The plush carpeting underfoot springs like only the softest, newest fibers can, and the scent of fresh paint wafts through the empty hallways to greet you at the door. Your newly built, carefully designed and decorated dream house is nearly ready to accept your family as moving day draws close.
But your new home may turn out to be more like a haunted house if you have overlooked some important considerations.
``If we want these beautiful homes, they have to be breathable, livable and of healthy construction,'' says interior designer Bernadette Upton of North Palm Beach.
Upton conducts seminars around the country for interior designers, architects and builders. She has found a niche market in our increasingly synthetic environment, creating home and office interiors that won't make clients sick.
``As much as we want our home to be our castle, a new home can be a very toxic place,'' Upton told members of the South Florida Green Design Council at a recent meeting. The council, made of up architects, builders, engineers, health professionals and interested citizens from the tri-county area, meets in Boca Raton once a month to discuss environmental issues.
Upton recalled a client who is so allergic to cleaning compounds, glues and other chemicals used in construction, furniture and fabrics that she couldn't set foot into her own new home until Upton and an environmental inspector had methodically ensured that no toxic gases seeped from flooring or lurked within its walls.
``The astonishing thing is, she was once a normal person,'' Upton said. ``She got sick in her own home.'' Upton says the woman developed flu-like symptoms 12 years ago while doing a complete overhaul of her home, but soon realized that the headache, nausea, runny nose and watery eyes disappeared when she was away from the house. The remodeling project came to an immediate halt, but her symptoms resurface whenever she comes in contact with formaldehyde and certain other chemicals.
Upton recalled that while making a presentation to a client, the woman interrupted her description of materials used in a couch. ``I don't care what's in the sofa,'' the woman said.
``And that's the problem today . . . the consciousness,'' Upton said. ``We really don't know how bad it can be until someone becomes gravely ill as a result of the chemicals in their environment.''
Health problems can arise from poor air quality. Asthma and allergies are at the top of the list of problems. The lung association says childhood asthma in the United States rose 87 percent between 1982 and 1995, partly because most people spend 75 to 90 percent of their time indoors.
Susan Peterson's Fort Lauderdale home reflects the sort of modifications Upton advises for people with allergies to synthetics or other chemicals.
She uses unscented and dye-free cleaning products, chlorine-free scouring powder and vinegar and water. She has leather furniture because it can be cleaned easily and doesn't harbor dust. She doesn't have drapes in the house.
Peterson is installing a new air handler and ducts. She said the new central air-conditioning system she bought last year was installed using lots of adhesive, which caused such an allergic reaction that she had to stay at her mother's home for nine months. Now, she uses her bedroom as her safe room. She has an air purifer there, blinds but no drapes and a terrazzo floor with small area rugs that can be cleaned easily.
``The things that have happened to me have inspired me to help other people,'' Peterson said. She has co-authored a booklet used by environmental agencies called ``Common Sense Pest Control,'' and developed a children's entertainment company, Mama's Mermaid Music, that specializes in environmental messages.
``The trend for a lot of people, particularly for parents, is to try to improve their children's environment. There has been some progress made -- they've banned Dursban,'' Peterson said. ``I think people are becoming more aware.''
Builders are taking note of the growing interest in environmental responsibility and indoor air quality. WCI, developer of 30 communities throughout Florida, including Deering Bay in South Dade and Heron Bay in Coral Springs, recently established an environmental stewardship committee, naming Karen Childress as manager at its headquarters office in Bonita Springs.
WCI had already established an alliance with Audubon International to help ensure that its community golf courses are environmentally sound. Going ``green'' indoors is just a logical next step, Childress said.
``Within the building industry, change does not come suddenly,'' she said. ``However, green building practices can begin company-wide as soon as the commitment is made. We are introducing green building products incrementally and testing their success before committing them to all projects.''
Examples in practice at some WCI communities include using recyclable steel studs for framework, using low volatile organic compound paints, protecting trees on job sites and preventing soil from polluting nearby streams during construction.
Childress also is coordinating a green-practices training program for WCI employees. ``Consumers have more savvy with regard to sustainable choices,'' Childress said. ``We are preparing green options packages, including energy-saving appliances and windows.''
Upton recommends paying attention to South Florida's heat and humidity, which can cause many problems with allergens. ``If you're hard-pressed and on a budget, put the extra money into the a.c. system. . . . A healthy system has a fresh-air intake and will filter out the toxins.''
A high-efficiency air conditioner, with filters replaced regularly, can help to minimize moisture in the air.
``Humidity control is a major problem in our climate,'' said Doug Yoder, assistant director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Environmental Resources Management. Yoder chairs the Dade Green Coalition, which includes representatives from other government agencies, the University of Miami and the business sector, who meet periodically to discuss environmentally positive building practices for county properties.
Samir Elmir is environmental administrator of Miami-Dade's Department of Health and Human Services, which assists residents with indoor air-quality problems. ``We help by trying to control moisture and humidity in the a.c. units or by identifying any leaks and working with them to eliminate all conditions that promote moisture content in the environment,'' Elmir said.
``Sometimes we have to compromise, or wait a while for special products to be ordered. But every decision for your home, whether it's a cleaning product or furniture, adds to the air quality. When you house is done, you'll be glad you've taken your time and made healthy decisions,'' Upton said.
Trish Riley, a South Florida freelance writer, is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.