The great thing about being on the road is that you finally have the chance to visit other natural homes. Many of them are inspirational. All of them teach me something new.
Abrazo House is a cob/strawbale hybrid tucked away in the sweeping Cantabrian hills. It’s a perfect example of a well-built natural ecohome, with a green roof that flourishes in the wet climate, earth plaster created from clay on site, and a lime wash finish to protect it. The lower floor is made from insulated cob, and the upper floor is straw bale. It is, as you can see, quite beautiful. At 200 square metres, Abrazo House is the largest self-built natural home I’ve seen so far.
Robert, the creator of Abrazo House, has executed a number of impressive eco building projects to date. There is a cob cabin on the land too, and just up the road he has two more fabulous straw bale houses on the go which will ultimately be sold. Indeed this is something of a natural house empire with a view to breathing life and community back into an abandoned Spanish village.
But here’s a little secret just to encourage folk. Something went awry in the build of Abrazo House (which if builders are honest is par for the course in construction). And what do you know? I have something interesting to write about, and we all learn something new.
So what went wrong?
Originally Abrazo house was planned to be completely straw bale. Because the climate was wet and the build took a long time (four years in total), by the time the second floor was reached, the first floor had begun to rot. I don’t want to imagine how Robert and co. felt the moment they realised this. Personally, I would have lay down in the dirt, beat my chest and howled for a day. But Robert seems a mellow chap, so he probably flipped a little more quietly than I would have. And anyway there is always a solution. Many times it becomes the most outstanding feature of the house.
How did he solve the problem?
The issue was resolved by jacking up the first floor, removing the bales and then creating cob walls in their place. The cob easily supports the bales (which are far lighter than the solid earthern walls). Thus this has become a rather magnificent example of a hybrid natural home.
How did he increase the insulation value of the cob?
The reason Robert chose straw bale in the first place was that he was concerned about insulating such a large house. Straw bale has a high insulation value. Cob, on the other hand, has a high thermal mass value but is not particularly efficient for insulation (you can read more about that here). To mitigate this issue, Robert replaced some of the sand in the cob mix with sawdust. The result is a fabulous, attractive and warm family home.
Is this house built to code?
For those ever hungry for information on legalities: This is a natural home built to code. Yup, fully legit (as we say back in Essex). To do this in Spain you must buy an appropriate piece of land (edificable), speak to officials in your local government, get an architect to draw up an official plan, and then have it signed off by various titled pen-wielders in various offices. Obviously, each time you take any of these steps you will need to inhale and exhale deeply, and spend some money too. Patience and persistence are the two characteristics you must cultivate when embarking on a self build project anywhere.
Something else I learned:
Robert was mixing his earth plaster using an unconventional method (at least I’d never seen it done this way before). We laid a large layer of gravelly sand directly on the ground, then added a layer of clay, and finally some straw. Then the ingredients were mixed using a rotavator. Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence of me doing this, which is tragic because it was truly a battle between woman and machine:) To use this method successfully you need a fair bit of experience with earth plaster first, so you know exactly how the mixture should look. It’s quite hard to measure the quantities of ingredients carefully when they are spread on the floor. But because Robert knows his dirt and his climate well, he knows from sight and can assess the state of the mixture just by handling it.
If you want to read more about Abrazo House, or would like to help volunteer, go to www.abrazohouse.org.
A superbly useful interview with Kim Siu of the charity Get Rugged.
There are two ways of building yourself a natural home, no matter which country you are in: The unofficial way. And the official way.
The unofficial way involves skirting round the edges of the system, finding loopholes and sliding deftly through them. (I’ve seen this done in every country I’ve been to so far, though while entirely possible generally appeals to more risk-taking type of personalities).
Then there’s the official way. This costs more money, but may buy some peace of mind...in the end:)
Kim Siu, who runs the self build charity Get Rugged up in Scotland, built her beautiful straw bale house the official way. I was lucky enough to stay in that house, and talk to her. Here’s what she had to say:
Atulya: What do you think is the most important thing you need to build a house to code?
Kim: Sheer bloody-mindedness, and determination. That’s the number one thing you need. You mustn’t get ground down, and always keep telling yourself there is a way. Because there usually is. Even if you have to compromise. And sometimes we have to compromise in life. It’s just like that.
