After the rain come sunshine & hard work

After the rain come sunshine & hard work

You might have heard it – we had quite a wet and foggy winter. Which meant that despite our best efforts, work wasn’t really progressing well… For every day we were out and about making things happen, there were at least two or three days when our (clay) soil was too compacted, the weather too rainy or just too plain cold to do what we had planned.

However, that all changed in the middle of February… Since almost ten days we have volunteers staying with us and neighbours helping us out, and things are going so fast that it makes my heart leap with joy. We have about two more weeks of work in front of us, and then it’s time to clean up and get everything ready for our first bed & breakfast guests to arrive; we’ve already got a few bookings between March and October and we’re very much looking forward to it.
In the mean time, I thought I’d share a few pictures of what’s going on here…

At the back of the house

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Last year, a lot of earth was dumped at the back of the house. Nothing much grows there at the moment and it gets muddy all the time – so we’re doing some landscaping…
First, we poured a 1m60 border of concrete along the back wall. Not only can this serve as a base for a recycling unit, a wood storage, gas storage, gardening / working station and chicken coop – it’s also much easier to walk on when the weather isn’t perfect.
The wood storage was built in one day by our volunteers Laura & Pietz – and the day after, they tackled the recycling tower (done in just a few hours!) and now they’re working on stone stairs towards the solar system shed.
Our friend Katrien is working at a brand new (and super fancy) chicken coop, with the help of our Belgian volunteer Brecht. It started out as a coop, then became a chicken house, the idea of building a castle came and went and now it looks like it’s going to be a chicken cathedral. Guess we’ll have to call our next rooster “Cardinal”.
In the next few weeks hopefully we’ll be able to continue on the chicken coop, finish the stone stairs and maybe start on preparing the back yard and setting up fencing for the chicken run. It’s going to be bigger than before!

Around the house

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You might have seen that we’ve been working on a terrace wall in front of / around the house since May (2016). I’m very proud to announce that it’s almost done now; it only needs some finishing touches, and it does need to be filled with a lot more soil. Which should happen on Wednesday, with the help of our friend George. Once the soil is in place, we’ll add on manure, planting soil and mulch – and we’ll be all ready to start sowing and planting! I’m very much looking forward to that part.

The side entrance to the guest rooms has been tiled (thank you Dan!), and Axel has been doing a few repairs and improvements to the guest balconies. As we speak, Axel and Brecht have started on the front yard; we’ve been discussing the design for weeks and hope it will be both convenient for me to work in, and beautiful to look at. We’re loosening the earth first, but we’re building raised beds on top of it anyway. The garden beds will be filled with herbs and edible flowers (or just vegetables with beautiful blossoms), and maybe some berry bushes.

The vegetable garden

The vegetable garden is a work in progress – but work is progressing, for once. After the last two seasons, we decided on building hexagonal raised beds – only time will tell if this is the right decision, but so far we think it’s going to look fabulous. The idea is to make a few raised beds every now and then, so in the end it will be all raised beds – and paths in between. So far the fig, kaki, plum and two apple trees have gotten their own raised beds – so we can plant a “guild” of other plants around them. We also bought all the accessories for a watering system… now only to install it before the heath of summer.

This year, we’ve sown the seeds for the vegetables inside… in the living room… Axel made me an extra big table that will hold four of those big polystyrene seed trays. I’ve got plenty of seedlings now: corn, tomato, kale, cabbage, onions, lettuce, more tomato and cauliflower… more to be sown next week. And soon we’ll have to plant out a few of them at least. So much to look forward to!

The chickens

Ah, the chickens… there’s highs and lows there.

First, there’s the incubating. I did a lot of that; I had an incubator with our own eggs + one of Kurkum Farm hatch in January, four little brown-layers-with-feathered-feet (chicks of Fatima & Ramon) and one little peeping Tom are now hopping around happily, they’re about four weeks old now.
After this, I borrowed our friends Dan & Mell’s big incubator and put in another batch – this time it contained our own eggs, Dan & Mell’s Brahma eggs, some eggs from Kurkum Farm and some eggs from Tierruca (the place we’re buying our alpacas at). There were 25 eggs in total… However, due to several different reasons, only 7 hatched. It’s a pretty diverse little group of Brahma, bantam and feathered-feet-layers though, and I hope they’ll be everything I’m hoping for.
At this moment, I’ve got seven Silver Brahma eggs in my small incubator (due around the 11th of March), and 15 more Brahma eggs + a few of our own in the big incubator (due about 5 days later). Fingers crossed for a bunch of healthy and happy chicks!

