Permaculturing in Portugal

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

Slow your roll

There is a saying about building. There is ‘good’, there is ‘fast’ and there is ‘cheap’. You can have any two.

This time last year I hired a local team of builders to put up a balcony and trellis on the main building, finish the schist facing stone on the log store, and re-roof the small building. I knew their work – many foreigners locally have had them turn schist animal houses into habitable structures – and it’s generally reasonable enough for the price, though you get what you pay for. I figured if I didn’t throw too many unfamiliar techniques and materials into the mix they couldn’t go wrong with a simple wooden structure. The main rationale was that they had ready access to the sizeable amount of chestnut timber which was needed to construct the balcony, and which we were struggling to lay our hands on, but in truth I was also succumbing to the frustrations of slow progress.

Finished balcony and trellis

Well I got ‘fast’. And I got (relatively) ‘cheap’ …

It wasn’t long before we spotted a problem though. Well actually quite a few, but one critical one. The central beam perpendicular to the house which carries most of the weight of the structure wasn’t up to the job. Had it been in the round (or even had it been braced), I doubt there would be such a problem, but it’s a sawn piece – a quarter of a substantial chestnut trunk – and as a sawn piece has nowhere near the same tensile strength as timber in the round. Within a couple of months, it was clearly sagging under the weight.

Sagging central beam

Sagging central beam

We factored in plans to replace it, but this week realised that some more drastic action was required.

Wayne, who has been away in the UK for a month and therefore had the benefit of a break in continuity here, was the one who noticed it. The beam was sagging more. And what’s more, there was a crack developing. Not only was there a crack developing, but there was a wet part and a dry part to the crack. The wet part would have got wet the last time it rained. And the dry part must have opened up since. The last time it rained was Saturday.

Crack in the sagging central beam

And we had no acro jacks to hand.

Fortunately, there were some lengths of eucalyptus left over from the rear roof. Although it doesn’t stand up to getting wet very well, eucalyptus has enormous compressive strength, so was the perfect timber to use as temporary props.

Eucalyptus props for sagging central beam

It’s just as well that the next item on the construction list is closing off the open wall of the building. And even more fortunate that I had a change of original plan to one that now involves dismantling most of the balcony to reconstruct it in a different way.

Not a ‘cheap’ experience then. But a ‘good’ way of finding out that ‘fast’ is easily the most preferable, if not always the easiest, element to sacrifice in the building equation.

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  1. Rod Moody June 17, 2012

    Hi Wendy
    Your name was given to me by Magnus WolfeMurray as someone who may be able to help me, so I hope you don’t mind my contacting you in this way. Let me explain…

    I’m a retired engineer and am hoping to build a small waterwheel to drive an electrical generator. I’m quite passionate about this project and really need an all year round flow of water and I would need to create a waterfall of 2 to 3 Metres where I would position the wheel.

    It would be something of a research project, and eventually I would hope to have people visit. I would be building it from scratch and am not particularly looking for a property that has / is an old watermill, although such a property may well be the best and only solution.

    My preference is to find a small place in need of renovation for around 20,000E or less. Although if the perfect place, not needing major renovation came along I could perhaps run to 80.000E.

    I would want to renovate the property myself, grow some vegetables and fruit in an eco-friendly way, and have a wood burning stove and solar hot water. An isolated location of scenic beauty would be added advantages.

    The property would be my place of residence while building the project and thereafter to visit regularly from my home here in the UK (York)

    I am coming to Portugal in my Ford Focus, and am now booked on the ferry that arrives in Santander on 15 August. I am booked to go back on the same ferry on the 15 October, so I will have plenty of time in Northern and Central Portugal to search for the ruined water mill of my dreams!

    I would be really grateful for any help or guidance you could give me in finding a suitable place.

    Every blessing

  2. Quinta do Vale June 19, 2012

    Hi Rod. There’s a fair bit of potential in the mountains of Central Portugal, though for guaranteed year round water you’d probably need to be on at least a small river which tends to mean much less head. Though if you only want to create a 2-3m drop then that’s not too tall an order. The rivers locally have mills every few hundred yards and the people who built them knew the land and sited them well so likely your best bet would be looking for an old mill. I don’t personally know of any suitable places for sale in your price bracket but I could put you in touch with local agents when you’re here. In the meantime you could do worse than to keep an eye on websites like Pure Portugal which lists properties for sale by both agents and private individuals. If you’d like to visit for a more in-depth chat when you’re here, you’d be very welcome. It may even be possible to visit some neighbours who are in the process of renovating a local mill. Keep in touch.

  3. Rod July 5, 2012

    Hi wendy. Thanks for your reply and helpful advice. I have been keeping an eye on quite a few websites, including the one you mentioned, And yes – I think I need to be looking for a watermill ruin. I am in touch with several agents including an Isabel Alves in the North. However the best potential seems to be in Central Portugal and I have had a very positive responce from Gois Property, so I will be heading down that way after spending some time in the North.
    Thanks for your kind offer to visit for a more indepth chat – I would very much like to do that sometime soon after the 15 Aug. (perhaps the 16th, 17th or 18th) Is this the best way to keep in touch? I take it you have my email? How will I find you?
    Every blessing

  4. Quinta do Vale July 5, 2012

    Hi Rod. Probably easiest to email direct since this conversation is nothing to do with the above post. Contact details on the Contact page.

  5. Rod August 12, 2012

    Hello Wendy
    Some days ago I sent the message below to your email on your contacts page but I have not heard from you so here it is again (My email is

    Hope you remember our conversations of a month or two ago. I’m the crazy guy who’s looking for a watermill or a property with a waterfall to build an electrical generator. I’m in Portugal, traveling by car with my 18 year old grandson Alex for all of September. I’ve made all sorts of contacts and arrangements to look at potentially suitable properties, and it looks as though its going to be a pretty exciting trip! I would like to accept your kind offer for us to meet, and am hoping that Sunday 9 September would be ok? I have a meeting with Richard of Gois Property in Gois on the 12 September, so I hope to stay in your area for at least five days, and perhaps longer.
    Please could you let me have:
    Your phone number
    Skype address?
    Directions to find you (Lat/Long coordinates would be great)
    Advice on nearby campsites or other accommodation
    Kind regards and every blessing

  6. Quinta do Vale August 20, 2012

    Hi Rod. Sorry for the lack of response. Have sent you a reply. I’ve had a total virtual meltdown – both computer and external hard drive are currently inaccessible – so never received your email or comment until now.

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