Calm Tech for Quality Air: How I Turned My Living Space Into a Friendly Spacecraft

Amber Case
12 min readOct 12, 2023
In the 70’s cult classic Silent Running, the hero captains a starship with massive greenhouses. Fan art by u/No7er of Reddit’s /StarshipPorn

When we think about calm technology for homes, it’s easy to imagine a sunlit living space by the ocean or a peaceful meadow, with some natural lighting and perhaps some appliance controls elegantly and unobtrusively placed within easy reach.

While that’s one ideal, it’s also an aspiration that most of us can’t immediately afford. One in four Americans live in polluted air; 9 in 10 of the world population breathe in high levels of pollutants. This is the reality of housing even for many people in high income brackets. When my friend James worked for a technology company in Beijing, for instance, he kept noticing his local office mates checking the AQI level on their expensive smartphones, and the high tech filter systems installed in luxury buildings.

This will only increase over time. Not just with high humidity conditions, but wet bulb conditions and heavy particulates from vehicles and forest fires. Our daily health and happiness depends on being aware of these conditions, as well as being able to control them as much as possible. But not all homes have enough apertures to create a crossbreeze; in some homes, poor air circulation leads to dangerous mold conditions. Some condos have only one openable window, while others are so well-sealed there’s a name for it: sick building syndrome.

What’s needed now is a vision for calm technology-compliant homes that’s scalable through rapidly worsening weather and climate conditions.

Designing a Metastable System for Homes

While you read these words, you’re breathing and your circulation is pumping. Unless you’re ill, your body temperature is constantly maintaining its average baseline. You generally don’t notice any of these processes, and that’s exactly as it should be: Your body works as a metastable system, signaling only when it requires sustenance, rest, or another systemic need.

Homes can and should also function as metastable systems. Up until very recently, however, we had very few indicators to maintain that system beyond a thermostat. But there’s so much more to creating a healthy, metastable home.

This little pool house has been transformed into a livable room from it’s origin as rat-infested humidity and particulate producing pool pump house to a guest room and storage space.

The good news is most of us can afford to create a metastable living space that’s better suited for living in today’s challenging environment; or to put it more bluntly, we can’t afford not to.

Creating a storage and temporary livng space out of a pool pump room.

I recently dealt with this challenge myself. Since I’m frequently traveling and far away from home, I converted a pool pump building on a friend’s property into a part-time storage and living space. New houses typically come with some automated system (HVAC) that helps condition the air, but this room had no such system.

Here, I had to start with an empty room.

The finished room! The pool pump is in the other side of the strucuture, behind the closed door.

That gave me a chance to create a metastable living pod from scratch.

Turning A Room Into Starship Case

When I moved into my small new room, I noticed that the air felt heavy and uncomfortable to breathe in. Air in a well-conditioned room should not be noticeable. It should be a pass-through as it passes through your body.

But this air was very noticeable, making it difficult to focus on anything else, especially work. I suspected that this was due to high humidity. In addition to breathing difficulties, high humidity and poor air circulation create the perfect condition for mold spores and mold growth. But until I visualized it, I wasn’t able to see the full story.

I bought a small humidity detector, and it showed what I feared — the humidity levels were around 70%, which in addition to creating stifling breathing conditions, the mold risk meant that I shouldn’t have anything touching the walls, because behind the furniture would make for the likeliest place for mold growth.

A small image of a dehumidifier unit absorbing water from the air.
Bathroom dehumidifier are useful when exhaust fans are missing, broken, or too weak to remove the moisture from the space. Even a small one will help prevent mold.

My next task was to try and get the humidity levels down. I bought and installed a small bathroom dehumidifier and noticed within a few days, the humidity was down to 63%. Not perfect, but a lot less dangerous in terms of overall future health.

The next issue: The small pool pump room was adjacent to where I was trying to sleep. It produced quite a bit of heat in my room, as well as potential particulates from the pool filter. Since this pool was saline, I didn’t have to worry about chlorine (another hazard!), but I did have something else to worry about. I found out that the pool filter used crystalline quartz, a set of tiny particles that allow water to pass through and really filter out all of the contaminants in the pool. The problem with these quartz materials is that they are so small that they can’t be filtered out with a regular air filter! And, what’s worse, the crystal particulates in the air can cause silicosis — an irreversible lung disease.

So to filter particulates from the pool filter, I needed a filter for myself — one that could both detect fine particles and filter them. I purchased a P14 filter which warns of detected particulates with a color indicator.

This was a good start, but many uncertainties remained: How was the airflow in the pool room? Was my own C02 going to drive up the C02 in the room, causing headaches while I worked?

And what about Radon? All home inspections require a Radon report, as this invisible substance naturally occurs through the outgassing of radioactive material in the ground (making ground level and basement-based living spaces more susceptible to the gas). This small room is located in upstate New York, which has reported issues with higher levels of Radon (more on that later). Would that be a problem for me?

