a simpler life el pocito header how a simple house works

“…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 the site and making a home exactly how you want it isn’t easy.  We’ve spent forty odd years (and still looking) trying to solve that one, during which we must have lived in about twenty different geographical zones, experienced a whole range of building types.

In an attempt to simplify the process we started by making a list of everything that was absolutely essential.  The last thing we wanted was to put all our finite resources and energy into something, only discover something fundamentally wrong, just because we hadn’t made enough effort at the beginning.  Over the years this got completely overhauled as we learnt from experience.

Knowing where to look isn’t easy.  Nor does it get any easier with time.  We started back in the 1980s, pre-internet days, when the only way to find out about anything was to physically to go somewhere and see or ask.  Eco-house design and construction was unheard of, and self-build less than 1% of new builds.  Architects were basically ignorant.  Few books existed on the subject.  We had to learn and teach ourselves everything.  Oh, we tried architects.  That was our first big lesson.  For folk who call themselves professionals, charging accordingly, they neither have the practical engineering experience, or interest in what is needed to make a building sustainable and a home.  Even now, after a lifetime of incredible changes in architecture, I have yet to meet a single practitioner who has the slightest idea how to go about achieving this kind of design.  For them it’s still about making as much money out of clients while adding to their credibility in the industry.  The idea of designing a home that costs as little as possible, takes up the smallest footprint (around 60m2), while being as healthy, practical and sustainable as possible, would be of zero interest to them.

So having discarded that option, we then moved on to the possibility of designing one ourselves.  I don’t know how many years it takes to qualify as 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 there are now several even better sequels, all by the same author – including HOME WORK (0-936070-33-1), TINY HOMES (978-0-936070-52-0), and SMALL HOMES (978-0-936070-68-1), which also features our home, El Pocito.  All packed with photos of mainly self-built houses, often without any previous experience or skills, from the 1970’s onwards.

Another classic reference, which I discovered totally by accident, misfiled in what has to be my favourite 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, yet contains all the practical advice you’d ever need on how to make a building feel and work like a real home, as opposed to the conventional arrangement of rooms you generally find. 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 when we heard 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 as an architect for the London borough of Lewisham and came up with the original idea of getting prospective council tenants to build their own homes from a simple plan.  Then developed further by a charity for anyone to use.  Sadly I think the latter has now folded, though the homes built during that era are all still standing, as a testament to the design.

The three families who were building these were not only using his method but taking it one step further, by incorporating as many natural/ ecological features as possible.  Though when I first visited 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 to help build theirs, and that’s how I ended up working there, for nearly a year.  An experience totally unlike any other, and I heartily recommend this to anyone who is thinking of self-build (or training to be an architect!).  Totally unlike convention building.  For starters there are no foundations, and everything kicks off with putting together the entire framework, which is done flat on the ground, utilising massive lengths of timber, in much the same way as Amish barns are built in the USA.  Then when they are all ready, each one is lifted vertical (using lots of people or in this case a giant crane) and secured together with giant bolts.  Followed by the floor joists to make it semi-rigid, then the roof, and finally walls, at which point it is fully rigid and we had a weather-proof shell to work on the rest.  None of us had ever done anything like this before, yet right from the start it all seemed really straightforward.  The most important skill being able to measure accurately.  Because even on a scale as big as this (a three-storey building built on a very steep slope), a few millimetres out anywhere can make all the difference.  I still haven’t forgotten how to check everything three times before sawing, or how to test for squareness.  You also become super-fit.  Not only from hauling the huge pieces of timber around, often single-handedly, and (it seemed) always across a very muddy and uneven site.  But by drilling/ sawing/ nailing/ and bolting for hours on end, day after day.  Often whilst bent double/ perched on a ladder/ balanced high up on a beam/ or wobbling about on the roof, the majority of the time in the worst sorts of weather.  That 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 even a proper kitchen to keep us sustained with hot drinks and meals.  Nor any conventional toilet facilities.  I have never felt so exhausted and hungry!  But at least I got to go home each night, where it was warm and to a hot bath.  Harriet and her family were stuck there throughout what eventually took three years, camping in a temporary caravan.  At one point the standpipe (our temporary connection to the mains) froze and we ended up melting snow to make water for coffee.  And this was after having spent the previous ten years working outside all year round – planting trees/ digging ponds/ assembling polytunnels/ hauling tons of gravel – yet still not 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 there at any one time, the potential for getting hit/ cut/ or crushed by things 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 in the financial pressure they were under the whole time, not surprisingly this did not become our system of choice.

Over the years that followed we encountered many more examples of 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 simple/ healthy/ or cheap as they claimed, but did at least teach us two things: what to avoid, and just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean it is better.  In fact, if you take into account the total environmental cost of new build, and maintaining it thereafter, our species has been making the whole process of shelter more and more unsustainable and unhealthy to live in.  The last time we could honestly claim to be doing it properly being ten thousand years ago.  The end of a three million year period of nomadism.

The only thing anywhere close to that since, a system of house building that offers tried-and-tested engineering/ is healthy to live in/ where the majority of materials required can be found on-site for free/ and makes all the rest seem ridiculously overworked and unsustainable, is the one most people, including us, simply overlook.  We had even lived in several before realising it, in Galicia/ the Alentejo (Portugal)/ and Andalucía.  That being the traditional rural methods of house building.