The adult chickens have been on rotating pastures since the beginning of the new year, with the help of an electric fence (which is super easy to move) and the chickshaw (moveable chicken coop). I love this setup, and am definitely going to write a review on the chickshaw soon… we’ve had it almost a year now. The chickens seem to love it as well; they’re safely inside the fence, and they get a new bit of land to scratch up and explore every few weeks. What’s not to like? They’re getting lots of kitchen scraps, 99% organic food and of course bugs and weeds from out there. Our eggs are now bright orange and very, very tasty.
On the bad news side, there’s something wrong with Tita. She’s been in quarantine for a week now, but we can’t seem to figure out what her problem is… she’s not really weak, but has trouble walking (or flying) straight and falls over at times. She’s getting some supplements and we still have some hope left… not much though, as she doesn’t seem to be getting better (not getting worse either, but she’s not fit enough to join the rest in the run). Fingers crossed for her!
Last but not least, we’ve said goodbye to our very beautiful but very useless Brahma rooster Ramon a few days ago now, I’m writing a separate post about this (and about the uses and uselessness of roosters). Tito is now head honcho but he’s not sure how to handle that – he’s always been a bit insecure and being left with two older hens (Fatima and Ramona) doesn’t do much for his self-esteem… as long as he behaves, he can stay though – or until one of the little chicks steps up and becomes big boss. We still have several months before that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small update – it’s so nice to get feedback and hear how so many of you are following our adventures here in Spain. There will be many more to follow!

Living off the grid at Mas del Encanto

Living off the grid at Mas del Encanto

Mas del Encanto is 100% of the grid. This means we are not connected to mains power (the electricity grid), mains water (the water grid) or other networks like gas or sewer. This was a conscious choice; we didn’t want to depend on other people for our comfort and we were tired of all the monthly bills… So when we started looking for a property to buy, we knew we wanted one far enough from villages to not be connected to the grid.

However, we didn’t want to change our lifestyle too much – we certainly didn’t want to lose any of the comfort we were so used to. This page is about how we set up the house and its systems – it’s a work in progress and we might want to change certain details in the future. If you’re contemplating doing something similar or if you’re just curious, don’t hesitate to contact us!

ELECTRICITY

We live on solar electricity. We have twelve solar panels (polycrystalline) that are connected to a charge controler; this makes sure the energy collected by the solar panels is stored into the batteries. We have 24 2-volts batteries, which makes for a total of 48 volts. Our (8kVA) inverter converts what’s coming out of the batteries into a voltage suitable for use (230 volt, in our case).
The whole system is hooked up to a generator (9kW continuous power / 12kW peak power), that will take over automatically in case the batteries are running low – it also charges the batteries if possible.

If this sounds like Gobbledegook to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The main thing is that we’ve got plenty of power to go around; and if we don’t, the generator will make sure we don’t have anything to worry about. In theory, the batteries are big enough to provide us with electricity for three days when it’s too cloudy for the solar panels to collect sunlight.
When we moved from the city to our little corner of paradise, we made a list of all the appliances we had or we wanted to get once we lived here. We make sure we get energy-efficient appliances (for instance, we sold our old fridge in Amsterdam and got an A+++ fridge here in Spain) and that way, we didn’t have to make big lifestyle changes when we moved here; although we sold the dryer in the Netherlands and didn’t get one here in Spain… things dry much better outside on the line on sunny, windy days (we get those year round).

Before the big house was finished, we lived in the maset (the renovated donkey stable a few terraces down), which is off the grid as well. It has its separate solar system, which is not as big as the one up here; it’s tiny, but still plenty to work a fridge, laptops and phones, light and sometimes an incubator 🙂

On the whole, we didn’t make big changes when we moved off the grid. Although I have to say we were always a bit conscious of our electricity bill, so we were never big consumers. Now we don’t get any bills anymore, and that feels great.