Atulya: I completely agree. You need determination no matter how you build. There’s always a way. There’s no problem without a solution. And sometimes you might have to change your vision slightly, but the basic core of it remains.
Kim: Yes. We kept our vision strong, but we just had to do little pivots every now and again. We found that working with the system, rather than trying to go against it really helped. We got the planners in from the very first stage, before we even parted with a penny. And then we did a staged approach, so every time we got some designs I’d go and speak to the planners, and show them what we were doing. Now we’re doing another build, so we’re doing exactly the same. I spoke with the planners. She came on site. I’ve showed her the early stages of the concept. And again, every time we develop the designs, we’ll take it to her, and she’ll give us her feedback. It’s actually really good, because you get a lot of foresight, which you don’t have to use as hindsight:) She’s not worrying us. She’s making us aware of things. Like road access, and different conditions. So we’re not surprised later on.
Atulya: Yes and you’re not forking out loads of money first, and then regretting it. So let me just clarify. It is totally legal to build a straw bale house in the UK, right?
Kim: Oh yes. Absolutely.
Atulya: So what did you have to compromise on?
Kim: We had to compromise on window sizes . They wanted the larger ones on the bottom. They wanted everything to be symmetrical, and didn’t like anything too quirky, because it has to fit in with the local vernacular. If you were somewhere else, like Findhorn where there are more alternative buildings, you’d have more freedom It’s very area dependent.
Also planners need to be dealt with on an individual basis. You’ve really got to develop a good relationship with them.
Atulya: Yes. That is the same everywhere. Relationships are key.
Kim: There are two government bodies you have to deal with: planners and building control. Planners deal with things like local vernacular, and you have some flexibility here. You can appeal their decision too. But building control is different. It’s the nuts and bolts of the build, your house’s sustainability principles, it has to meet various regulations. They want engineer’s certificates and things.
Atulya: Did you have to make compromises there too?
Kim: Oh that was the worst bit! In our build, there was an architect, a builder, and an engineer all talking to building control. This meant it turned into a very complex process. It could have been simplified by using a design and build company, because they design the building they’re going to build. Then you know exactly how much it’s going to cost, and it’s easier.
Eventually, I went to the building control officer and asked, “How can I make this easier for you to put us through building control,” and he said, “Get your architects and get your builders, and get them all sat round this table.” Really clear communication is essential.
Atulya: Does building control happen while the building is being constructed? Or before or after?
Kim: You can’t even dig a hole until you have a building warrant, and it took us about 18 months to get through both planning and building control.
Atulya: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to build a natural home the official way?
Kim: Either get a design and build company (the easy option), or if you’re going to build it yourself get a team you can work with, get people (engineer/architect) who know the codes and can help you get through planning.
Atulya: And the cost?
Kim: The charge is dependent on the cost of the build or the cost of the site. It’s proportional. So you’re talking several thousand pounds before you’ve even broken the ground.
Atulya: Which is more than my whole house cost! But there are advantages to doing it this way. What are they?
Kim: They’re not going to pull your house down. Mine is a family house. I’ve got four kids. I’m on a B road. People drive past us, so we’d have got told on before long. You have more security this way. In truth though, the main thing was to get a mortgage. We couldn’t have got a mortgage any other way.
Atulya: There you go. I didn’t know that. So you can get a mortgage even on a self-build natural home project?
Kim: Yes. Though only certain places. We got ours at the Ecology Building Society.
Atulya: And any last tips to close on?
Kim: Create decent relationships with everyone. Planners and building code officers are human beings too. Don’t annoy everyone too much. It’s OK to dig in sometimes for something you really want, but treat people kindly, and with respect. It goes a long way.
Getting permission to build a natural home in the UK. What you have to do:
1. Get planning permission. Call in a planning officer at the beginning to look at your site, and make sure you’re able to build on it. Some tests (drainage) are done at this stage.
2. Gather an experienced team (design and build company, or an architect/builder who knows the ropes). Go for your building warrant through a building control officer. (You can apply for planning and a building warrant together.)
3. Once you have a warrant, start building. Building control will turn up at intervals to check things.
For more information go to GET RUGGED, and pick up the free self build PDF. Or connect on Facebook.
IN THE USA? It's a very similar story. Here's an article by Sigi Koko on how to build to code in the US.
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Atulya K Bingham
“Entranced! Be inspired by one who’s lived and breathed dirt.”
Kim Sui, Get Rugged
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine
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