“…unlike birds, for instance, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds” “…the architectural style of the capitalist era… the compulsive sense of order and the tendency towards monumentalism evident in law courts and penal institutions, railway stations and stock exchanges, opera houses and asylums, and the dwellings built to rectangular grid patterns for the labour force” “(whereas)… domestic buildings of less than normal size – the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lock-keeper’s cottage, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children’s bothy in the garden – are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace” W. G. Sebald
Finding and making your own place, so every time you leave and return it always feels like coming home, isn’t easy. We spent thirty odd years trying to solve that, during which we must have lived in about twenty different geographical zones, experienced a whole range of building types, and visited many more of both.
In an attempt to simplify the problem we started by making a list, of all the criteria considered essential. Both for the site, and house. The last thing we wanted was to put all our resources into something which had something fundamentally wrong with it, just because we hadn’t made enough effort first. This was added to and amended as we went along.
Knowing where to look wasn’t easy (and still isn’t) either. We started pre-internet, so the only thing you could do then was go and visit every possibility. The design of the house was a similar problem, few books existed then. We started by the old-fashioned way, by seeking an architect, albeit one who knew something about natural buildings. That was our first big lesson, putting all our faith in someone else that they knew better. Even now, 16 years later, I have yet to meet a single architect who has the slightest idea how to build a space to live in. For them it’s all about the exterior. We also wanted it to be done in the cheapest way/ taking up the smallest footprint/ and be as healthy and sustainable as possible. I doubt there is a still a single architect who could do all that, let alone knows what it means.
Having discarded the architect option then, we moved on to the next possibility, designing it ourselves. I don’t know how many years it takes to become an architect, but once we discovered books like Lloyd Kahn’s seminal work SHELTER (0-89815-364-6, in the now sadly defunct Compendium Bookshop, Camden Town, London), it was clear this wasn’t going to be anywhere near as hard as we had imagined. Amazingly, SHELTER is still in print, and now there are two even better sequels as well – HOME WORK (0-936070-33-1) and TINY HOMES (978-0-936070-52-0), both by the same author (with another, featuring El Pocito appearing in the Autumn of 2016). All packed with photos of wonderful houses, mainly built by the owners, often without any previous experience or skills, from the 1970’s onwards. The true classic reference however, which I discovered by chance misfiled in what used to be the best library ever (Leeds Central – Reference & Art), is PATTERN LANGUAGE by Christopher Alexander et al (0-19-501919-9). This copy had been lying on the shelves unloved and unread for over twenty years before I liberated it, yet contains all the practical advice you’d ever need. Not only in terms of layout, but how each kind of space functions best, incidentally predating Feng Shui in the UK by several decades and making far more sense. There is also a section on how to design outdoor spaces.
Our next break came with hearing about a novel self-build project in nearby central Leeds (Chapel Allerton). The construction of three Walter Segal houses. This is a system devised by Walter Segal, who in a more enlightened period (the 1970s) worked for the London borough of Lewisham and came up with the original idea of getting prospective council tenants to build their own homes. The experience was then developed for anyone to use by a charity set up to promote it.
The three families who were building these were not only using his method but taking it one step further, by incorporating as many natural and ecologically sensitive features as possible. Though when I first visited the site there wasn’t anything to see as work hadn’t actually begun. This proved providential, because it turned out one of the owners (Harriet Walsh) was looking for volunteers, and that’s how I ended up working there for nearly a year, helping to build her house. It was an experience unlike any other, and I recommend this to anyone who is thinking of self-build (or training to be an architect!). Totally unlike convention building it begins with the construction of the whole basic structure first (there are no foundations), which is formed on the ground first, flat, from massive lengths of timber in much the same way as barns in the USA. Then lifted (using a giant crane) and secured together with bolts, followed by the floor joists to make it semi-rigid. The roof comes next, then the walls (which finish the strengthening process). That was the first stage, which took no more than a few weeks, after which we had a weather-proof shell to work on the rest. None of those involved had ever done anything like this before, yet it all seemed really straightforward. The most important aspect being able to measure accurately. Because even on a scale as big as this (a three-storey building) a few millimetres out anywhere can make all the difference, and I still haven’t forgotten how to check everything three times before sawing, or how to test for squareness. You also have to be super-fit. This kind of work needs an endless supply of raw physical strength and plenty of stamina. Not only to haul the huge pieces of timber around, often single-handedly, and (it seemed) always across a very muddy and uneven site. But to drill/ saw/ nail/ and bolt for hours on end, day after day, whilst bent double/ perched on a ladder/ balancing on a beam/ or wobbling about on the roof. And as I said, for the majority of the time, in the worst sorts of weather. Winter was particularly awful, always below-freezing, wet, and often snowing. Made much worse by no proper provision for somewhere warm to go and thaw out, or adequate kitchen to keep us sustained with hot drinks and meals. No conventional toilet facilities either. I have never felt so exhausted and drained. But at least I did get to go home each night, whereas Harriet and her family were stuck there, camping out in a temporary caravan. At one point the standpipe (our temporary connection to the mains) froze and we ended up melting snow to make coffee. And this is having spent the previous ten years working outside all year round – planting trees/ digging ponds/ assembling polytunnels/ hauling tons of gravel – and still it wasn’t enough preparation. On top of that there was also the issue of safety. For even though there were rarely more than two or three of us working there at any time, the potential for getting hit/ cut/ or crushed seemed to be endless. Even kitted out in all the right gear, including a proper hard hat/ work gloves/ and steel-toe-capped boots, I still managed to slip off the upper floors twice, get hit by tools and materials falling from above, and electrocute myself. Any of which could have been fatal or worse. Add the financial pressure of self-build and no time off for months, even years, this not surprisingly didn’t become our system of choice.
