Growing up in London, I never dreamed that I would be able to build our own house. I always wanted to and used to draw pictures of houses and design little towns when I was a kid, but London is just too expensive for that to have ever become a reality there. It’s also not the kind of place for my dream house. My dream house had to come from the land. It had to be made of natural materials and I really didn’t want neighbours.
We bought this place in March 2013. No one had lived here for many years and the old house was falling down, which was just what we wanted. The unpaved access road, which was a river when we first saw the house, kept other prospective buyers away. It was daunting at first. We don’t have any building skills, we don’t know the rules here and our Spanish is limited but we decided to go for it. Our plan was to build an eco-house, using local, natural materials and built by a true craftsman, Mateu Ortoneda. In part, this was a reaction to living in London and the brutal ugliness of the city – yes, parts of London are beautiful and we enjoyed living there for many years, but it is mostly grey, concrete and kebab shop signs. I craved natural beauty, organic lines and I wanted to live in a house that felt as though it was part of the land, rather than an assault on it.
It took us a while to find architects and a builder, but if we’d have tried to do it all ourselves we would still be looking at a pile of rubble, and we started building in August 2014 and we moved in June 2016. It was then down to us to install the kitchen and finish the bathrooms, which we completed in January 2017. Of course, there are still finishing touches to be made, but as people around here say: when you finish your house, you die!
The house is mostly cob, made from clay dug from our land, straw from our land and local sand. Apart from the stone work and slate roof on the stone part of the house, all the work was done by one man, Mateu, with occasional labouring help. We have restored part of the house in original stone and kept to the original footprint (more or less). The shape is the same as the original house, but the style is totally original. Everything has been made by hand on site, including all the beams, pillars and roof slates, all from local materials.
Not only is the house incredibly beautiful and unique, but there is something very special about seeing it grow out of the ground at a very human scale and pace. This is a large house and it would have been much quicker to build a smaller one, but we always have visitors through the summer, so we went as large as our budget would allow. Mateu says that houses should be built to the natural scale that emerges from two men working together. I think he’s right on that because this creates proportions that feel right and generate a sense of well-being. In an ideal world, we would have local builders working with local materials as valued and respected craftsmen, creating homes that enhance the lives of their residents and beautify the natural environment.
We also went off-grid in June, when we moved in. Our original plan was to have solar energy with a grid tie-in. However, new laws in Spain make it mandatory for all grid customers to have smart meters by 2018 and grid customers with solar systems are to be penalised – it is more expensive to have solar and grid than to have solar alone, with huge fines for non-compliance. We didn’t build a healthy, ecological house to have our brains fried by a smart meter, so we had no choice but to find another way. It was a great decision. Much of the information on the internet is designed to put people off, to make you think that you will have to lead a primitive life and this is just not true, in our experience.
I would say that the places where building a house like this is not affordable to sane, intelligent people with some wherewithal about them, is probably not the kind of place those people would want to live anyway. And, of course, not everyone would want to live in this kind of house either, but the curious thing is that I didn’t know that this was what I wanted either, until we moved here. The biggest shift and the biggest effort was in getting out of our old lives in London, it was like pulling ourselves out of quicksand. After that, it was a breeze, with a few mighty gusts to deal with now and then. The cabal puts a lot of effort into making it seem as though it is impossible for you to follow your dream and, as the result, most people don’t have a dream. Even fewer go on to realize that, in reality, the dream is dreaming them. Once you realize that – well, that’s for another post.