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Land and Freedom – Low-Impact Building in the “Other” Spain

The tsunami of construction that washed over Spain in the decade of the 2000s has drawn back, leaving behind some very odd jetsam. Unused airports, white elephant projects like the City of the Arts and Sciences in Valencia, uninhabited housing developments in the middle of nowhere — and massive debts, public and private.

But nearly all that concrete has been poured into a few places: around the main cities, the Mediterranean coast and islands. There’s another Spain where nothing much has happened — and it just goes on happening, decade after decade.

Half of Spain’s 47 million people live in towns and cities occupying just 2% of its surface area. Meanwhile there are over 3,200 rural municipalities, covering 40% of the country, with fewer than 10 residents per square kilometre. That’s less than a million people, in a combined area the size of England and Scotland. These depopulated areas are found all over Spain, but mostly in the interior north. They include two-thirds of the territory of Castilla y León and Aragón, more than half of La Rioja and Castilla–La Mancha, and over a third of Cantabria, Extremadura, Navarra and even wealthy Cataluña.(1)

Once off the main roads, you fnd these silent villages everywhere: ruined adobe houses, empty felds, storks’ nests, baking sun and biting wind. Most have been dying since the 1950s and ’60s, when rural poverty drove mass emigration to the cities. A few old people still hang on, growing their cabbages and leeks. Harsh climates are often exacerbated by a lack of trees.

However, a growing neo-ruralist movement is repopulating this “other” Spain. Well- known ecovillage projects like Lakabe, Matavenero or Amayuelas are only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of mostly young people, both from Spanish cities and elsewhere in Europe, have decided to shun “the system,” buy or occupy cheap rural land and make a simpler life. It’s impossible to know exactly how many neo-rurals there are in Spain, because their activities — especially their buildings — are often under-the-radar. While it’s perfectly legal to build a hideous concrete chalet almost anywhere, getting permission for a lovingly crafted cob, adobe or straw-bale structure is often impossible and always expensive. Mark, an English straw-bale builder and instructor who has worked all over Spain, points out that while you can build a basic straw-bale dwelling of 40m2 for as little as €2000 in materials, planning permission will set you back around €6000 — if you can get it, which is very unlikely. The zoning system, meanwhile, means that the cost of “urban” land for building can be fve times that of rural land.

But in Spain, there is a middle way between “legal” and “illegal” — call it “alegal” — where interesting things often happen. A building might not be technically legal, but unless someone complains there’s no legal case against the owner. People often build frst and legalise (or not) their buildings later, based on a variety of circumstances, like proximity to a village, pre-existence of a ruined cabin, or the building’s use as a barn, toolshed or the like.

My own experience as an eco-builder is based in a tiny, but not especially remote, village in Cantabria, less than an hour from Bilbao. My family and I started with a cob cabin, legally classifed as a 15m2 toolshed permitted as part of a legal building project (though we later expanded it to about 40m2). We lived there for the better part of 4 years while we built a two-storey, 220m2 hybrid cob/straw bale house. The whole project (“urban” land included) has set us back about €155,000 — a lot for an eco-build project, but roughly a third of the typical cost per square metre for a conventional house in our region. The main house has architects’ plans signed off by the regional college of architects, but which say nothing about the materials used. We didn’t follow the plans, anyway, because we were learning as we went along. We have fush toilets that go to a dual composting chamber instead of a septic tank — I don’t even want to know if that’s legal or not. Oh, and we also do home education — another activity that’s alegal in Spain, but which thousands of families practice.

Local offcials and residents in general tend to favour any new activity that promises benefts to the area. We’ve become fairly well known for our “casa de barro” through word-of-mouth and TV appearances, and the mayor is supportive of our new project to build two more (permitted) cob houses in the same village.

Our situation is unusual, in that most low-impact builders in Spain don’t seek formal permission. In the case of our friends Carlos and Maria, their local town hall (also in Cantabria) actually ceded them a plot of land on which to build an (alegal) straw bale house — with the proviso that if they are denounced, the municipality won’t defend them. Our neighbours Sergio and Sandra, meanwhile, are building a cob cottage which they hope to legalise later, either formally or by default after a certain period. Another couple we know have built a 40m2 straw bale cabin for €5000, also without permission. For all these couples, the risk is worth the beneft of a far cheaper, better and more sustainable house than could be built legally.

But going “underground” has its drawbacks. We couldn’t have built our house without the help of publicity to attract volunteers. Also, one of the biggest problems with the neo- rural lifestyle is isolation. It’s much less stressful if you don’t have to hide, and far more fun if you have company.

I think that the “other” Spain is crying out for a network of well-designed, albeit technically alegal, ecovillage projects. A group with a critical mass of potential residents and a viable economic model — based around natural building (especially straw bale, which is both an abundant wasted resource and appropriate to the climate), agroforestry, renewable energy, crafts, leisure, experiential education, and so on — should be able to gain local support and buy or lease land very cheaply or even for free. Regional offcials would fnd it more in their interest to legalise the buildings or at least turn a blind eye, than spend tens of thousands in legal fees to demolish €5000 eco-houses. If you want to help make this idea a reality, then please get in touch!

