Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Plan for our land – Introduction and Main House

This starts a series of posts I will do about our house and land project in Troporiz, Alto Minho, way up North Portugal. I will separate them out by sector, so they are not too long, but the title should show what they cover. I will endeavour to put a time frame beside each theme, so that anyone wanting to get involved / help out with that specific aspect can get in touch to see if we have space.

Bit of background
First of all, I’m still not clear if we chose this land or it chose us. Back in Spring 2007 we took a quick trip to the North of Portugal, visiting as many towns and local estate agents as we could. Most were expensive or a bit miserable. Then we found this land and it was neither of these things, had many terraces, all South facing, figs, olives and quince trees, various ruins, lots of opportunity for sustainable construction / energy projects and, to top it off, a separate bit of land near a hidden river in the valley – with an old water channel and some ruined watermill buildings. And a jungle of trees that want to host tree-houses.

But the land was crying out for someone too. It has been abandoned for about 25 years and it was falling into the grips of intractable brambles and other ferocious weeds-that-become-monsters. Terrace walls were uprooted, fruit trees persecuted by ivy, pathways consumed. The roof of the main house had developed a hole and the rain was working its way through the house.

So we were a good match – land needing some attention, fruits and bounty returned; we needed somewhere to learn how to build and grow things and a place to live. It probably helped that we didn’t know really what we were taking on. But we definitely wanted something we could apply in our new-found principles about non toxic building materials, passive solar design, renewable everything, the growing of our own tomatoes and basil, fruit and nuts and the possibility of living with animals.
Since we have learned a little about the havoc & destruction brought about by mankind’s industrial development, the perils of climate change and peak oil, we want to try and live in a way that doesn’t actually make things worse. There is a lot to say about these issues, but they will remain for future posts.

The blog entries will cover these issues – with the one highlighted being the current post, the others for later on (or if I can figure it out, I’ll do one of those links to them, once they are completed).

Plan for the main house
Cooling and Heating
Adega / New build bit
A note on building materials
The transit camp
The watermills

So, here goes.

The Main House
is built from massive granite blocks, around 80cm thick. It’s situated on an incline, so if you are looking at the house from where you enter the land, you would see two floors. If you look from above it you see only one floor.
The ground floor is a mostly underground bunker, with earthen floor, that was used for animals; locals say that cows and sheep brought in here would act like a kind of central heating for upstairs. Heat and smell, yum.

It’s a bit dark for bedrooms, so we thought to use this basement as the Turkish cave – library, sitting room, movie viewing zone, cosy winter retreat... We will insulate the floor, install underfloor heating. Get a small wood stove in there too, which will provide its own radient heat, but also send a hot water feed to the hot water cylinder (the mother-ship of the house heating system).

We’ve seen renovations of old houses with the granite block all exposed, sometimes varnished – not particularly pleasant. Bit bleak and cold we think. So we’re going to add a thick earth-based plaster around most of it, leaving the most interesting rock bits exposed, and possibly embed some heating pipes into this earth plaster (used for underfloor heating).

A small note on underfloor heating: some people say it’s a bit odd, almost uncomfortable to be heated from below. Studies have been conducted in Germany apparently that suggest humans have never been heated that way, and it disturbs some internal function. I have only ever lied down on heated bathroom floors in Romania after major snow sessions and enjoyed in thoroughly, but having it as the main source of heat for a house is another matter.

On earth plaster: an important benefit of earth is its ability to absorb moisture from the air (unlike cement based plaster), while it also provides a layer of insulation to the massive thermal mass rock – which would be quite cold otherwise. The aim is to find a comfortable internal temperature year round. Local people say that granite does not need insulation, but it does seem cold in granite rooms, so we will experiment with earth plaster to see how it performs.

We’ll build a new set of internal stairs from this library-cave to the first floor. There is a small hallway outside the cave for these steps. Chance for a curvy bit of stair art maybe. Your ideas for stair case design are welcome. Let us know. The space available is about 2.2m wide by 4 m long: it has to turn around, not exactly spiral but include a platform of sorts half way up where the stairs turn. See photo: there's a bathroom there now, but think through it.

The stairs will occupy the North side of the building – backed right up against the stone of the earth (a wall was never built here). In fact this same view of the underbelly of the land runs right across the North side of downstairs. Complicated… I’ll just add pictures to explain…

So now you’re upstairs where we envisage this first floor being made of wood – new joists will have to replace the rotting things in place, and floorboards from oak we have had drying in Romania for the last 10 years or so. Almost all local builders and architects presume we’ll lay a concrete slab / placa for the floor, but we will go for wooden joists, cork or hemp insulation, then floorboards.