In Galicia, until recently, they built with the local piedra (stone/ granite).  Either using huge boulders, arranged dry-stone fashion, or carving them into blocks like massive Lego bricks.  The roof/ floors/ windows/ and doors were made of the abundant sweet chestnut which could cope best with the wide range of temperatures/ humidity Spain experiences throughout the year.  Thatch or shingles of stone covered the roof.  And typically home was a very basic and small two-storey dwelling.  The upper floor used for sleeping and cooking, the lower for livestock.  In the Alentejo (S Portugal), where the geology is totally different, the most readily available material was shale, and this used to create a process they call taipa, which basically means rammed earth.  It has a much lower weight-bearing capacity than stone, so they built only on one level, with a narrow/ long profile, a series of interlinking rooms, the livestock housed at the end.  Both methods are the perfect combination of sustainable/ natural/ healthy/ energy-efficient/ and affordable.  With thick/ solid walls (typically 2-3 ft deep) posessing excellent thermal and acoustic qualities, so it never gets too hot or cold.  A small wood stove would be enough to heat the entire space in winter.  Roof insulated with cork.  Humidity effectively zero.  No chemicals or artificial materials used.  In fact the only niggle we could find with this method was the windows, which had to be tiny, so let in very little natural light.  But that could be solved by replacing some of the roof tiles (which are terracotta these days) with glass ones.  The quality of light from above is also a lot better, with the additional bonus of solar heat gain in winter (shaded by a blind in summer).

This therefore became our choice of design for building.  That is, until we discovered how hard it was going to be to find someone with the relevant experience, how much they would charge, and how many 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.  Which explains why all new buildings utilise the vastly inferior and environmentally destructive method of poured cement and cheap cinder blocks.  On top of which was the vast number of restrictions and requirements that had to be observed, regardless.  It may sound crazy, but building standards have actually made everything worse.  Even twenty years ago (in Iberia and Canada) there was none of this petty bureaucracy.  No dictating what you can or can’t build.  No exorbitant fees or backhanders to pay.  If you wanted to build traditionally the quality of materials was good and often free. also All the labour/ expertise could be accessed free , either through extended family or neighbours.  Who in turn would expect the same assistance when they needed it.

Which left us in rather a quandary, especially as we’d already by now spent nine precious years searching.  What could we do?

In the end it was quite simple.  We stuck with traditional, but instead of attempting the impossible and building a new house, shifted our focus to finding an old one and recycling/ repairing that.  It would be substantially more expensive to buy, and a lot harder to find, but thereafter things would be a whole lot easier/ quicker.  The rules for renovation being, do whatever you want.  The other bonus was we could also move in straight away, doing the work ourselves, at our own pace, as and when funds allowed.

Which left just the small issue of where to find this mythical plot and ruin.

What we did know was we wanted a large plot, at least ten hectares (24.7 acres).  Which sounds a really big piece of land if you’ve only lived in a city or town, more like a farm than a garden.  But even with all that space you are still only a few hundred metres from a neighbour.  Also it takes a lot more land than you think to be totally self-sufficient, sustainably.

Prior to leaving the UK in 2000 we’d already spent ten years searching for a place where we could live our new moneyless existence, but it was impossible.  Ireland proved more hopeful, the people we met there, in the rural areas, were still mainly living well on very little, but they also were bowed down by the pressures of religion/ state/ and alcohol, not the kind of world we really wanted to be part of. 

Spain we knew nothing about, it was just a place to head for and start our search.  Galicia initially, in the NW corner of the country, because it seemed like the weather would be similar to Yorkshire, and probably the least populated.  It was both.  They also had religion too, but the land was cheap and readily available.  In no time we’d found a lovely old stone house in the Parque Natural for just 2000€, and were on the point of buying.  But it seemed to easy, and did we really want to settle for such a bleak landscape and weather which was either too wet or too hot?  The answer was no, even though we had by now wasted another 18 months searching. 

So it was back to living in the camper van again, this time crossing the border over into Portugal.  Which proved to be a wonderful country in so many ways, especially the people.  Where we lived for five years, searching it entirely.  But in the end deciding that the corrupt police and a government hell bent on making life as miserable as possible, wasn’t for us.  Especially the forest fires, which we witnessed too many times, including friends losing their homes, everything. 

Canada came after that and remains our favourite place in the world, the nature there was so awesome it has to be seen to be believed.  Everything we could ever wish for and more, if only the authorities would allow us to settle there.  Which is how, eight years after setting out, we ended up in Andalucia.  A region unlike like anything we had previously seen or imagined, but  exactly the kind of magic and adventure we had been hoping to find.  Including 183,000 hectares of lush forestry and very few people.  The town we eventually settled next to the most beautiful/ oldest we’d ever come across, with the friendliest/ kindest people you’d ever wish to meet.

There was just one compromise.  The amount of land we could have.  Because by then we had spent so long out of the housing market the capital we’d brought was now worth 50% less.  Providentially this wasn’t a problem, thanks to the collapse of the spanish economy in 2008 the place we eventually found, El Pocito, was affordable and everything we had hoped for.

What follows now is a description of the house we renovated there, how eventually it all worked.  When we find our next place, in Shetland. details of that will be included here too.

INSIDE (and there are more photos on my facebook page)

Basically just one big room (42 m2 – 6 m x 7 m/ that’s 19.6 feet x 22.9 feet in BREXIT speak), with no internal divisions, apart from in one corner (1.5 m x 1 m) a tiny space partitioned off by two low walls, serving as a larder.  The benefits of a having just one room being there’s no wastage in corridors, you can change the layout, and there’s plenty of natural light.  In this case at least one window in every wall and two skylights in the roof, though more of the latter would have been even better in hindsight.  Heating the entire space is a lot easier too, requiring just one small wood stove.