Further Reading:

References:

  1. Municipal statistics for 2012, from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics, https://www.ine.es. Spain has 8,114 municipalities in all, with an average area of 62 km2. The national average population density is 93 people per km2. The definition of a “depopulated” municipality as one with 10 or fewer residents per km2 is my own.

~~~~~

Originally published in The Land magazine issue 16, summer 2014.

Robert Alcock is an ecological designer and self-builder based in Cantabria, northern Spain. www.abrazohouse.org / ralcock (at) euskalnet (dot) net

12 Comments

  1. Reading this was a curiously happy experience. It’s is a very real picture of something that is happening now in mainland Europe, has taken wild courage and slow consideration to get this far and presents positive actions in the face of difficulties for the readers to base their decisions on and accept or decline an invitation to join. There are people who need this and could be useful additions to the group(s). Maybe if it was reprinted in the UK Permaculture Magazine…is the Spanish for terroir ‘terruño’? There is something wonderfully fierce about Spain….bravo!

  2. Thanks for the wonderful and perceptive comment, Susan.

    I haven’t heard the word “terruño” used but then I’m not much of a wine buff. You may be right.

    I just had an article published in Permaculture magazine (about the house project) and I don’t know if they republish articles from other sources… but maybe for the website?

    All best wishes

  3. I wish Robert the best of luck with this….but a few words of warning to those who wish to follow his approach.

    We lived in rural Spain (Andalusía) for three years, but moved back to the UK last year. The main reason for our return was the astonishingly awful schooling available to our 9 and 10 year old boys. They attended the local school for two years, and we then took them out of it and home schooled (illegally in Spain) for a further year. We were told by the head teacher of their old school that she would inform social services that we were not sending our children to school, so we decided to leave Spain rather than go through the pain of the Spanish legal system. Our boys are now very happy at the local junior school in the UK (when they are badly behaved we threaten them with a return to school in Spain – it has a miraculous effect!)

    On the subject of other “alegal” approaches which Robert mentions, such as building without a permit, I would recommend caution. You will always be just someone’s whim away from being denounced, losing your home, and probably being landed with a large fine (and Spanish fines can be eye-wateringly high). The house may only have cost 5000 Euros to build, but if you’ve then invested 20 years of your life into improving the land, do you really want the work of all those years snatched away from you just because a mean-spirited neighbour decides to get revenge for some real or imagined insult, or because there is a change of mayor and he wants your plot for someone else?

  4. Hi Mark

    Thanks for your reply. Indeed, I do not advise anyone lightly to break the law — but the situation I describe in the article is what really exists in Spain. Everything depends on your town hall and, more broadly, your community.

    As regards education, there is a big home ed movement in Spain, and it’s growing — I don’t know whether you were in touch with ALE https://www.educacionlibre.org/, but they offer legal and other support to home educators. The legal situation can be scary but plenty of people have managed to navigate it and continue home educating.

    Part of the reason my partner I decided to stay in Spain rather than move back to the UK was because a project like ours would have been almost unthinkable in the UK, with the extremely high (and rising) prices and the stringent enforcement of regulations designed to favour the conventional building industry… There are projects that are doing low-cost, low-impact building but the obstacles, as I understand it, are grave.

    Anyway, sorry the move to Spain didn’t work out for you, and I hope you’ll continue to be happy in the UK!

  5. hey I liked your article, i have been considering a project in spain with some friends for some time now. I really like the idea of building an eco home with cob and other methods and we are all in the same situation in that we are tired of being bound by the daily grind and want to start our own bisuness. We all have diffrent skills from carpenter to chef to therapist and paraglider instructor and have plans to combine thease skills to create our own separte bisunesses that share land and buildings and rely on one another. we would like to buy a nice pice of land and build there, howerver we will have to build some substanial strctures in order to achive our vision and it must be leagal in order to have a leagal bisuness. and also I have kids so the question of schooling is import for me. So if you have any advice or more insight for me i would be very greatful.
    Jeremy

    1. Hi Jeremy

      Well, I think you and your friends have got the right idea, but it is always going to be difficult to set up a project like this, find and buy land in a place where it’s going to be possible to make a living, then get it set up, and all of course on limited capital and naturally people won’t always agree on how to do things, especially when the going gets tough. Which is why most intentional communities never get off the ground or else fail in the first few years.

      My advice, for what it’s worth, is to get together with others (individuals or groups) who have the same dreams in order to make such a project viable.

      What I would like to do is to set up a non-profit organisation that would facilitate the kind of project that you propose. I’d propose to call this NGO “Repoblar” (which in Spanish means to repopulate and also to reforest!)

      Suppose you and your friends were all to put in 50 or 100 euros and you could get 200 to 500 people to do the same. With 10 to 50 grand a core group of the NGO—consisting of a small team of experienced permaculturists appointed by the members—would do the necessary research to identify and survey maybe 5 or 10 different potential sites located across the depopulated areas of Spain that I’ve described. Then the core group would come back to the members with descriptions of the sites and outline proposals for how each one could be developed, and the members would decide individually or collectively whether they would be up for investing in each of the sites.

