Permaculturing in Portugal

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

New bathrooms and toilets

Our first courses here in 2019 revealed one or two significant weak spots in our infrastructure. +/-20 people onsite for 6 weeks can do that.

We realised we needed to increase our toilet capacity. Particularly our worm toilet capacity.

Bucket-based dry toilets, Joe Jenkins’ ‘Humanure’-style, are brilliant but it doesn’t take 20 people very long to fill a 20-litre bucket. Couple that with a reluctance on the part of the female participants to freely fertilise the fruit trees with the goodness of their bladders and the resulting maintenance at a very busy time starts to become onerous, not to mention sloppy and messy. Add to that the familiarity and hence preference for a flush toilet and you end up with a situation that’s … well … shit.

We had to rescue the worms from being completely inundated by digging out the surplus in the worm tank and hot composting it. I did not want to have to do that again. If we were to continue running courses here, which is very much the intention, additional toilets had to take priority for the next year despite other building projects and pressures.

Why worms?

Or perhaps more to the point for many fans of dry toilets, why flush toilets?

Primarily because it’s stacking functions. A solid permaculture term. It simply means that where you have the opportunity to design multifunctionality into a single system, it’s a great idea. Nature does it all the time. It’s highly efficient, but often in a different way to human mechanistic concepts of efficiency.

So aside from having worms take care of our waste, cleaning black water and producing volumes of high-quality compost for very little extra input on our part, we can engineer a system that also provides irrigation to areas that need it but otherwise would not get it. At least not without running plastic irrigation lines everywhere. It means we can extend tree systems to dry parts of the quinta and grow trees which would otherwise fail to thrive on these dry slopes.

For more on why we use worm toilets here, see our site dedicated to open-sourcing the technology.

Two new toilets and a shower room


Similar construction methods were used for both buildings. All the materials were sourced onsite or very close by: the timber was from our fire-burned trees, the windows and toilets from the local rubbish dump, the wall materials from our existing stash of clay together with Acacia dealbata shoots from neighbours and dried grasses harvested onsite, the bamboo floor for the shower was from the quinta’s bamboo. The only things I needed to buy were plumbing and electrical fittings, the worm tank and plastic for the roofs.

Given that these buildings are constructed on slopes and the walls begin above ground level so their full weight is supported by the timber framework, I wanted to experiment with a lightweight wall construction. I figured a light clay straw mix – a clay slip coating on straw – but used as a daub on a wattle framework rather than pressed into formwork, might do the trick. It worked a treat! The organic material works its way easily into the weave of the Acacia wattle and the clay sets well with no cracking or shrinkage.

The first wall to be completed towards the end of summer 2020 was the south-west facing wall of the bathroom and shower block. Circumstances meant we were unable to take things further before winter set in. I was a little concerned as this is the weather wall of the structure, but the winter rain, wind and storms left it untouched without it even getting damp, let alone any clay washing off or anything sprouting. There is a great advantage to large roof overhangs.

Coats of plaster and finishing details are still required for each building, but that’ll be a project for early summer 2022 now … though people keep pleading with me to leave them as their hairy selves. We’ll see … I think I’d like to plaster the insides at the very least.

North slope toilet and shower

We started the construction of the new toilet/shower block during the last course of 2019, creating the framework for the building in round pole timber on a steep, north-facing slope. At close to 45°, these slopes are only suitable for growing trees but they make fine locations for structures which then don’t take up space on the precious flatter land. Creating buildings amongst the trees also gives each its own microclimate, ambience and privacy. Of course it also makes them vulnerable to fires, but I would sooner lose them and build them again than I would create something out of concrete and blockwork.

The toilet and shower block got off to a good start in the 2-week Natural Building course. We didn’t come anywhere near to finishing it within this time frame but got far enough with the toilet that we could run the final day of the course as a Vermicomposting Toilet workshop to install the worm system.

Work continued on the building in 2020 and into 2021 – sporadically, since lockdowns, travel restrictions and family emergencies made for a lot of difficulties for would-be volunteers and us alike – and we finally had it ready for use with just days to spare before the start of the courses this year.

The bamboo floor in the shower evolved mainly as a response to limited timescales, but it turned into a most elegant and simple solution. Water simply drains straight through the floor into a mulch pit which provides moisture to the surrounding area. The floor is built to be easily replaced if the bamboo doesn’t last.

Hot water for the shower, basin and bidet are provided by 200m of 32mm black pipe on the roof, installed as one continuous system over the two roofs. The system holds over 100 litres of hot water. Enough for a few showers.

Main building toilet

In addition, we built a whole new structure close to the main building (convenient for the classroom) starting in May of 2021 and finishing within 2 months to be ready in time for use for this year’s courses.

By the time we got to this building, all the nice, reasonably straight timbers had already been used and we were left with bananas. Fortunately, there were two matching bananas – lengths of roughly the same diameter and curvature – so we were able to use these on the downhill side of the building such that they formed braces for uprights since they were too curved to work as verticals in their own right. It worked. This is part of the fun of building with natural round pole timbers. There is a large measure of making it up as you go along.

This building got a steep, double-pitch roof. It made sense. With such a small footprint, a single pitch roof, though simpler to construct, would have been hard to give a pleasing aesthetic. And having full height between door and toilet would also made sense for our taller guests.

The doors were something of a fiddle. We soon realised after salvaging them from the dump that even though they were the same size, they weren’t a matching pair. We had two left doors rather than a left and a right. Such are the challenges of salvaged materials. We still managed to make them work.

We went into 2021’s courses with a total of 5 toilets: 3 worm toilets and 2 bucket-based dry toilets. Surely that would be enough?

I’m happy to say it was! Through another 6 weeks of courses, all remained calm on the toilet front.

Big thanks go out to the original 2019 course participants and all the quinta’s amazing volunteers who worked so hard with me on these buildings! You know who you are!

Variations on a theme

These new worm toilets are both constructed according to the open source design pioneered here back in 2014. Anyone familiar with the system will know that one of the most important parts is to insulate the worms from high summer temperatures. Temperatures over 28°C will kill them, and although they are somewhat insulated in the centre of an IBC tank full of organic material with a regular dousing with cold water, it’s crucial to protect the tank from direct sun.

Time pressures, lack of materials and site limitations meant that the construction of stone-built containers for the worm tanks, as we did for the first version of the system, weren’t feasible. So it was an opportunity to experiment with different structures. Or even none at all.

One tank is located directly underneath the toilet building itself, half buried, and hence shaded by the structure. The other is surrounded by wooden cladding and roofed only with shade netting. We’ll see how they perform over the first year of use. So far, so good.

These images are from the Vermicomposting Toilet workshop in 2019 when we installed the worm tank for the toilet and shower block.

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