The Newest Must-Have Home Amenity for the Rich: Purified Air - Kanebridge News
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The Newest Must-Have Home Amenity for the Rich: Purified Air

Pollution, allergens and Covid have homeowners focusing on filtration systems and flexible designs to improve indoor air quality

Thu, Mar 7, 2024 9:27amGrey Clock 7 min

Visitors to John Bautista and Pedro Salrach’s San Francisco home can’t get enough of the lap pool, sauna and movie theatre. But they also get a whiff of something else they value: clean air.

“The house smells new—and after two years it still smells new,” said Bautista, an attorney. “I know when I’m home because it smells clean and fresh.”

The Glatts’ Maryland home has five HVAC units and eight thermostats to regulate air quality in individual zones. They also added UV lights to the system to prevent mold.

The six-bedroom home with seven bathrooms and two half-baths includes an elaborate air-filtration system meant to deal with the region’s varying air quality. The tightly sealed floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors offer hilltop views of the bay and access to the backyard without sacrificing air quality.

Bautista plans to further upgrade his system this year with the aim of filtering and recirculating indoor air rather than fresh outside air during periods of heavy pollution. Despite the home’s superior air quality, the family can still feel a difference on days when the outdoor air is filled with smoke. “We’ve suffered, as most people have in the Bay Area,” he said. “What we want to have is isolation.”

Developer Gregory Malin, who specialises in wellness-focused real estate, sold Bautista the home for $32 million, he said, plus an additional $5 million for fixtures and furnishings.

The Glatts gave priority to air quality in their $2.5 million home. PHOTO: MELISSA LYTTLE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Luxury homeowners are known to splurge on sleek kitchens, custom decor and art, but they are increasingly turning their attention to something less visible. Forest-fire smoke, the pandemic and increased awareness of sensitivities to mould and other irritants are making their interior environment a priority.

Many are investing in complex systems and flexible designs that promise healthier indoor air but still include spaces, such as glass-enclosed rooms, that make being indoors feel natural.

Listings are increasingly touting pollution-fighting amenities to lure home buyers. In Santa Rosa, Calif., a 13-acre estate for sale at $15 million has a whole-home air purifier. This spring, the Dovecote building, under construction in Manhattan’s Harlem neighbourhood, will offer six, three-bedroom condos built to strict green and clean-air standards, starting at $1.5 million.

Malin, founder of Troon Pacific, a San Francisco-based developer of $15 million to $45 million properties that he calls healthy homes, said he focuses on the smallest details that can affect air quality. New tools allow for more-precise measurement of various particulate matter and carbon dioxide levels, he added. “Covid changed people’s perspective on connecting air quality to health, and the [wildfires] only enhanced that.”

The Bautista home has windows and doors that shut tightly so unfiltered outdoor air doesn’t seep in. PHOTO: JACOB ELLIOTT/TROON PACIFIC
The home has views of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. While the area’s air quality is generally good, wildfires cause spikes in air pollution. PHOTO: JACOB ELLIOTT/TROON PACIFIC

His company’s newer homes have exhaust fans, tied to ventilation systems, in laundry rooms and under sinks, where there are various pollutants and harmful cleaning products, said Malin. Their garages have separate exhaust fans that go on long enough for three air exchanges after the door opens. Ionisation-based filtration systems also are included to eliminate airborne particles too tiny to see but hazardous when inhaled.

His homes also feature perforated piping with in-line fans to exhaust air from under slab foundations to keep contaminated soil vapours from entering the houses.

He said his company is considering building to the Living Building Challenge standard, in which homes have their own electricity, water and waste management. Demand is high for such standards, he said, including passive-home construction, where airtight homes are built using specific materials and energy-efficient systems that circulate highly filtered air. He said passive-home certification is costly, especially for big homes, and has limitations that some homeowners don’t want, like bulky windows. In the long run, however, he said eliminating most heating and cooling bills is probably worth it.