When we began the renovation by knocking out the existing three rooms, along with an enormous fireplace, and ceilings that were far too low for my height.  Initially there was a worry it wouldn’t work, either as a living space or structurally (ie the roof would fall in), but our hunch proved correct.  The lack of ceilings made it look much bigger.  More vertical space allowed us to build vertically, 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 camp site 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 locally recycled brick.  On top of that a skim of local cal/ lime cement.  Together it is thick enough to keep the temperature inside cosy throughout the year.

THE ROOF is mostly constructed from recycled materials.  A weight bearing frame of sweet chestnut beams which came from a house being demolished elsewhere, probably about 200 years old, on top of which have been laid new chestnut planks, then insulation, topped off by locally salvaged terracotta tiles.

 

THE BED PLATFORM

With no previous experience of something this big the design took forever, and using only hand tools about three months to build.  Total cost was 130 euros (about £110).  After ten years of use it stood the test of time and taught me a lot for future projects.  Plans are available as a free download below.  Not shown are two cross braces, added later, one at the head and one at the foot, which stop any sideways movement.  Made from 15 mm x 3 mm steel strips.

a simpler life el pocito drawing of bedclick here for download of platform bed drawing

a simpler life el pocito bed 02

HEATING

a simpler life el pocito stove

I had no idea this part of the house design would be so complicated, or important to get right.  We had had wood stoves in the UK for decades before, but assumed in Spain there would be no need for one.  Wrong, very wrong.  It gets cold everywhere in the world, and in Spain at least from November to May.

At El Pocito we decided to go for a wood-stove again, because they were familiar and we had hundreds of trees on site.  A good choice, it kept us very warm and snug (always 20 C or above), for free, over the ten years we lived there, but in hindsight we could have done things better.

Like putting in more insulation (even though there is plenty), not only to keep it warmer in winter but but cooler in summer.  The traditional houses in town have walls of stone or rammed earth one metre thick, which proved to be the bare minimum when it reaches 50 C outside in summer.  Also we should have used cork in the roof, rather than conventional insulation.

What we did with the floor was spot on though.  It already had a thick lime cement base, on top of which was a layer of 30 mm reclaimed terracotta tiles.  We added another layer, making a great heat store.

Triple glazing the windows would have been better than the double we fitted, but the shutters we had made for the windows, of local sweet chestnut, were an excellent idea, making a huge difference to both keeping the heat in during winter and out in summer.  Good sound insulation too, and far better than curtains or blinds.  You could feel the difference instantly when opening them in the morning.

Our single exterior door should have had a second one added inside, to create a buffer-zone for heat loss/ gain.

Most important of all, we should have added a lean-to greenhouse to the entire SE-facing side of the house, at least 3 metres deep, to allow the winter sun to heat the air inside.

I would have also liked to install an EARTH TUBE.  This is a 10 cm diameter tube that is buried in the ground outside, 3 m deep x 30 metres long, that takes air from the outside, warms/ cools it underground and replaces the indoor air, aiding combustion of the wood stove.

The task of actually heating the interior (which despite claims by owners of passive-heated homes, CANNOT be achieved by body-heat alone, or sunshine, even in Spain) is still though best served by a wood-stove.  But please, do not be fooled into buying one like we did, a HERGOM (the major spanish producer).  It needed constant repairs and was probably the most inefficient on the market, though having recently bought a MORSØ perhaps this is universal to wood stoves now, because a hell of a lot of precious heat still escapes up the flue.  Next time we’ll probably try a (Finnish) MASS OVEN/ ROCKET STOVE instead.  These are built using firebricks, so stay warmer longer.  It is claimed one firing will keep the ambient temperature up for 24 hours, as opposed to just the evening.  They can also incorporate an oven as well as heat water.  Facebook hosts many groups that contain designs/ courses/ and help.

Operating any wood-stove is an art, each brand and location has its own quirks.  If you have never used one, here are some of the general rules:

Use thin logs (30-50 cm) rather than thick.

All types of wood give off the same amount of heat, when measured by weight.

The longer wood is allowed to dry (6 months minimum) the better, both in terms of heat and preventing the chimney from catching fire.

Having a thick bed of ash is a good thing.

Recycle any surplus ash in the compost heap (never compost or bury coal ash, it is toxic and radioactive).

Ff the stove is made of cast-iron NEVER heat it up quickly, this could crack the castings.

Use stainless steel pipe, not flexible liner, for the flue.

Sweep the flue at least once a year, more if there are any bends, and remember to fit an access point to facilitate this rather than going through the stove itself.

–You will need two or three types of wood.  One or two are used to get it started.  And for this we used the local arbutus unedo (the “strawberry tree”), as this grew very fast there.  In Northern climes it grows as a tree (the National Tree of British Columbia), but in Spain it is more like a bush in this heat, throwing up many stems, which when they were at least 5 cms thick I would coppice (leaving one to grow into a tree), then stack in a pile for at least six months to dry.  The very thick ones we used as logs, the thinner for when the fire has just started, to create a bed of hot embers.  The leaves and very thin stems for getting the fire going.  Here are some pictures.  We also used encina (“oak”) for logs.  You can also split wood into very thin strips (using a very sharp axe, wearing thick gloves and taking care not to cut off any digits, this actually happened to someone I know).

When cutting the logs to fit the stove, use a saw horse.  This makes the job far more ergonomic.  A heavy one, with the supports spaced so can cut small pieces with a support under either end.