Over the years that followed we encountered many more claims for the perfect self-build, and natural/ ecological construction. Including: straw-bale/ a wooden pyramid/ adobe/ adapting shipping-containers/ yurts/ tepees/ earthships/ even a family who’d literally burrowed into the side of a hill with a JCB. None of which actually turned out to be anywhere near as easy/ healthy/ or cheap as claimed, but did at least teach us two things: what to avoid, and that progress (anything “new”) is not better. In fact, when you take into account the true total cost of providing and maintaining a home, plus its functionability/ healthiness, our species has been making the whole process worse with each new idea. Our best period, without question, was the three million years up until 10,000 years ago, the only time when we really could be considered self-sufficient/ sustainable/ and healthy. Then finally, having seen everything on offer, we found the best alternative. Tried-and-tested/ natural/ where the majority of materials required could be found on-site and for free/ and makes all the rest seem ridiculously overworked and unsustainable. We had even lived in several examples, without realising it, in Galicia/ the Alentejo (Portugal)/ and Andalucía. The typical traditional systems of building.
In Galicia the houses are made from piedra (stone/ granite). Either using huge boulders, arranged dry-stone fashion, or carved into blocks, like massive Lego bricks. The roof/ floors/ windows/ and doors made of sweet chestnut from the local forests (as it alone can cope with the wide range of temperatures/ humidity throughout the year). Thatch or shingles of stone covering the roof. And typically a very basic and small two-storey dwelling. The upper floor used for sleeping and cooking, the lower for livestock. In the Alentejo, where the geology is totally different, the most readily available material is shale, and this is used in a way called taipa, which basically means rammed earth. It has a much lower weight-bearing capacity, so they build only one-storey, and narrow/ long, a series of linked rooms, including one for the livestock. Both are the perfect combination of sustainable/ natural/ healthy/ energy-efficient/ and affordable. The thick/ solid walls (typically 2-3 ft deep) have excellent thermal and acoustic qualities, so it never gets too hot or cold, a small woodstove being all that you need to heat the entire space in winter. Roof insulation is made from the local cork. Humidity is effectively zero. No chemicals or artificial materials are used. In fact the only niggle we could find was with the windows, which have to be tiny, so let in very little natural light. But that was easily solved, by replacing some of the roof tiles (which are terracotta these days) with glass ones. The quality of light shining from above is also a lot better, with the additional bonus of solar gain in winter (shaded by a blind in summer).
And this was going to be our choice. Until we discovered how hard it was to find anyone with the relevant building experience/ how much it was going to cost to use them/ and the number of years we’d be kept waiting until our application passed through all the interminable and corruption-riddled planning stages that local government is endlessly creating to cream off the maximum amount of extra tax revenue. Explaining why all new buildings are made quickly and from the vastly inferior method of poured cement/ cheap cinder blocks. As I just said, it sounds crazy but building standards have not got better. Even just twenty years ago there was none of this petty bureaucracy, no-one dictating what you can or can’t do, no exorbitant fees or backhanders to pay, the quality of the materials was consistent (and free), similarly all the labour/ expertise was provided either by your own extended family or neighbours (who would expect in return no more than the same assistance when they needed it). All of which left us in rather a quandary, as we’d already by now spent nine precious years of our life searching, so what next?
In the end it was quite simple. We stuck with the traditional system, but instead of building a new house, shifted our focus to finding an old one and recycling/ repairing that. Adding substantially to the initial cost (of purchase) and making it a lot harder to find, but thereafter a lot easier. That’s because we were now working within a whole new set of rules, those for renovation. The other bonus was as the house would already exist (in some form), so we could move in straight away and do the rest of the work ourselves at our own pace/ when funds allowed.
Leaving just the small issue of where to find this mythical plot/ ruin. The original idea had been for a site of around ten hectares (24.7 acres). This sounds really big, doesn’t it? More like a farm than a garden, especially after having only an acre in Yorkshire. But it isn’t really, not when it could be only 316 m across (from your neighbours). Also this is (depending on many factors) what we had calculated for two people to live sustainably, as in feeding ourselves (from foraging)/ keep warm (coppicing)/ plus have all the other materials needed for a self-sufficient life.