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WATER

When we moved here, we a diviner came to our land and indicated the best spot to dig a borehole – which we did, and it’s fantastic. That being said, we were never presented with other options, and knowing what I know now, we might not do the borehole again; some of our friends and neighbours have had bad experiences with them (getting salty / silty water, the borehole collapsing, water being struck 100 meter lower than predicted which cost thousands of extra euros,…) and it’s a lot of hassle to get approved for running a bed & breakfast on. In this area, we get more than enough annual rainfall to live off – and since we’ve got a big roof over our heads, a few gigantic tanks might have been all it takes. Now, the rainwater will go to a natural swimming pool / water catchment pond / irrigation (work in progress, planned for the winter of 2017-2018). A third option would have been to get water delivered to our house – not the most ecological solution, but probably the cheapest and the least complicated now we’re running a B&B.

Ah well, back to the borehole. We’ve got a 4500 liter tank, which is the big blue thing on the picture above… since taking that photo, we’ve hid the tank inside a stone building, to protect it from the sun. A level control checks on the water level in the tank continuously; it will make sure that the tank is always full. It’s on a time switch, so it makes sure the water only gets pumped up between 11 and 14h, to make the most use of the sun.
We have several filters before and after the tank; we also have a pressure pump between the tank and the house, to make sure we get a good stream of water instead of just a drizzle.
We’ve had the water tested multiple times already (in different seasons, from different places) and mostly it’s just great. It is certainly potable, and it’s full of minerals; we get a bit of extra limescale which is annoying (but nothing a lemon scrub can’t fix) but apart from that, we love having water from our own borehole. It’s 140m deep, which means the water comes from an underground stream that is unaffected by chemicals used in local agriculture (it also helps that we’re a bit higher up, not many chemicals being used there).

 

However, we still provide our guests with bottled water – drinking water from our borehole is our choice, but we understand not everybody likes that idea.

HEATING & HOT WATER

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The inertia tank that will soon heat our whole house

At the moment I’m writing this, our hot water still gets heated by a gas boiler. However, this is a temporary measure; in February 2017, our wood stove was installed… as soon as everything is connected (we’re currently waiting for the chimney to be delivered), we’ll be able to heat the house on wood alone.

 

The wood stove is connected to a 500L water tank downstairs – which means the fire heats the water in the tank. This hot water goes to the radiators, and a heat coil in the tank makes sure we get hot water for the tap and showers. We’re still keeping the gas boiler for backup though – and to use in summer. Our experience is that we use a lot less hot water in summer though; for a while we were contemplating the acquisition of a solar boiler to heat water in summer – but we soon realised this would not be worth the investment for now.

GREY WATER

It’s such a waste when water just goes down the drain after use and doesn’t get used again… which is why we really wanted a grey / black water system. We’ve had to make a lot of concessions there, mostly for financial reasons; having a fully functional grey water system (where water from the shower is used for the toilet, and water from said toilet is used to water the plants with) would require so many more pipes, a few pumps and a lot of paperwork… So we settled for a simplified version: water from the upstairs bathroom gets reused in the big planter downstairs. Which at this time is not operational yet, as we don’t have any trees in the planter yet… Hopefully in the spring of 2017.

SEWAGE

This is another concession we had to make.
In the maset (the tiny house we lived in before the big house was finished), we had a composting toilet; it felt great to know that our body waste would be used (in a few years) to fertilise our trees with. Even more, we never had to flush it.
However, we decided not to do this in the big house; partly for financial reasons (our first composting toilet was DIY, but a “real” composting toilet is not cheap), partly to simplify things when it came to permits and stuff. After having lived with a composting toilet for a little while, I still feel a little pang inside every time I flush my real toilet.
Waste from our toilets goes into two different septic tanks with overflow.

INTERNET

The internet is the only thing we kind of cheat with – we’re online, so we’re technically on a network. We get our internet with radio waves, the antenna is in Horta de Sant Joan (which is the village we have the best line of sight to… but there’s other villages with antennae). It’s fantastic; most of the time our internet is faster than what we were used to in Amsterdam. Sometimes however (usually on Sundays or holidays), too many tourists in the area try to post the pictures of their fantastic weekend in Matarraña, and the network gets a bit too crowded and slow… Everything goes back to normal on Monday mornings though.

Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Thankfully, no scary ghosts visited us over the holidays. However, we’re in the middle of a winter break, and that is giving us ample time to think.

