Saturday, 12 June 2010

First eucalyptus roof goes up

This is the old distillery - the alambique. Jamie thinks it burned down after a heavy drinking session, evidenced by the charred tiles and debris we discovered when clearing it out. Or maybe it was the trail of empties that meander over the land, outwards from the distillery, where the local spirits were concocted.

The point is, it's a ruin, a fine ruin at that: complete dry stane structure (no mortar), deftly integrated to the bedrock protruding along the hillside.

After the Romanians, Galegos and English cleared innumerable tonnes of earth during our Mega May workfest we decided it was time to think about the roof. Manuel has worked with locally grown eucalyptus for over 30 years. He's the only one I have found around this area who is willing to work with this imported species. (Clearly eucalyptus is a problem from many points of view, something I need to research more and write about later, but I like the idea of taking it out of the hillsides, using it in our buildings, planting in native oaks and chestnut in its place).

These are massive beams: 30x20cm x 6m length. The wood is still green / wet, so it's mighty heavy. We moved it onto the land between six of us, with metal bars and ropes and lots of groaning. Nikita managed to avoid this toiling using school as an excuse... shows the scale of pieces.

A temporary stucture was built on scaffolding in the building and the beams manouvered into place. Amazing. Within half an hour these monsteres were fitted in place. Don't worry about the collapsing walls around them, Manuel assured me, you deal with that later...

A day later the whole structure was up: beams, rafters, tile battens, v-lux window from Edinburgh we'd freecycled before we left.

When we first arrived in 2008 it was almost engulfed in brambles, see left.

Monica getting physical with the brambles (before we encountered the strimmer / technosyth)

Kira and the remains of the distillery, and granite posts for pigs and vines and drunks.

Before tiles go on we had to bring the walls up to meet the roof, so Petrush and Ilie (Team Romania) used whatever stone we could find and some hydraulic lime mortar they are good at mixing to get 'er done.

Petrush mastering his rocky skills (OK I put in a rock or two there too!). West wall, before and after.

We hope to move into this place over the summer, while we're working on the main house; I'll need to point the walls with lime to keep wind and rain out and possible internal plaster for warmth. I think we're going to build a mezzanine floor to sleep up and leave junk down. A sink, a stove, a desk, a sofa. The front wall we'll build from timber and straw and clay. Mary and John gave us windows for each side of a door. An extension out front will create a porch area, summer sleeping pad. All for the future....

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Watermills thesis summary chapter 1. Resumo do tesis sobre os moinhos, primeiro capítulo

I finished my thesis on watermills of Monção last July. It's WAY past time to share some of the findings, ideas, issues.

Inspired by Derek and other folks who had helped with research and ideas during my write-up, I really should post more about the vast array of watermills here and the opportunities they represent.

Two of hundreds of watermills around Monção

So here goes, a brief synopsis of my year-long research for thesis, one day a publication in Portuguese I hope. The title pretty much sums up what I was looking at:
"Grindstones to Generators: Opportunities and options for watermills in Northern Portugal"

I guess I'll summarise chapter by chapter, following the flow of the doc., though ditching the dreadful moribund language that is unavoidable in academia. A thesis is supposed to ask a question, then attempt a thorough answer through research of existing literature, then some original research (cos someone else's research hasn't covered it yet), elaborate conclusions and deliver the answer. Simple in theory, a nightmare in reality.

My question was - and remains - this: Can the watermills of Monção and Northern Portugal be restored and used to generate electricity, and to be used again as mill stones, oil presses, etc. in a way that is profitable and viable? I say profitable here to mean that costs are covered, that, like in the past, the energy and finances invested are recovered through the services delivered by the mill itself.

OK, I'm gonna use this post to go through the introduction and first chapter which covers broader context of the study and little bit about the region of Monção in which the study takes place.

So, context: I'm looking at watermills in the knowledge of climate change and imminent global peak oil: the twin fossil fuel crises of our generation. Crises we can chose to ignore, deny or confront through profound changes in our lifestyle. Changes primarily related to less of everything: all that stuff made by the magic that is cheap fossil fuels and pollutes some part of the biosphere. In fact the scale of change, or transition as it is often called, is so vast and fundemental that I wonder if it is even possible. The vast majority of people in rich and poor worlds would certainly not vote for it, nor actively seek this approach. The change that is needed means an end to the economic model on which all rich industrialised societies have been constructed over the last few hundred years. No more growth economics, the launching of low carbon localised agriculture and manufacturing of all goods and energy systems. A reverse of globalisation. The beginning of an era of ecological agriculture that is unknown in the history of mankind - as discussed in this brilliant article.

