Perhaps one of the earliest examples of the current healthy home phenomenon started in Halfhill’s backyard in Fairfield, Iowa, in the late 1990s, when an architectural firm known as Maharishi Global Construction began building Maharishi Vedic City, a 150-home planned community built around the ancient Sanskrit text, called Sthapatya Veda, that suggests there’s a correlation between human harmony and the orientation, spatial, and material elements of one’s home. Other homebuilders such as Boone, North Carolina-based Karu Architecture also instituted Vedic theory into many of their healthy home projects across the country. A precursor to Feng Shui, Vedic design essentially insists that the human body is somehow reactive to the movements of the sun as well as to the spatial orientation of everything around it. Although not scientifically studied like chemical impacts on the body, most homebuilders today recognize the need for spiritual harmony, as much as nontoxic materials, in facilitating home-healthy designs.

“The early roots of our firm were very much founded on energy efficiency, passive solar strategies, ventilation strategies, and super-insulating homes. Architects were always focused on these things, but with the oil and energy crises of the 1970s many became even greater advocates for it,” offers David O’Brien Wagner, a managing partner at SALA Architects, Inc., a Minnesota-based architectural design firm established in 1983 by Dale Mulfinger and Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series of books. For the past three decades, though, the company’s focus has also evolved into making those homes healthier through more thoughtful study and product specification.

“The most important thing we do is to promote living spaces that are filled with light and good ventilation so people are having connections to the outdoors, which enhances us both emotionally and spiritually,” says Wagner, adding that what’s beneath the surface, such as formaldehyde-free joists under the floor boards and foam insulation that doesn’t outgas, is crucial to the well-being of a home’s inhabitants. “There’s not much research on it yet but there are suggestions that even electromagnetic energy can have an effect on one’s health, so all of the structural concrete reinforcing might be done with fiberglass instead of metal because metal conducts a magnetic field energy that could affect brain- wave activity,” offers Wagner. “For this reason,” he says, “there has been a push to reduce how much electrical wiring is in a bedroom so those places where you’re trying to maximize the REM wave patterns in the brain don’t get disrupted” and subsequently disrupt sleep.

At the same time, the visible components of the interior of the home — carpets, wood flooring, paints, cabinetry — can’t be overlooked. At SALA, for instance, Wagner says the company has been instrumental in helping clients choose carpeting made from natural wool or even recycled cotton, and suggests floor and wall finishes that emit low VOCs. “Rather than use a polyurethane finish on wood floors, we’ve been suggesting a wax/oil finish, called Rubio Monocoat, that does two things: It doesn’t outgas like polyurethane and it also takes away that plasticized feeling from the floors,” he says. Moreover, adds Wagner, “it’s a more tactile connection to the material as it hardens the wood so it reduces the scratches.”

But does having a healthy home negate having a beautiful one too? Like all home design, healthy houses can be so poorly designed that, as Dr. Stark jokes, “you’d rather die than live in them.” But Allen Rathey, president of the Boise, Idaho-based Healthy House Institute, a free educational resource for consumers looking to turn their homes into health-friendly environments, says that’s not the case so much these days. “With all the advancements in greener, healthier materials and processes and architectural innovation using these modalities, it is no longer necessary to sacrifice aesthetics for virtue in home design and construction. Yes, you can have your green, healthy cake and eat it too.”