We’re on a break from the B&B, but that doesn’t mean we’re lazying about: we’ve got plenty of winter projects going on.

Making it pretty

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Jabba’s guests Tilly and Tuppence are helping him inspecting the progress on the terrace wall (november 2016)

First and foremost, we needed to make things prettier. Although the guest rooms have been finished since May 2016, the surroundings of the house still looked like a bulldozer went through (which it actually did, it was a construction site after all). In november and december we’ve had a group of volunteers over to help us build a terrace wall in front of the house; next month, we’ll be planting plants, herbs, flowers and shrubs on the new terrace so the view from the guest rooms will be even better than before.

Making it comfortable

Since this winter, we’ve got central heating. Currently it works on a gas boiler, which is a good back-up but we don’t want to depend on fossil fuels forever; in a few weeks, we’re having a wood burner installed which will not only heat the radiator water, but provide for hot showers in winter as well. Bye bye gas bills, hello heating our house with wood from olive & almond pruning!

Making it practical

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Foggy weather & a cold sun

In the first part of the winter, we had a good group of volunteers at the farm to help us work on the terrace wall – however, it rained for most of the time – which meant they spent a lot of time inside. Worse: they spent most of that time in the “cave”, digging it out until it started resembling a normal cellar, more or less… It just needs a bit of finishing and a floor, and then we’ll be able to use it for (wine?) storage.

We still have a few things to finish this winter – building wood storage, building storage for the gas bottles, tiling a few bits that get too muddy in the winter and too dusty in the summer… Hopefully by half March, it will all be perfect.

Expanding the chicken project

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Fatima, who is faithfully laying us one egg a day. She only stopped for two days around New Year’s, it was just too cold and dark and foggy. 

I’m really full of ideas for my chicken project!

First, the chickens already had a fixed run since last spring – they will get a fixed coop now as well. That way, they’ll be completely safe from predators and still have space to run around.
I will be separating the roosters from the laying hens; the roosters will be kept inside a moveable electric fence, and move around on the land while keeping the grass short, fertilising the ground and doing some bug control. It’s an experiment (some people say it’s possible to keep several roosters peacefully if there are no hens about – others have bad experiences with it), but we really need chickens to clean up the land and I would rather keep my best layers close to the house.

I am also doubling up on the incubating efforts; I now have the first (small) batch of eggs in, but in a few weeks our friends Dan & Mellissa are kindly lending me their (bigger) incubator and I will hopefully be hatching chicks until May or so. I will incubate my own eggs (of course), but will also order fertile eggs from other places for a bit of variation. I have plans to get some Barnevelders, Araucanas (which lay eggs with blue coloured shells), Marans (dark brown eggs) and of course more Brahmas. Some of these will be up for sale; as small chicks (4-6 weeks old, if you want to see your chickens grow up), pullets (4-6 months old, if you want egg-laying chickens) or for chicken dinner, if we end up having too many. Contact me if you’re interested!

If all goes well, we hope to have eggs for sale by summertime. They will be organic and free range.

Preparing for Spring season in the garden

The most fun part at the moment, is preparing the garden for spring. Thankfully after a few foggy and rainy months, the sun is back (and it looks like it’s here to stay… at least for the next few days). Axel has built me a few raised beds (he’ll make more!) and I’ve been filling them up with compost, manure and organic material. I’ll be sowing ground cover in them first, and plant out seedlings as soon as I can… Hopefully resulting in an abundant harvest this spring.

The trees have been well taken care of too; most almonds have been pruned, and many of the trees got a protective circle around them, clearing the grass and making a small trench that will catch some extra water. A layer of mulch will be applied around them (next week!), for fertilising and protection.

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Ramon crowing his lungs out

Preparing for Spring season at the B&B

We’ve learned so much from last year’s trial season – and now we’re taking these lessons and planning for next year’s first real bed & breakfast season. Getting the paperwork done (soon! I hope), installing a small kitchen in the breakfast room, buying little things our guests missed in their rooms last season, and deciding on pricing. Unfortunately we had to slightly raise the rates for next season, to account for the share agents like booking.com or airbnb.com are getting; however we’re doing an “early bird” promotion before we go public, so people can book at lower prices if they book in time.
More on that later this week!

