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How a house makes us feel

Hidden in a steep-sided valley just south of Yátor in the Alpujarras, Spain, el valle de sensaciones is a marvel of art, invention and gorgeous eco-buildings. It’s original intension was to to be a cultural centre and to create an ‘artistic sustainable paradise’. This is no eco-village nor eco-community and there are very few residents. Achim, the founder, runs a broad variety of courses and workshops on practical eco-building skills (among other things) for which people travel far and wide. It is very much an experimental space – where knowledge is shared and new ideas are tested in practice.

The communal space and table and chairs

The most striking thing upon arrival are the aesthetics and creativity of every building and created object. Beautiful wooden sculptures abound, a carefully mosaiced solar cooker sits majestically alongside sets of chairs and tables made from small branches woven together and there is an elaborate metal construction of a pedal-powered washing-machine.

Inside the communal area

This focus on aesthetics is further evident in the dozen or so buildings on site. In the kitchen, a large octagonal adobe house with a reciprocal wooden roof, several of the windows and a door are uneven curved-shapes made from misshapen olive tree branches and reclaimed glass cut to fit ´inspired by the shapes of nature´ – practical artworks. Colourful mosaic covers the back walls and branches are used as handles on the cupboards. Everywhere the clay has been used to create curves and mould in storage space. Two sides of the octagon are made from plywood which can be removed in summer for additional ventilation. The roof, with a large overhang to protect the clay, is covered in asphalt to waterproof it. Overlooking the kitchen is a geodesic dome treehouse high in an olive tree. Made from wood batons it is insulated with cork sheets and its windows look into the tree and beyond – a very peaceful place. Elsewhere is another treehouse – Casa 3 alamos – with walls made entirely from old doors. These are only attached to the platform and roof via a few connected beams


These treehouses, however, are not really intended as long-term sleeping spaces – ´too hot in this weather´. Rather it is the adobe buildings – including a modest bedroom and earth-sheltered store built using clay from the site (so good in its quality that there is no need to add sand to the mixture) which are built to suit the climate. Adobe has been used not just because it is a freely available material, but that it (built to the right thickness) keeps buildings cool during the day and warm at night. The heat from the sun spends the day ´travelling´through the wall to disperse into the room as night falls. Clay is also easily plaible (inviting creativity), a natural non-polluting material and robust once dry. It does, however, take a long time to construct – with each layer on a wall having to be left long enough to take the weight of more clay, but not being too dry otherwise preventing the sections melding. It is a task best done collectively because it is so time and labour intensive.bolted each end – creating a suspended building that is able to move as the tree does.

Building and sculpture in clay

They are also experimenting with caves on-site – intending on improving the traditional cave house of the region by using glass and passive solar gain to raise the average temperature of the dwellings which otherwise tends to be at the lower end of the comfort zone at 16 C. These are an interesting attempt to meld the traditional with the ecological. Just as the local cortijo (small rural houses from stone and wood) are often very dark inside and thus could be easily eco-modified without loosing their tradition or charm. Finally, the toilet. Readers might begin to assume that I am obsessed by compost toilets – but really I am simply inspired when effort is put into to make such a functional space one of beauty. At el valle de sensaciones the toilet and shower block are a vision of creativity – tall and slender hemp concrete blocks with curved roofs and entire external walls of mosaics, they are quite unlike anything I have ever seen before.

The toilets

Thus the buildings here are an inspiring mixture of local materials, nature-inspired aesthetics and low-cost. Only a few hundred euros were spent (on each building) on materials which cannot otherwise be found on site or reclaimed from others´waste. Labour costs could be significant however and it is clear that volunteers are expected to work diligently.
The main problem encountered by those on site has been planning. Most people I talked to described planning law and its enforcement as a myriad of greys. The only thing you can be certain of is that nothing is for certain and thus it is never clear what is legal and what is not. It all depends who you talk to and everything can change of there is a change of local bureaucrat. El valle de sensaciones have been embroiled in this system for 8 years and seem only to have encountered delays and denouncements (official reports of wrong doing which can result in a fine, court case of destruction order, but are often minor affairs). The effect of Spanish law being so undefined is that it is both costly (financially and in time) to [img7]get permission and the uncertainty of the outcome effectively discourages trying to be legal. Such vagueness can be both an opportunity and a hindrance to creative eco-building. It is hard to know if it is any better that the often rather black and white and potentially stifling British planning system where there tend to be no greys at all.

The most important thing I took away from my brief visit to el valle de sensaciones, however, was that it is worth thinking carefully about the aesthetics of a building – not just in design, or volume, but in colours and textures too. That how a house makes us feel is perhaps one of the most crucial criteria when judging the success of a building.

Jenny Pickerl is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Leicester University (UK). Most of her research is concerned with understanding the social perspectives of environmental solutions – eco-building, use of technologies, environmental campaigning – but she also works on internet activism and other social justice campaigning such as anti-capitalist and anti-war activism.

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