And finally, the perfect primer for learning all about heating with wood:

a simpler life el pocito books norwegian wood

ELECTRICITY

One of the reasons we chose to buy El Pocito was because it wasn’t possible to connect to the national grid.  We wanted to be able to live free at last from EMF radiation, one of the many serious risks to health created by new technology.  Found anywhere near mobile phone transmitters/ pylons/ power cables/ house wiring/ and now here in Shetland, wind farms.  We also reckoned it would be a lot cheaper to generate our own.  You can read the full story on the alternative energy page, but very briefly what we had was the most basic set-up possible.  Most of which was second hand, but to buy new would have cost no more than 1000 euros.

Comprising:

– two solar panels.  Ours were rated at 50 watt/ 12 volt DC each, wired to generate 100 watts at 12 volts.  Prices have come down so much since it would now be possible to have 400 watts worth of panels using the same space.

– one 12 volt DC car battery, rated at 250 Ah.  These are the cheapest type (lithium being the most expensive) and can last up to ten years.

– a charge controller/ regulator.  Which ensures the battery is treated properly, automatically.

– and a 220/ 240 volt AC inverter to run conventional appliances.

What this gives you on an average Andalucian sunny day (they have an average of 300 a year) is recharging the battery (for evening use), which takes about an hour, then the ability to run appliances all day, as long as it stays sunny, up to a maximum of 100 watts (or 400 watts with 400 watt panels) at any one time.

LIGHTING

To begin with we used only candles for all our lighting needs, along with a couple of FREEPLAY INDIGO wind-up torches (bought during our camping/ restoration phase).  The candles were crap at producing enough light to read by, even with the double mirror wall-holders I subsequently made.  They were also expensive in the long term (@ 20 centimos each).  Then we found a 12 volt/ 11 watt energy-saving incandescent bulb.  Not a lot cheaper initially (it cost then a massive 20 euros), but the light given off was a lot brighter (though still not enough to read comfortably by) and the energy used (relatively) free.  Compared to a conventional 100 watt bulb this was also a huge saving on power, but during the winter still not ideal.  We’d be wanting to use it for 3-4 hours a day, when the weather so bad it was often not possible to recharge the battery, so we were still far from the ideal.  Then Ken Harbour at OnSolar Ltdhttp://onsolar.co.uk got in touch.  He’d read our blog and wondered if we’d like to try out a new kind of technology, a 12 volt/ 6 watt led filament bulb.  This was much better, giving off a very pleasant warm white/ yellow light, perfect for illuminating an area of about 4 m x 4 m.  Bright enough to read by, and using 50% less power.

In 2018 we added a LED USB rechargeable lantern, ostensibly for working in the kitchen area, which was always in shadow when it was dark.  This was perfect too as I don’t like bright artificial light in the mornings when it is still dark outside, and can be adjusted for output.  The only quibble was with the integral cable for recharging via USB (there is also a wind-up facility), which broke pretty much immediately, when a socket instead would have been a much better idea.  Recharging takes about an hour, once a week.  Made by GOAL ZERO, rated up to 250 lumens, it is called the LIGHTHOUSE 250 LANTERN.  Cost around £40 (including postage).

I also added an outside light.  This worked fine, no problems, and definitely bright enough for when using the porch at night (aka the toilet).  Charged by its own solar panel, which was a great idea if the main system ever failed.  Comes with 5 metres of cable fitted.

WATER

This is the most important aspect of off-grid living to get absolutely right from the outset.  In fact I’d say if the land you are looking at buying doesn’t have it’s own source of unpolluted/ healthy water, as well as enough (approximately a minimum of 50 litres per person per day) to cover every eventuality, then walk away.  Life is too short.

When we bought El Pocito there was no water.  Nor did we have any idea how of how to get it organised, along with everyone else we asked locally.  Consequently we panicked and had a borehole drilled (more on that in a moment).  Which not only cost us a fortune, as well as a year to sort out,  but was also a shameful waste of all that free rainwater.

For while rainwater is not suitable for drinking (long-term), in terms of the total household and garden use, can supply up to 90% of what is needed.  Dramatically extending the lifetime of a borehole/ well pump (sufficient not to ever require replacement), along with reducing the amount of time spent refilling the reservoir.  The only downside of using rainwater being the initial cost of providing sufficient storage.  In Spain it generally only rains in the winter and you need to irrigate in the summer.  I would recommend therefore at least 30,000 litres of capacity.  The rest is cheap and easy to maintain/ repair.  A filter to remove debris from the collection source (as big as possible), and a cheap 12 volt on-demand pump to take the water to the house.

(note: 1,000 litres of water = 1 m3 of storage = 1000 kg in weight)

Getting a borehole drilled is extremely complex and fraught.  We had to wait ten months to get permission to drill, during which all our water had to be brought in from a spring in town, in 25 kg containers (4 of them each day = 100 litres = 100 kg), 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.  In other countries (the UK) it can be even worse.

To apply in Spain we were required to present the regional authority (Diputacion) with an extremely comprehensive and technical document (saving them the cost of having to do it themselves, though they probably employ the staff anyway), in order that they can then decide whether it is okay to extract water in that specific place (in some parts of Spain it is simply not allowed).  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).  Then any additional information they may or may not want, has to be submitted in person, in our case involving a 340 km round trip each time, of which there were many.  Failure to comply with their demands terminates the whole process, which basically means 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, and here we made another stupid mistake.  There was only one local firm doing this kind of work, and as we didn’t think it would be cheaper looking further afield, we went with him.  Ending up costing us far too much for a very poor job.  We were lucky though, a friend got a bill for 3,000 euros without having found water.