Taking the leap: living off the grid

As you all probably know, we are now living completely “off the grid”: we have electricity from solar panels, water from our own well and we catch radio waves for internet. We have a garden (work in progress) for fruit and vegetables, and many other plans: a solar dehydrator, wood-fired heating (we’ve got plenty of wood after pruning and from dead trees), a stone oven for pizza and bread, solar heating for shower water,…
Living this way, we feel working for ourselves is so much more rewarding than having a 9-to-5 job we don’t really have any connection to.

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Here are a few things we learned in the past few years, that might come in handy. Some are things we got told by others (thank you for that!), most things we found out for ourselves…

  1. Don’t believe everything the internet tells you
    The internet is full of hearth-warming stories – “This amazing house was built for only $200,-“, “This kind of dwelling is the most eco-friendly known to man”, one website (of a Spanish real estate company) even states that there are “plenty of jobs available in Spain” and “you don’t need to learn Spanish as there are doctors and notaries around who speak English”. Use your brains, read the small print, talk to real people.
  2. When in doubt, just go for it
    In the past few years, the only regret we had, was that we didn’t do certain things sooner. We could have moved to Spain sooner, we could have started living in our little maset sooner. It would certainly have saved us money! However, sometimes fear just gets the best of us. So from now on, we try to live by the motto “When in doubt, just go for it” – but make sure you’ve got a backup plan…
  3. Planning and communication are key
    Our impression is that the people who succeed the quickest, are those with a plan. Those who arrive here, have a clear idea of their goal, and have a plan that matches local reality. To get that clear plan, it’s important to communicate with your fellow adventurer(s) and set common goals – and to keep communicating, especially when things aren’t going according to plan. A friend advised us to sit down and have business meetings between just the two of us; we’ve just started to do that… Although our project stays the same, we have made several adjustments to the planning already – and keep making those, every time life gets in the way.
  4. Budget = more than some land and a house
    When you’re looking for some land or even a house to buy, real estate agents will ask you for your budget. In the “civilised world”, that’s simple; it’s the amount of money you are willing to spend on that piece of land and / or house. Here, it’s different; living off the grid involves quite a few investments you probably didn’t think of right away. We bought ourselves a car that was more suitable for this environment (instead of our Passat which was great to cruise with, but would just not have survived the bad roads here in winter), several kinds of tools (almond- and olive-picking materials, garden and building tools), a generator and a solar system for electricity, a borehole and pump for water, trees and seeds, materials for making fences and sheds,… Some of our friends bought even more – like a tractor or digger, more and bigger tools, better materials,…
    We’re not the only ones who decided to get ourselves a temporary home (in our case, our little maset; in the case of some of our friends, a yurt or tent camp). That goes out of the the budget as well!
  5. Plan for delays
    If you’re planning on making a living after your move, it might be a good idea to make sure you’ve got an income (or some money stuffed away somewhere) to survive for a few months or years, until you’ve got your business up and running. Paperwork can take a lot of time; we’ve met too many people who would tell us how much time a proces
  6. Party with moderation. But don’t forget to party! 
    I think most of my family think I’m on permanent vacation here in Spain. It might just be that my Facebook profile reflects just that – there’s barbecues and parties, nice views and almond blossom, trips to the beach and to Barcelona,… Underneath all that however, there’s a lot of hard work. I still work as a personal assistant, and in between that I’m caring for my veggies and trees (and cooking, and cleaning); Axel spends most of his time building stuff (and he does a lot of cooking and cleaning as well). However weird, it is true that our social life is much busier now we live in the campo than when we used to live in Amsterdam; but it’s not a vacation…
    On the other side, we have found the social aspect of living here is very important. When we get together with neighbours and friends, we get to talk about collaborations, exchange phone numbers from people who could help us out with stuff, meet other neighbours, often also exchange produce off the land.
