One family’s attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way
|• Basic facilities||• Growing things|
|• Building renovation||• Sanitation|
|• Energy generation||• Water|
We purchased a 5.8m Mongolian yurt or ger which arrived in the UK at the end of January 2009 and was delivered to Portugal by our intrepid (and recommended) man-with-a-van at the end of April. While buying a yurt from Mongolia might be considered extravagant, particularly with the embodied energy in its transportation from Ulaanbaatar to the UK and then to Portugal, it feels important to acknowledge a major source of this most excellent design of living space and give something back to a culture and way of life that's dying out under economic duress created by the ubiquitous spread of western values. (See Byambasuren Davaa's film Cave of the Yellow Dog.) Ulaantaij, the company manufacturing the yurts, have a sound ethical basis, source their wood from sustainable forests, and support Mongolian social programmes.
They also make really beautiful yurts in traditional style.
Before erecting the yurt, we built a wooden platfom to keep it off the ground. This makes a huge difference to the longevity of a yurt in the much damper European climate. The challenge with the platform is to construct a solid raised area for the yurt to sit securely on while allowing easy drainage of rainwater runoff. Wooden platforms that extend beyond the circumference of the yurt itself can allow water to pool and lead to damp and mould problems, so we cut the platform to the size of the yurt after it was erected.
We used old tyres (free from a local garage) filled with rammed earth to make the pillars for the platform and preserved the joists and underside of the floor timbers with used engine oil. Not only does this seem to be one of the most effective treatments for preventing insects attacking the wood (which can be a big problem in Portugal), they don't appear to be interested in setting up home anywhere near it either. The upper surface of the platform is preserved with linseed oil.
To prevent wind and rain driving underneath the covers at platform level, we tacked a skirt of plastic about 1m wide around the circumference of the platform, and folded this up between the felt and inner canvas layers. Although this does reduce the breathability of the walls, if the yurt is inhabited there is no problem with allowing evaporation of any dampness into the yurt interior which is then taken care of by natural ventilation.
This proved to be a wise decision given the enormous amount of rain which fell in Portugal in the winter months of late 2009 – early 2010. Despite all our precautions, the sheer amount of rain meant that water eventually soaked through. The only solution in such situations is to make sure the yurt is constantly inhabited and a stove kept running to dry it out as fast as it gets wet. Even so, the felt and inner liner were constantly wet at floor level throughout the winter and early spring. No permanent damage appears to have resulted though.
We also had problems with the door and door frames swelling. By mid January 2010, neither outer nor inner doors would close properly. They dried out during the summer months, but for the following winter we built a porch to protect the entrance and have had no problems closing the doors since.
The latest adaptation is to cover the yurt with shade netting. Perhaps surprisingly, it's not so much the rain that causes problems for the canvas covers as the sun. The strength of the Portuguese sun in summer causes the canvas to rot and covers can last no longer than 2-3 years if not protected.
Initially we used a camping stove and the heating stove in the yurt, but needed a better solution for accommodating volunteers and visitors and for more varied meals. An outside kitchen was created behind the smaller building, which will be for volunteers and visitors, featuring a cob oven and wood-fired stove. Another kitchen is planned for the main building. We'll be experimenting with solar cookers too.
At the beginning of 2010, we were aiming to have a solar-heated shower and washing area up and running as soon as practicable.
When Chris and Emma, and then Chris's brother Michael, decided to come and join us for most of 2010, all of that took a back seat. With our 'volunteers' renting accommodation down in the village (including shower and washing machine), the pressure was off to provide these facilities at the quinta. With their return to Scotland at the beginning of 2011, we had to get back on the case again.
In January we managed to divert an old
machine from the village on its way to
the lixo, and with a few runs of hosepipe were able to set
up a working
arrangement in the unfinished log store. It was fine for a temporary
solution but the amount of electricity and water the monster
consumed meant we needed to find a better solution by the time
winter came around again. Several of us living off-grid locally got
together and made a bulk purchase of some twin-tub washing machines.
This is much more economical to run and very much more flexible than
an automatic in how we use it which suits us fine.
Work on creating an outside solar shower began at the end of May 2011 and this saw us through 2 summers. At the end of June 2012, we started construction on a cob bathroom to give us year-round facilities with a wood-fired water heater for winter and a solar collector for summer. We started using this even before the walls were built and, after allowing the cob to thoroughly dry out following a very wet winter, completed plastering and floor-laying in summer 2013.
See the Sanitation project page for more details.