There's No Place Like Home When You're Self-Employed

The latest statistics show the number of self-employed Canadians nearly doubled in a 25-year period. In 1976, over 1.19 million people were self-employed. By 2001, the number had grown to over 2.3 million. An analysis of employment patterns reveals that home-based business is growing faster than the workforce as a whole. Among the many factors behind these trends is the emergence of the Internet and long commutes resulting from urban sprawl.

For many Canadians, working at home comfortably and professionally will necessitate home renovations.

Many people will choose to undertake the renovations themselves. But, before starting to convert the guest bedroom or den into an office, there are a number of things to keep in mind.

Research has shown that approximately 25% of the population suffers from allergies, asthma or chemical sensitivities. There is a direct relationship between these health problems and poor indoor air quality. The materials used in building, renovating and decorating a home office can significantly impact air quality. Choosing healthy options means your house won't make you ill.

If you plan to tear down any walls or parts of your ceiling, you may be exposing yourself to dangerous particulate. If your home was built before the mid-1970's asbestos may be present in your insulation and ceiling tiles. Asbestos easily becomes airborne during a renovation and tiny particles can be inhaled. Before proceeding to renovate an older home, consult a professional hazardous materials company to inspect for and remove this known cancer-causing agent. The Renovators' Council of the Ottawa-Carleton Home Builders' Association (OCHBA) has these recommendations:

  • Choose paints, sealants and flooring materials, which don't emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). An EcoLogo approval means the product will provide a healthier interior environment.

  • Use durable materials. Materials requiring minimal maintenance will last longer, and reduce future burdening of landfill sites.

Canada's national housing authority, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), has conducted a great deal of research on affordable, sustainable and healthy housing. Years of study by this organization have lead to some important findings on healthy building materials and designs.

If you plan to use a desk or shelving units, pay attention to the materials you select. Solid wood desks, shelves and cupboards are emission-free. However, some materials such as particleboard are not. If you choose to use such a material, be sure to laminate all surfaces and edges with a water-based low-fume paint. If you are using a basement room for your home office, start with the sniff test. Leave the doors and windows closed all day then go into the room from outside. Is there an earthy or musty odour? This suggests the presence of molds. The moisture may be a result of condensation from an appliance or a leak from a pipe or window. This is the time to find and eliminate the source of the problem.

If you are thinking of replacing or installing carpets remember that carpets and carpet pads contribute to off gassing and act as a gathering place for dirt and moisture and breeding grounds for mold and bacteria. The healthiest solution is to replace carpets with hard-finish flooring such as ceramic tiles or hardwood and use natural fibre area rugs.

To be a healthy place in which to spend time, the office must be well ventilated. Pay particular attention to copiers and laser printers as they produce gasses, which are irritating and especially harmful to people with asthma. Ventilate the area with an exhaust fan or by using a central ventilation system called a heat recovery ventilator (HRV).

Noise from a home office can be disruptive to the rest of the household. This can be partly alleviated by adding insulation to the interior walls to help with soundproofing. Beware that some insulating materials release pollutants. The insulation must be completely sealed off from your living areas. Select a material appropriate for interiors, with the least possible emissions. And don't forget to wear proper respiratory equipment and protective clothing during installation.

To help homeowners assess the health of their home and make practical renovations, CMHC has created the Healthy Housing Renovation Planner. The Planner is a practical and interactive 300-page guide to planning a renovation - whether you are hiring a contractor or doing the work yourself. It includes money-saving project worksheets, a comparison of building materials, a video, and the results of 16 years of housing research and expertise complied from 130 studies. CMHC's Healthy Housing Renovations Planner costs $34.95 and can be ordered online.

In 1997, CMHC published Building Materials for the Environmentally Hypersensitive, a practical sourcebook detailing common building materials and the health issues associated with them. This comprehensive guide helps persons with asthma, allergies and other environmental sensitivities choose healthy building materials for their homes. The cost is $29.95 can be ordered online.

Summary: Tips for healthy renovation of the home office

  • Solid wood cupboards, desks and shelves are emission-free so are preferable to choices such as particleboard. Particleboard must have all of its surfaces laminated or sealed.

  • Choose low-fume water-based paints whenever possible.

  • Do the "sniff test" before you start your renovation. If the space smells musty or earthy, there may be a mold problem that needs to be corrected.

  • Carpets and carpet pads are gathering places for dirt and moisture and breeding grounds for mold and bacteria. Use hard-finish flooring with natural fibre area rugs.

  • Ensure the office is well ventilated. Copiers and laser printers produce gases which are harmful - especially to people with asthma.

  • If insulating, remember insulation materials can release pollutants. Select an interior insulation with the least possible emissions. Seal the insulation off from the living areas.

When creating a new workspace for yourself, remember that taking these precautions as well as choosing low-emission products is an investment that is sure to yield many healthy returns.

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