Emergency Housing for those with Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) and Mold Sensitivity
Updated in Spring 2019
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Here is a list of some housing ideas for those with environmental sensitivities needing immediate or temporary safe housing.
KOA cabins are located across the US and Canada. The cabins are made from mostly safe materials (mostly wood) and have been reported to be good places to stay for those who are environmentally sensitive.
Ask if the wood has been stained recently. The bathrooms are separate and may or may not be mold-free, depending on the location.
Recently I’m hearing reports of these having gone moldy. If the foundation or roof is not done right there is a high chance these could go moldy. Often newer is better for mold.
Regular tents can be difficult because of the chemicals used on the fabrics, the lack of insulation and the tendency for them to go musty very easily and be a lot of work with the airing out and drying out.
I have a preferred tent which is an off the ground tent in my post on camping gear. Here are some alternatives:
Reflectix provides some R-value and reflects light so that should work in a lot of different climates, though the seams will reduce the insulative value and add more glue and more potential for leaks. There are simpler designs for the structure that will reduce seams.
You can’t buy these – you would have to look online for the metal structure, then buy the Reflectix, foam, aluminum tape, and duct tape and then have someone make it for you. The tape may make this intolerable for some. And this also lacks airflow.
You would also make at least one triangle out of polyethylene or an EVA Shower Liner so that you have some light. But have a flap of Reflectix over it that you open and close over this “window”.
Kim was severely sensitive to chemicals. She made a tent out of Tyvek which she tolerated well when extremely reactive. She explains how to make it here. Through extreme mold avoidance, Kim made a full recovery.
This is a plastic used as house wrap.
There are so many options here on what you can build an emergency tent out of. It all depends on what you can tolerate.
It may not last forever but it may give you some time to find another option or even bring down your MCS which will open up options.
Other materials you could use: polyethylene, tarps, even hemp fabric if you are not expecting rain and don’t have high humidity.
When Sara was an extreme reactor (also now recovered), she made a simple structure out of XPS foam boards. The two-inch boards of XPS (usually Owens Corning brand can be found easily) have a high insulative value.
She arranged them in a tent shape, the groves in the edges holding them together. Rocks at the base pressing them together. Of course, you could use tape if you can tolerate that or put plastic over the whole thing.
Above is my version made of polyiso foam. This is a “foam tent” used inside a non-insulated trailer that was cold and still offgassing.
I hooked up a Panasonic ERV and ran fresh air into the tent at night via a 4-inch aluminum tube. The opposite end of the tent had a 4-inch hole for air to exit.
This is a highly effective way to deal with offgassing – fresh air is pouring through, though it can be difficult to control the temperature and humidity this way.
Simple Wood and Foam Shelter
Inspired by the idea of a foam shelter, I have made two highly insulated shelters with ridged foam, raised off the ground and covered in a tarp.
A wood structure like mine pictured above, may be needed to protect from wind and snow.
The frame was covered with a tarp and inside on the plywood platform was a box made out of foam. This shelter worked extremely well though there are things to keep an eye on in the long term.
The whole thing was completed with some volunteer and some paid labor for 1000 CAD.
Such a robust frame is not always necessary. You can build the plywood platform, with foam box on top and simply string a tarp over this if you don’t have strong winds or lots of snow.
This is the same structure with a tarp over it and the XPS foam box secured with tape inside. The design can be improved by fixing the tarp, painting the foam structure and using clear tape. Please contact me for details if you want help setting something like this up.
Here’s another example of a foam box. Just don’t put it right on the ground like they did here, and you want another cover on it. This is polyethylene foam which is much more unusual.
These tents are insulated and the foil on the inside will also block most of the VOCs from the fabric on the outside.
They say you can sleep in them down to 0 degrees Celsius.
They are 600 USD.
They look like they would have problems with airflow and condensation inside. As well as being straight on the ground, but they may work for some people.
The shift pod for 1300 USD is similar but with the reflective layer on the outside.
This will help reflect the sun and keep cool in sunny weather when there is no shade.
But I don’t know how this will perform well with condensation inside.
The best of the typical tents have an internal mesh layer, then a gap with a rainfly on top. If you don’t use that system you usually end up with condensation.
There are other similar tents cropping up that were designed for Burning Man festival.
For a lot less you can get a simple aluminum lined small sleeping tent. It’s not insulated but the aluminum on the inside is more tolerable than the usual tent materials and does reflect heat inside.
These cute domes are very photogenic.
They include a fan that circulates fresh air. Though they would still be impractical for hot or cold weather. You could add shade when it’s sunny unless you are somewhere very cold, then the sun might be an advantage.
The bubbles available in North America are made of PVC which is toxic and needs a good amount of time to offgas.
There is no perfectly chemical-free tent, The most tolerable brands include Ozark, Big Agnes, REI, LL Bean, Colman, and Lightspeed. Everyone is different.
Moonlight makes flame retardant-free tents coated with silicone on the outside and polyurethane on the inside.
Here is my post on safer camping gear which goes through all the major brands that folks do well with.
In the post, I also discuss canvas cotton and hemp for really dry climates (temporary use) which may be where the most sensitive need to start. I would also check out the cuben fiber tents mentioned in the camping post.
Yurts & Huts
Yurts are often tricky for a few reasons. They are normally made out of PVC which takes time to offgas.
On top of that they are difficult to insulate, although one could just use them as an uninsulated tent.
The wooden framing can be susceptible to mold if there is a lot of condensation inside or with high humidity inside, which can happen when heating up a small space.
The wood also might be treated and could cause reactions. There are yurts that have metal framing which may be preferable for some people.
You can create your own outer yurt cover by using a more tolerable material, although it will not be as long-lasting as PVC.
