.  

General options for properly designed ventilation: 

      • Negative pressure ventilation system (Exhaust Fans) 
      • Existing exhaust fans may be set on digital timer to achieve the desired ventilation rates 
      • New constant-flow exhaust fans may be installed to provide the desired ventilation rates 
      • Fresh-air will be drawn in through window vents or natural building leakage 
      • Positive pressure ventilation system (Fresh-air intake duct) 
      • A fresh-air intake duct may be installed on your existing HVAC system to add outside air directly into the air-stream 
      • Neutral pressure ventilation system (HRV) 
      • A heat-recovery ventilation system may be installed (either with new ducting or connected to existing ducting) to exhaust stale air and bring in an equal amount of fresh-air 
      • HRV stands for heat recovery ventilator.  This unit is a system that is designed to exchange the stale stagnant air from within a building for fresh air from the outside without losing too much of the heat you are paying to generate.  

Air Filtration 

The whole house Hawk Environmental AirWash Whisper helps create easier breathing at home. The bypass design is great for HVAC systems, or use as a single room system for same room air purification. The energy-efficient machine features three stage filtration and a leak-proof cabinet. 


Three Stage Filtration 

Each filter is independent and can be changed individually. The independent filter components are more economical than a system where you need to throw out two or three filters when only one needs changing. 

        • Foam Pre-Filter: A washable pre-filter catches any large debris, including hair and dust. 
        • Low Maintenance HEPA Filter: Removes 99.97% of particulates, bioburden, and VOCs down to .3 microns.  
        • Inner Carbon Blanket: An activated five-pound inner carbon canister captures odors from cooking, smoke, or VOCs from cleaning agents, paints, plastics, furniture, and flooring. 


        • Energy-Efficient: Single motor doesn’t put strain on additional equipment or waste energy for efficient, continuous operation. 
        • No Ozone: Hawk products won’t produce ozone or off-gas by-products such as carbon monoxide or formaldehyde while in use, unlike electronic air filters or ionizers.   

Additional Features 

        • Bypass Design: Can be easily incorporated into existing HVAC ducting without impact to furnace or voiding warranties.  
        • Continuous Fan Operation: A continuous fan operation ensure you get at least one air exchange per hour for cleaner air. 
        • Insulated Design: The insulated, leak-proof stainless steel cabinet keeps particulates contained during filtration. 
        • Dual Installation: This system can be ducted into any existing HVAC system (with or without HRV/ERV) or duct into a single room more prescriptive air cleaning. 

Building envelope 

The building envelope is the physical boundary between the conditioned and unconditioned environment of a building.  It includes the resistance to air, water, heat, light, and noise transfer. It’s the part of the structure that you can draw a line around: the roof, the walls, and the foundation.  

While we don’t normally think of insulation as something that can create health problems in a home, and inappropriate plan for insulation and air-sealing can allow condensation to happen on building materials and subsequent mold growth.  It is very important for a renovation project to take into account all of the aspects of temperature and moisture management in building.  These can be as minor as sealing the penetrations where electrical conduits pass through subfloor, to the proper placement of attic vents, all the way to the insulation products that are chosen.   

Moving forward with a contractor that has a firm understanding of the building envelope as it pertains to a particular project is yet another way to create a healthy and durable space. 

Build Carefully 

Review Site Survey and Design Specifications 

Asbestos surveys must be posted for all subcontractors to see.  This will prevent the accidental damage to asbestos-containing materials

Assess Materials Procured 

The general contractor should be responsible for ensuring that the materials used by each subcontractor meet the project designs.  Whether those design criteria include low-VOC, formaldehyde-free, or recycled content; looking at each product and reviewing the manufacturer’s specification sheets is always important. 

Protect Areas Outside of Work Zone 

When the work zone does not encompass the entire floor-plan of the structure, site containment is always recommended.  The type and size of the site containment will be based on the actions that are taking place.    Minor projects that do not generate dust or fumes may suffice with simple floor protection, walk-off matts, and signage.  Projects that involve some minor cutting, grinding, and sanding may need site protection that consists of painter’s-plastic and caution-tape.  Renovation that includes demolition, sheet-rock, texture spray, sanding, or other highly dusty processes may benefit from vertical plastic walls, zippered access doors, negative pressurization, and air scrubbers. 