      At this stage those who wanted to move forward on a particular site would pledge money, say another 100 to 200 euros each. Once enough money was raised, the site would be optioned, and the core group would then design the business plan, water systems, tree planting, infrastructure and buildings, in consultation with the members. I believe that there is now enough technical knowledge and experience available to make all this feasible on a relatively low budget.

      It would be important that the members trust the core group to make most of the major large-scale decisions because it’s easy to get bogged down in endless meetings and consultations at an early stage. Certain people always tend to waste time and slow down the decision-making processes in groups of this type. It’s inevitable that people like this will be involved in any ecovillage project but they mustn’t be allowed to sabotage it. I propose to shortcut this process by making the major design decisions at a level of the core group.

      Basically, the core group would go away and come back with a framework design. Members who approve the design would put in money to join that ecovillage, those who don’t would be free not to, but they wouldn’t be free to hold up the others by quibbling over details. Once enough money was raised, the site would be bought, either by the NGO or, more likely, by a separate land trust or co-op for each site, and the statues of development written. Then the members would be free to express their creativity and make subsequent decisions, as individuals or in groups, within that framework. (E.g. You can decide what shape and size to make your house, and where to put it within the range of sites laid out in the plan, but you can’t decide to build a concrete chalet in a village of straw bale and cob houses.) In the long run it could grow from a single ecovillage to a network, making it progressively easier as economies of scale kick in. Each ecovillage would be autonomously organised, with the NGO acting in a consultative role.

      Obviously this is a pretty ambitious plan, but I’d be interested to hear from people who’d like to get involved. The idea would be to put together a formal proposal, set up the NGO and advertise for members.

      Don’t know if this is helpful at all, but that’s what I’d propose.

      Good luck with your project,

      Robert

  6. hey thanks for your reply thats quite an interesting idea. However money is not so much of an issue as we all work in or near to switzerland and earn quite well, we would plan for an initial investment of about 20 to 30,000 to buy good land idealy with some kind of building already standing and then build our project from there over roughly a 6 to 8 year period with a yearly investment of say 5 to 10,000 euros. As you pointed out it is tricky working with other people hece I would like to keep the group small and everyone will be building their own buissuness on the shared pice of land and hopefully existing in harmony and in a symbiotic state with one another as ech bisuness would rely on the other in one form or another. However as you pointed out in your article urbano land is really expensive and rural land is tricky to leagally build on, however you did mention in your article that the local mayor supported people and projects like this and that some municipalitys and town halls would be more inclined to allow such a thing. So could it also be an option in your opinion to try before buying land to present the idea to the local authoritys in order to gain support and legal permission, or are they more likely to swindle me. I mean in the current economic climate I would of thought such bisuness would be welcome especially if it is in a more eco friendly and social direction but I have no idea of the state of mind in spain.

    1. OK, having money changes things quite a bit. You should probably put together a business plan and get in touch with local authorities to ask for their help in finding a site. Most will be interested in attracting beneficial development to their area. They’re not likely to rip you off. Get in touch with me directly if you want advice on a more formal basis!

  7. Wow thankyou Robert and everyone else for your time and energy writing here.
    I find myself potentially in this situation. Im from the uk and in Australia/New Zealand at the moment but have friends in Spain/Europe who collectively, we are looking for this situation.
    I would love to know any new developments on this for the year 2017, or if anything has come of these comms.
    Our collective of 4 so far, potentially more, are dreaming of a manageable community (10-30 peeps) who all are invested in living sustainable, free and unbound by the incorrect restrictions of conventional society, including building obviously!
    Weather we go off to work every few months or live off our combined skills and local commerce, (building, crafting, veg/fruit sales etc) we are very excited to have a place of harmony and grounding that we can together create, of course boosting the local vitality and community :-)

    Many thanks
    Luke

  8. Hi Luke

    Good to hear from you. Since I wrote this article things have developed quite a bit. At the moment we are looking for people to buy/invest in our project. We are building two passive solar timber frame/straw bale buildings on a 4800m2 plot of land in the same village as Abrazo House. Our ideal would be to find investors who want to run an ecological learning centre (see https://www.abrazohouse.org/project/next-step/). We can offer a variety of investment options, from buying outright, lease-to-buy, buying one house and leasing/renting the other, or investing in a cooperative structure (though that could be a bit more complicated). Failing that, we would be looking for ecologically minded people who want to buy one or both houses to live in as part of an organically growing ecovillage. (We are not interested in selling them as weekend/holiday homes or rental properties since that is what’s killing off villages like ours.) I can’t tell you prices as yet because we are still involved in the building work, but we are doing our utmost to make the houses affordable by using natural, locally sourced materials and volunteer labour.

    If you’re interested, do get in touch via our website.

  9. Hi Robert – good expose and glad to see you are still answering comment – My partner, myself and our 10 year old will be looking to settle somewhere with some but modest resources – our preference is to get our own little chunk of land near a communal project and do our own little anarchist thing – please write to me at [email protected] – would love to ask more about your project out of public eye – thanks!
    JJ

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