  7. Rent or vacation before you buy / build
    This is advice I read on a forum – and it turns out it’s golden… if you’ve got the time and the money, rent something in the region you want to move to, or find yourself a nice place (maybe a rental house or a local bed & breakfast) you can go to whenever you like. Be sure to visit throughout the year, so you can get a feel of the seasons and so you’re sure you like the area.
    If you already bought some land, it pays off to get to know it before building stuff on it; see how sun and irrigation work, where you’ve got the nicest view and the least cold wind (in winter) but a nice cool breeze in summer.
  8. Rent smart
    Most people we know around here, came here before (or while) they started building a house to live in. Most of them would start by renting a house in the village. Almost all of the people we know who were planning to rent until their house was finished, ended up staying in that rental house months (or even years) longer than they were planning to. Counting not only rent, but water and electricity as well, this is a big dent in the budget… Take this into account. It might save you a lot of money to put a caravan or yurt on your land, or restore an existing building like we did.
    The place you’ll be renting a house in, is important as well; we had a little house in the village of Lledo from October to July. Unfortunately, Lledo only has 1 shop, which is open daily for about 3 hours; if we wanted bread in the morning, go to the butchers, have a drink at the bar,… that would mean taking the car to another village.
    Distance to your finca is important to; friends of ours had a very nice apartment in a town nearby – but it would take them about 40 minutes to drive to the finca (and 40 minutes back as well). Moving to a village house only 10 minutes from their finca surely made their lives easier. And moving to your own finca makes everybody’s lives happier.
  9. Cheap, good and quick
    A carpenter once told me that if I wanted to have things done cheap, good and quick, I should pick 2 or just compromise; it’s not possible to have all 3 to perfection. I think he was right.
    When an internet article shows you how a guy built a house “for free”, they forget to mention how he spent years and years collecting the building materials. When a construction company promises you to build your house in no time, the finishing might not be to your standards. When things seem too good to be true, they probably are.
  10. Making money while living off the grid
    I’m lucky enough to have an online job – I work as a personal assistant, do some translation work from time to time and hope to be able to do more writing in the years that come. Not everybody is that lucky, and we often meet people who wonder what they’re going to do here.
    If you have some kind of income (a pension?) or some money stacked away, you might not need to find a way to make money. Living off the grid can be very cheap – you can grow your own food, barter more food for stuff you make or services you provide, and think of how much money you save by not paying for electricity, water, parties and events.
    If you do need to make an income, don’t think opening up a hotel / B&B is the only way you could do that; it seems like every newcomer around here wants to open a “casa rural”, while there are many other services much sought after that don’t require such an investment.
  11. Choose your location… and your neighbours.
    When giving you information about where to buy, most people or articles will talk about the properties of the land (size, use, soil, distance to road and villages,..), the climate, the laws of the region you’re buying in,… Not many will stress the importance of good neighbours.
    When living in a regular setting – in a city, village or suburb in the Western world -, you will probably get into contact with lots of people. There’s friends and family, colleagues at work, maybe other parents at school if you’ve got children,… You more or less get to choose with whom you spend most of your free time. When living off the grid, you’re much more dependent on your neighbours; some weeks, they will be the only ones you see. When you need some help moving a rock or need to borrow some tools, it’s good to be in a place where people are friendly and welcoming! Our neighbour Enrique taught me how to grow vegetables the traditional way, Dan helped Axel build the bathroom and the cellar – and last year when I was looking for a tool to pick my figs with, Caspe offered me his ladder. Not quite what I had in mind, but still very sweet of him! We really feel like we’re not alone in this here.
Our "maset" - the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished.

