If you are building a healthy house because you have severe chemical sensitivities, environmental illness, electrical sensitivities, or serious mold allergies, you probably are finding it challenging to find a safe place to buy or rent. You realize your only hope of stabilizing your illness and daily roller coaster of symptoms is to build a safe, nontoxic house or tiny house. If you are fortunate to have the money or are able to secure financing, you start by looking for land, ideally where you do not have neighbors so close that their dryer vents will be jetting out scented laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets that will make you sick. If you are successful at achieving this goal, you may have found a building site that is in a remote location with few or no amenities. What do you do if there is no structure to live in while you build? And what if where you are currently living is so intolerable and unsafe that you decide to live on your land while your healthy house is being built? I will now stop writing in the second person because this blog post is about the three years I lived outside during the building of our healthy house and some advice I would give others who find themselves in a similar situation. To be clear, our problem solving resulted in more failures than successes, but perhaps I can help direct people away from making some of our mistakes.
We were not planning on living on our land while the house was being built, but the septic system backed up into our rental house in Santa Fe. I had already been suffering from mold issues in that house because it was a straw bale house that had developed roof and wall leaks. My health had been going from bad to worse in the house (it was so bad my husband started calling it Amityville) but we could not find another rental that was safe. I mention all of this to say that we did not move to our land cavalierly. The septic gases leaking into the rental house made leaving a necessity. That said, as much of an ordeal as it was, once the construction began, being there allowed us to monitor the process closely and catch problems or potential problems that we otherwise would have missed. (Read Why We Almost, But Did Not, Build An Adobe House for one example of this.)
Because we had to move to our land suddenly, the most obvious choice for shelter was a tent. There was no time to air it out, but I did hose-wash it with a safe soap. We set it up on our land without the rain fly for maximum airflow and stepped in. I immediately got brain fog and a headache. Clearly the tent was not going to work, though I held out hope it might off-gas and work out later. That night was clear with no chance of rain so we abandoned the tent and set up our old camping mattresses and bedding under the stars like cowboys. We thought, at this point, that we would only have to endure this rustic living until the fall when the house would be finished. It actually took two years to build our house and another year and a month of airing out and off-gassing before I could move in safely.
That first tent never worked out and the next three tents we purchased also never aired out. A couple minutes inside them caused hours of headaches and other miserable symptoms. I have since heard of a tent recommended by people with chemical sensitivities that is free of flame-retardants and fluorinated water repellency treatments. I have not tested this tent so I cannot vouch for it, but here is a link:
Tent Information Links:
Before we resumed our attempts to create safe shelter, we needed to build an outdoor shower. We hired a plumber because neither of us have any plumbing experience. What materials to use for water supply lines for healthy building is a somewhat contested subject as there are no totally safe options. Here is a helpful overview article on plumbing from EI Wellspring:
We used Pex (high density polyethylene plastic) below ground and copper above ground. When using copper, make sure to request lead-free solder. Our plumber dug a three-foot deep hole under the shower that we filled with rocks for drainage. The hot water heater was placed below ground in the well house so it wouldn’t freeze during the winter. I built a very basic structure for the shower that I later replaced with this building that has both a bath and a shower:
Back To Options For Safe Shelter…
I know many people with severe chemical sensitivities who are in an emergency situation such as ours live in their cars or a safe van. Unfortunately, our car was old and fumy with leaking oil so that wasn’t an option for us. Our first temporary (or so we thought) shelter involved a 10’ x 10’ metal backyard patio structure that looked like this:
The top fabric was heavily waterproofed and had to be thrown away. In its place we stretched an organic cotton canvas fabric over the top and partially down the sides.
This fabric provided some shade but of course was not at all waterproof. We had to replace it every few months when it got moldy. It was also prone to shredding in high desert winds. We purchased it here:
Meanwhile, we could see our hopes that the house would be ready in the fall were unrealistic, so we had our contractor build a small wood-framed structure that was covered inside and out with Columbia Forest Products PureBond, a formaldehyde-free plywood whose website copy promised “award winning innovation” and “safe adhesives” and FSC-certified wood. I reacted very badly to this product and was never able to tolerate this structure. Looking back, we should have clad this structure in metal roofing. I have no explanation for this extremely poor material choice. I wasn’t able to tolerate most wood by this point, which makes the choice even more surprising/foolish. Our plan placed a lot of faith in AFM Safecoat’s Safeseal product to seal the wood—but the inside was still intolerable a couple of months after sealing.
