Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Not another night on the tiles …

Today’s progress on the roof … highlighting the asymmetry of the building. I’m very glad now I decided to stay with the original schist roof covering. Not only for the beauty of the natural stone, but because regular tiles would be a nightmare to lay and would end up looking pretty silly.

Roof progress to date

Entire roof now planked

The whole process of renovating this building is evolving into an intriguing journey. The challenge has been to come up with a design that results in an energy-efficient, comfortable, low impact building that can cope with winter temperatures down to minus 10°C or so and summer ones peaking in the low 40s. A potential 50°C+ temperature variation is quite something to accommodate.

I could create a hermetically-sealed, watertight, hyper-insulated cocoon, of course, but aside from the practicalities and expense of creating that out of a rather random round-pole timber and dry-stone schist building which has no front wall on half of it, it’s always felt diametrically opposed to the way to go. A building needs to live, breathe, interact with its environment, just as its inhabitants do.

To begin with, I had all sorts of ideas involving enlarging, raising, straightening, knocking doorways though walls here, adding windows there, constructing an internal staircase … but for some reason I couldn’t quite visualise the end result, something I usually don’t have too much of a problem with. And if I can’t see something complete in my head, then it can’t even make it to the drawing board, let alone get off it. Either that, or I couldn’t quite feel the end result sitting in this landscape, no matter how many hours I spent back in Scotland playing with Google Sketchup, merging in background photos, constructing minutely-detailed CGI replicas of furniture and fittings, etc, etc.

In permaculture, there’s a saying that the problem is the solution. As time has gone on, it’s become more and more apparent that the ‘problem’ – the lack of communication between each room and the absence of an internal staircase – was only a problem of my preconceived notion of what a building should be: a self-contained bubble isolated and insulated from its external environment. As soon as that notion was released, I had the solution.

It became clear that the building is perfect as it is.

It doesn’t need holes knocked in its stonework, weakening its structural integrity and creating substantial areas of unusable space in each of its rooms. It has two perfectly good external staircases and 3 of the rooms already have doors. Externalise the communication pathways, and not only do you have a usable structure, but you are forced into continual communication with the external environment. Every time you leave a room, a dialogue with the natural world becomes inevitable.

I really like this idea. I like it because I know how easy it is to get seduced into the seclusion of these structures we create and to forget the natural world even exists. And I really like the idea, without being able to put my finger on quite why, of turning my conception of a building inside-out. I think it has something to do with the inside-out back-to-front way we look at the world. Somehow mirroring that reality in the construction of a house serves as a constant reminder of the contingent circular logic underpinning the construction of our everyday ‘reality’.

Front of the building

Front of the building

But back to the practicalities …

Fine in summer of course, but what about winter when there’s frost on the ground or when it’s bucketing down with rain? Won’t the place be prohibitively resource-intensive to heat with the heat disappearing out of the door every time you want to go to another room? Won’t it be a pain in the ass having to put on outdoor clothing every time you want to cook a meal, have a shower, go to bed? My solution to that was to consider building in (with a temporary structure removable in summer) the external staircases and a corridor across the front of the building, but still I couldn’t quite see it; the details were too vague and the devil’s in the detail.

So I dropped the idea of a ‘winter skin’, and suddenly I could see the building complete. I realised that putting this extra layer of clothing on the building was far more work, far more expense, far more challenging, far less efficient all round than its inhabitants putting on an extra layer of clothing to go to another room. All we have to do is keep the rain off, which is easily achieved.

The longer this process has been going on, the more I’ve come to feel there is some kind of dialogue here. Between me and the building? Between me and the land? Between me and a wiser part of ‘me’? Between me and some suprapersonal level of consciousness? Who knows? Who can tell? I certainly don’t and at the end of the day it’s immaterial (in all senses of the word). Somewhere within the continuum of consciousness there’s a dialogue-like process going on …

But whatever this is, it feels like the building is only letting me see it when I’ve got the ‘right’ vision of it: how it wants to be and how it wants us to inhabit and use it. Every time I get stuck in a loop trying to resolve design, construction and engineering to make my current idea of it fully visualisable, I end up having to think laterally instead, usually dropping a conditioned conception and always working towards greater and greater simplicity.

Moving away from centrally distributed systems like heating and plumbing towards stand-alone solutions of far greater efficiency, with an end result (if my projections are correct) that should work out being less resource-intensive, not more. A bit extra physical work on the part of the inhabitants, perhaps, but it’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that all our modern conveniences somehow have to be paid for, and earning the money to pay for them occupies a disproportionate amount of our time and energy, not to mention the wider implications our western lifestyle has for the environment.

The KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

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