There wasn’t anywhere in the UK we had found remotely like that, so we started looking further afield. Ireland seemed promising, but after a visit turned out to be far too wet for us. Galicia is very cheap, but the winters proved too long and wet. Portugal is wonderful, that is apart from the stark landscape and monoculture of eucalyptus and pine which has made it into a desert. Canada was easily the best, it has everything and more, but it was the one place that would not allow us to live there. Then thankfully we came across Andalucia. Still not nearly as perfect as we had hoped (apparently you can’t have everything), but with enough to make us feel able to put down roots at long last. And at exactly the right time, as our meagre capital for purchase had dropped significantly over the nine years we had spent searching, and suddenly we found Spain in a deep recession.
What we didn’t know though, that even our exhaustive research failed to reveal, was that you can’t get it all right (and this applies to anywhere in the world). For example, the regional capital Huelva, which thankfully is 120 kms south of here, has another name – “the dustbin of Europe”. Franco, in his infinite wisdom created (alongside famous Nature Reserves) an industrial complex which until recently was allowed immune from all environmental controls, manufacturing and polluting without restriction. There was also a nuclear fire there in 1998. The town of Nerva has an international toxic waste dump. All well away from here, but for a while was depressing news when we had hoped to find the last unspoilt place on the planet. Still, compared to all the other places we have visited in the last 16 years this remains the most lush/ natural/ and healthy/ and happiest place to live.
We also had to scale down the amount of land we had hoped for, to just 2.5 hectares. Mainly because this was all we could afford, but providentially also turned out that while 5 hectares per person may be the most sustainable amount of land for our species to occupy, it is only possible to physically manage one hectare per person. Again, a question of balance.
THE HOUSE INSIDE (and there are more photos on my facebook page)
Basically it’s just one big room (42m2 – 6m x 7m/ 19.6 feet x 22.9 feet), with no internal divisions apart from in one corner (1.5m x 1m) that has been partitioned off by two low walls, currently serving as our larder. The benefits of a single space being we can endlessly change the use of the area for kitchen/ sitting room/ bedroom/ and office. There is plenty of natural light (at least one window in every wall and two skylights in the roof, though two more of the latter would have been even better in hindsight). And heating the entire space requires just one small wood stove.
When we began the renovation, by knocking out the existing three rooms/ an enormous fireplace/ and low ceilings, there was more than a worry whether it would work without divisions (particularly from a structural point of view, supporting the roof for example), but it turned out fine. Especially the utilisation of vertical space, by building the bed up on a platform, creating valuable storage underneath. All in all it’s the best home we’ve ever had.
Here are some photos of the gutted space, and our three-month winter campsite while the work proceeded, including an outdoor kitchen.
THE WALLS are made from large pieces of stone (all found on-site), faced inside with a layer of local brick. On top is a skim of local cal/ cement, and together it is thick enough to keep the temperature inside cosy throughout the year.
THE ROOF is mostly constructed from recycled materials. The pole frame (sweet chestnut) came from a house in Valencia, on top of which have been laid chestnut planks/ insulation/ topped off by locally salvaged tiles.
THE BED PLATFORM
This took me an age to design and build, all done by guesswork and hand tools. Total cost: 130 euros (about £110). Turned out very sturdy (unlike the IKEA version) and taught me a lot for future projects. The plans are available as a free download below.
I had no idea this subject was so complicated, or important to get right. Our previous experience had been in the often freezing/ snowbound remote countryside of North Yorkshire, and our comparative wealth then had left us thinking we knew all there was to know. But just to show our ignorance we then spent the next nine long winters (travelling) without any heating at all and discovered it gets just as cold everywhere else in Europe and for about the same length of time, despite being a lot further south. So even here we need some kind of heating. The question was what?
Our first mistake was to copy what we had before, by simply installing a wood-stove.
This seems the most environmentally sound and sustainable answer, but it fails to address the biggest problem of keeping warm, especially in conventional European housing design today. That of insulation. Most houses simply lose all that precious heat through the walls/ windows/ doors/ floor/ and roof.
First you need to make the house as warm (and cool in the summer) as possible without any heat. You can never have too much insulation. I’ve seen a roof here with one metre thick of the stuff, and in the summer last year when it reached 50C outside, indoors remained at a cool 20C. For that I suggest a material like cork. For the walls, they simply need to be built as thick as possible (again up to a metre if you can afford it), from natural/ breathable materials. Same goes for the floor. Windows should have as close to the same thermal efficiency as the walls, so as a minimum should be triple-glazed or with a large air gap, plus where they fit to the walls insulated too. Perfect fitting internal shutters (of wood for example), for use at night, will also increase the insulation factor dramatically. Exterior doors should also fit snugly without any draughts, as well as have a second door to the interior, the space within being a buffer-zone for heat loss/ gain. The ideal solution being opening out into a greenhouse that is constructed along the entire longest south-facing side of the house at be at least 3 metres deep.
