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The Lung Association of Virginia says air quality matters, and designs a building to prove it.

Breathing Room

Visitors will be advised to wear no perfume or cologne. Of course there will be no smoking, even 50 feet from the doors. And to get into the new brick building at 9221 Forest Hill Ave., people will pass through the area's first public allergy-free landscape, where trees won't throw off reams of pollen, and mulch won't harbor mold and mildew.

This is, or can be, a revolution in building.

"We feel like we can serve as a model to help people," says Catherine Hamm, executive director of the Lung Association of Virginia, the organization responsible for erecting this $1.2 million, allergy-free office. "It's a green building, built with sustainable products such as hardwood floors and ceramic tile, and the caulk and sealants are formulated so there will be no off-gassing. It's our breathe-easy office."

Environmental air expert Chuck Bowles says it's the only building of its kind on the East Coast.

Furnishings have low levels of volatile organic chemical emissions, meaning they won't give off fumes that aggravate allergies and lung problems. Windows will be sealed shut, but constantly filtered fresh air will be controlled from inside. A special Canadian heating and cooling system provides optimum indoor air quality. Staff members in the new structure say the difference is noticeable, and a great fringe benefit after years of working in the organization's old building on exhaust-heavy Boulevard.

Though it won't open officially until fall, the association recently moved into its new headquarters and is preparing museum-style exhibits for the Lung Health Resource Center. It is hosting regular meetings of lung-health support groups and a Better Breathers Club, many of whose members suffer from emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma.

Asthma and allergies are of more concern than ever, says Hamm, because their incidence has increased dramatically in recent years. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says 38 percent of Americans now have allergies. In some urban areas, kids have a 50 percent rate that's rising. This building strategy, Hamm says, is a step toward better lung health that's rapidly earning attention. The "Breatheasy" office concept is trademarked, and will be promoted to the public through a training program and through Internet links to suppliers and sponsors. "We can teach people how to build buildings of this nature, using products that can be recycled and are sustainable," Hamm says.

The concept is maintained literally inside and out. The building is surrounded by an allergy-free landscape. Tom Ogren, a horticulturist who studies plant-allergy reactions, is consulting with local landscape designer Robin Wood. "It's now possible, through the use of female cultivars or varieties, to create a total allergy-free garden. I have identified a number of grasses that are all female. There are tons of shrubs that you can get that are female, and lots of trees," Ogren says. Male cultivars are often planted in public settings, Ogren contends, because "they are litter-free — no seed pods, no blossoms, but loads of pollen. We have male-predominant urban landscaping, and we have explosions of allergy as a result." Ogren created a test to evaluate plants for their allergy scale. It is described in his book "Allergy Free Gardening: A revolutionary guide to healthy landscaping" to be released this month.

"Landscapers tend to use the same things over and over, depending on what town they're in. People start to get overexposed to those pollens. … There are a lot of good plants that we can use instead," Ogren says. "For this project, Robin Wood faxes me lists of plants and I tell her whether or how to use them."

Wood is enthusiastic as she explains her new knowledge of zeroscaping, or gardening with low water usage and indigenous plant materials. "This is not my most creative building-to-site design, because I have to deal with what's available. But I'm telling nurseries what this is all about, and how it might affect their business. I think the demand for certain kinds of plants is going to change." Wood is introducing safe perennials, such as dianthus, veronica, daylilies, nandina, liriope, spicata, vinca minor and scabiosa, and safe trees such as weeping willow, October Glory and Red Sunset maples, and crape myrtle. Dogwoods are out, and popular ground cover pachysandra is also on the hit list. "Right now, it's a bit of a game, going for shapes, cross-referencing to see if it's acceptable, checking to see if it's available locally, and seeing how it will work in the site," she says. A 30-foot bed of rock keeps moisture away from the building, and only pine-tag mulch is used. The more typical hard bark mulches can add mildew, particularly in gardens where irrigation systems are constantly running.

"It's so simple, people are telling me. Why didn't someone think of this before?" Wood asks. Ogren agrees: "The whole building is the antithesis of the sick building. It will be a national model and get a lot of attention through the

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