The third skin of human beings. An outline of modern building biology

By Frank Hartmann, July 2014

It was a country doctor from Constance who about fifty years ago began to think outside the orthodox medical box when diagnosing his patients and looked in detail at their housing. Hubert Palm’s findings were striking and worrying at the same time. Not infrequently there was a direct connection between the “poisonous houses” and the disease.

Building biology is not a question of age: renovated school building in Murrhärle near Murrhardt: (Photo: Rolf Canters).

Mobile »Ökowohnbox« in Nänikon / Switzerland: (Photo: Tanja Schindler).

Marecollege Leiden, Netherlands / Architects: »24H«, Martje Lammers, Boris Zeisser (Photo: Boris Zeisser).

Hubert Palm collected numerous case studies and began to present them to smaller groups of architects and other interested persons. He was, however, ignored or ridiculed by the majority and then attacked. But his supporters urged him to publish his lectures, reports and findings which were then – in several editions under the title Das gesunde Haus (The Healthy House) – to form the basis of modern building biology. Today we are paying the price for the construction that went on in the years of the economic miracle which posed such a threat to health. Many buildings have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Palm was anything but a proven building expert, he was neither an architect nor a tradesman, but saw himself confronted as a doctor with the consequences of industrialised building. The connection between repeating disease patterns and the living conditions of his patients, determined in numerous home visits, was too obvious. His interest was in keeping his patients healthy; that is, preventive building biological medicine. Alongside nutrition, Palm considered the influence of their house on people to be the basis of human quality of life. The article “Biologisches bauen” (Biological Building), published in 1955, provided the foundation for his subsequent chief work, Biologische Bauordnungslehre (Biological Building Regulation Theory), in which he made a distinction between the “life affirming” and “life negating” effect of the home environment on people. Multiple editions of the book were published as long as into the 1990s. In the foreword to the third edition of Das gesunde Haus – unser naher Umweltschutz Palm wrote: “No one should be allowed to build a sick house. That is contrary to human rights and the law! That is against the natural order of life!” He described the house as the “third skin of human beings”. The movement towards ecological building is inconceivable without his preliminary work.

Building biology continued to develop, new areas were added such as renewable energy for example, the resource-conserving use of water, the appreciation of the traditions and skills of the trades. Today, building biology is practiced in accordance with 25 basic rules. The training and advanced training of building biologists, such as designed and carried out by the Institute of Building Biology and Ecology (IBN), is based on them. At a basic level no one should be deprived of their benefit.

The basic rules of building biology

Even if the basic rules of building biology relate to residential property, they should nevertheless also be applied to non-residential buildings such as office and administrative buildings, schools or children’s daycare centres. Because the key measure is the time which a person spends in an enclosed space. We spend ninety percent of our life in enclosed spaces. And yet the least of that time is spent in our living space. The 25 basic rules of building biology are divided into five main groups.

I. The site of the building: It should be without natural or artificial contamination; in other words, there must be no contamination in the subsoil, on the surface or in the immediate environment. The building should be away from emission sources, which means that it must be free of field effects, frequent pollution, noise and airborne pollutants. The building style should be decentralised and relaxed with green areas alternating with traffic areas and free access to nature. The building as a whole should be designed in a way such as to provide wheelchair access and not lead to social exclusion.

II. Building materials and soundproofing: The materials used must be have been produced and transported naturally and with the minimum use of primary energy; that is, they should preferably be sourced regionally without distorting the latter’s natural characteristics. All materials should be odourless or have a pleasant scent, without emitting irritants or toxins; in other words, any internal and external liberation of gases should be avoided. Only building materials with minor radioactivity should be used; particular attention should be paid in this regard to natural stone or imported earthen building materials. Sound and vibration proofing does not just mean protection against external sound but also within the building, for example against infrasound, mechanical vibration and the sound of telephony. That should particularly be observed with regard to the equipment in the building.

III. Indoor climate: Room humidity should be regulated through the use of moisture regulating materials. Natural and breathing building materials buffer the humidity peaks of indoor air, diffusion-open surfaces equalise the moisture pressure between interior and exterior space. Particular attention should be paid to this in new builds. A balance between thermal insulation and thermal storage must be found. The basis for this is the human feeling of warmth and the comfort experienced as a result (“feels like” temperature). As the building cools down, the temperature should never fall below the dew point in order to avoid condensation forming in building components. Natural currents of fresh air ensure good air quality and act to prevent humidity. They vitalise the air in the room and cleanse it of pollutants such as pollen, fine and black dust as well as dust accumulation through high surface temperatures on heating surfaces. When managing the temperature of living spaces, direct sunlight and its thermostatic coupling to low temperature systems should be taken into account. Finally, “unwanted side-effects” from magnetic field distortion, reflection, amplification, radio waves, electrostatic effects from electrical installations, building automation and artificial lighting should be avoided.

IV. Environment, energy & water: Energy consumption should be kept low through the use of renewable energy sources such as solar thermal energy, biomass, environmental heat, photovoltaics, wind and hydropower; this includes the exploitation of non-natural heat sources such as process heat, waste water, heat recovery and hybrid energy systems. Systems should be used which protect resources and require the most minimal use of primary energy. Good drinking water quality and warm water hygiene is mostly already achievable through near-natural water management, greywater recycling or the utilisation of rainwater.

V. Spatial design: This should be guided by harmonious geometrical dimensions, proportions and forms as offered in abundance by nature. Light, illumination and colour design requires sensible “daylight management”.

Building biology in schools, crèches and kindergartens

Schools, kindergartens and daycare centres make particular demands with regard to building biology because these are mostly spaces in which people stay over a longer period of time and which significantly influence their development. Alongside classrooms, group spaces and open areas, particularly attention should be paid to sleeping areas. The specific rooms for teaching sciences or craftwork and the group spaces for music, eurythmy, crafts or handwork as well as the assembly rooms such as the hall for celebrating festivals and the dining room must be capable of flexible use. The administrative areas for the management and secretariat, which must be designed particularly with ergonomic aspects in mind, should not be forgotten.

Waldorf education in particular could include the various aspects of building biology in its teaching. Numerous starting points are offered not just by the classic scientific subjects such as biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics but also by gardening, astronomy, geology, craft and design, and colour theory. General educational learning content might be for example: theory of biological building materials and building physics in physics and mathematics lessons, thermodynamics using the example of solar thermal energy, the use of environmental heat, enthalpy (thermal capacity), the Carnot cycle (thermodynamic cycle) in heat pumps and refrigeration machines, the production of paints and natural colour design using earths, minerals and plants. A start could be made as early as the building main lesson in class 3 on the basics of house construction (timber framework statics) and the communication of knowledge about natural building substances and building materials.

About the author: Frank Hartmann is a building services engineer and building biologist. In 2002 he founded Forum Wohnenergie for energy-efficient building and modernisation focusing on renewable energies and natural building materials. He works as a consultant and in building biological research. He is a lecturer in building biology and editor of several publications (email: hartmann(at)

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