Installing an EARTH TUBE should be mandatory. This is a 10cm diameter tube that is buried under the floor (it’s opening near the heat source), then runs 30 metres from the house (downhill if possible), buried 3m below ground, coming up into the air at the other end. This uses the ambient temperature underground to cool/ heat an air-change in the house which otherwise would be nigh on air-tight. In the summer it is pumped through with a solar fan, in the winter drawn by convection.
The actual heating (which despite claims of owners with passive-heated homes, cannot be achieved by body-heat alone or sunshine, even here) should still be a wood-stove. But please NOT one like in the photo above (the type we settled for). This model, a HERGOM (the major spanish brand) is probably the worst-designed and least efficient wood stove ever. Nor even a Scandinavian brand, aka the very best being made from cast-iron, like a MORSO or JOTUL, which are rated as high as 80% efficient. Because there is (and has been for generations) something even better. The (Finnish) MASS OVEN or ROCKET STOVE. Which is built using firebricks, and so efficient will stay warm (and heating) for up to 24 hours on the same amount of fuel as the Scandinavian designs. They also can incorporate an oven and heat water. As well as being a lot cheaper, self-built. Facebook hosts many groups with designs/ courses/ and help.
Operating any wood-stove is an art, each brand and location with its own quirks. General rules are the same though:
– use thin logs (30-50cm) rather than thick.
– all types of wood give off the same amount of heat, when measured by weight.
– the longer the wood is allowed to dry out the better.
– a thick bed of ash is a good thing.
– recycle surplus ash in the compost heap.
– if you do resort to buying a cast-iron stove NEVER allow it to heat up quickly, this could crack the casting.
– use stainless steel for the flue.
– sweep through at least once a year, more if there are any bends in the flue, and fit an access point to facilitate this rather than going through the stove itself.
And finally, the perfect primer for learning all about heating with wood:
One of the reasons we chose to buy El Pocito was because there was no mains available or possibility of being offered it in the future. Why? We wanted to be free at last from EMF radiation, the risk to health that is inherent with living near pylons/ power cables/ and house wiring (and now wind farms). We also reckoned it would be a lot cheaper to generate our own. The full story is on the alternative energy page. But briefly what we have now is the most basic set-up possible. To buy new, the cost being around 1000 euros. Comprising:
– two solar panels, each rated at 50 watt 12 volt DC, wired to generate 100 watts at 12 volts,
– one 12 volt DC car battery, rated at 250 Ah,
– a charge controller/ regulator.
– and a 220/ 240 volt AC inverter to enable us to run conventional appliances.
What this can do on a sunny day (Andalucia has an average of 300 of them a year) is recharge our battery (for evening use) within an hour, then be available for appliances up to a maximum of 50 watts, for as long as it is sunny.
Originally we used only candles for all our lighting, along with a couple of FREEPLAY INDIGO wind-up torches (bought during our camping/ restoration phase). The candles were crap at giving out enough light to read by, even with the double mirror wall-holder I subsequently made, as well as expensive during the winter months (20 centimos each). Then we found a 12 volt ES27 fitting 11 watt energy-saving bulb. This wasn’t a much cheaper option (it cost about 20 euros), but the light given off was a lot brighter (though still not enough to read by) and the energy used (relatively) free. 11 watts is also still a lot of power in the winter months, when it could be on for 3-4 hours a day and not possible to recharge the battery for up to two weeks. It also had a really cold-blue hue.
Last year we added a LED USB rechargeable lantern. This is for the kitchen and especially the dark mornings. I don’t like bright light first thing and this only shines far enough to work by. I am really happy with it. Used on the lowest setting, which is more than bright enough, recharging is done via a standard cigarette lighter fitting to the battery (which can also charge many other types of USB devices), and takes about an hour once a week. Made by GOAL ZERO, rated up to 250 lumens, and the name is LIGHTHOUSE 250 LANTERN. Cost: £40 (including postage).
Since then I’ve been trying to find a LED 12 volt ES27 light-bulb to replace the 13 watt energy-saving type in use up ’til now. You wouldn’t believe how hard these critters are to come by. In 240 volt AC, no problem, but for that you need an inverter and why waste precious energy running that when it can be done direct off the battery? There was one, bought in a rash moment on e-Bay/ China, costing only cost £3 including postage, but typically it lasted only a week (another reason why we should all boycott chinese products).
Now however my hunt is over. Thanks to Ken Harbour at OnSolar Ltd – http://onsolar.co.uk who saw my earlier posting about this and got in touch. They have actually gone to the trouble and expense of developing a LED bulb just for off-gridders, and are now distributing it. Called the A60 LED FILAMENT BULB. It runs on both 12 volt and 24 volt systems DC. Mine is ES27 fitting and rated at 6 watts. Looking exactly like an old incandescent bulb and giving off a very clear warm white/ yellow light. Perfect for illuminating an area of about 4m x 4m to read by. And at the same time feels really homey, totally the opposite of the cold blue light of energy-saving bulbs. I heartily recommend checking them out.
The most important resource to get right, when living off-grid, is having your own source of unpolluted/ healthy water, along with enough of it all year round (approximately a minimum of 50 litres per person per day) to cover every eventuality.
