Doctor Seeks Healthy Housing for EI Patients
UPdate Fall 2001

"It's impossible to get well living in a sick home," says Dr. Patricia Beresford, a Halifax GP who has worked for years with patients suffering from environmental sensitivities. "I have patients on limited incomes who live in places which make them sick every day, from neighbour's cleaning products, or moulds, or diesel fumes. When people are able to move into a healthy home they become more functional and their health improves significantly."  But the big problem is finding that affordable, healthy housing.

While attending a conference on environmental illness in Ottawa, Dr. Beresford met architect Phillip Sharp. Sharp is the award-winning designer of the first Canadian, urban, multiple-unit non-profit accommodation geared to people living with environmental sensitivities (ES).

Dr. Beresford contacted the  N.S. government requesting a meeting to discuss the possibility of constructing similar housing in Nova Scotia. To date, the government has not responded.

The model which so excited Dr. Beresford is the Barrhaven Non-Profit Housing Development in Nepean, Ontario (now part of Ottawa.)  Sponsored by the Barrhaven United Church, the housing project was constructed in the early 1990s. It provides affordable living to seniors and persons with special needs. There are forty-one units, seven of which are designated as "environmental units" (ES units).

"Before coming here, I felt like a fugitive," says tenant Francine Seguin who has faced debilitating ES, fibro-myalgia and chronic fatigue, since 1990. She moved into one of the ES units last March. Until ten years ago Seguin was in top physical condition.  She windsurfed, skied, trekked. "Now I cannot take a walk outside on a regular day for more than 15 minutes." After partially recovering, Seguin suffered a major setback in January when a water pipe broke in her condo. Despite urging the contractor not to use chemicals during renovations, materials were used that emitted fumes which caused her constant asthma attacks and uncontrollable headaches.

In the next three months, Seguin moved 6 times. She reacted to "everything". And then Seguin's doctor suggested Barrhaven. "There was one empty unit. It was the one lucky thing that happened to me."  Before signing the lease, the property manager allowed Seguin to sleep in the unit for a night to see if she would react.  To be eligible for the apartment, she also had to provide a medical recommendation. 
The lease itself stipulates a number of very specific conditions tenants must abide by: no cats, no candles, no chemical cleaners, no regular vacuum cleaner, no scents, no smoking, no pesticides, etc.  "It's all controlled, but that's good," says Seguin. She noticed the difference immediately. "I felt like I was in the mountains because the air was so clean."

One of the real successes of Barrhaven was its ability to bring together a number of partners with different expertise. In 1991, Barrhaven Non-Profit Housing Inc. approached the (now defunct) Homes Now of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. An agreement was signed providing subsidies to qualified tenants on a rent-geared-to-income basis. The March of Dimes provided advice regarding design considerations for people living with handicaps. CMHC, particularly Dr. Virginia Salares, provided technical advice on material selection for the ES units.

Seguin admits that Barrhaven is not luxury living. "It's not like a normal home. I tell myself it's like living in a cottage."  Ken Drolet, past president of the Barrhaven Board, candidly admits that to keep within budget and meet environmental standards certain construction tradeoffs were made which resulted in the units initially looking very drab. To make them more cheerful, the concrete block walls were painted with Glidden's zero VOC Lifemaster 2000 products with a white sealer coat covered by off-white eggshell finish. Basswood, used extensively because it was considered a stable material and helped to provide a feeling of warmth, initially emitted aromatic terpenes which created irritation for some. The basswood was later sealed with AFM Safecoat Safe Seal. Clean air is filtered through enormous, foot-wide heating pipes which loom large in every room.

In hindsight, the developers realized that more single units were required. "There are far more people on their own looking for accommodation than families," explains Drolet.  However, on balance, Drolet believes Barrhaven has been "a qualified success."

Francine Seguin agrees. Most of the tenants can't see themselves living anywhere else. Says Seguin, "There are trees outside. I have my own garden space. This place is like a sanctuary. It gives me peace. It's a place where I can relax from all the reactions I feel everywhere else. I don't know how things are going to end up. But if I end up not ever being able to work again, at least I know I have a roof over my head."

Janice Acton is a free lance writer and adult educator.  Information on the Barrhaven project can be found at