The machines used were huge.  There was a converted JCB to do the drilling part, along with an even bigger vehicle containing the compressor/ power unit.  Both of which needed good access and a flat working site.  El Pocito is nothing like that.  You reach it by a very rough 2-3 km forestry track, then when you get onto the land itself everything is suddenly almost all vertical.  Consequently, when it came to deciding where was the best place to drill, there was no special gizmo to detect a suitable aquifer, they simply set up where they had parked by the gate and started there.  Drilling lasted all of 30 minutes, when suddenly the giant auger shattered.  To get a replacement took another two days.  Then they got going in earnest.  For a whole day we were deafened and showered in dust until they were done.  Water was encountered at 11 metres, but as we were being charged by the metre they continued until a depth of 60 m had been reached.  At no time after that did the water level drop below 30 m.

With that part finished we could then proceed with the installation of a suitable pump, along with all the necessary plumbing to get water to the house.  Another thing we had absolutely no idea how to go about, nor did anyone else we asked, which is how we ended up with a system so unique I doubt there is another like it in Spain.

Starting with the storage tank.  I guess most systems like this rely on a pump kicking in when you open a tap in the house, ie tankless.  In our case this was not possible because we didn’t have sufficient electrical power to do that.  Also most boreholes replenish slowly, so you can’t take out too much at any one time.  Therefore we had to come up with another way to do this.  Pump up slowly then store it in sufficient quantity.  The first problem with this being how to calculate the amount of storage, and what kind of tank.  Locally a desposito de agua looks like a swimming pool (which is one of its uses), they are about 1.5 metres high/ deep, come in any length, and are constructed from brick/ stone/ cement.  Generally they were built a long time ago too, when labour was free and materials a lot cheaper.  Not surprisingly therefore, to get one made like this now is expensive, more than we could afford.  Another reason not to go down this route is the water being constantly exposed to the sun, which means a massive loss through evaporation and the need to treat the water before using.

A local plumber came up the alternative, a fibre-glass tank.  What he didn’t tell us then was we could just go to the local builders merchants and choose one.  I guess he was on some kind of commission, because next thing we were having one custom made in Sevilla (120 km away).  The good news was it wouldn’t take long, especially as we now had the borehole and couldn’t use it.  What happened next was typical of life in Spain.  A neighbour called by and asked if we were expecting a large tank, because there was one lying on the side of the road 2 kms away.  What had happened was instead of a traditional deposito shape, the measurements had been confused and they had made one 3 metres high, cylindrical, 2 metres wide.  So big and awkward a low-loader had been hired to deliver it.  Which in turn was so wide on such narrow local roads, the driver had dumped it when he saw the forestry track, then drove away without telling us.  Eventually our local builders merchant came to the rescue, using their lorry to bring it up the rest of the way.  But  could only get as far as the perimeter fence, about 100 metres from the gate.  Which actually proved providential, because the only place they could get close enough to crane it over the fence, also turned out to be the highest point on the property.  Height being critical when working with water, if you don’t want to use a pump.  Situated 11 metres above the house it meant there was sufficient drop to create 1.1 bar of pressure.  Not a lot (mains is usually around 3 bar), not high enough for a shower (if we had one), but fine for the two sinks and drip irrigation system.  A base was built to stand it on (5,000 litres is 5,000 kg) and to keep the water cool in summer/ from freezing in winter (which it does), a stone skin was built around it.

After that, connecting everything up was easy.  We used 50 m x 40 mm drinking water quality pipe from the borehole to the tank, and 50 m x 25 mm of the same to the house, all of which were buried deep in the ground their entire length.

The water is brought up by a submersible pump (SHURFLO 9325 – 24 volt DC), which is set at a depth of 30 metres.  Electricity for this being provided by two dedicated solar panels (each rated at 80 watts each and wired to run at 24 volts instead of 12), ie not part of the house system.  Installing these turned out to be by far the most frustrating part of the entire installation, it took me nearly six months to get it working properly.  To begin with the plumber dropped the pump and shattered it, so we had to wait for a replacement.  Then the mount for the panels (which a local electrician had sold us) collapsed.  I made a new design (see drawing below) and had that made up, by the local blacksmith.  The plan then was a float-switch in the top of the tank would control the pump automatically.  Except this didn’t work, the switch kept malfunctioning, even after replacement.  Eventually I realised this wasn’t a good idea anyway and replaced it with a simple ON/ OFF switch, which was located inside the house.  We now had water.  But how much?  There was no way of knowing the level in the tank, other than climbing up the side, lifting the lid and looking inside.  It took me another three years to work that one out.  Despite all the experts, coming up with the inspirational idea of installing a pressure gauge in the kitchen, which took all of ten minutes to install and cost me 10 euros.

Eventually everything worked perfected, and over that time something else very strange happened too.  The water-table started to rise, due to there being far more shade from all the tree planting.  In hindsight we could have probably got away with a much shallower borehole, or even digging ourselves a traditional well instead.

Actual pumping is best done in one continuous session.  The best time of the day for this being 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 across the sky is slowest, requiring less realignment of the panels.  Our water usage settled down to around 50 litres of water a day (for the two of us), so pumping was only required once a week (giving us enough storage for 100 days), taking about 80 minutes (the pump running therefore at 4.5 litres a minute).

If you are thinking of installing a similar system, one tip is to make sure you use 3M SCOTCH tape (TEMFLEX 2151 self-bonding rubber) when tying the cables together at the pump end, and making the electrical connections.  It’s specifically designed for low voltage applications underwater.  And make sure to tie the three sensors to the power cable (these sensors prevent the pump from running dry), 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 suggest a hand pump.

a simpler life el pocito water pressure gauge

Hot water.  We made a deliberate choice not to install a system for heating water, as it would be wasteful and involve extra cost.  However we did come up some alternative ways ideas.