Yet when we bought El Pocito there was none. Nor at the time (along with all the other things that needed to be sorted out) did we have the slightest clue how to go about it. That was our biggest mistake, because we ended up doing what everyone else does here, having a borehole drilled (more on that in a moment), and relying totally on that. It was also a shameful waste of a natural resource that would could have been harvesting for free: rainwater.
Rainwater is not suitable for drinking long-term, it doesn’t contain enough essential minerals and can actually deprive the body of what is missing, but in terms of total daily water needs it can supply up to 90%, which means the borehole pump is used a lot less (typically once every few months), sufficiently not to ever require replacement. The major cost of RH is the storage facility (at least 30,000 litres), the rest is cheap and easy to maintain/ repair (a filter to remove debris/ connection to the roof guttering or other collecting surface/ and a cheap 12 volt on-demand pump to take the water to the house).
(note: 1,000 litres of water = 1m3 of storage = 1000kgs in weight)
Getting a borehole drilled is complex. Starting with the ten month wait to get permission, during which we had to bring all our water in from a spring in town, in 25 kg containers (4 of them each day = 100 litres), the last half kilometre by wheelbarrow. We were lucky, apparently the process can drag on (like all spanish bureaucracy) for up to two years, and then still get refused.
For the application you are required to present the regional authority (Diputacion) with an extremely comprehensive and technical document (saving them the cost of having to do this themselves, though they probably still employ the staff anyway) in order that they can decide whether it is okay for you to extract water where you are. Obviously this has to be done by an accredited engineer, who in turn makes a very nice sum for very little work (ours cost 600 euros). Any additional information they may or may not choose to ask for after that has to be submitted in person, involving us in a 340 km round trip each time, of which there were many. Failure to comply with their demands terminates the whole process and you have to go back to the start all over again. By the time our acceptance letter finally arrived the file of correspondence had grown to three inches thick and we had aged noticeably.
Drilling followed that. We were very unlucky with this, because at that time there was only one local firm doing the work in this area (we think he frightened anyone else off), though this has changed since, and he charged us not only by the metre (cash of course), regardless of whether water was found (nor did he offer any way of finding out beforehand), plus an unspoken minimum drilling depth of 60 metres. Water was struck at 30 m.
The machines used were huge. A converted JCB did the drilling part, and an even bigger vehicle contained the mobile compressor/ power unit to run it. Both of which needed good access and a flat working site. El Pocito is not like that. It is reached by a very rough 2-3 km forestry track, then the land itself is almost all vertical, so not surprisingly they didn’t bother to look for where there might be water but just parked at the gate and got on with it from right there. This took two days (one of which was spent finding a replacement drill bit after the original one shattered), during which we were deafened for hours on end and everywhere was covered in a thick layer of rock dust. From the stories we’ve heard since we were extremely lucky it all went so smoothly.
After that came the installation of a suitable pump and all the necessary above-ground work to get the water to the house. A world we had no previous experience of whatsoever, obviously. But then neither did anyone else it seemed, because we ended up with a system that is probably totally unique in Spain. The storage tank for example. This we calculated to be big enough to see us through the driest of times, but it continued to grow bigger and bigger as we waited for delivery. We originally had wanted the same kind of tank as everyone else, which looks like a large and ancient swimming pool, except imagined the cost of building one (plus subsequent maintenance and evaporation) would be too much, so took the advice of our plumber and plumped for a purpose-built fibre-glass sealed one instead, the same kind of shape. Somehow this though ended up as a brick-built water tower instead, approx 2m wide and 3m high, with the fibre-glass tank inside, holding 5000 litres. Though later discovered all the local builder’s merchants do 1000 litre tanks, which we could have much more easily bought as we needed and joined together. This one came direct from the manufacturer, in Sevilla (120 km away). It was so big a low-loader had to be used, and that in turn couldn’t negotiate the forestry track, so the driver just unloaded it on the side of the road and drove off. Where it remained until the local builder’s merchant took pity and used their (ordinary) lorry to bring it up the rest of the way. It couldn’t go through the gate so the lorry’s crane swung it over the fence instead. This was providential, because it also turned out to be the only place on the land high enough (above the house) to create sufficient working pressure using gravity alone, negating the need for a pump. The difference is 11 metres, creating 1.1 bar, which is low (mains is usually around 3 bar), not high enough to use a shower (if we had one), but fine for the two sinks and the drip irrigation system. The brick outer skin was built to keep it cool in summer/ from freezing in winter (which it does), but Maureen had also planned to finish it off with a facing in stone (from the mountainside of material on the land), to make it blend in better and increase the insulation even further, that still remains to be done.
Eventually the total cost proved to be more than the traditional tank/ swimming pool but we think it is the better solution.
Connecting everything up was done using 50 m x 40 mm pipe from the borehole to the tank and 50 m x 25 mm to the house. The labourer helping us was supposed to bury all the pipes (to keep the water cool) but we later discovered he hadn’t and it all had to be done again.
