A sensitive building project

Volunteers are building a specially designed home for a woman who is allergic to everyday chemicals

A team of volunteers have spent the winter braving the short days and freezing temperatures to provide habitable accommodation for a woman who is unable to live in conventional housing, due to extreme allergic reactions to electrical fields and a range of chemicals commonly found in everyday objects.

As we sit among swathes of blankets in Gillian McCarthy’s council-provided ‘hut’, I am humbled by this woman’s jolly nature and joke-making, despite a near-lifetime of suffering. She asks me if I like her metaphorical fireplace: a bundle of red fairy lights in a wooden bowl, with a battery-powered candle protruding from the top.

“Well, it almost gives the impression that it’s warm in here, doesn’t it?” she says. A fire or electric heater proves impossible to heat the uninsulated home, due to Gillian’s electrosensitivity problems and because burn residues could trigger reactions.

A five by eight foot shed is a rather surreal location for a severely disabled person; I am hardly surprised when she talks of frostbite in her right foot. Teeth chatter together and toes lose all sensation as the agricultural biochemist and permaculture expert divulges to me that the shack was provided to her by the local council on a temporary basis, with promises of permanent accommodation.

Seventeen years on, friends and concerned people fear that Gillian may not make it through many more winters if action towards appropriate accommodation is not provided immediately. Although the local council did offer Gillian alternative accommodation in the past, she decided to decline because she believed it was unsuitable in light of her illness. “They wanted to move me into a completely unsuitable caravan, which contains many of the chemicals capable of sending me into convulsion,” she says.

Gillian is a sufferer of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition that she believes began at university after exposing herself to highly toxic sheep dips in the 1970s. She began reporting initial headaches, which later led to an exponential emergence of allergic-type symptoms. An anomaly for many years, Gillian slowly began to recognise her condition as MCS.

Although some have argued that conditions such as MCS are partially psychosomatic, low-impact builder Tony Wrench feels that whatever the details of the situation, it is morally wrong to force a person to live in an inhumane condition when something can be done about it.

Armed with a willing team of knowledgeable helpers, including volunteer builders associated with Shift Bristol – a community interest company providing education on creating a low carbon future – Tony set to work in late 2012, building Gillian a chemical-free respite shelter affectionately named the ‘den’, just the other side of Gillian’s permaculture garden.

The crew started work without waiting for funding for the project, the costs for which were estimated at £10,000. Yet luck held out and the initial finance for materials was finally gathered from a selection of sponsors including individual donations, those concerned with MCS, and private organisations.

The majority of the builders have a background in roundhouse building, so naturally the structure has taken on a circular perimeter. Extreme consideration has had to be taken on board by everyone involved, as even the natural traditional roundhouse poses problems for someone with as severe a condition as Gillian.

Core team member Simon Crook enlightens me on the precision that has had to be taken into account concerning every detail. Even some kinds of wood produce pollens which can cause a reaction for MCS sufferers, so Ash – a tolerable, slightly flexible yet still useable wood – has been sourced from sustainable woodland in order to create the beams.

“We have had to make some compromises between what Gillian wants and the practicalities of building; it would be impossible to make a perfect house under the circumstances,” says Simon.

So far, the rest of the building consists of cement substitutes limestone and cob, with glass foam gravel creating a porous layer intended to stop the likelihood of damp and therefore mould spores, which Gillian is also allergic to. The crew plan to eventually install solar panels and, if funds allow, a safe underfloor heating system.

Since the team arrived, Gillian’s thoughts have steered away from pain and past mistreatments and she is now looking forward to creating a reality out of her dreams. Once she is feeling healthier, warmer and more energetic in her new surroundings, she aspires to form a permaculture workshop in her garden specifically tailored to conform to the restrictions of MCS.

Help and funds are still needed to finish the project. Contact Richard on 07748 150161 or [email protected].