The first, MARK I, being to lay another run of 25 mm black plastic pipe, from the storage tank to the house, but this time above ground, exposed to the sun.  Thankfully this never got past the theory stage, as the heat would have moved the hot water upwards towards the storage tank, not the house, as well as releasing carcinogenic chemicals.

MARK II was a different approach.  Instead of hot water on demand, why not just heat a set amount 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 maybe it is, if you have a workshop/ the appropriate tools/ and access to free raw materials.  I had none of those.  What I could make though, was a solar oven.  This is a parabolic reflector, that looks like a satellite dish, and when angled correctly and tracking the sun, focuses a very intense spot of heat (rather like a magnifying glass) onto a specific area, where you can place a vessel containing water or saucepan to cook food, allegedly at the same kind of output as a conventional hot-plate.  That may or may not  be true, but from my experience, to achieve that kind of temperature requires precision craftsmanship and the best reflective materials money can buy.  Which is probably why they cost so much (upwards of 300 euros).  The best I managed was a cheap copy.

There were several prototypes over a number of years.  The first was going to utilise a stainless-steel washing-machine drum, as it not only revolved (on the drive spindle), making it easy to track the sun, and a highly-reflective material.  However the stainless steel proved impossible to cut or drill with hand tools.

Next incorporated other items already had lying around: wood, a sheet of glass, some fire bricks, and the spinning mechanism from an office chair.  Though I had to buy a 2 m x 1 m sheet of galvanised steel, which cost 6 euros.  This is wonderful stuff, cuts like card/ drills & files easily/ doesn’t rust/ and polished with a chrome paste can be made to reflect with an almost mirror quality.  Putting it all together took no more than an hour (see photos below), though getting the reflector to work properly took a lot longer.  For heating water it proved adequate, almost reaching boiling point, and we even cooked some biscuits, but the potential wasn’t anywhere close to what I’d hoped.  This was due to the shape of the reflector and the reflective quality of the steel.  Professional versions are parabolic in shape and use aluminium sheet, which proved impossible to buy locally.  The surface area is also many times bigger than mine.

Then I came across Trev’s site, and that inspired me to try something different, using off-cuts/ mosaic of mirror for the reflector.  Utilising many of the same parts  MARK VI now had a new bigger reflector, plus a far better adjustment system.  The additional cost 10 euros.  So how good was it?  Well, still not hot enough to actually boil water or cook anything, but a significant improvement.  Unfortunately I used an old pallet for the base, and after a couple of years termites turned it into a heap of dust.  By then it was too heavy to lift, without dismantling the whole thing so I designed the MARK VII, this time with everything made from metal.  The only problem with that being I couldn’t find anyone to make it up, but for anyone interested the drawings are below.

Other fundamental truths about solar cookers generally are:

the importance of the outside (air) temperature – anywhere below 20 C and none of them will work.  The picture below was taken when the outdoor temperature was 40 C (maximum here is 42 C) showing a temperature of 100 C inside.

a simpler life el pocito solar water heater oven 19

The angle of the sun (and clear blue skies) – is critical, the hottest time being when it is at its zenith (directly above) and a couple of hours after that (at El Pocito, from 1 pm-5 pm).

The amount of water you are heating – a 5 litre saucepan of water will take a lot longer than 1 litre, and remember you’ll need a temperature of at least 110 C to reach boiling point.

Insulationmy last working model used firebricks inside with a single layer of thick glass on top.  The metal one would have had thicker firebricks (cemented together), a double-glazed glass top sealed with silicon, and a side door for access, rather than relying on lifting the glass, which lets the heat out each time.

Where you live – anywhere more northerly than 38 degrees latitude and you can pretty much forget solar (even conventional roof-top water heaters).  They are also going be totally useless in the winter.

Below are some photos which show the development of my heaters:

a simpler life el pocito drawing solar oven mark vclick here to download print version of drawing

a simpler life el pocito drawing solar oven mark viclick here to download print version of drawing

a simpler life el pocito drawing solar oven 01

click here to download print version of solar oven MARK VII page one

a simpler life el pocito drawing solar oven 02

click here to download print version of solar oven MARK VII page two

KITCHEN

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 (SPINFLO NELSON) we brought with us to use in the van (the kind for caravans/ boats), which has two rings/ a grill/ and oven underneath, and which for the last 22 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 30 C), then I saw an article about a zeer, which is not a fridge as such, but keeps things cool at around 20 C, by the principle of evaporating water.   There are models you can buy, but they cost around 100 euros (incl. delivery from India).  This one I made myself for 25 euros, using two large terracotta flower pots.  One is slightly smaller so they can fit inside each other, with a layer of sand in-between, stood on a deep saucer.  It does work, albeit with reservations.  You are supposed to keep the saucer filled with water, but this created far too much humidity, making everything inside mouldy, unless sealed in a plastic bag.  In the end I did away with the saucer and the temperature inside stayed cool enough.

a simpler life el pocito zeer evaporating fridge

A tried-and-tested recipe for sourdough bread

Regardless what everyone else says (because who says they know) there are no rules on making bread, and the sooner you embrace that the sooner you will become a great baker.  Experiment!

What I use currently:

two jars (they originally came with pickles in, 900 gram size, you don’t need the lids).  A long handled spoon.  1/4 cup measure.  Large mixing bowlPyrex dish with glass lid.

The term sourdough refers to fact that you don’t add dried yeast but make your own (or live in a bakery where the air is enough to do the job), also known as the starter or mother.  To get one of these going seems to take several days, so as I want a loaf a week I do mine for seven days.  If you don’t want to bake on a regular basis you can refrigerate some starter to reactivate a couple of days beforehand..

