Saturday, 14 March 2009

Plan for our land - Adega and straw bales

Next in the series, this time in Portuguese as well / Também em Português que é traduzida abaixo do parte Inglês

This list of posts, about our land, progressing at the pace of The Snail is here, with the bits already done shown.

Plan for the main house

Cooling and Heating

Adega / New build bit (today's entry)

A note on building materials

The transit camp


The watermills

The adega is a single storey ruin with the roof falling in, attached to the house, forming an “L”. It’s main feature is that the back wall is the hill itself – a huge face of granite rock. The other walls are fashioned outwards from it. The roof had rested on notches at the top of this rock.

Here we will raise a new first floor – for the kids rooms. This is pretty much the only bit of new building around the main house. We want to go for straw bale construction, probably with light timber frame on the South facing side – because glazing may exceed 50%, but partially to placate the local planning office who have never seen a straw bale application or building and are likely to be slightly phased / chuck it in the REJECT pile.

On the North side we may get away with load bearing (this is where the straw bales provide the structural strength – rather than a timber frame with the bales filling in between but taking no load from the roof). This is far less expensive than using a timber frame structure because of high timber cost. There is now plenty of precedence of load bearing buildings: up to three floors high.

Time frame for this straw build is between July and September. Depends on harvest time for straw – which should be around July I’m told. Let us know if you want to participate, learn, labour, cool your roasting self in mellow river for siesta time option.

Straw is harvested in July, so the straw bale elements will probably start in late July or early August. Very hot then, so we could delay that till September. This also depends on who we can secure as the trainer / lead builder for the straw build.

A adega é por um único piso ruína com a queda do telhado, anexa à casa, formando um "L". É característica principal é que a parede traseira está a colina em si - uma face da enorme rocha granítica. As outras paredes são formadas a partir de fora dela. O telhado tinha descansado em entalhes no início desta rocha.

Aqui vamos colocar um novo primeiro andar - quartos para as crianças. Isto é o principal construção novo em torno da casa principal. Queremos utilisar faldas de palha para construção, provavelmente com uma sturctura basico de madeira virada para o Sul do lado - porque vidros no podem exceder 50%, mas parcialmente para aplacar a camera local que nunca viram um projecto com palha ou de construção e aplicação são susceptíveis de ser ligeiramente faseada / deita na pilha REJEITAR.

No lado norte podemos utilisar palha com carga (isto é onde a palha fardos fornecer a resistência estrutural - em vez de uma moldura com a madeira em fardos enchimento entre mas tendo nenhuma carga a partir do telhado). Isto é muito menos caro do que usando uma estrutura madeira devido à elevada madeira custo. Há agora muita carga de precedência dos edifícios de até três andares.

Prazo de construir esta palha é entre julho e setembro. Depende do tempo de colheita palha - que deve ser em torno de julho estou disse. Deixe-nos saber se você quiser participar, aprender, trabalho, arrefecer seu auto ustulação no rio barrento tempo opção para a sesta.

Straw é colhida em julho, para a palha fardo elementos provavelmente irá começar no final de julho ou início de Agosto. Muito quente, então, por isso, que poderia adiar até setembro. Isso também depende de quem nós podemos garantir que o formador / construtor para levar a palha construir

Friday, 6 March 2009

Plan for our land - Heating and Cooling

Next in the series... click on links for sections already posted

1. Plan for the main house

2. Cooling and Heating

3.Adega / New build bit

4.A note on building materials

5.The transit camp

6. The watermills

7. Land and permaculture

8. Biogas


There are lots of things to cool - our home, our food. Ourselves !

Here I am dealing with the question of keeping food cool.

Every kitchen has a fridge these days, well, except my dad’s. His is outdoors, but that’s another story. With the kitchen being the warmest room of the house, the fridge has to work itself hard most of the time to get cool and to stay there (bit like all those groovy people…). So we thought about making a cool room: an area surrounded by stone or marble, no light, but a good fridge like door.

