Discover Low-Impact Natural Buildings in Spain

Robert Alcock
Monday, 28th July 2014

Rural areas of Spain are beginning to repopulate, with various ecovillage projects appearing and more and more people looking for a cheaper and simpler way of life. Robert Alcock explores this ever growing community, focussing on the Spanish 'under-the-radar' strawbale buildings.

Over the last decade, the increased construction in Spain has left empty housing developments, unused airports and debt.

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 find these silent villages everywhere: ruined adobe houses, empty felds, stork 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 five 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 first 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, tool shed 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 tool shed permitted as part of a legal building project (though we later expanded it to about 40m2). We lived there for the better part of four years while we built a two-storey, 220m2 hybrid cob/straw bale house. The whole project ('urban' land included) has set us back about €155000 (£130,000) - 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 flush 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 benefit 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 officials 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!

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

Robert Alcock is an ecological designer and self-builder based in Cantabria, northern Spain 

 1 Municipal statistics for 2012, from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics, Spain has 8,114 municipalities in all, with an average area of 62km2. 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.

Further resources

Robert Alcock writes about his own home in PM80 (also available as a pdf download)

The Straw Bale House

Serious Straw Bale - A Home Construction Guide for all Climates

Watch: Staw bale building

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Nicky |
Fri, 22/08/2014 - 13:23
Whilst brand new straw bale and cob houses sound great don't forget that renovation of existing houses may be more realistic and cheaper for many. Up here in Galicia (Spain) there are any number of good value traditional stone houses just begging to be eco-renovated. Our house has nearly meter thick local stone walls perfect for heating and cooling the rooms inside. The roofs are supported by local chestnut beams and covered in local hand cut slates. We have a lot more rain here giving lush growing conditions. You don't have to build alegally from scratch. Just find an unwanted traditional stone house and learn to love it as we have.
a1 |
Tue, 18/10/2016 - 18:23
nicky: tienes razon, deberia primarse SIEMPRE recuperar la edificacion antigua PERO 1. hace falta menos conocimientos tiempo y mano de obra -y hay mas margen de error- para hacer una casa de paja/superadoble/whatever desde cero que para hacer habitable una antigua de piedra (y arreglarla con profesionales es caro, unos 1000euros por cada ventana que quieras abrir, unos 100-160E por cada m2 de pared de piedra(a mas alta mas caro el m2) y ni te digo cuanto en vigas y pizarra; se va facil a los 80mil euros la reforma con 0 lujos y seguira estando mal situada la casa). 2. legalmente es un cachondeo. La ley (no se en galicia, pero se en cantabria, que es donde esta la familia de este articulo) da al propietario de una cabaña el derecho a rehabilitarla y convertirla en una vivienda correcta UNICAMENTE si la cabaña esta catalogada, hasta aqui normal, no? pues no, porque la mitad de los municipios de cantabria no tienen aun el puñetero catalogo de edificaciones rusticas!!!!! (pese a que ello significa quitar derechos a los propietarios de rustico); Sin catalogo no hay derecho a aumentar volumen, sin aumentar volumen no puedes conseguir altura de techo para una vivienda correcta (a menos que una cabaña de dos plantas la conviertas en una de 1planta.... lo que es poco practico por muy grande que sea la construccion (no solo lo mas caro es el techo sino que una vivienda a lo largo en lugar de a lo alto es mas dificil de calentar) 3. las cabañas estan pensadas para tener los techos bajos y un monton de vacas hacinadas en la planta de abajo dando calor a la mini zona de vivienda de arriba con lo que no siguen los mismos criterios en su diseño o localizacion que seguiria uno hoy dia para una casa: a la mayoria no les da el sol casi nunca o dan la espalda a la parcela, en los valles no hay tantas como arriba de la montaña -y las que estan en zonas bajas suelen tener la linea de alta tension por en medio de la parcela...-, la gran mayoria tiene menos de 40m2 utiles por planta aun sin descontar el espacio de la escalera,son edificaciones alargadas y la fachada sur suele ser una de las cortas -que ademas no suele ser lo bastante ancha para situar en ella dos dormitorios-, etc etc etc es una putada porque son una moneria pero es que no estan pensada para ser casas, y menos casas comodas y por mucho dinero que se invierta en ellas hay cosas que no se pueden arreglar (por cierto, la ley cambia en 2018 a mas dura; el que quiera rehabilitar legalmente hacer el cambio de uso a alguna cabaña por esa zona que lo haga ahora o se arriesgue a no poder- en breve deberian caer en picado los precios de cabañas sin adaptar debido a eso PD me encanta abrazohoooooouse!!! pude visitarla hace poco y son un cielo y te explican como han hecho cada cosa y que porque eligieron esa manera sobre las otras, muy didactico