In a panic, and with fall turning to winter, we then added a number of other products to the walls, compounding the unsafe air quality issues with coats of low and allegedly no-VOC paints and sealers. (The paint we used was American Pride brand, advertised as “low odor, zero VOC, Green Wise certified, will not damage your indoor air quality.” Even my husband, who is completely healthy, got headaches from this paint.) We then got a 25 lb. bag of baking soda and made a paste that we used to coat the walls and ceiling. This time-consuming intervention also did not make the building safe. I will not go into all of our attempts to make this building safe, but they were numerous and increasingly desperate. Finally we had to admit defeat.
Fall turned to winter and we were still sleeping under that canvas-covered metal structure, the canvas frequently sagging heavily with snow or frozen stiff. After waking up with a couple inches of snow on our top comforter, we covered it with foil and taped the seams with aluminum tape. The coldest nights that winter were 7 or 8 degrees below zero.
By the next winter we had put up a small 8 x 12 foot metal and glass greenhouse. It had no electricity, no heat in winter and was very very hot during the summer, but was luxurious compared to the open air camping we had just endured. No more waking up to see snake slither marks around the bed, or scorpions in the bed. (Amazingly, neither of us ever got bit.) No more hanging all the blankets and comforters and pillows over juniper trees if it rained during the night. The greenhouse was very inert and required no airing out or off-gassing. For that reason I would recommend it over many other options.
By spring, 2 years after arriving on the land, the house was finished and we were hopeful that our ordeal would soon be over. Every few weeks I would go over to the house and hang out inside until I started reacting, which at first was instantly. After a couple months, I wouldn’t react for 15 minutes or so. I would trudge back to the greenhouse, filled with dread and despair. “What if this house doesn’t work out?” circling repetitively through my head.
By fall 2010, I could be inside the house for 45 minutes without reacting. This gave me hope that things were improving, but not fast enough for me to move in before winter. The 3rd, and thankfully last, winter outside was one of the coldest on record in New Mexico with the worst overnight temperatures reaching 22 to 25 degrees below zero. Making things worse, everyone had their wood stoves filled to capacity all night so the air was thick with acrid wood smoke and someone was using a kerosene heater that filled the valley with horrible fumes. It was so bad, I actually tried wearing a VOC mask under the covers but it was so difficult to breath, I feared I would suffocate. My husband would check the weather and announce with excitement if that night’s prediction was for zero degrees or above since I had a pile of safe bedding by this point that kept me comfortably warm down to zero.
The house turned a corner the spring of 2011 and I was suddenly able to hang out inside for hours. By June, I was able to safely move in. And just in time because on June 26th, one of the largest fires in New Mexico history started near Bandelier National Monument.
The Las Conchas Fire began at approximately 1PM on June 26, 2011 just west of the park. In its first 13 hours it burned over 44,000 acres or almost an acre a second. Over the next weeks it grew to over 156,000 acres… from The National Park Service website, click to read more
Our land is about 25 miles from Bandelier. After 3 years of living outside, I found myself trapped inside for weeks while this fire scorched its way through acres and acres of New Mexico’s beautiful mixed conifer and aspen forests. Even after taping around all the doors and windows, the inside of our house was so smoky I wore my VOC mask most of the day. When I looked out the windows I saw an alarmingly large smoke plume filling the sky over Bandelier and Los Alamos. Our own land was covered with the kind of dense ground fog one sees in coastal areas, except this wasn’t fog it was smoke. The sun was an orangey smudge behind all the smoke, so thick some days it made the daylight hours look like twilight.
One morning I went online to check the status of the fire and I read the following news about Los Alamos National Labs:
Firefighters inside a nuclear weapons complex in New Mexico scrambled on Thursday to clear brush from around barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste stored a few miles from the edge of monster blaze roaring through surrounding forests.
Further reading on another site revealed that this waste was stored in “fabric buildings, essentially very large tents.” All of New Mexico watched and waited until we were told that the fire was contained before reaching the plutonium-contaminated waste. Reports of air quality monitoring that showed no radioactive risk were greeted by New Mexicans on a spectrum that arced between dubious and relieved. It wasn’t until the Las Conchas Fire ended that I was finally able to celebrate having successfully moved into our house.
My three years of living outside involved heat waves, below zero nights, frightening hailstorms, flash floods, wildfires, snakes, insect bites, coyotes and other desert wildlife, and the ever present fear that the house we were building would not be safe enough to live in. There were many bleak, sleepless nights of staring up at the stars wondering if this drama was ever going to end. My health, already compromised, got even worse during this period from having to constantly test products as well as the constant stress of living outdoors. I know many people with severe chemical sensitivities have gone through a version of what I went through (and worse) and that many do not have the happy ending of a safe house to move into at the end of it. The severity of this illness needs to be taken more seriously and solutions and aid given to those in need of safe, nontoxic housing.