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Other Lessons Learned

2008 Update

Air Quality

The first lesson learned was underestimation of the importance of air quality. Virtually all efforts to create more sustainable living focus on heating, cooling, and power. The impact of air quality is enormous!

Plants in the Atrium were selected for their aesthetics … “What can be grown indoors that’s beautiful and can’t be grown outside?” In theory, plants take in CO2 and emit O2. Why not measure how much? A toxicologist measured CO2 at about 300 ppm – roughly the same as outdoor air. Most homes have CO2 levels between 1000 and 1500 ppm. Above 1500, people get allergies, flu-like symptoms, rashes, etc.

Garden Atrium O2 levels are higher than outside! Globally, O2 levels have been dropping since the Industrial Revolution and growth of coal-fired power plants. Asthma and other severe respiratory ailments are now serious issues in most urban areas. The broad-leafed plants in the Atrium – Birds of Paradise and Peace Lilies – oxygenate the most.

In terms of air toxicity, Garden Atriums use zero-VOC paints, dye-free wool carpeting, and solid wood cabinetry; none off-gas. Dyes in fabrics are set with formaldehyde; the Boston Fern, a prolific Atrium plant, is one of the best for eliminating airborne toxins such as formaldehyde.

The result?

Visitors literally feel the difference within 30-45 minutes! Some who have had allergies for years find their symptoms suddenly gone. Guests and residents seem to sleep better and enjoy better health. While too many variables exist to provide a “scientifically reliable” conclusion, air quality has had a consistently positive effect on everyone, and seems a lot more important than initially thought.


The second major lesson learned relates to buyer motivation. The goal of the Garden Atrium project is not to just create a sustainable development. The goal is to see if sustainable housing can compete, in the open marketplace, with traditional housing. Otherwise, sustainable living will never become mainstream, and won’t solve the problem we face.

Every resident was asked why he or she wanted to buy a Garden Atrium – especially as so many options exist. Everyone had the same reasons …

1. “It’s gorgeous!” No matter how “sustainable” a house is, people won’t pay a mortgage unless the home is really attractive.

2. “It’s really well built!” Garden Atriums have oak trim, and no plastic doors or “woodwork.” The metal roof is warranted against 90 mph (hurricane-level) winds. The closed-loop geothermal system – with an Energy Recovery Ventilator – is “top of the line.”

3. “The prospect of lower utility bills is appealing.” This is the only direct link to sustainability goals.

No one is against “sustainability.” It’s like being against motherhood. But sustainability is not a reason buyers will buy. Not one visitor whose allergy symptoms disappeared during a tour became a buyer. We may create these homes to provide sustainable environments, but if peo-ple are going to buy them, they need to be attractive.

Instead of buying a Garden Atrium out of fear of being able to pay for escalating utility costs, the better focus is to provide people with a better quality of living experience … that also happens to be sustainable.