Healthier homes: Give your house a checkup

The devil is in the details and also, perhaps, the domicile.

Credit: Angela Fama

Many people would embrace the opportunity to move into a 13-year-old home. Typically, a home that new means relatively little wear and tear, and an appearance that’s not too dated and will need little renovation. One thing it doesn’t mean, however, is a home constructed with sustainable features.

When Sandra Schryburt bought such a home in Port Moody in 2006, she saw two things: toxins, and potential. “I liked the layout of the 2,700-square-foot house, but the style and decor was older, with linoleum flooring and carpeting, which I don’t think is a healthy flooring choice. It needed freshening up,” she says with a shrug.

Sidebar: Tips for a cleaner home

Schryburt, a strong advocate of green living, started learning about environmental friendliness when she was pregnant with her son Zachary, who is now six. “I began getting more informed about toxins in the environment and never stopped, continuing my research to this day,” she says.

The Port Moody home, located on a greenbelt close to Belcarra Park and Buntzen Lake, would witness a $100,000 renovation over the next five months, during which everything with the exception of the bathtub in the master bathroom would be ripped out and replaced. By the time the last contractor pulled away from the curb, Schryburt and her family had a shining example of a green home where the odious toxins to which most of us are oblivious are almost completely absent.

The kitchen is the centrepiece of the home, and Schryburt removed a wall and re­designed the space, opening it up to allow natural light that creates a better flow in the house and saves energy. “We don’t have to turn on the lights as much,” she explains.
For her, a choice of cabinets was about far more than their esthetic appeal. “Cabinets off-gas formaldehyde for 20 years in the average kitchen,” she explains. Schryburt chose Roseburg SkyBlend cherry cabinets, which are urea formaldehyde-free and coated with a non-toxic
Safecoat finish.

Non-toxic sealers and stains were also essential for the reclaimed fir floors in the Schryburt home, and Livos Broda brand sealer, which can go on any flooring and prevent off-gassing substrates, was an easy choice.

The sleek granite countertops had to pass a Geiger counter test before they were selected, to ensure the radiation levels they emitted were minimal. Schryburt rented a Radalert 50 nuclear radiation monitor from Chris Anderson, an electromagnetic testing and mitigation consultant. Schryburt explains that different regions of the world have varying levels of radon gas, so where your granite comes from will influence its level of radon and consequently its radioactivity. “I chose three granite slabs and tested them for a few days with a Geiger meter, choosing the one with the lowest levels,” Schryburt recalls.

The granite is lit by LED under-cabinet lighting, which lasts longer and emits less electromagnetic radiation than standard under-the-counter lighting. Peek deeper inside Schryburt’s kitchen, and you will discover that her green choices extend to many aspects of her life. Organic products are ubiquitous and when it comes to storing dry food she opts for hermetically sealed glass containers with a cute retro look rather than plastic, which, she believes leaches toxins. Beneath the sink a small tub collects organic waste for the composter outside, and above it, a filtration system on the tap ­reduces chlorine in her family’s drinking water.

While a healthy kitchen is important, Schryburt says, it’s upstairs in the bedroom that you need to be especially vigilant. “We spend a third of our lives sleeping on mattresses that emit fire retardants,” she explains. Her bed, which she ordered from SleepTech in ­Ontario about four years prior to her 2006 renovation, is made of natural latex rubber from the milk of a Malaysian rubber tree. “It’s completely bio­degradable, and the wool in the mattress wicks moisture away from you and disperses it,” she points out. Her queen bed retailed for $3,100 at the time. Today comparable models sell for about $5,000 for a queen and $6,500 for a king.


The headboard above the bed was made with natural latex rubber as well, and Schryburt had it covered with organic cotton fabric. “If we had not made those choices, the headboard would have been made with polyurethane foam, which off-gases fire retardants,” says Ami McKay, Schryburt’s interior designer, who shares her client’s zeal for healthy, green living. “By choosing organic cotton, we ensured that the cotton had not been sprayed with pesticides.”

That’s important, says Schryburt, who chooses organic cotton linen for her bedding, and towels made from a blend of organic cotton and bamboo. “Cotton is the highest-sprayed crop in the world, and you still absorb it into your body when you wear it or sleep on it. Yes, organic is more pricey, but it’s supporting fair trade and sustainable farming methods.
I think it’s a good thing.” The drapes that darken Schryburt’s bedroom at night are formaldehyde-free and coloured with low-impact dyes. “I wanted a healthy option for drapes, but couldn’t find it in Canada,” Schryburt says. She bought the drapes from Dallas, Texas-based Antique Drapery Rod and shipped them to her home, which added duty and brokerage costs, “but it was worth it for me,” she says.

Bedroom floors are covered with wool carpeting that is mould-resistant and fire retardant, and baseboards throughout the house are made without paint-grade or medium-density fibre board wood and are stained and sealed with non-toxic sealers and stains.

While off-gassing materials are fairly obvious health concerns, Schryburt points to a more subtle source of toxicity in electromagnetic radiation. Those of us with sensitive ears can attest to hearing the shrill pitch of electricity in a room, and where there’s electricity, there’s radiation. Deep inside Schryburt’s house, all the electrical wiring is enveloped in a thick BX cable shielding that minimizes electrical magnetic frequency.

She was adamant that the bedrooms would provide an environment devoid of noise pollution and electromagnetic radiation for her sleeping family, so Schryburt had an electrician install demand switches in all the bedrooms. These switches, which consist of a unit attached to the home’s circuit panel, control the electricity that runs through the wiring in a home regardless of whether the electricity is in use. The demand switch has an indicator light in the bedroom, and when the light is off there is absolutely no electricity running in the walls of the room.
“When you deaden the energy in the house, it’s like sleeping in a natural environment,” says McKay. Schryburt agrees: “The bedroom is where we rejuvenate and rest, and that little hum of electricity can impact your sleep.” The demand switches, which must be installed by a knowledgeable electrician, cost close to $200 each and are easily portable. If you move to a new house, you simply take them with you and attach them to the wiring.

In the Schryburt home, environmental consciousness is inspired by the scenery just beyond the kitchen window. Massive leafy trees extend their boughs over the patio, where a composter steadily turns organic discards into nutrient-rich soil. A magnificent natural world, one where deer tread lightly at dusk and black bears have been known to lumber by, is literally at their doorstep.

The elegant home achieves high marks for its eco-awareness without for a moment sacrificing style or glamour. And at the end of the day, the green elements of the renovations didn’t add that much more. Schryburt estimates that the healthy, eco-friendly products she chose added somewhere between 15 and 30 per cent to the overall cost of her renovation, and it was money well spent. “I want to live healthy and leave as small a footprint on the earth as possible,” she says.