Each of the seven starter days I do the following (at the same time, so I remember):

At breakfast, using one of the two jars I add ¼ of a cup (measure) of organic spelt flour.  This type is one of the best because it contains a lot of natural yeast (you can use others when you actually get to the making the bread bit).  To that I add some uncontaminated water at room temperature.  By uncontaminated I include tap water, but it has to be left to stand for a couple of hours, so the bleach/ chlorine evaporates (which will otherwise kill the yeast).  In order I don’t forget I get this ready the night before.  Then using the long-handled teaspoon, mix well ( and add more water if necessary) until the consistency is like porridge.  That’s it.  Store in a cupboard at room temperature, do not cover.  By the end of the week the starter should fill 3/4 of the jar and be bubbling, showing the yeast is active.

Now to the making bread part, which is simplicity itself compared to other methods, but does requires long periods of time between each stage to rise, especially if the room temperature is low.

Starting the day before I set aside 400 ml of water, so by the evening all the contaminants have vented off.  Then I stir the starter and decant just enough of it, into the other/ clean jar, to cover the bottom.  This will be the starter for the next loaf.  The rest (the majority) is then poured into a large mixing bowl, along with the water, and stirred thoroughly (with a long-handled spoon).  When that is done I start adding & stirring in enough flour (here it can be any type) until the consistency is like porridge.  Cover with a plate and leave.

Next morning I add more flour and stir/ mix in thoroughly until the dough is no longer sticking to the sides of the bowl.  Once again the long-handled spoon is great for this.  Then cover the bowl and leave until lunchtime.

By then it should have risen and be sticky again, so using the spoon I separate it from the sides and dust with flour.  When I can lift it all out in one piece it is ready to place in the pyrex dish with the lid on.  Then left for a couple of hours to rise again.

When it is time I pre-heat the oven, then place the dish (with the lid still on) on the middle shelf.  Temperature is the only tricky part.  All ovens are different, so it will take a bit of experimenting.  The one we currently use is 20 C degrees hotter than the dial says, it’s also fan-assisted.  By trial-and-error I’ve found 120 C (140 C on the dial) is what works best, so for a non-fan-assisted oven you will probably need to add another 20 C (140 C).  Experiment by adjusting the temperature, but it is probably best not to over complicate things by altering the timing.

Bake for 45 minutes.  After that I take off the lid and continue for another 15 minutes.  Then switch the oven off but leave it inside with the door closed for another 15 minutes.  Done.  The loaf is allowed to cool, then a knife slid round the edge to loosen, turned upside down onto a plate, to dry the base, before storing in a cotton drawstring bag.  Should remain fresh for at least a week.

To make a smaller loaf all you simply use less water.  For larger more.  Nothing else needs to be altered.

sourdough loaf

Pizza dough recipe

I love proper Italian soft thick crusts, so if you do too then this is the recipe.  Makes enough for four servings.

The night before, boil 220 ml of water and pour into a large mixing bowl.  When it is cool enough (body temperature) add one teaspoon of dried yeast and one teaspoon of honey.  Stir.  Then add Type 00 flour, until the consistency is like porridge.  Cover with a plate.

In the morning, with a long-handled spoon, add more Type 00 flour until it is no longer sticky.  Cover and leave until the afternoon.

An hour before cooking oil a large tray and roll out the dough into a round pizza base.  Add the topping and cheese then place in the middle of a pre-warmed oven.  Mine is set to 200 C (actual 220 C/ fan-assisted).  Bake for 10 minutes.

BATHROOM

There isn’t one, no toilet either.  Nor have I felt the need, even after Maureen’s illness.  Why?  Because it’s a waste of money and takes up valuable space in the house.  Though I haven’t always thought like this.  Before we left the UK, we were planning to do the whole eco reed-bed water treatment and composting-toilet thing.  I’d even been to see loads of examples, read all the books, gone on some pretty intensive residential courses, and weirdly, had a job with the local water authority in sewage treatment, so had plenty of hands-on experience.  Which eventually led to a sort of revelation.  That the reason why we install and use these systems is because we are fearful, we want to be assured that waste water and sewage is rendered safe.  But none of them do, they are all a con, even the eco ones.  The only one way to do it properly is to follow nature’s example.  Don’t put anything in that isn’t 100% natural, then let rain/ sun/ and micro-organisms do the job.

So this is how we did it at El Pocito:

Nothing was brought onto the site which couldn’t be recycled or composted ourselves.

Not a drop of water was wasted, especially with a conventional toilet/ shower or bath.

Instead of a conventional toilet pedestal/ composting-toilet, we adopted the natural approach.  Peeing into a bucket, which was then added to the compost heap.  Poo in the squatting position (a much healthier pose), into a bowl (or potty).  Into which a layer of water or wood shavings have been added (the latter available free from carpenters).  The contents are then upended straight onto the compost heap.  Cleaning the bowl 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, if not more, comfortable as the usual pedestal arrangement, plus healthier, the squatting position allegedly more efficient at 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 a really wonderful moment in the day.  The only difficulty we had at the start was finding the right size bowl for the poo part.  Has to be small enough to fit between your feet, but 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 is a lot better and can be had simply with another bowl of water to spritz with.