Water is brought up by a submersible pump (SHURFLO 9325 – 24 volt DC) which is powered by two solar panels (each 80 watts each and wired to run at 24 volts instead of 12). This part of the installation was the most frustrating. The pump had to be replaced even before we started, when it was accidentally dropped by the plumber and shattered. The original mounting for the panels (which we bought from the installer) fell to bits in the first week, so I made a new design (see drawing). The float-switch in the tank, put there to control the pump automatically (though the panels still had to be moved by hand), kept malfunctioning. This was finally replaced with a simple switch in the house. And three years after searching for a device that would tell us how much water was in the tank, I came up with the inspirational idea of installing a pressure gauge in the kitchen instead.
It all took a hell of lot of time, honing, and heartache, but now is working perfectly. The strangest thing though is now the trees are growing again, the water-table has been rising higher and higher. There are water indicator plants at the very surface of the borehole, so it seems we could have probably got away with a lot less depth or even digging a traditional well. There is certainly no worry of ever going dry here, even if it were not to rain for an entire year.
The actual pumping is best done in one burst. I choose first thing in the morning, when the sky is cloudless, the temperature cool (solar panels do not function as well when hot), and the movement of the sun is slowest so less regular alignment needed. Our current use of water is 50 litres of water a day (for two people), so pumping is once a week (though there is enough storage for 100 days), and this takes about 80 minutes (the pump running therefore at 4.5 litres a minute).
If you are thinking of installing a similar system make sure you use 3M SCOTCH tape (TEMFLEX 2151 self-bonding rubber) when tying the cables together and making electrical connections for the submersible pump. It’s designed especially for low voltage applications and underwater. And make sure to tie the three sensors too (used to stop the pump running dry), firmly to the cable/ pipe bundle, as they have a tendency to get ripped off when removing/ installing the pump.
Ideally, there should be a back –up pump too, for which I would like to install a hand pump. However I gather this is a very skilled process, so if you know of anyone with the relevant experience please get in touch.
There still isn’t any hot water on tap. Not a problem, but a frustrating omission given we have all this sun at our disposal. It should be possible to organise something very simply/ cheaply, but so far I haven’t been able to work it out.
My first idea (MARK I) was to lay another run of 25 mm black plastic pipe from the storage tank to the house, but this time above ground. The exposure to the sun thus heating the water inside. Fine in theory, but basic physics dictates that heat rises, so the hottest water would be heading in the opposite direction, uphill, back to the tank, then continuing to heating the rest of the cold water too. Also it’s not a healthy idea to heat water in plastic pipe, the potential exists for releasing carcinogenic chemicals.
MARK II was a different approach. Instead of hot water on demand, why not just heat a specific amount for when you need it? This we were already doing during the winter with a kettle on the wood stove, so why not create a solar version for the summer? According to the internet it was simple. Well it is, if you have a workshop/ tools/ and access to the necessary free raw materials. Here it has not been that easy. More like reinventing the wheel actually. The most effective form is a parabolic reflector. This looks like a satellite dish, and when angled/ tracking the sun, focuses it onto a very intense spot (rather like a magnifying glass). Thus increasing the temperature from warm/ hot to literally burning, apparently the same output as on a conventional hot-plate. To make one though requires precision and highly-reflective materials, which is why they cost upwards of 300 euros to buy readymade. Much cheaper and easier is to construct a solar oven instead. This is a different idea. An insulated box with a glass-top, which is heated by means of a mirror. And that was how I started. My first idea being to utilise a stainless-steel washing-machine drum, as it not only revolved (on the drive spindle), but was made from a highly-reflective material. A good idea but fatally flawed by being impossible to cut or drill with hand tools. So then I started from scratch. Using a 2m x 1m sheet of galvanised steel (costing £6)/ a sheet of glass I had/ some fire bricks/ and the spinning mechanism from an office chair. Galvanised sheet is wonderful, it cuts like card/ drills & files easily/ doesn’t rust/ and with a chrome polish the surface can be brought up to an almost mirror quality. It took me no more than an hour to put something together (see photos below). Getting the reflector to work took several versions, until in the end I couldn’t think how to improve it any further. For heating water it was fine, almost to boiling, and we even cooked biscuits with it successfully. But it didn’t function anywhere near as well as I had hoped. And it wasn’t for lack of sun, the problem was the reflector design and quality of that material. The parabolic version uses ultra-thin aluminium sheet which proved impossible to find locally. Its surface area is also many times greater than the one I had made. Also, over the winter I discovered condensation had permanently destroyed the polished surface of the galvanised steel. Then I came across Trev’s site, and that inspired me to try something else. His idea, unlike any other cooker I had seen, used off-cuts of mirror. And by the time summer came around again I had MARK VI ready. It utilises the same base and oven. All I’ve done is take off the reflector and made a new and bigger one from wood and mirror, including a far better adjustment system. The additional cost was £10. So how good is it? Well it still isn’t a cooker, but for heating water a marked improvement on the earlier versions. I’ve also discovered some fundamental truths about solar cookers generally. Like: the importance of the outside (air) temperature – anywhere below 20C and none of them work. Between 20C and 40C the oven might reach between 70-120C, but probably no more and certainly not enough to bake with. The angle of the sun (and I’m assuming clear blue skies here) – is critical, the hottest time is when it at its zenith (directly above) and significantly drops off either side of that. And the amount of water you are heating – a 5 litre saucepan of water will take a lot longer than 1 litre. Where you live – anywhere more north than 38 degrees latitude and you can pretty much forget solar (even conventional roof-top water heaters). They are also going be totally useless outside the summer months. At the time of writing this (July, 2014) the maximum outside temperature is 40C and the oven still only reaches 120C, so nowhere near useful for baking. Cooking anything else is a problem too, as the temperature fluctuates so much. Maybe someone who has already worked all this out could get in touch.
