LEIMBACH — At first glance, nothing distinguishes this apartment building on the outskirts of Zurich from those around it. Located on the upper reaches of a peaceful neighborhood in Leimbach, Switzerland, its sandy-colored walls are surrounded by a wild and vast garden. The tall trees of the Entlisberg Forest, perched on the nearby mountain, cast their refreshing shadow on the surroundings.
It was precisely for the elevated and shaded setting that the building was constructed here for its unique purpose: for people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
"There were five potential locations at first," explains Christian Schifferle, who initiated the project. "Measurements allowed us to find that irradiations in this site were very low thanks to the nearby mountain that offers a protective environment."
The absence of antennas was also a precondition for construction, as was the air quality.
Migraines, chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating, respiratory problems, depression, food intolerance — the list of disorders that the 14 residents suffer is dizzying. "We can't bear the emanation of chemical products and the emission of electromagnetic waves stemming from wireless networks," says Schifferle, who lives here.
Now 59, Schifferle says he has been hyperallergic and electrosensitive since childhood. His pain has forced him to spend long periods of time in forests, secluded in a trailer with walls covered in tinfoil. At the time, every odor was aggressive to him: perfumes, cleaning products, paint, cigarette smoke. When he was 35, he discovered in the press that other people suffered from the same symptoms, which force these ill people to suspend any professional and social life when they reach a critical level. With only a disability pension, Schifferle decided to turn the recognition of his illness into a fight.
"Today, this building symbolizes our visibility," he says emotionally, even though MCS and electromagnetic hypersensitivity are not officially recognized as illnesses in Switzerland.
A cost of $6.2 million
Completed in December 2013, Europe's first anti-allergic building cost $6.2 million (4.9 million euros), the material and the technologies used increasing the cost by around 25% compared to a classic Zurich building. The town supported the cooperative Schifferle heads, supplying the 1,200-square-meter piece of land and some financial help.
Inside the building, details give away its specificity. The walls of the communal areas are whitewashed. The raw concrete ceilings and the stone floor leave an impression of unfinished work. The architects favored the use of natural materials, and they were helped by a chemist during the construction. "The plaster used for the walls caused us the most difficulties," architect Andreas Zimmermann explains. "We had to reduce the additives so it could be tolerable for the residents."
To protect them from electromagnetic waves, fiber glass bars were laid down as soon as possible instead of the metal frameworks typically used. For each apartment, a double-door entrance creates a place to stash clothes that smell too strong, and each room is equipped with an air purification system. In the basement, there are authorized laundry and cleaning products next to the communal washing machine, all with labels that say "fragrance-free" and "color-free."
The day before our arrival, Schifferle had specified the rules: cellphones, smoking and perfumes are not allowed within the walls of the building. "I have two smartphones, but they're almost always in flight mode," he says. "I use them to take pictures, one of my passions." For the exchanges linked to his position as president of the cooperative and of a foundation aiming to have MCS and electromagnetic hypersensitivity recognized, he uses a landline phone and a computer connected to the Internet via cable.
A special coating also covers all the electric cables of the building, which has as few outlets as possible. Unlike other electrosensitives, these residents are only intolerant to high-frequency lines.
No social life
For Schifferle and his 13 neighbors, this place is a refuge. Designed like a Faraday cage, it allows each one of them a peaceful place where they can live fairly normal lives.
Marc (not his real name) is 32 years old. Originally from Freiburg, he came to live here in April. Like Schifferle, he receives a disability pension. He has concluded that his exhaustion was is in all likelihood due to exposure to electromagnetic waves and chemical products. "I was diagnosed with anxious disorders, but I don't think this is the cause but a consequence of my fragility," he explains.
Since his childhood, Marc has suffered from severe digestive disorders, chronic exhaustion and food allergies. He had to interrupt his studies at 22 years old and has never managed to keep a job more than a few months. A year ago, he discovered his state improved when he was not in contact with electromagnetic waves. "I slept several times in parents' basement, and I went to live for some time in a farm in the Jura," he says. He then learned about the Leimbach building project and sent in his application.
Since he moved here, he feels his state of health has improved slightly. To his surprise, when he arrived in Leimbach, he met several people his age. Among his new neighbors, a 28-year-old woman moved in at the beginning of the year with her companion, who does not suffer from any illness.
Apart from him, all the residents of the building have had to justify their symptoms by providing a medical certificate to get an apartment. Social criteria are also required for an apartment, of which the monthly rent is between 1,000 and 1,400 euros, which is administered by Zurich city hall.
The city hall is awaiting the results of an assessment study carried out by the University of Bern with the residents of this project to potentially repeat the experience. As for Christian Schifferle, he has already identified other land in Ticino and on the French Riviera. "For people like us, it would be great to imagine being able to go on holiday," he says with a smile.