Limit Dust Generation 

      • Work in open areas 
        • If possible, trim and cut materials outside. This will help you avoid inhaling dust because it’s less concentrated. If you are cutting materials in a small enclosed space, you are much more likely to inhale dangerous dust particles. 
      • Consider using low-dust joint compound
        • Low-dust joint compounds help to reduce the amount of airborne dust. Instead of floating through the air, the low-dust joint compounds fall on the floor where you are working. This makes it much easier to clean up afterward. 
      • Water
        • Water is a commonly used method for construction site dust control. It’s also extremely cheap so it can save you money as opposed to other methods. Depending on your site, you should apply water at least three times a day to control dust. 
      • Limit Sweep Equipment 
        • Sweep equipment is commonly used for highways and roads. While the equipment does help clean debris, it can although make problems worse by increasing the amount of airborne dust. 
      •  Cleanup 
        • Although preparation and containment are important control measures, cleanup is just as important. Investing in a shop vacuum may be worth your while as they have a double filter system. This keeps the dust in the vacuum and out of your lungs. 

Use Portable Air Scrubbers 

Using a portable HEPA air scrubber is a great way to collect dust from the air as it is generated and limit the cross-contamination of areas outside the work zone.  These scrubbers can be vented to the exterior to create a negatively-pressured work space, thus further preventing any errant dust-particles from escaping from the work zone.  Hawk Environmental’s MultiPro unit can also be equipped with an activated-carbon VOC filter to remove fumes, vapors, and gaseous contaminants. 

Alert and React to Unforeseen Conditions 

Things don’t always go according to plan, and unforeseen conditions may not be identifiable until the renovation begins.  Here is a short list of some of the things that may be found during renovation work that need to be assessed and addressed as soon as they are identified: 

      • Materials that may contain asbestos and were not included in the original asbestos site survey 
      • Containers, cans, bottles, or bags of chemicals that may be dangerous or toxic 
      • Wet materials, active leaks, flooding, or damaged pipes 
        Materials that appear to be impacted by mold growth 
        Electrical connections that seem unsafe or appear to have heat or spark damage 
        Cracked, warped, tilted, or otherwise damaged structural support materials 
        Pests, large quantities of insects, or wild animals 
      • Construction clean 
        • After the renovation is complete, most contractors will hire a construction-cleaning company.  These companies specialize in cleaning areas that have recently undergone renovation and can help to ensure that the occupants start out with a clean-slate. 
      • Duct cleaning 
        • During the course of remodeling work, most contractors know that the HVAC vents should be sealed and covered to prevent dust and debris from getting into the air-stream.  At the completion of the project, changing the furnace filter and hiring a professional company to clean-out the ducting will remove the remaining remnants of construction dust before it can cause an air quality issue. 

Test at Completion 

TAB HVAC system 

TAB stands for testing, adjusting, and balancing.  Performing proper TAB work on an HVAC system will ensure that each area is getting the proper amount of heated or cooled air delivered.  When the HVAC system is not properly balanced buildings may experience uncomfortable temperatures, excess humidity, or poor air quality due to a lack of sufficient fresh air exchange. 

 Blower Door Testing 

The Washington State Energy Code Requirements now require blower door testing for air leakage on new construction and many types of remodeling projects.  This test is designed to measure and record the amount of air leakage in a newly renovated or constructed building to ensure proper energy efficiency and air quality performance. 

Test Air Quality (mold, lead, asbestos, formaldehyde, VOCs) 

The final verification of a healthy renovation is testing.  Based on the project specifications, a post-renovation testing protocol can be generated.  It’s important for the testing company to produce a proposal that clearly outlines what will be tested and what levels will be considered acceptable.  Various methods of testing the air quality include the use of VOC meters, infrared cameras, flow meters, and sample collection that will subsequently be analyzed by a qualified laboratory.