Not a lot to say about this part of the house, as there is hardly anything in it you would normally expect. Just a small butane cooker/ stove we had in the van (the kind used in caravans/ boats), with two rings/ a grill/ and oven underneath, and which for the last 16 years has been sufficient, plus very economical on gas. There’s an industrial-type stainless steel sink, freestanding, with space on one side for draining dishes/ food preparation. And that’s about it. No other workspace. No electrical appliances.
What about a fridge? Well for the first 13 years we did without (not easy when the temperature indoors can reach 30C), then I saw an article about a zeer, which is not a fridge as such, but cools things down to around 20C. Working on the principle of evaporation. There are models you can buy, but they cost around 100 euros (incl. delivery from India). This one was 25 euros and constructed from two large terracotta flower pots, one fitting into the other and separated by a layer of sand. Standing in a saucer, which is kept filled with water. I was very sceptical at first whether it would work at all, but it does, with reservations. Whatever you place inside has to be able to deal with the humidity it creates, so vegetables/ bread/ anything without a glass or plastic wrapping, will go mouldy.
There isn’t one, no toilet either. Nor do I have any plans to install them, despite the experience of Maureen’s illness. Why? Because it all still seems a waste of money and valuable space compared to the system I use currently. Though I haven’t always thought like this. Before we left the UK, we were planning to do the whole eco grey-water treatment and composting toilet thing. I’d been to see loads, read all the books, gone on some pretty intensive residential courses, and even worked for the local water authority in sewage treatment, so had plenty of hands-on experience. But the sum total of all still led me to the same conclusion, that all these systems, which we are assured make waste water and sewage safe, are a con. They don’t. Even the eco ones. There is only one way to do it properly, and that’s to follow nature’s example. The unique combination of not putting anything into the mix that isn’t 100% natural, plus rain/ sun/ and micro-organisms.
So this is how it is done here:
– nothing is brought in to the site which can’t be recycled/ compost ourselves.
– not a drop of water is wasted, especially with a conventional toilet/ shower or bath.
–the whole composting toilet thing, which turns out to be a rather bad attempt to duplicate conventional facilities, generally doesn’t work, and often ends up being a cause of pollution, is short-circuited. Instead we adopt the direct and far more natural approach. Peeing is done into a bucket and at the end of the day added to the compost heap. Poo, squatting, on another receptacle (bowl or potty), into which a layer of water or wood shavings has been added first (the latter is available free from carpenters), after which the contents are upended straight onto the compost heap. Cleaning the receptacle afterwards is simple, requiring no more than a quick rinse under the tap. And that’s it. To be honest I had more worries about this than any other aspect of off-the-grid living, but it’s proved to be fine, no disasters whatsoever. It’s also as comfortable as the usual pedestal arrangement, with a squatting position allegedly more efficient for eliminating toxins/ plaque (which otherwise causes major health problems, or as one practitioner explained – fat people are literally full of shit). Plus we get to do it out in the fresh air (on the patio), so no odours, and with this amazing zen-like atmosphere of nature all around. The only difficulty we had at the start was finding the right size bowl(s). It has to be small enough to fit between your feet, and deep enough to deal with the worst scenario. My current one is circular, 28 cm wide by 12 cm high. Oh, and you don’t need to use toilet paper either, because the bidet experience can be had simply with another bowl of water to spritz in.
There’s no shower or bath either. Instead we use a bowl, into which the juice of a lemon has been added, filled with about a litre of nearly boiling water and topped up with just enough cold to prevent scalding. This is placed on the floor in front of another larger bowl which you stand in to prevent flooding. Using a mitt or flannel, rub/ washing the entire body, starting from the top and working down (cleanest parts first). Finished off by emptying the water into the bowl you are standing in to soak your feet. No rinsing required. Five minutes tops. All of which probably sounds terribly unhygienic and primitive, but having done this for sixteen years now there have been no complaints, and it is as effective as conventional washing/ 100% non-toxic/ all the body’s essential oils are retained/ hair & skin stay softer/ and it’s a hell of a lot quicker and more pleasant than any bathroom we’ve ever been in.
