Permaculturing in Portugal

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

The saga of the communal building

It’s been a while since I posted about progress on the main building. More than 3 years, in fact. You’d think in that time it would be finished, but no …

This building – what will eventually be the communal ‘hub’ of the quinta – has presented me and those who’ve worked on it with a lot of challenges. Many more by far than anything else on the quinta. As a task master, it’s been strict and demanding. As a critique of workmanship, it’s been uncompromising. With a relentless insistence, it’s defied attempts to make do with ‘good enough’. Any work that’s fallen short – either by me or builders working on it – has been slapped back in our faces and has had to be done again. I don’t even want to think about the cost, but it’s been far more than budgeted, both in money and time, and it’s still a good way from being finished.

By turns it’s puzzled and confused me; dismayed and depressed me. For a long time I simply couldn’t understand why everything to do with it should have to be so difficult, especially when everything else was going so well. What was I missing? For nearly two years (while waiting for work to be completed and then redone … yet again …) it seemed like too much to give headspace to and I simply turned my back on it and got on with other projects.

The communal building when we first saw the quinta

The communal building as it was when we first saw the quinta

The building started life as a single-storey stone shed with a gable end facing outward towards the village and a back wall and floor hewn out of bedrock. The dry stone work isn’t the best. It was turned into a 2-storey construction with a single pitch roof sometime later. Better stonework this time, but perched on top of inferior work, the front wall has found its own logic over time. At a later date again the building had a freestanding back and side wall added to one side of it at a different angle to the existing structure and the whole was given a single pitch roof.

It wasn’t as if this slightly ramshackle wedge-like assemblage was even an attractive or otherwise remarkable building. If anything, the opposite.

The communal building when we first saw the quinta

The slightly ramshackle assemblage

I had no great pretensions for it either. It seemed appropriate to keep with its strictly utilitarian construction and ambience. As the quinta’s communal building – a place for everyone staying here to meet, eat, learn and hang out together – its remit was basic and functional. As soon as it was wind and watertight, simply furnished and with a working kitchen, the work would be done. I didn’t want to spend precious resources or much creative energy on a building which would experience a lot of wear and tear and probably not a great deal of care.

Easy, right? Yet the build was fraught with problems.

There were blunders made by builders who I didn’t expect a lot from. There were blunders made by builders who I thought knew much better. There were builders who couldn’t/wouldn’t admit to their mistakes. There was an interminable amount of waiting for things to be put right and an ever-increasing bill for materials which had to be bought all over again. There was work on the interior which had to be redone because of water damage from a leaking roof. The door and window frames and doors were no sooner made than another carpenter had to remake them. And I still have to complete the relaid roof the last builder left without finishing …

The communal building with first balcony addition

The communal building with first balcony addition. This was just a simple wooden construction. The main load-bearing beam failed within a month

The communal building with second timber-framed addition

The communal building with second timber-framed addition. A far better standard of construction …

The communal building with second timber-framed addition

… and a far better aesthetic. This remains a glorious piece of work, not to mention a hint of things to come

I guess it’s not an uncommon experience for first-time self-builders/project managers. There’s certainly no shortage of horror stories around. It’s been a steep learning curve, but more in terms of learning about people than learning about building. Building materials and methods are pretty straightforward. People less so. One thing I have learned is that everything is always my fault.

The roof

This was one of the major errors.

The slate roof goes on

The images show the slate roof on the grey water-processing greenhouse extension going on for the first time.

The slate roof goes on

Although the roof was counter-battened, 50mm depth of cork insulation was laid between the battens which, once the membrane was laid, meant the slate battens were fixed onto a flat surface.

The slate roof goes on

Effectively, this created a series of check dams. Any rain getting through the slate – which it will, especially on a roof with a pitch only marginally over the minimum recommended for slate – couldn’t drain off the roof and could only escape through the slate batten nail holes in the membrane and find its way randomly into the interior.

This one causes me to kick myself the most. It didn’t make sense to me at the time but I held my tongue, figuring the builder must know what he was doing even if I didn’t. Not trusting my instincts on that occasion cost me an extra couple of thousand in materials and over a year’s delay, not to mention a ruined friendship.

Thankfully, this phase seems to be coming to an end. The roof has been relaid, and although we’ve yet to have rain enough to thoroughly test it, the rain which makes it through the slate can escape into the gutters now without penetrating the membrane.

There were some errors measuring for glass (my fault again!) and a big double-glazed window panel waiting to be fixed in place blew over when a freak gust of wind came through the door (my fault for putting it there), but for the moment, things seem to be going well.


The energy started to change last summer while I was waiting for the roof to be redone. The carpenter who came to fix the window and door frames was excited to work on the building and was full of creative ideas. His enthusiasm drew me back into engaging with it again. While this was going on, I went to the opening of an exhibition of sculptural metalworking and as I shook hands with the artist, Latifa Sayadi, a vision of the balcony with railings jumped fully-formed into my head. A couple of questions to Latifa, a bit of work with Photoshop to get the vision into a form she could work from, and suddenly the building was entering a whole new dimension.

The balcony railing on the communal building

Commissioned artwork on a building which was supposed to be purely functional?! This completely turned things around. It also took precious resources that could have been spent on the purely functional and caused me no end of internal debate. Nevertheless, if I know nothing else, I know to do as I’m told. Failing to act on internal promptings had already cost me enough.

The balcony railing on the communal building

Balcony railings created by Latifa Sayadi to the building’s own design (well if it jumped into my head fully-formed, it sure as hell wasn’t mine …)

In the process of reimagining the door and window frames, it also became clear the building wants an artistic contribution from me. So there will be 2 carved wooden panels either side of the balcony doors. In realising this, I was reminded of something I’d set as an objective all those years ago when we first came here (and which had been achieved in the cob bathroom) – that of taking sculpture to the level of buildings. I haven’t done much sculpture since. I guess it’s time for some more.

Now I realise what’s going on with the building, instead of fighting it, I’m helping it be what it wants to be. Not that there’s much choice in the matter anyway. In retrospect I can see the projects which have gone well have all been realised through dialogue with the space they occupy and the materials used, just as all my sculptures result from a dialogue with the stone or wood I’m carving.

The communal building patio

But this was such an unassuming building I never even thought to ask. Who would have imagined such an ugly duckling harboured dreams of becoming a swan …?

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  1. Cyril Wilson August 10, 2017

    Trial & error; end result? Beautiful!

  2. Martine August 10, 2017

    Hi there,
    I am so happy and relieved to hear from You. Have been so worried about You with the fires over there and could not find you anymore in my FB. Sorry to hear that so much has gone wrong but good to hear that things are getting better.

    Warm Greetings,


  3. Quinta do Vale August 15, 2017 — Post author

    FB link :-)

  4. Angela Dalton March 24, 2018

    The buildjng looks amazing. What a transformation. Hipe it brings many happy and productive times for you and your visitors. Angela

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