Health and safety drove design of this doctor’s gorgeous Houston home

Dr. Maria Cabanillas spends her days thinking about her cancer patients, the cause of their thyroid cancer and treatment.

So when the Houston oncologic endocrinologist and her partner, Kris Griffith, 45, a health care administrator in the Texas Medical Center, decided to build a new home for themselves, they put into practice the same principals they focus on in their jobs.

A health-first approach in home construction and design sounds easy — after all, no one really is an advocate for using toxic materials. But taking a deep dive into the world of lumber, masonry, upholstery and tile can be complicated.

As a thyroid cancer specialist, Cabanillas, 48, knows that there’s research focusing on the link between thyroid cancer and increased exposure to fire retardants, which are common in many commercial and residential products. They’re used to make textiles and other materials safer, and they help electronics and building materials meet fire-safety standards.

But at some level, for some people, they may cause health problems, according to research.

In an arduous search for an interior designer who could help them find goods made with fewer harsh glues and fire retardants and more natural materials, Cabanillas and Griffith found Laura Britt of Britt Design Group in Austin.

Britt has suffered from upper respiratory issues since childhood, connecting the dots between her own health and her environment, home or otherwise. She’s not a chemist — though lately she’s wishing she were — but works hard to find or create products with fewer toxins such as flame retardants or the glues and chemicals that makes things last longer.

She introduced Cabanillas and Griffith to new, eco-conscious things she learned when she used to make her own healthy modern furniture in Austin.

Paints with low VOC, volatile organic compounds, have gotten easier to find. Other materials can be trickier to research. For example, in a chair or sofa, you have to consider its frame, cushion and upholstery and the way it was made or treated at every step in the process, including glues and chemicals in stain-resistance treatments.

“I treat thyroid cancer almost exclusively, and there were publications around the time we were building (with medical research) that showed there were contaminants — fire retardants — in houses in the U.S. Some have been phased out, but they’re replaced with new chemicals,” Cabanillas said. “We knew it would be a challenge to find furniture without formaldehyde and without fire retardants — they’re everywhere, they’re ubiquitous. You can’t eliminate them completely, but you can at least minimize them.”

Britt helped them find furniture with safer materials, as well as some that would off-gas more quickly.

Cabanillas, a native of Puerto Rico who has lived in Houston for many years, purchased the original home on this lot near the Med Center in 2002. It was built in 1938 and had a backyard shed that dated that far back, too. Eventually, the home’s walls and ceiling started to buckle from damage caused by a pair of trees planted too close by.

In 2018, Cabanillas and Griffith hired studioMET Architects to design and build the 4,000-square-foot home they moved into a little over a year ago.

Sustainability and care for the environment drove Cabanillas’ and Griffith’s dream for the place. The ReUse People and RePurpose Depot both salvaged building materials from the old house to help keep them out of landfills. Original shiplap was used in various places in the new home, including in a headboard in the guest room and as paneling in a window-seat nook.

The main living-dining area has an open concept. Sliding doors provide an indoor-outdoor experience directly from the kitchen. As they prepare food, they can look onto their patio and vegetable gardens beyond.

There’s a guest room for when Cabanillas’ parents visit and another bedroom for when Griffith’s two daughters — 15-year-old Josephine and 14-year-old Katherine — visit on weekends. Cabanillas’ son, Raul Ramos, is 25 and lives in Austin.

Sprinkled throughout is art by a variety of Puerto Rican artists — many of them friends of Cabanillas and her family — including Nick Quijano, Augusto Marin, Jorge Acevedo, Rafael “Rafi” Trelles and Lorenzo Homar.

There are raised beds where red, white and yellow onions grow, plus thriving beds of sweet peas, tomatoes, lettuces, garlic and herbs. Fruit-bearing trees include citrus, fig, olive and avocado.

And two 500-gallon metal rain barrels are hooked up to a sprinkler system to irrigate the vegetable garden. The rest of the landscaping uses heat- and drought-resistant plants.

A small indoor storage room — they call it the “Harry Potter Closet” — has shelves and grow lights for seedlings getting started, plus a Hungry Bin worm composter to make their own fertilizer using food scraps. (No, it doesn’t stink.)

Solar panels on west- and south-facing roofs power nearly everything; Griffith said their electric bill is usually about $60 a month.

Cabanillas works at a desk in their small study off of the primary bedroom — her Peloton is there, too.

Their garage apartment is where Griffith has been working from home full time. Before the pandemic, it was a fully contained apartment with a small kitchen, living room and bedroom. The couple thought it would be handy for any friends or family who need a place to stay during medical visits. One of their friends who lives in Dallas drives down once a week for cancer treatment and stays in the garage apartment.

Both Cabanillas and Griffith have tackled some new hobbies recently, including breadmaking — he is hooked on “The Great British Bake Off” — and cheesemaking.

Griffith is a beermaking enthusiast and always has something brewing. The original shed in the backyard was remodeled into a brewery — they call it Griffith’s “Brewshedda” — where he keeps his home brew on tap. The bar is made of materials salvaged from the original home, the handiwork of woodworker/artist Joy Fucci of Joy Reimagined.

It soon will have its own solar panels, and some seating inside will be reupholstered with more environmentally friendly materials.

A fire pit surrounded by comfortable seating and plenty of covered patio space allow for sitting outside with a friend or two. Both Cabanillas and Griffith have had COVID-19 vaccinations, but they still take social distancing and mask-wearing seriously.

“We work in the area of cancer, and (health) is always on our minds. I’m glad we did all of this because now we’re here all of the time,” Cabanillas said.

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