WASTE (GREY) WATER
In the summer the waste water from the kitchen sink is diverted into a series of large buckets just outside, located conveniently next to the plant nursery area. Before entering the buckets it has been filtered with a mesh to remove bits, then ready to use with a watering can directly on the plants in pots each evening. A job that takes no more than five minutes. In winter the pipework is simply changed to send it down to our large pond, planted with reeds where it is cleaned it naturally. Attested to by a large colony of frogs and dragonflies.
There has only been one problem with the waste water, and this has been a regular build-up of grease in the pipework, causing blockages. The cause is not enough hot water entering the system to flush them through. However it is a simple job to clean, thanks to having designed it so there is no more than 4m of pipe between access points. A job that takes about 15 minutes and is only necessary once a year.
One of the projects for the future is a pre-cleaning pond, before it goes down to the main pond. This is not essential as such, but would add a useful cooling/ passive heating feature in front of the house. Also provide a habitat for the many frogs/ toads/ lizards/ snakes/ wasps/ flies/ and bees that currently seek water in the various bowls and plant saucers we have. And while I am on the subject of encouraging natural diversity/ habitats, if we have managed to live without the need to use products that aren’t totally biodegradable, why can’t industry be forced to make this the standard too? If it was there would be no pollution and no need for waste disposal sites. Meanwhile we all still have a choice, so buy ONLY biodegradable products.
Until now we’ve managed without. It’s not been perfect (especially in the winter), though over the last sixteen years we have honed it so the job takes no more time/ water/ or detergent than a machine. The only niggle, as I say, has been during the winter when the water gets so cold there is a real risk of frost-bite. At first I tried using rubber gloves, but they were neither thick enough to keep out the cold, or durable to last more than a couple of weeks before disintegrating. Then Pauline came up with fishermen’s gauntlets used by her neighbours in Shetland, thick pvc jobs which are big enough to wear woollen gloves under. These are perfect at keeping fingers safe from the cold, but a bit difficult to peg out with. Now though there’s an even better solution. Thanks to a YouTube video sent by my good friend Dennis in Galloway.
It showed how with just two buckets, and a rubber sink plunger, you can have a proper washing “machine”. I’ve found it wasn’t necessary to use two buckets, but in the photo you can see the basics. The bucket, filled with cold water and detergent (biodegradable liquid soap). The plunger, which has had four holes drilled into the sides, on a long stick. Which to those too young to remember is a modern version of a “posser” and “peggy tub”. And the plunger does all the contact work, while at the same time aerating and forcing the dirt out. Two rinses are all that is necessary. And that’s it. So amazing you wonder how washing-machines got to be so darned complex and expensive.
Postscript. The holes drilled into the plunger should be small (no more than 5mm) and in a band around the middle, otherwise the rubber will split over time. I also now have a real brass posser, sent by a friend of Pauline’s in Shetland.
There are just four walls that need painting, all internal. We’ve only done them the once and it took two of us a whole day. The product used is material called “Cal” (Calcium oxide/ lime/ or whitewash), and spookily turns out to be exactly the same stuff we used in the UK, except then it was sold as a natural/ ecological paint and cost a fortune. This was 12 euros for 5 litres (made-up), or you can buy the raw rock for a lot less and make it into a medium ready to use, though with extreme caution, for when you add water it literally boils and becomes incredibly corrosive. Painting with Cal is also rather novel. Firstly because of the tendency for it to drip (excessively), so you need someone on hand all the time to clean up all the splashes, particularly on bare wood as it will turn that permanently black. Then it also goes on totally transparent (despite being white in colour), so unless you keep going at a fair rate you won’t see where you’ve already been. Only when it dries does the brilliant white finish appear. Best bit though is the smell, there isn’t any, nor toxicity. There is another downside, it’s not washable and will come off when touched.
This is something we’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to solve ecologically, and now finally have devised the perfect solution to protect all the woodwork in the house (roof beams/ windows/ and doors), from the effects of sun/ humidity and infestation. LINSEED OIL and NEEM OIL (mixed 5 litres to 1litre). This is done twice a year – in May and September – and because it is hot by then dries in no time, but anywhere less warm might have a problem with stickiness for a few days (tip: apply with a cloth rather than brush). Neither contain solvents or other hazardous chemicals. Very quick and very cheap.
…AND FINALLY, WHAT IT IS LIKE LIVING HERE: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF
6.45am – get up, make breakfast, ablutions, put washing into soak, start bread making (once a week)
7.30am – repairs to the 500m of forestry track to the footpath or work in the garden
8.30am – espresso & toast with crossword
9am – weeding the terraces or planting (Oct – Jan)
10.30am – cup of (fresh) herb tea while doing creative project or household repair/ maintenance
11.30am –washing clothes (4 days a week)
12am – prepare enough food for lunch and cold evening meal
1pm – writing letters/ emails
3pm – chicory drink and homemade biscuits
3.30pm – cleaning perimeter firebreak and trimming olives
5pm – finish emails and sweep/ wash floor
6pm – evening meal followed by reading or watching a film, then watering (May – Oct)
Sunset – bed