In short, we're in deep shit and it's seriously unlikely we have the appetite or organisation to pull ourselves out in time. But we can still try, and every little helps. Every new person that is enightened to the destructive state of affairs of our mall-mentality world is another convert. Every ecological building site, every local garden (every school kid in an edible school garden project!) every attempt to produce heat and light from ambient energy is a step towards a viable alternative. Into this struggle against the tide of consumerism and profit, exploitation and pollution we place each of our efforts to live less harmfully.

It's into this context that I want to look at watermills. Once they enjoyed a pivotall role in local communities in Portugal - grinding flour for bread, pressing oil from ancient olives, milling local chestnut and oak for building homes. The former state of local roads meant there was no alternative - communities were self sufficient by necessity, and design followed. Unlike the feudal estates and fiefdoms of Britain - where community owned watermills were destroyed and folks forced to use the "Manor Mills" - people here in Northern Portugal seemed to have owned the land they live on for generations, centuries even (unheard of in Scotland!). Every village with even a tiny stream built as many mills as they could, allowing milling in every community. I've heard tell of rivers choked with fish feeding off the debris falling from these mills. Mannah from heaven - food for ever. (Until they brought in pesticides and fertilizers, and now most rivers are virtually fish-free and barren).

Rio Minho - Galicia (Spain) on the right, Portugal on the left. The Atlantic straight ahead.

First off, an intro into the geographical zone: Monção, a county in the far North of Portugal, sharing a rivery border with Galicia called the river Minho. With rainfall equal to central Scotland (1200 mm/ year) there is plenty water here. Watermills are found aplenty. So many were built in the last few hundred years that by the time I tracked down an old register of watermills (discussed here) I calculated that there used to be one watermill for every 30 people. Having created a database of the 660 odd mils registered in Monção (back in the 1940s) I transfered them to a basic map that I meant as a draft, which I forgot about until it was way too late. So here it is - the location (by parish (freguesia) within the county.

There are three types of watermills here:

First, the azenha, or vertical, low breast-shot wheel meaning that water passes underneath the wheel, but at a slight fall (thanks Nikita for this drawing).

There aren't many of these in Monção, and none I could find intact at all. They used to be located in the last kilometer of the Mouro river, a chunky tributory of the Minho, with an average flow of 4m3 per second.

Second, comes the Rodete, or Tub-mill. The water enters the tub through a slit on the side where the channel is built, and hits a cross of wood that is connected to the axle (which in turn directly drives the grindstone above). There is no bottom to the barrel so water passes through easily. The main advantage of these is that they can work underwater - when the river swells during winter this is useful.

Third, and probably the most plentiful in the county is the horizontal rodizio watermill, which uses a design that is used in Nepal, Palestine, Shetland Islands, Ireland and loads of other places. A design that has worked since about the 3rd Century. Here it is known as the Moinho de Montanha (the mountain mill).

I went to look at so many watermills in this county of , 40 times smaller than South Yorkshire in England, yet with over 663 watermills registered in 1941. That means there used to be one watermill for every 30 people around here. Impressive. But given the state of the roads in the old days not that surprising. Everything had to be produced and processed locally. How communications changes technology...

Next I looked at the history of horizontal watermills (as these make up the vast majority around here). There's some fiery debate raging about where they first emerged, but I sided with the voices that sounded most informed, as articulated in Bethold Moog's seminal work on this subject. Referring to various historians over the centuries he argues that the first watermill was indeed horizontal: obvious really as it's much simpler than the vertical type given the direct axle (no gearing needed from horizontal axle to vertical grinding shaft). He also shows that they most probably first emerged somewhere in China or the Himalayas (Asia Minor wherever that is).

It took centuries before European peasantry got their head around milling. We're told that it was the Romans with their famous engineering team who were responsible for adapting watermill technology and spreading it accross their pillaged nations. They also came up with gearing and vertical watermills.

It's interesting to see from Moog's map of the spread of horizontal watermills around Europe how many areas were left out: most of Northern Europe seem to have opted for vertical mills, while Southern Europe, Scandanavia, Ireland, NW Scotland and her islands went horizontal.

Horizontal watermill distribution around Europe. The shapes represent different types of blade form andwater channel design, which I have on a hand drawn page in anyone is interested.

Other watermill scholars (Lucas, et al, 1953) talk about how the emergence of the feudal system around the 10th and 11th century imposed regulations to prevent home-grinding of corn to ensure the monopoly of the centralised and taxable milling services of the Lords (the Lodge). Typical! And amazing to see how this never happened in Portugal, where every second family had their own mill. It seems this happened all over Southern Europe. Were the local lords too unorganised or just left-leaning liberals? In any case, the vertical watermill with its higher power output clearly went on to become the "workhorse of European industry" until the industrial revolution.

So that's more or less it for the first chapter summary. Next installment looks at how power is generated from water, different types of hydro turbine and which could be most suitable for traditional watermills. I may need some prodding to sit down and actually get it out there...