Our “maset” – the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished. Such fond memories… 

Wherever you are, whoever your neighbours are, whatever you are doing there, the quickest way to feel at home is probably to get yourself (a little) integrated into the community. When in Rome and such; learn the language (if you moved abroad), go to events, say hello to everyone you meet (it might just be a neighbour you haven’t met yet). It helps to have young children in school or to volunteer in a local organisation. You’ll probably always be the stranger around here, but others will appreciate you making the effort.

What (not) to expect when building an off-grid house in Matarranya

There’s one universal truth: when you have a house of your own, it’s never truly finished. There’s always something to tweak, reparations to be made, maintenance to be done or (if you have a big property and even bigger plans) buildings to be added… but on the grand scheme of things, we could say that our house is now as good as finished. The upstairs (our private area) still needs a lot of work (painting, decorating, installing a shower) and downstairs (the guest area) some minor things (Axel is finishing the tiling of the breakfast room balcony as we speak, other things will be done in fall or next spring).

These days, we’re showing people around the house on a regular base – guests, neighbours, volunteers, people interested in doing a similar project, or just random people fascinated by what we’re doing here. And since we get a lot of recurring questions, I thought it a good idea to put them “on paper” for everybody to read…
Some of the things in this list are things we experienced first hand – others are things we were warned about and were able to do differently in our house. And I’d like to add a question to fellow Matarranya expats here: if there’s anything you feel is missing or anything you’d like to add, feel free to write me / or to comment, here or on Facebook.

1. Budget

You came to Matarranya with a certain budget in mind, and it’s great if that budget allows you to build your dream home in the hills. Sometimes, people don’t think of everything that should be included in the budget though…

  • There are many steps towards a house – permits, assessments, notary costs, more permits, more analysis,… Each step will cost you money.
  • Where do you get your water from? Drilling a well can be costly – and don’t forget to think of the water deposit, different filters (we still need to do something about the amount of limescale, or it’s going to kill our appliances – not to mention our pump), maybe a pressure pump if your water deposit isn’t way above your bathroom (or your shower will be a very sad thing indeed). We’ve also got a system that makes sure the deposito is filled (but doesn’t overflow) on sunny days (we’ve got a solar powered pump), or even on not so sunny days when it’s almost empty – using the generator.
  • What will you do with your land? If you’re not planning to live on it, you’ll probably have a local farmer taking care of it (in exchange for the harvest). If you’re planning on working it yourself (harvesting olives or almonds, setting up a vegetable garden, maybe planting more fruit trees), it’s going to cost money – getting tools and machinery, seeds and plants. Maybe you’ll even want some animals; they will need housing (which might need planning permission) and feeding.
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Our very cool chicken tractor (the chickshaw)… did not come free.

2. Learning from other people’s stories

There are now dozens of people (people on their own, couples, families and communities) who have relocated here to work on their dream; go out, contact them, visit their project, talk to them, listen to them. And I mean really listen to them; almost everybody has stories – good stories, bad stories, funny stories. Of course some people are more pessimistic in nature and emphasise (or exaggerate) the bad stuff – and others are so upbeat they won’t tell you about their bad stuff. It’s easy to listen and think “That would never happen to me” – there’s always two sides to every story, but at least hearing those stories help you create an image of what might happen. You can learn so much from other people’s experiences; the stories from people around here helped us, loads. And they still do!

3. The local community

The success of your adventure depends on several factors – the people helping you achieve your dream is a very big factor.
Coming from a big city and a very automated society, we had to get used to village life here; getting to know many villagers has proven to be one of the keys to success. Go to the local shops, pay your ayuntamiento (the town hall) a visit when you have questions; people here are incredibly nice and are usually more than happy to help. Also, every village seems to have one or two people who know everything going on there; ask for their advice when looking for e.g. a place to rent, people to help out with the work, places to visit,… From the start, we just said hello to everybody we met in the street; now we get a call the day before hunters pass our land (great to know when to keep our dogs and chickens locked up), the older villagers will tell us stories about what happened on and around our finca in the old days, and we feel as accepted in the local community as a foreigner only speaking broken Spanish can be.

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Last year’s Santa Agueda celebration

4. The language barrier

Of course, all of this only works if you learn Spanish. We took classes before we got here so we could at least go to the shop or order food at the restaurants; coming here, we took a dictionary everywhere we went (especially convenient at said restaurants). Around here, very few people speak English (or French); they are incredibly nice though, and help us out with grammar and we still learn new words every single day. I learned all about food with Inma, the butcher in Cretas who would share recipes for the meat I’d buy there; our neighbour Enrique shows us how he tends his garden and his fruit trees whenever we have questions (and we learned the names of most vegetables and fruit from him); I learned all about body parts in Spanish doing yoga at Kurkum farm. It would have been much easier to try and speak English and use body language to get around in the area – but we wouldn’t have learned as much, and not made the same social connections.

If you’re not ready to learn Spanish (or you’re just having a hard time), make sure you have a person by your side who’s really on your side when doing important things. For instance, when I broke my knee in my second week here, I could have used somebody to translate my pain during my first few doctor’s visits; it could have saved me the 3 months of “rest” I shouldn’t have taken with this kind of injury, and the months of revalidation that followed. We could also have brought in a native speaker on our side to point out ambiguities when signing contracts; we might not have changed anything about them, but at least we’d be more secure about signing them (and be warned about the consequences).

