Octagonal HoUse in AlDeia CoMMunITy


It quickly became obvious to our community (Aldeia) that we needed houses and we needed them fast. People were arriving on the land faster than we could find place to host them, and it was hard to turn anyone away. We needed another house, and the prerequisites for this house were many. Here are some of the main ones:
-Had to be made of NATURAL and non-toxic materials
-Had to be built in a SUSTAINABLE fashion and use LOCAL resources
-Had to be built FAST
-Had to be BEAUTIFUL

Was this too much to ask for in one project?

I certainly did not think so, and my friend Tomek who took lead on the realization and management of the project agreed. Looking back now, it is hard to really understand how we achieved what we did with this house. In the end it has more of all the qualities that I mentioned above than we dared to imagine in the beginning. A house has a life of its own, and it certainly seems to me that this house was not only MADE, but also BORN. So many details went in the birth of this house that I will not try to tell you all of them. I will not share any details that you can easily find in a quick google search. What I want to focus on is the experience and challenges of building the house; the things we knew by the end that we wish we had known in the beginning. I will break them down into a few basic and personal points.

Do not Trust Theory.

Everyone has a theory. Ninety five percent of the people who call themselves bio-constructors have never built anything. They learn things in courses, build little pieces of half walls, then go and teach a course as experts. Much of what they know has been passed around from person to person, course to course, and has never or rarely been applied. This means that in the huge body of knowledge about bioconstruction, there is about as many things that don’t work, as there is that do. You will have to apply and test every idea yourself, to prove it works for YOU, in your place, with your materials, in your climate. Tomek in making the mix for the clay walls of this house did literally hundreds of tests. He did not simply apply a recipe like he is baking a cake. He baked hundreds of cakes.. And in the end, based on how they came out, wrote the recipe. This recipe worked in our clay, with our limestone, our water, our climate. It likely will not work for you. Do the tests.

Let Go (The house will not look in the end, like you imagined in the beginning.)

One of the biggest lessons of this house for me was that of letting go. When you decide to build using natural materials, what you want will have to be tailored to the materials available. Building with cement, you simply decide a shape and size, and build what you imagine. When you are building with wood and clay, the size and shape of the wood you get, and the qualities of the earth available, as well as climate conditions and position will largely determine what you can and can’t do. You have to be flexible, and adapt to the materials, not just adapt the materials to you. In this particular project, we started with the idea of building a green roof supported by a reciprocal beam structure. The design was clear in my head, and I imagined it in every detail… finally, when I got the wood for the reciprocal beams, pulled to the site by a large bull, the wood was thinner than I had hoped. It was thinner, but it came from a neighbors land, and it was all we could find locally at the time. I decided to go ahead and use it. Once the roof structure was up, I had a lot of doubt about whether these thinner beams can support the weight of the green roof. Tomek who came on board around that time also had serious doubts. Midway through the project, we had to abandon the whole green roof idea and look for another solution. Half way through building the house, we no longer had a plan for the roof… This went on for two months until we finally found a solution in a naturally growing fiber called piassava. In the end this grass style roof looked amazing, had excellent thermal qualities and resistance, replicated many of the qualities of a green roof, but it was simply not what we imagined at first… It is important to adapt your plan to you materials.

Make Mistakes.

This point ties in largely to the first point in this list. Since a lot of bioconstruction knowledge is untested, you will have to take a lot of risks, and test every process for yourself. Don’t be afraid. It might not work. Do it anyways. Going back to the roof of this house, in the beginning, I had decided that I wanted one side of the reciprocal beam roof to be a lot higher than the other. I wanted this uneven roof in order to let more light in on the sunny side of the house, to have larger windows, and to give the house an interesting less symmetrical shape. I could not find a single resource online about how to do an uneven reciprocal beam roof with the shape I wanted. It was really scary to cut the beams and lift the roof with no prior reference. We went ahead anyways, and it worked. The risk paid off and it became one of the defining characteristics of the house. This will not always be the case. Many other experiments, such as the lime and pigment colors we used on the outside of the house simply did not work. They had to be redone. But that is ok. Don’t be afraid. Make mistakes. That is how you learn, and more importantly, how you create something original and unique.

