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For renovations to the existing dry stone agricultural builings (built to house pigs, sheep and goats and store the produce of the quinta), we’re recycling and reusing existing materials as much as possible, working with traditional building techniques – both local and from other traditions – and sourcing materials as locally as possible.

The idea is to adapt our lifestyles as much to suit the existing structures and legislation applying to them as the other way round. For more on the subject of reconceptualising our shelter, see New construction below, and this blog post.

Greywater processing greenhouse extension to the communal building

Greywater processing greenhouse extension to the communal building

We’re working with the existing buildings substantially as they are, with alterations focused primarily on making them wind and water-tight, comfortable in all seasons and weathers, and resource-efficient. Where possible we’re designing in synergistic functionality which extends usability, adds flexibility, contributes to resource efficiency and confers a greater degree of autonomy in building systems by closing some of the resource use loops involved.

A lot of fancy words to describe a general principle, but what do they mean in practice?

We’re looking for opportunities to meet as many challenges as possible within a single elegant and cost-effective solution, while avoiding as far as possible boxing ourselves into any corners. That might involve some compromises on our part, but humans are generally much more flexible and adaptable than buildings.

For instance …

  • building the roof out over external staircases either side of the communal building results in no loss of internal space to accommodate staircases, and the dry stone walls are sheltered from driven rain and summer sun
  • installing a bathroom in the geodome greenhouse provides humidity and irrigation from grey water, while the greenhouse helps heat the water for the bathroom
  • closing off the open half of the communal building with a glazed extension adds grey water processing capability, winter food growing, passive solar heating and classroom space

New construction

We’re exploring a more distributed, decentralised idea of ‘house’ here: partly because of space limitations in the existing buildings, partly because of their questionable status within existing planning regulations, partly because of the appeal of the concept itself, and mainly because we want to develop the quinta into a demonstration site hosting workshops and courses as well as being our home. This creates a need to balance privacy considerations with utility and the ability to cater for larger numbers of people.

The interior of the wee house

The interior of the wee house

The communal/social functions of a home, together with classroom-type space, will be grouped together in the one building, but the more private spaces like bedrooms, bathrooms, etc, are/will be dotted all over the land in the form of small natural buildings and more temporary/seasonal structures. Essentially the whole farm becomes part of the ‘house’.

It’s a very flexible arrangement. ‘Rooms’ can be added and removed or repurposed as required. Everyone has their own personal and peaceful space that’s detached and distant from the communal space. Buildings are either temporary or small and, despite requiring more materials in aggregate, can be constructed sustainably from natural materials mostly sourced onsite in easy bite-size chunks. Larger numbers of people can be accommodated in summer with the addition of seasonal rooms in the shape of tents and tipis.

There’s also flexibility to create synergistic relationships between rooms, like the bathroom-greenhouse combination mentioned above.

And eventually we hope this logic convinces the planning authorities to create a category somewhere between a conventional dwelling and an agricultural storage shed that allows for a more sustainable and fully legal built environment to evolve. I believe it’s easier to convince people of that logic when they can see and experience it for themselves, so I’m pursuing the somewhat risky path of building first and asking permission afterwards. Our local municipality has shown itself to be pragmatic enough to recognise good ideas when they see them, so hopefully the dialogue can continue.

The wee house kitchen

The wee house kitchen

This arrangement of living space does mean there are times when we have to leave a cosy warm living room and step into the teeth of a gale to go for a shower or to bed, but that’s actually part of the point – once this way of life becomes ‘normal’, then the teeth of a gale becomes a perfectly acceptable thing to step out into. Just another natural phenomenon doing its thing in the corridors of the ‘house’. It blurs this conceptual separation we have between ‘home’ and ‘out there’ until eventually it ceases to exist.

The cob bathroom

The cob bathroom

The fires

The inventory of damage from the devastating fires of October 2017 is extensive but fortunately not total.

The wee house and kitchen at Quinta do Vale after the fires of October 2017

The wee house and kitchen

A volunteer caravan at Quinta do Vale after the fires of October 2017

The volunteer caravans

The second volunteer caravan at Quinta do Vale after the fires of October 2017

The cob bathroom at Quinta do Vale after the fires of October 2017

The cob bathroom

  • The wee house and kitchen were destroyed.
  • One volunteer caravan was completely destroyed and the other had its windows melted.
  • The cob bathroom was damaged – one half of the roof will have to be replaced, a wall reconstructed and a window replaced – but it remains useable.
  • The geodome greenhouse was burnt out but the framework is still intact.
  • The communal building escaped with a couple of cracked windows.
  • The yurt and poultry coops survived unscathed.

The buildings were all uninsured because none of them were finished and I’d been told I couldn’t get insurance on unfinished buildings. The Portuguese government compensation payout amounts to less than €5,000 against losses of around ten times that amount. With the wee house and caravans destroyed, my plans to start running courses here in 2018 have had to be revised.

But we will find a way. We will rebuild. With the help of donated materials and volunteer/student labour, we will put this quinta to rights again. If you’d like to come and join in, or help out from a distance, please see the Support us page.