If you want to create a short-term yurt, or rather a glorified tent, use materials used to make a tent, or polyethylene sheets that are used for greenhouses, or tarps.
One really positive design feature of yurts is that they are lifted off the ground on a platform. Metal yurts may work for some. I have looked at those in the post on simple shelters.
These glamping tents by sweet water bungalows are PVC, with a canvas top (prone to mustiness), but the guide and framing could be used to create a tent with a plastic of your choosing.
Just keep in mind polyethylene is not as durable, but is less toxic.
I wouldn’t use canvas for anything other than a short and dry camping trip but without the breathable roof these are prone to condensation.
Conestoga huts have a simple design for a little hut/glorified tent. A simple design that goes up fast is a big benefit.
I have not been able to review these plans for mold preventative building, but it’s an interesting design. If you have the plans for these will do a free review.
If you don’t insulate this it shouldn’t be a problem. If you do want to try these with insulation please reach out to me or an expert in building science. I am not presuming these are a mold-safe design.
Steel sheds can be bought from Amazon or hardware stores for 700-1000 dollars.
For everything you need to know about setting up a shed to live in see this post by EI Wellspring.
Sheds are not as easy to take down as you would expect.
There are also wooden and plastic sheds. I have seen some good little wooden shed kits made of solid wood.
Raise them off the ground and cover with a tarp above that is not touching the shed.
I like cedarshed.com for those who can tolerate cedar because it’s a highly rot-resistant wood.
Check out the wood first, see how it was stored and test it for reactions.
Hard plastic sheds will work for many people. The more flexible the plastic the more it offgasses. PVC should be avoided where possible.
A greenhouse can be used for backup shelter, it gets very hot when the sun hits them in warmer seasons and can dip really low at night in colder temps.
But some people have used them successfully. Margaret (another person who used this strategy to heal and make it back to indoor housing) talks about her experience with them here (her greenhouse pictured above).
I designed an all-glass on the interior shelter with insulation on the outside. This was designed for a time that I could not have metal or wood inside touching me.
The walls and floor were glass. The ceiling would be easier to make out of metal.
The shelter was raised off the ground on a platform. Outside of the glass was 2 inches of foam insulation. To hold this insulation on, the exterior framing (outside of the foam layer) was attached by drilling through the foam and glass. The foam needs to be airtight to the glass. A tarp should cover the shelter.
Back of a Pick-Up Truck
Try and find an aluminum canopy for the back of the truck, which is the best-tolerated type.
The bed liner may need to be offgassed or can be covered with Reflectix.
If ordering a brand new truck you can request no liner.
Details on converting a cargo trailer safe in this post.
The company WeRoll can customize these and they have more robust roof lines compared to the standard models.
Creating a Safe-Room in Your House
To create a non-toxic room in your home you can use Denny Foil, or heavy-duty aluminum foil on the walls/ceiling/floor.
These materials block VOCs (chemicals/toxins including mold).
Heavy-duty aluminum foil is much easier to work with than the type used in cooking. You may need several layers to totally block smells.
You want to use green Painting Tape for this as it will not damage the walls and is easy to remove – a healthy person could rip off/take down the whole room is probably 20-30 min (small room). The blue tape is toxic so I wouldn’t use that. You could use aluminum tape but it is very sticky and will leave a residue and will be hard to take off. Aluminum tape also smells and offgasses more than green tape.
I would not do this where you have colder air inside than outside (AC use).
Cover outlets. As for light fixtures, I would go around them.
Be careful that when you open the window or the door that the air coming in might not be good, so this won’t be a long-term solution.
If you can’t foil the walls you can make a room within a room and use positive pressure as explained here in this post. The picture above shows how pressurized rooms keep out contaminants.
You can use foam, plastic or any airtight material. Isolate that by using positive pressure which will work to reduce chemicals like offgassing.
That can be a solution for someone extremely sensitive who has trouble with offgassing (when the issue is offgassing rather than mold).
You can find more information by researching isolation rooms.
Staying in a cob house (or straw bale, adobe, light straw-clay house) can be a really good option
Ecovillages may rent out rooms in natural homes and there is a possibility of getting in on the communal meal plan as well. Search for some in your area and ask about monthly stays.
I have seen some natural homes listed on AirBnB as well as on lists of intentional communities/ecovillages.
Always ask about propane, natural gas, cleaning products, and water damage. I have found that is wet/cold climates cob and similar materials do not hold up to mold after a few years.
Slabs and roofs often have mistakes that lead to mold. Green roofs can be very problematic. Amateur built houses are especially prone to mistakes that lead to mold.
This type of building is best when raised off the ground, or with a simple roof, otherwise, don’t bank on this being safe if more than 1-3 years old.
Ecovillages are also a good place to set up a tent where you might have access to outdoor bathrooms and kitchens that are more MCS safe than campgrounds.
It may also be a safer environment for those traveling solo. I have used the Intentional Communities website, Google for places near you, and the site wwoofing.
If you have physical energy you can work on a wwoofing site in exchange for free rent (camping or small cabin usually) and often food.
Another option for those who have energy to do work is remote cabins that are advertised on Craigslist where you do some house and yard work in exchange for rent. The cabins might not be safe, but this could be a free spot to camp or live in a trailer.
Other Emergency Housing
We should have emergency and long-term safe housing for people with MCS, but in reality, there is very little.
Check out the Environmental Health Association of Québec if you are a Quebecer.
For housing listings in the US and Canada, join EI Safe Housing on Facebook.
When I come across AirBnBs, hotels and short term rentals that look safe I list them here on my Pinterest page. While many turn to Airbnb or other short term rentals, in the beginning, this can be a difficult and sometimes impossible road if one is super sensitive and/or masked to mold.
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Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
I spent two years in tents and small structures in order to heal from extreme chemical sensitivity.