Trust the people you are working with.

You can’t do it alone. One of the joys, and pains of building your own house, is that you will have to work closely with a lot of people. Again, in conventional building, working with dead materials like concrete, everything is under your command, even the workers you hire. When building a natural house, the process of building is energetically (and practically) linked to the final product. In this case instead of hiring workers, we did the project with volunteers; people who were there to learn, and who truly cared about the final product. In this environment you have to be really open to everyone’s ideas, not necessarily use them, but allow them to be expressed and considered. This also becomes part of the house’s evolution and effects how you feel about the house in the end. In working on the design with Tomek, I encountered many challenges. One of these challenges is that I knew what I wanted. Not only as the builder, but also as the owner of the house, I felt I had the right to get what I wanted. Tomek did not always agree. He had his own vision, and in some cases, not a lot, it differed from mine. I had to decide, do I want this to be collaboration or not? I knew that I did want it to be collaboration. I had to back down on many details. In a couple of instances I gave in, with great effort, on details that I was sure I was right about. I believe Tomek also had to do the same thing many times. In time, many of the things I resisted turned out to be the right solution/method after all. I simply could not see it at the time. In the end the house was better and more beautiful for it, more balanced than any one of us could have done on their own. In choosing to work with someone, trust their vision. If you cannot trust their vision when it is different than yours, you should not be working with them.

All you need to know is the next step.

Building a house is such a complex process that it can be overwhelming. In the community, I have watched some families “plan” their house for more than four years now. It is such a large and overwhelming task that they simply could not get started. They want to figure out every detail beforehand, every window, every wall socket, every step and curve. Every time one detail changes, so do all the others. It is a constantly shifting equation. In the end one couple in particular gave up and never built the house. You do not need to know every detail. You have to start with many unknowns. Either way, the design will evolve during construction. You don’t need to know all the steps, all you need to know for sure, is your NEXT step. Focus on each task, and as this comes to completion, the next step will become more obvious. Simple but true.

Who made it?

Some (but now all) volunteers who are part of this project. THANK YOU!! Britt Skylar (Canada), Adrian Dawson (Ireland), Colin Evans (England), Angitode Nieddu Dore (Italy), Jeff (Canada), Thiago (Brasil), Tata Maria (Brasil) Agnieszka Kwiatkowska (Poland), Sol (Argentina), Marina (Brasil), Miriam (Germany), Elodie Foucault (France), Hakim (France), Nicole (Russia), Claire (France), João Fernandes (Portugal), Manu Skapunky (Argentina), Thibaut Maes (France), Regina Morão (Brasil), Rafael Estruc Pereira (Brasil), Marcos (Brasil), Sofia (Spain), Betina Ritter Waskow (Brasil), Carla Martins (Brasil), Manon Energeya (France), Bastien (France), Paulo Condé (Portugal), Catarina (Portugal), Gustavo (Portugal), Jessica Larsson (Sweden), Fernando Bastian (Argentina), Ula Basinska (Poland), Alejandro (USA), André Godoy (Brasil), Isabel Stenberg (Sweden), Nikoli Na (Bosnia), Maria Baderna (Brasil), Jose Monguilner (Argentina), Marta Mundo (Portugal), Tarcila Caffe (Brasil), Aleksei Binkovski (Latvia), Daniel Bastian (Argentina), Gustavo Vidal (Portugal), Tamina Marucha (Germany), Flávia Villani (Brasil), Lisa (Germany), Carly Jane Iris (USA), Ross Magiros (Australia), Marlene (Germany), Isa Pimentel (Brasil), Megan Long (USA), Fernanda Duque (Brasil), Sara Mascarenhas (Capo Verde), Léa Dagniaux (France), Amanda Torquette (Brasil), Chris (Germany), Alice (Spain), Beto (Brasil), Davi Cisco (Brasil), Enrique (Brasil), Luana Vaz (Brasil), Jannik Bußmann (Germany), Gwendoline Ogam (France), Leonie Passet (Germany), Jass H Jilley (England), Gustavo (Brasil), Timo Honegger, Igor (Brasil)