By Suzanne Radford
Living in the mountains, experiencing the natural elements and being surrounded by forests, the senses become heightened. While there are many benefits of living in this landscape, there are challenges and with rising temperatures summers bring an increased risk of wildfires. This is why many of the residents around Monchique are seeking sustainable ways of living and are turning to alternative forms of building for inspiration.
Taipa is the way houses were traditionally built in Portugal (or cob, a technique that originates from the UK) using raw natural materials like earth, chalk, straw, lime or gravel that naturally regulate temperatures from within and are toxin-free. Concrete is one of the most widely used substances on earth, so finding an alternative and reducing CO2 emissions may be a way forward in doing our bit for the environment, and there is an added incentive that it is more economical.
One person who is following this path is Ulrike Mach, who runs Porca Preta, a gallery and bar/ cafe nestled in the hills on the north side of the mountains. The property looks like a small village, comprising little houses and artist studios, and is surrounded by trees and flowers. Here music and art events are held for children and adults, and there is a gallery space for artists to showcase their work.
When I visited, Julius Martin was the artist in residence and had captured the cork oaks and character of the people and place through his installations and drawings. Visiting from Germany, he immediately picked up on the community’s awareness of the risk of fire, the forest and the people still healing from the trauma of the last big one in 2018.
Some put the fires down to climate change, others to the monoculture planting of eucalyptus, which is prolific and highly combustible. Ulrike experienced the reality of forest fires first-hand and lost a number of buildings in the fire. She is in the process of rebuilding and is replacing the lost buildings with a SuperAdobe sauna and ecological pool with the plan to add wellness days to the venue’s event calendar. She is using bioclimatic materials and construction techniques developed by architect Nader Khalil (imagine sandbags but rammed with earth instead of sand). The walls and foundations are constructed with wire and soil, a building system that combines traditional earth architecture with global safety requirements. It’s strong, durable and has passed earthquake standard tests. And, I’m told, it’s simple to build.
To create the dome-like structure, coils of the earth in bags are stacked on top of each other, rather like a potter stacks coils of clay to make a vessel. These provide the right amount of strength and compression held by wire both vertically and horizontally. Building this way, the earth provides insulation and is resistant to fire and floods. Building a dome, an arch rotated at 180°, is one of the strongest forms of architecture we have seen being used for thousands of years and it brings design possibilities into our own living spaces.
There is a social aspect to this environmentally conscious way of building because it’s simple and no heavy lifting is required. It is something you can do as a family, or with friends and members of your community, as was the case in times gone by. When I visited Porca Preta, the builders broke for lunch and food was provided for everyone who happened to be on the property. Artists, musicians and builders coming together in the middle of the day for food from the forest and afterwards a digestif of medronho and a bica of coffee before each returning to their work and craft.
Along with the practical, economic and environmental considerations, there are health implications too. Consider the effects on the body waking up in a house made of natural materials, breathing in air pure in quality and enjoying naturally regulated temperatures with peace of mind, knowing you are living a more sustainable life in sync with nature.
Porca Preta – Galleria De Arte Monchique
+351 282 110 858