Permaculturing in Portugal

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

Of winter heat and summer cold

With all the clearing work we’ve been doing in the woods, there’s now a need to get all the firewood-to-be under cover to season well before use. The log store we’ve been constructing next to the main building at last has its roof – a patio area – complete. We just need to relocate the things presently occupying it – like the washing machine – which, as is the way of these things, ideally requires completion of another couple of stages in the project beforehand.

Log store patio roof under construction

Log store patio roof under construction – membrane goes down on screeded roof

Log store patio roof under construction

Schist slabs being laid

Log store patio roof under construction

Log store roof complete and low walls for seating under construction – there will eventually be a fire pit in the centre of the patio

This store will provide about 12 cubic metres of firewood storage space plus room for a workbench and tools. The wood stored here will be used primarily for the rocket stoves in the kitchen and bathhouse/greenhouse, so another storage area is needed for wood for stoves in the upstairs rooms. This dovetails nicely with the final stage of groundwork and construction needed to keep the main building dry and to provide space for a toilet, a connecting corridor between the upstairs rooms and hanging space for outdoor clothing and footwear.

So the next project is to construct a lean-to roof, along with natural drainage, along the back of the building. A lean-to roof with a difference. We plan to take it right out to meet the slope behind the building, varying the pitch as necessary, and cladding it (after waterproofing) with straw and a light covering of topsoil as a growing medium. It will be left to seed naturally with the pioneer plant species – mostly carqueja (Genista tridentata), wild lavender (Lavandula stoechas) and various heathers – that thrive in the thin dry soil on the slope above it, eventually resulting in a roof that’s almost indistinguishable from the surrounding hillside. So really neither a turf roof nor a green roof, but a living, growing roof nonetheless. Minus brambles and pine seedlings though …

Back of the house

Slope behind the house cleared of mato and brambles

Back of the house

View from the other side

Two days ago, the first day of January’s waning moon, we cut some poles from the few eucalyptus trees we have growing in the woods. Apparently if eucalyptus is cut during January’s waning moon, it has much less tendency to split and twist as it dries. Although most of the eucalyptus grown in Portugal goes to make toilet paper, it can make an incredibly strong building timber if it’s seasoned carefully and kept away from any source of wetness. It’s also naturally resistant to the indigenous wood-boring insect population, so this is what we’re using for the framework for the back roof. We’ll be using the poles in the round, as we have elsewhere in this project.

Eucalyptus poles, freshly cut

Eucalyptus poles, freshly cut

Eucalyptus poles, freshly cut and stripped of bark

7m eucalyptus poles for the main beams, stripped of bark

To minimise the chances of the poles splitting at the ends – the end grain dries fastest – we’ll be painting the ends with diluted PVA to slow the drying process. (A handy tip thanks to Jonny from Quinta das Abelhas, the newest member of our now 4-strong part-time construction team.) As it happens, the ‘ecological’ wood preservative we used for the main roof timbers contains PVA, so is ideal for the purpose. The time of year is also on our side as we have another 3-4 months or so of slow drying in cooler temperatures and moister atmosphere before the summer heat hits us.

Eucalyptus poles, freshly cut and stripped of bark

All the poles stripped

Eucalyptus poles, freshly cut and stripped of bark

Wood for a roof, and all harvested from our own woods!

Eucalyptus poles, freshly cut and stripped of bark

Burning the bark

Once the roof is completed, I’m intending to insulate the back wall of the house externally. The building gets no sun at this time of year so we have no possibility of utilising passive solar gain. In some ways, this actually makes designing for the extremes of temperature here much simpler. The rear walls contain by far the greatest proportion of total wall area in each upstairs room, roughly equal to all the other walls combined. External insulation allows their thermal mass, together with the dividing wall between the upstairs rooms, to be used for heat storage in winter, conserving the heat we generate from the woodstoves for as long as possible. This will significantly improve winter comfort levels and energy use in the building and, with internal insulation on the remaining outside walls, prevent walls at ambient temperature from sucking all the heat out of the room. Anyone who’s lived in an old stone house without adequate insulation will know this only too well …

In summer it works the opposite way round, keeping the building much cooler, especially with the benefit of the solid rock back walls and floors on the ground floor.

I’ve looked at various natural insulation materials and focused on ‘slip-chip‘, or wood-chip light clay. It’s a flexible material with good insulation properties and a wide range of possible ways of using it. We’ll need to experiment to find the best application method – either plastering it directly into and onto the stonework or pouring into reed mat forms fixed to roof timber supports – but the raw materials can be sourced very locally and very cheaply, if not for free. A final coating of lime plaster will provide a breathable finish, and a more durable and harder one than clay plaster (which will be used internally) in an area of heavy traffic where the walls are much more likely to be frequently knocked and scraped. A smooth white-painted wall will also enhance natural light levels in the corridor, which will be lit in daytime by 2 litre clear plastic soda/water bottles filled with water fitted into the roof.

Being out of sight under the turf roof, the insulated and plastered wall won’t detract from the external appearance of the building’s traditional schist stonework either.

Well … that’s the theory anyway. No doubt I’ll stumble on many things I haven’t thought about yet along the way …

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  1. Andrea January 13, 2012

    Interesting tips re the timing of eucalyptus chopping Wendy, thanks.

    Re the bottles in the roof, will they not become brittle and degrade rather quickly with the sun?

  2. Quinta do Vale January 13, 2012

    Good point Andrea! I’ve looked at a few YouTube videos and these bottle lights are all installed in hot equatorial countries – Brasil, Philippines, India – yet no mention of degradation. In Brasil they put old 35mm plastic film cannisters over the top of the caps to stop them degrading, but the bottles …? PET is susceptible to UV degradation, so you’d expect them not to last. Hmmmm … away to do some more research on the subject … Thanks!

  3. Quinta do Vale January 13, 2012

    After looking around for some information about this …

    According to the people who are running the Philippines project, “This is a young project … For now we are saying this PET bottle can last more than 5 years. You may have to change the water every 5 years.”

    So now thinking about how I can install these so they can be easily and simply replaced but still remain watertight …

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