After some research I selected a device which would help me test all of these things! And I set it up!

Step One: Visualizing the Invisible

These Airthings units are pretty cool! They sense and visualize many invisible and interesting aspects of the air, and charts them over time. Each unit shows a simple color for the quality of air (green, yellow or red). You can check them out at Airthings View Plus: https://www.airthings.com/view-plus

A core goal for achieving a metastable home is visualizing the invisible, and understanding how what’s been made visible affects your quality of life — in our interiors as well as outside. When the AQI index in our local area spikes into concerning ranges, we can simply shut our windows — but that doesn’t completely protect us. And particulars already inside can be worse.

While thermostats might have been one of the earliest self-regulating systems, alerting and adjusting according to the desired temperature, the modern home has so many more complexities. From CO2 levels, which when too high can cause fatigue, to carcinogenic Radon levels that spike in winter due to closed windows, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that we unknowingly release from everyday products. The home environment constantly shifts and changes in invisible ways.

Without an HVAC or other systems to start with, I decided to identify hazardous materials and build a support system myself. I purchased an Airthings Wave Plus sensor, because it tracked most of what I wanted to track. The sensor tracks and displays eight aspects affecting indoor air quality:

The Airthings Wave Plus tracks 8 environmental variables which are updated every 5 minutes and query-able over time. I can view the status of the air quality in the room from anywhere in the world!

These visualization tools are core parts of a friendly life support system in the cozy starship of my tiny home, retro-fitted to detect the invisible but hostile intruders in my everyday life.

Airthings’ heads-up display is a model of calm tech UI, with a single indicator light glowing green when the particular or measured elements are within a good threshold for human health — changing softly to a soft yellow when they are being impacted, and red when they’re of significant concern. Like a starcraft captain, I can tell if all systems are normal at a quick glance.

Let’s look into one of the lesser known but important variables — Radon levels:

Radon is a radioactive gas that’s generally derived from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil and rock beneath a home. At low levels (under2 pCi/L), radon poses little health risk. Moderate levels between 2–4 pCi/L may gradually increase lung cancer risk over many years. High levels (above 4 pCi/L) substantially increases risk of lung cancer in the long run (Airthings dashboard view on mobile).

Another important thing to know: risky levels of radon can show up even in areas which don’t seem polluted. Despite its many verdant forests and quaint non-industrial towns, many New York State residents along the Hudson river in New York State, for instance, has a higher amount of radon than normal. Unsurprisingly, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers, and the risk of it builds up over time.

So it’s important to consider a monitor which tracks Radon in an enclosed space (home, office); it may just help prevent a preventable cancer. Sealing cracks in basement floors and walls is important, as is ventilating when needed. In my tiny spacecraft house, radon levels inside will be at .3, even with the doors and windows closed. At one point it hit 1.3 (showing as orange on my meter) and I knew to open my windows.

Here’s a quick look at some of the other variables being tracked by the sensor:

Particulate matter (PM1)

Comes from sources like cooking, candles, fireplaces, and even some laser printers! Low levels 0–15 μg/m3 have little health impact. Moderate levels 15–40 μg/m3 may slightly irritate lungs. Levels above 40 μg/m3 can aggravate respiratory conditions and increase cardiovascular risk. To help decrease PM1 levels, ventilate your kitchen during and after cooking, run your stovetop/oven exhaust fan, and open windows regularly.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Many items we have inside our homes give off VOCs, including art supplies, cleaning solution, nail polish, and clothes. Even my own skin can emit VOCs when it is hot and humid enough! When I vacuum every day, there’s less VOCs in my room.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Exhaled by humans and pets, increasing in a room with greater occupancy and decreasing with ventilation. Levels over 1000 ppm can lead to headaches, fatigue and reduced cognitive function. In addition to opening windows and using fans, houseplants are an effective and appealing way to help absorb CO2. (One of my next tests will be putting lots of plants in my space to see just how much C02 they absorb!) If your home is in a big city, by the way, your levels of C02 will be higher.

Humidity levels that are too high increase the chance of mold and decrease comfort.

Humidity

Levels of humidity below 30% can irritate breathing and your skin; levels above 50% can encourage more mold, dust mites, and microbial growth. Exhaust fans, dehumidifiers (see above), and AC helps control humidity, as does fixing any leaks and ventilation issues. A home’s ideal humidity is between 30–50%.

Humidity levels relate to another hazard:

Mold

Spores of mold are found everywhere and grow in humid conditions. Exposure can cause allergic reactions and aggravate respiratory issues. Prevent mold by keeping humidity under 50%, quickly fixing leaks, and cleaning mold with detergent and water.

To keep track of mold build-up in my place, I use my Airthings to take a two week sample of humidity levels; if they passed over 50% for extended periods during those two weeks, I considered testing for mold; also consider testing if you visually see black or white specks in your home.