Caroline Smythe used hemp block to build a more breathable home in Charleston, S.C. The building material absorbs moisture and keeps humidity steady in the home to prevent mould growth.

Clean air has become more of a talking point in homeownership, added Elliott Gall, an associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering who researches indoor-air quality at Portland State University.

While high-rises are often built to be airtight, there is a greater focus now on having windows that open while adding better filtration systems, he said. Units with outdoor access sometimes give homeowners another way to control the humidity and indoor air-pollution levels inside the home, he added.

To improve the air quality in her new Charleston, S.C., home, Caroline Smythe, 67, imported a hemp block covered in a mixture of lime and sand for the construction, rather than standard brick. Living in a high-humidity area means moisture can cause mould, said Smythe, whose 2,400-square-foot Lowcountry home was completed in 2023 for about $1 million, including $250,000 for the land.

Incorporating the new material allows the moisture to get absorbed in the walls and keeps humidity steady in the home. “It has very much an earthy feel,” said Smythe of her thick, soundproof walls.

Inside, the home’s two bedrooms and two offices have additional air-filtration elements, including stand-alone air filters for each bedroom. Smythe, a psychiatrist, chose a bamboo kitchen countertop and mineral-based wall paint to prevent any chemical off-gassing. “It makes a huge difference,” she said.

Homeowners have long tried to improve air quality. In the early 1900s, homes that let in fresh air were critical to good health, but by the 1950s some owners were trying to tame outdoor air pollution by focusing on better insulation. More recently, the pandemic made access to outdoor air essential, and turned the focus again to indoor-outdoor living.

Today’s picture is mixed. Climate change has made outdoor air quality less reliable, with the added problems of prolonged forest fires.

Many people are realising their indoor air quality is often compromised by a combination of poor indoor airflow, activities like cooking and cleaning, and outdoor pollutants that settle into confined spaces, said Gall. Homeowners now want better control over their wider living space, including modifiable systems that deal with both indoor and outdoor pollution, he added.

In Manhattan, the Charlotte of the Upper West Side has seven full-floor units. A heating-and-cooling system filters fresh air directly into each unit. The air is also treated with UV light. PHOTO: JOSHUA MCHUGH

Jason Glatt, a commercial window contractor, and his wife, Lauren Glatt, a stay-at-home mom, of North Bethesda, Md., built a $2.5 million home that includes a children’s slide into a basement playroom, an attic-level cigar room and plenty of entertaining space.

The 11,000-square-foot home’s most striking feature, however, may be the five HVAC units tucked inside utility closets and other closed rooms, controlled by eight thermostats that regulate the air quality as well as temperature in each part of the home. Their $120,000 HVAC system also includes UV lights to prevent mold.

Seth Ballard, an architect who worked with the Glatt family, said individually controlled temperature zones and more return-air vents promote better air flow. Costs can be $100,000 to $200,000 for a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot house. “They are choosing this over a kitchen countertop,” he said of homeowners in general.

The Charlotte’s air-filtration and passive-home construction added an estimated 15% to building costs. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER PAYNE/ESTO

Charlotte of the Upper West Side, a building in Manhattan that opened in 2023, has seven full-floor units, each with a private entrance. The building has airtight construction with enhanced insulation. Each unit has an independent heating-and-cooling system with fresh-air filtration directly into the home that isn’t shared with other spaces.

The system can achieve full air exchange 13 times a day in normal-use mode and more than 28 times a day in boost mode, said the building’s developer John Roe of the New York-based Roe Corp. The building uses louvers outside the windows to deflect the heat of the sun and cut energy use on summer days.

Roe, who lives in one of the building’s 3,570-square-foot, four bedroom, 4.5-bathroom homes, said the air-filtration system and strict passive-home construction added 15% to the building cost.

Three of the building’s units are on sale, from $8.35 million to $17 million.

He said there is little dust in the home, and he swears it now takes longer for his cut white hydrangeas to wilt.


What a quarter-million dollars gets you in the western capital.

Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.

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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”