New walls we’ll build with earth and straw: for sound and heat insulation. There are couple of new external walls to construct, for which we’ll build a timber frame, filling the gaps with earth blocks – or “strawclay” an almost-liquid mix of earth, water and straw that you pour into shuttering, allow to dry then move the shuttering up and repeat. The timber frame is the structural element, the straw-clay is just an in-fill.

Carved out of three tiny rooms, a room appeared that will do for a kitchen. We are looking for a wood stove that connects to the hot water tank, so when you’re using it, you’re also heating water. This has got to make sense. Cook dinner and at the same time heat the washing-up water. Surely this should be part of every cooker design, even gas. (Tiny little heat exchangers around the gas hobs – could it work?).

Anyway, wood stoves like this are nothing new, heaps around, made in Portugal too, but we need to look far and wide first. If anyone has any ideas about where to get the best wood stoves for cooking, baking, with heat exchangers, etc. let us know!

We want to get the fridge out of the hottest part of the house – the kitchen, to reduce power demand. Surely it has to work more to keep things cold if it’s in a warm room (?). So we’re going to build a cold room out of granite, keep the light out, and get an insulated door. Hopefully it will stay at around 4 of 5 degrees C without any electrical power. We will see.

The main building roof is a-gonner, and the external walls were covered in cement and harling (a mortar mixed with small stones thrown on outside of houses to keep water off), so they too need to go the way of the dodo. New roof will be made of wood (not the concrete beams more fashionable round here). Insulation in the roof itself, as we’ll probably do without a ceiling.

We are not sure which insulation to choose yet, as we have not done research on what is available locally. But it must conform to our criteria: natural material, non toxic, low processing / energy use in its production. They sell cork insulation down south, but it’s 18euro / square meter for 10cm thickness. This seems like a lot of cash.

How far the roof eaves stick out over the house is usually a big issue in passive solar design: angle them just right to let in winter sun, long enough so that summer sun can’t get in, thus less overheating. We are limited a bit by traditional building design and what will be appropriate for an old house renovation. We will have to do more with window shutters to avoid overheating in summer.

Rainwater Collection
All part of building in a hydro balance throughout the year. It rains a LOT in winter and very little in summer and autumn. So we want to find a way to use the winter rains during summer. Part of this will be rainwater collection from all roofed areas. We may need to build an underground tank of some sort, otherwise we’ll have huge unwieldy barrels on each corner that will not be able to hold enough water.

From the collection tank or chamber, we will use a small solar pump to push the water uphill to two water tanks that are already in place at a high point of the land, from where we will construct a gravity-fed micro irrigation system to planted areas.

The well
There’s an old hand dug well around 10m deep in front of the house. We want to build a traditional Romanian fantana – a well with a little roof, and a handle to wind up the bucket to get nice cold water. Our family is half-Romanian by the way. Small solar pump to get water from well to header tanks at top of the land is also under consideration.

A thought we want to share with you all: would it be a bad idea to pipe water collected from rooftops into the well? It’s obviously not as pure, hasn’t been filtered by the rock and all, but the well seems like an ideal “storage” facility.

Ecological construction
There are so many interpretations and definitions for this. Green / sustainable building, and so on. Our idea is twofold:
1) reduce energy consumption through decent insulation, low energy appliances, lighting using only low-energy LED (possibly run on 12v system with their own solar PV panel), heating without fossil fuels or grid-electric, etc. and,
2) avoid all building materials that have toxic materials or high embodied energy . This is a vital issue we need to get to grips with as a species if we have any hope of not further ruining the planet. And given that there are so many non-harmful materials it seems bizarre they are not applied. More on materials in a separate post.

Time frame:
We are submitting our building designs for approval from the camera / council for planning permission this March. We hope to be able to get approval in April and start work in May. This is perhaps optimistic, but we live in hope.

This means the main house roof demolition, walls repair and new roof can happen in May and June.

for roof work between May and August this year (2009). We’ll be able to be more specific when the planning approval is granted, materials ordered, etc.


Stephanie said...

looks exciting but hard, hard work and a wing and a prayer

Jose Afonso said...

Magnus, best of luck to you and your family. You will love our Alto Minho region. If you get a chance, please visit my village Soajo. Here's my blog: http://soajeiro.blogspot.com/

Best of luck. I'm sure the house and land will come alive under your family's care.


Anonymous said...

"A thought we want to share with you all: would it be a bad idea to pipe water collected from rooftops into the well? It’s obviously not as pure, hasn’t been filtered by the rock and all, but the well seems like an ideal “storage” facility."

Ideally you'd want to run it through a slow sand filter first


luís said...

Se eu construísse uma casa agora faria o isolamento do telhado com feltro de lã de ovelha, mas não sei se é o ideal.

(If i built a house now i would insulate the roof with sheep wool, but i'm not sure that's the ideal.)

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of sheep's wool on roofs... but if go for it, take a look here: http://feltroecologico.blogspot.com/


Bob Irving said...

Two weeks! two weeks!