Your home could be healthier - here's how
Buildings and homes designed to fight viruses and mental health issues could be part of the COVID-19 legacy.
Healthy homes are already cropping up across Melbourne, featuring simple additions that can lead to happier and healthier lifestyles.
We've asked the experts what can boost your family's wellbeing today and what's on the horizon.
Humidity has emerged as one of the few environmental factors that can help fight COVID-19.
Harvard Medical School infection control consultant Dr Stephanie Taylor - from the hard-hit United States - has revealed there are virus-fighting air moisture levels we can create at home.
"Ensuring a relative humidity of 40-60 per cent has been proven to be more effective in deactivating these viral particles, both in the air and on surfaces," Dr Taylor said.
"The cold, dry air of winter clearly facilitates the spread of SARS-CoV-2 - the virus that causes COVID-19 - among people. Setting minimum indoor humidity levels for public buildings will reduce the burden of COVID-19, and other upcoming seasonal viral illness, on society."
Modern smart homes with hi-tech air purification systems were an option, she said. But even installing a humidifier could help prevent "dry air", which resulted in mucous membranes in the nose and mouth drying out and becoming less efficient at fighting bacterial and viral infections.
RMIT School of Property, Construction and Project Management lecturer Dr Nicola Willand said energy-efficient design requirements in Victoria put many new homes ahead of the game.
"Having a warm home is really important, because air is like a sponge" she said. "It can absorb moisture - and to get to a particular level of humidity, the home needs to be warm. In cold rooms, humidity drops and your nose and mouth dry out, which makes it easier to get sick."
Dr Willand - who's establishing Australia's first housing and health course - said homes designed with greater thermal efficiency, which required less heating and cooling, were more likely to remain in the right temperature brackets to maintain ideal humidity.
MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
The industry is also increasingly aware of the impact the home environment can have on mental health.
Big windows for plenty of natural light, gardens and indoor greenery have all featured in studies into human wellbeing - though their effects are not well understood as yet.
"Even a balcony with a green area will help to reduce stress," Dr Willand said. "Our nervous system responds really positively to green. It's probably part of why we tend to take flowers to someone in hospital."
Window orientation is also important. Most people would know the importance of north-facing glazing for natural light throughout the year. But few would know that a west-facing window, with a deciduous tree or a vine-clad pergola in front of it, was ideal for boosting warmth in winter without overheating in summer.
For those who worked from home, Dr Willand also recommended a south-facing window to provide even lighting without glare.
It was also important homeowners ensured existing building features aimed at protecting their health were operating correctly.
World Health Organisation studies of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003 suggested faecal matter in sewerage pipes had infected people in one apartment tower with the virus. This was because U-bend pipes had been left to dry out in some areas.
Normally filled with water, these pipe features create a barrier to smells and bacteria wafting back out of pipes into bathrooms and laundries. But if allowed to dry out, they stop working.
Overspill pipes set into bathroom and laundry floors were the most likely to dry out. "So if you can smell a funny smell, put in some water," Dr Willand said. "What you are usually smelling is bacteria."
Advanced home features that control air quality, humidity, or keep bushfire smoke out, are another way the home can help keep illness at bay, according to Delos building biologist Bree Fisher.
Ms Fisher expected health and safety to "become a standard benchmark" in buildings as a long-term effect of COVID-19.
Her industry identifies and mitigates health hazards in the built environment, be that through air and water quality, building materials, mould and moisture levels, or electromagnetic fields.
"Anything to boost your immune system, or even to get you good sleep and reduced stress," Ms Fisher said.
Houses with such a focus have been built by Simonds Homes across Melbourne since Delos launched their Darwin Home Wellness Intelligence platform here in 2018.
Operating in a few thousand homes today, it tracks and maintains air quality including humidity, purifies water from every tap, and includes circadian-rhythm based lighting.
Ms Fisher said even a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter over heating and cooling ducts could provide benefits for some conditions.
For those considering a renovation or buying a home in the near future, it could be wise to consider the building materials, too.
"Concrete or unsealed ceramics or unsealed wood will be a lot more porous, and a lot more bugs can be absorbed into them," Ms Fisher said.
OUR HEALTHY HOME
Guramarinder Singh's healthy home in Melbourne's southeast has been a boon for him and his family.
He moved into the Botanic Ridge house with his wife, Gursharan Kaur, and their daughter Heleen Kaur, 10, and son Guramarpel, 5, just in time to escape the worst of bushfire smoke that blanketed Melbourne early this year.
Its computer-controlled air and water filtration proved to be particularly important, given both his children have had problems with asthma. "Inside, they were really good," Mr Singh said.
The family also noticed it had adopted healthier habits since moving into the house featuring home wellness technology from Delos.
This included wanting to drink the tap water - something they never enjoyed at their previous home.
"With good hydration, you feel it cleaning your body," Mr Singh said.
The importance of the home environment for the family's health had also become more apparent.
He said he now believed construction or material improvements that might help viral infections could soon be a wonderful addition to home life.