A super easy humidity and temperature tracker and displey from Acu-rite. This inexpensive ThermoPro is another option for tracking humidity levels.

I also installed this Winix air filter near my bed, which helps reduce VOCs and provides me with quality air while sleeping.

I used a Winix air filter when I had an art space near an industrial concrete storage facility. It was absolutely necessary to keep from breathing in a constant stream of concrete dust!

All of this, by the way, is an alternative to buying an HVAC system or heat pump, the best of which come with a great filter to cycle the air, providing fresh air and also filtering it. But HVACs and Heat Pumps can cost 5000USD+ and are not always feasible to install — and they don’t always address all the health concerns discussed here. An intelligent system in the home should open up the windows or provide ventilation when C02 reaches about 1600 PPM or above, as well as provide filtered, whole house air circulation.

After all these additions, I’d turned a potentially hazardous pool house into a relatively comfortable guest living space. While not perfect (and requiring lots of little machines to condition the air) I now like to think about it as a happy space ship, keeping guests safe through hazardous conditions, and my environmental monitor usually displaying a single “all systems good” green.

Overall there’s no heroic lesson here. I learned why heat pumps (when installed correctly, and under the right conditions) are so amazing (a lot of conditioning is built into them, and they work in small spaces) — and that ultimately, the best solution for the little guest room is a professional system. Ideally, an HVAC system with actuators that automatically recirculate the air as needed. But this air visualization and manual conditioning adventure has been a fun one!

Heat pumps can be highly efficient heating and cooling systems, providing 2–3 times more energy transfer than simple electrical resistance heaters using the same amount of electricity. They move existing heat rather than converting electricity into heat, so they consume much less power. Heat pumps aren’t the right solution for every space, but I’ve lived in a unit conditioned by one for several years and found it to be excellent. The only issue is that it froze during super cold temperatures, and I had to wait for it to thaw out! Newer models of heat pumps have more resiliency to temperature differentials.

As many parts of the world deal with living alongside forest fires, web bulb conditions and an increase in particulates from cars and the indoor off-gassing of synthetic items, we’ll want systems in our living spaces that detect issues and run particulate capture on their own.

The most important part of these systems is that they’re good housemates. Conditioning appliances and visualization applications should run quietly and alongside us, working with us to improve our moods and our lives. These spacecraft-quality life support systems will soon become as desired in homes as electricity was in the 20th century.

On the more positive side, there’s ways designers can prepare for this future by also incorporating features in the home which beautify, as well as protect:

Healthy-Air Homes Can Involve a Lot More Nature

Living walls, an increasingly common feature of corporate offices, could become more standard in homes. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing and relatively easy to care for, they provide a constant stream of oxygen for the inhabitants, and are a C02 sink.

Living walls are an increasingly interesting way to bring the outdoors inside. Companies like Ambius provide installation services for enteprise scale walls.

If a home is in an area without a good cross-breeze or the ability to open the windows due to particulate from forest fire smoke, the air inside could become more symbiotic with plants!

Algae tank development holds promise for indoor C02 reduction. There are now wall-based indoor growing systems available.

Relatedly, algae tanks are showing promise in carbon capture tech, acting as small bioreactors which absorb CO2 better than trees. The eerie alien green color of algae tanks can admittedly seem off-putting to many, with some people feeling that they tend to look like abandoned fish tanks. The next step is to design cute algae tanks, perhaps in the shape of UFOs, or surrounded by filtered glass which changes the color into a deep forest green.

I think we’ll all have to be a lot more involved in our home environments and really care about what’s in them. Caring for living walls, algae farms, and NASA Air filtering plants aren’t exactly part of the average household chores, but they may be soon. (And much of this work can be handled by automatic watering systems and sensors that aren’t powered by complicated routines but backup systems and color-coding for status.)

The first step to creating a calm system in the home is visualizing it. This is inherently calm, as it gives you a choice over what to do about the environment around you.

But every home is different. Visualization can help make the invisible. Establishing a baseline of health in home or living spaces can be achieved by adding systems in the background that work to reduce environmental harms.

Again, a future aspiration is to develop Decentralized Autonomous Systems (or DAOs) in the home, envisioned as far back as 1997. (The expression is something of a mouthful, and less like a natural system than a mechanical one. I prefer to call well-designed systems that operate alongside us “metastable systems”.)

In the short term, just showing people the information they need to know about their homes and how to make them healthier is as important as planning systems which will automatically do these tasks in the medium term — when having these systems will be a matter of life or death.

Have you experimented with visualizing and conditioning the air in your living space? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

PRODUCTS FEATURED IN THIS POST

If you want to buy the products I talked about, here are the ones I mentioned! These links include Amazon affiliate codes to help sponsor posts like these. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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Amber Case

Design advocate, founder of the Calm Technology Institute, speaker and author of Calm Technology. Former Research Fellow at MIT Media Lab and Harvard BKC.