A Brookfield nonprofit helps homeowners learn about improving their living spaces through the use of healthy materials
When Milwaukee-area contractor Jonathan Synovic sat down for coffee with potential client Angela Cummings, she asked something that would take them both on a business adventure neither saw coming: "Can you build me a healthy home?"
"I told her, 'I don't know what healthy is, but if you're willing to teach me and learn with me, I'm willing," said Synovic, who is now founder and executive director of the Brookfield-based Step Beyond Green to Healthy, a nonprofit dedicated to helping create healthier indoor environments for homeowners.
The organization works with contractors to educate and train them on building with materials to prevent off-gassing of volatile organic compounds and improve indoor air environments.
VOC are typically man made and can be found in nearly every home nationwide. They often are in synthetic materials such as carpets, paint and plastics, and are released as gases that can cause health problems both temporary and chronic, mild and severe.
Synovic is hoping to raise awareness and improve air quality and homeowner health, one house and one contractor at a time.
Sick from her own home
In 2011, Cummings needed a change for herself and her family.
Cummings and her young son both suffered from multiple chemical sensitivity and became increasingly sick. She developed chronic sinus infections and was placed on antibiotics most of the year but soon became allergic or developed immunity to the drugs.
She was miserable, her health was failing and doctors couldn't give her definitive answers.
"In order to be able to continue working and take care of my son and show up as a parent, I had to figure out what was going on," Cummings said.
After months of searching and studying patterns in her health, she realized the chemicals she showed sensitivities to were coming from her own home, which had been built only five years earlier.
"I was shocked when I discovered all these chemicals in our building materials and in our everyday products," Cummings said. "It was overwhelming."
Cummings had met with several contractors before meeting Synovic, and asked them the same question. While "green" was a tag word that was catching on in the construction industry, the idea of a healthy home was foreign to many, and she left conversations feeling unheard or misunderstood.
That is, until she met Synovic, who had had some experience building with healthy materials.
"He was my breath of fresh air," Cummings said. "I actually cried on the way home from that meeting ... just relieved to have found someone that even knew what in the world I was talking about."
The pair launched into remodeling Cummings' home into a healthier environment by choosing paint with limited off-gassing materials, replacing carpet and synthetic flooring with tile and hardwood and revamping the air duct system.
Her doctors, Cummings said, were astounded at the improvements to her health. Now on her way to wellness, Cummings eventually went to work for Synovic, and was an instrumental part of creating what would become Step Beyond Green To Healthy.
"And [my doctor] said, 'Well, what did you do different? What's going on?' and I said that I moved into this home that I remodeled healthy," she said, "And that result was something that we wanted everyone to have."
What it takes to make homes healthy
Step Beyond Green to Healthy has been joined by 13 firms, including Realtors, design firms, water system experts and builders. All these members have received training on what it means to be living in, buying or building a healthy home.
The nonprofit makes its money through donations, membership fees and member payments for education and training.
One of their members is David Kallie, president of the design and build construction firm Dimension Inc., who helped build an entirely healthy home with Synovic in 2018.
"I think it's the right thing to do to build homes to intentionally be healthier to live in," Kallie said. "We're just now starting to understand that our home environments are not necessarily as healthy as we think, and we need to do better as an industry to begin to understand that and start to intentionally build it to be healthy."
While the idea of building an entirely new home or completely remodeling your current home can be overwhelming, Synovic encourages people to take that intentional building or remodeling one step at a time — that's how his family approached it.
Since starting Step Beyond Green to Healthy, Synovic and his family decided to remove carpeting from their home and have taken other steps aimed at creating healthier living spaces.
"Once we eliminated carpet on just the first floor, it was night and day as far as their sinuses, we saw that immediately," Synovic said.
In the next five years, Synovic said he hopes that Step Beyond Green to Healthy becomes a partner for contractors and homeowners.
The organization also hopes to expand the audience for its podcast, which covers topics like whether or not insulation is healthy, how to identify mold and pest management.
"We want people to want to really be aware of what they're in," Synovic said. "We don't want to ignore it, we don't want to pretend it's not there. I want people to say, 'I've heard of Step Beyond Green' ... and asking every contractor that walks in your door these questions (about healthy materials) and make decisions based on that."