There’s no shower or bath either.  Instead we use a bowl, into which the juice of a lemon has been added, then filled with about a litre of nearly boiling water, topped up with just enough cold to prevent scalding.  This is placed on the floor in front of another bowl which is where you stand / squat to prevent flooding.  Using a mitt or flannel, rub/ wash the entire body, starting from the top and working down (cleanest parts first).  Finish off by emptying the water into the bowl you are standing in to soak your feet.  No rinsing required.  Five minutes the whole job done.  All of which probably sounds terribly unhygienic and primitive, but having done this for twenty odd years now there hasn’t been a single complaint.  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.

a simpler life el pocito grey water treatment 01

WASTE (GREY) WATER

In the summer all the waste water from the kitchen sink at El Pocito is diverted into a series of large buckets just outside, located conveniently next to the plant nursery area.  Before it actually ends up in a bucket there is a mesh filter on top to remove any bits.  Can be used directly to water the plants each evening.  In winter the pipework is simply changed so it goes down a pipe to the pond, planted with reeds, where it is cleaned naturally.  Attested to by a large colony of frogs and dragonflies.

a simpler life el pocito pond and reed bed treatment 04

There has only been one problem with the waste water system as it is, and this has been a regular build-up of grease in the pipework because we don’t use any hot water, causing blockages about once a year.  However this is a simple job to remove, as there is only 4 m of pipework, by rodding out.

One of the projects for the future, was a pre-cleaning pond, before it goes down to the main pond.  This is not essential, but would have added a useful cooling/ passive heating feature in front of the house.  Also providing a habitat for the many frogs/ toads/ lizards/ snakes/ wasps/ flies/ and bees that currently seek the water in the various bowls of water dotted around.

All of which begs the question: if Maureen & I have managed to live for so long without the need to use products that aren’t totally biodegradable, why can’t industry be forced to make this the standard too?  Then there would be no pollution and no need for waste disposal sites.  If you have to use products make sure they are ONLY biodegradable ones.

WASHING MACHINE

FullSizeRender

Until now we’ve managed without a washing machine, that’s 19 years!  It’s not always been ideal (especially in the winter), but over time have honed the job so it only takes up a small amount of time, in fact less than using a machine, including far less need for water/ detergent.  The only niggle, as I said, has been during the winter months, when the water gets so cold your hands risk getting frost-bitten.  At first I tried wearing rubber gloves, but they were neither thick enough to keep out the cold, or durable to last more than a couple of weeks without disintegrating.  Then Pauline came up with the idea of using fishermen’s gauntlets, thick pvc jobs which are big enough to wear woollen gloves under.  These are perfect at keeping fingers safe from the cold.

Then we came across an even better solution, thanks to a YouTube video sent by my good friends Dennis & Jessica in Dumfries & Galloway.

This shows how, with just two buckets and a rubber sink plunger, you can have a proper washing machine.  It isn’t actually necessary to use two buckets, but in the video you will see the principle.  One is filled with cold water and detergent (biodegradable liquid soap).  Then the other does all the work, aerating and forcing the dirt out.  A plumber’s plunger is even better (though you will need to drill some very small holes in it to let the soap/ air do their work), a modern version of the brass posser (which is what we use now ) and peggy tub.  Two rinses are all that is necessary.  So amazing you wonder how washing-machines got to be so darned complex and expensive.

For larger items (blankets etc) there is an even easier solution:

a simpler life el pocito washing machine 02

PAINTWORK

There are just four walls inside El Pocito that need painting.  We’ve only done them once, which took us a day.  The paint we used was a material called Cal (Calcium oxide/ lime/ or whitewash), and spookily turns out to be exactly the same as the stuff we bought for our previous house in the UK and cost a fortune.  While in Spain it has been used for hundreds of years, and cost us 12 euros for 5 litres.  You can buy the raw material for even less and add the only other ingredient (water) yourself.  But do this with extreme care, as it literally boils on contact, becoming instantly highly corrosive.  Use only when cool.  Painting is messy, it drips excessively, so you will need someone on hand to clean up all the splashes straight away, especially on bare wood as otherwise it will turn permanently black.  It also goes on totally transparent, so unless you keep going at a fair rate you won’t be able to see where you’ve been.  Only when dry does the brilliant white finish appear.  Best bit is the smell, there isn’t any, nor toxicity.  Though it’s not washable and will come off when touched.

 WOOD TREATMENT

This is something we’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to solve ecologically, and now finally have devised a perfect solution to protect all the woodwork in and outside the house (roof beams/ windows/ and doors), from the effects of sun/ humidity/ and infestation.  LINSEED OIL and NEEM OIL (mixed 5 parts to 1 part).  This is done twice a year – in May and September – and because it is hot 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 IN EL POCITO

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF…

6:45 – get up, make breakfast, ablutions, put washing into soak, start bread making (once a week)

7:30 – repairs to the 500 m of forestry track to the footpath or work in the garden

8:30 – espresso & toast with crossword

9:00 – weeding the terraces or planting (Oct – Jan)

10:30 – cup of (fresh) herb tea while doing creative project or household repair/ maintenance

11:30 – washing clothes (4 days a week)

12:00 – prepare enough food for lunch and cold evening meal

13:00 – writing letters/ emails

15:00 – chicory drink and homemade biscuits

15:30 – cleaning perimeter firebreak and trimming olives

17:00 – finish emails and sweep/ wash floor

18:00 – evening meal followed by reading or watching a film, then watering (May – Oct)

Sunset – bed

a simpler life, el pocito, solar powered

3 comments
  1. june buchanan said:

    Amazing story! Discovering what really works has been a rich life journey. Makes me realise why I’ve not progressed beyond the dreaming and wondering stage. The toilet story intrigued me as did the washing story. Thank you for sharing it in such detail.
    Best wishes,
    June

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