Keep sunlight out and it should stay nice and chilled.

In fact if we leave a bottle of water on stone shelves in the house, when it’s hot out, the water stays cold. So it works. We are lucky to have a bit of space on the North-facing side of the kitchen we can use for this. OK the olden days word for this is a larder, it’s just that I don’t see them getting designed in anywhere these days. This will need lights, plenty of stone shelves and a good seal around the door. If it works, we can store all our fruit and veg there without stressing about the rot factor.


Heat is a fairly critical factor in temperate Europe or anywhere else that gets cold in winter. We need it in two forms: as hot water, and, to keep warm (techies call this ‘space heating’). It obviously makes sense to make use of the freely available heat coming off the sun, every day: this should be enough for most normal homes’ hot water supply throughout most of the year but will not cover space heating in the winter (unless you install dozens of solar hot water panels at mega cost).

Solar hot water panels are not cheap either. Together with the hot water cylinder, the whole set up including installation can cost 3 to 5,000 euros. This is a lot of cash, considering that the cost of hot water alone using conventional gas or heating oil is around 200 euros a year (with relatively good efficiency of above 85% let’s say). So that’s a payback of around 20 years!

However all things are not static – especially oil prices, so that figure could change. Furthermore, if you take out the cost of the hot water cylinder, which you will probably need anyway for your heating system, the investment itself goes down quite a lot. Also, in summer, when you shower a lot, it seems crazy to not capture all that heat. Why burn sunlight from 100 million years ago to heat your water when you can use today's? In other words, the feel-good factor.

If I've got my sums wrong by the way - please let me know!

Our plan is to get a good sized hot water cylinder (at least 250 litres) which has the facility to receive multiple hot water feeds. One from the solar hot water panels, another from the cooker in the kitchen which we will fire up with wood, one from a log boiler in the cave downstairs. The only issue with wood is the time/work factor for gathering, chopping, drying and loading it all in to the house. And for smallish ranges or stoves, the logs can't be too big. And small twigs burn too quick. So if I break another bone (which has been a regular occurance this past couple of years) it could be a bother.

Talking of kitchen stoves / water heaters, I got a great reply from Giles, recommending the Wamsler range - made in Germany since around Bismarck's time (late 1800s) and they seem to have about as robust a reputation as he. Cheap, they are not. Their brochure says they can kick up to 18kw of heat into the hot water system. That's the capacity of modern gas boilers for a small apartment in Scotland somewhere. That would be a lot of small bits of wood. To avoid splitting logs I suppose you could use coppiced branches, or cuttings from trees. Every woodfuel expert will tell you that the most important thing is to allow your wood to dry properly.

There is the option of a heat pump - using electricity to generate heat from an underground source, or a type of solar panels. One unit of electricity can produce between 3 and 4 units of heat, so fairly efficient. But given that most grid electricity is still produced with fossil fuels (even in renewables-tiger Portugal) it is far from a "renewable" source some people claim it to be. For those people with their own source of renewable energy - a little hydro power supply for example - it would be seriously attractive. A free source of heat, and with few moving parts the systems can go for many years with few problems. Also free from the toil of moving wood endlessly.

As for space heating, we’ll probably go for underfloor heating pipes in most walls, some floors, and have thermostats around the place so we can turn on/off whole areas depending on how it feels.

As solar panels can get super hot on a sunny day, and cooking carries on further heating the tank, it could easily reach the point of being filled to capacity with hot water. These systems have a kind of escape valve for this, a “dump load” where the excess heat is released as steam. Our heat dump will take the form of a large, octagonal sitting area, filled with water, and surrounded by a wooden deck: the outdoor tub. Our thinking goes that why not use it as the heat dump (send a heating pipe through the tub, under the benches or something). Using fossil fuels to heat an outdoor tub or pool should be discouraged everywhere, but excess super-heat from the sun: this sounds better.

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.