5. Choose the people you work with

When you’re building a house, you will spend a whole lot of time with the people involved in the project. One person you can’t do without, is the architect. There are plenty of them in the area; some speak perfect English and others don’t, some are all about natural building while others are more into modern architecture; some see your project as a work of art they want to share with the world, while others see themselves as a tool to be used by the client and doing their bidding. What’s important, is that you find the architect that’s just right for you; someone who will listen to your dream and take it to another level. Preferably a higher one.

The same procedure applies to people you’ll be working with while building your house. So far we’ve been incredibly lucky with most of the people we’ve worked with – it feels good working with local people and locally made stuff. Most of them take a real pride in their work and did (or are doing) an amazing job; I guess it’s no fun to bump into people at the village fiesta if you’ve done a lousy job at their house 🙂

Work in progress

Work in progress

6. Pay attention to the details

There are some particularities about the Spanish culture (or nature), that are slightly different from many other countries; I thought I’d list a few…

  • It was logical for our architect & builder to place the windows on the inside of the walls. In Belgium & Holland, you’ll place them in the middle, so you have a window sill outside AND inside…
  • Standard beds are smaller in Spain than they are in many other countries. You can still find king size beds (or at least, beds that are 2 meters long) in many specialised shops though. Take into account that when your architect designs the bedrooms, he’ll probably put a 1m40 x 1m90 bed in the design (and make the room look bigger than it actually is)
  • Ever wondered why traditional Spanish houses don’t have big windows? You’d need a very big overhang (all around) to keep the sun out in the heath of summer… For instance our bedroom has a 2m covered balcony in front of the sliding door / window, but we still get sun inside (from the side) until about 11 o’clock on the longest days of the year (and it only gets worse after that, as the sun is slowly getting lower).
    Our living room windows are a lot smaller – but as they have a smaller overhang as well, we’re getting full sun through those windows until about 14h in the middle of summer. Which makes the living room the hottest room in the house; usually by midday, it’s hotter inside than outside. Curtains help to a certain degree; the sun will still be on the windows and the heat will still get in, but part of it would be stopped if you leave the curtains drawn when the sun is out. We’re planning to have outside shades installed – probably a project for next spring though.
    Big windows can be annoying in winter as well; the sun will come in almost horizontally, and even in winter the sun can be pretty harsh. Last winter, I struggled to find a good spot to work where the sun would not be in my eyes nor on my computer screen. Thankfully, curtains would solve that.
  • Our beautiful fake wooden floor (in one of the guest bathrooms)

    Our beautiful fake wooden floor (in one of the guest bathrooms)

    At first, we really wanted a wooden floor; since good quality wood is not from here, you can either go for the fake stuff (we have wood-looking tiles, and so happy with them!), or pay a lot more money to get imported wood, or just go for a different quality (and I don’t mean better). Also, due to the huge differences in temperature and humidity, wood will expand and shrink a lot more here than it would in places with a more constant climate.

  • There are technical differences as well – I’m not a technical person so I’m not going into that now, but I’ve been led to understand that you need a different kind of solar panels here than what’s recommended in the Netherlands, a heat pump would not provide the same benefits (and be more expensive) here than in the north, and some techniques that are very common in other countries are barely used here (and vice versa). I’ve heard stories where people absolutely wanted a certain (technical) element in their system, but local people messed up the installation as they had no idea how to do it.
    For more technical stuff, please talk to my husband 🙂

7. A Sound System

One of the things that can make or break your comfort living off the grid, is the presence of a good system. 4 things are most important here:

  • Water – having a reliable source of good water is indispensable. Many people around here dig a well – this can be very expensive, and some are not too lucky with the water coming out (some people in a neighbouring village have water that’s saltier than the sea). If you want a well, make sure you have it dug at the perfect spot by a reliable company; if they had to twice as deep as expected to find water, the owner will need to pay for the thousands of euros worth of extra work…  Some people around here don’t bother with a well or mains water, but just collect rainwater from the roof and / or get water brought in by water tank trucks (or go fill a tank at the village themselves). Do some research and talk to neighbours before taking decisions.
  • Electricity – we have seen awesome off-grid electrical systems, and we have seen very lousy (and overpriced) ones. We are over the moon with our system so far; it works on solar power mainly – but if something happens and the batteries can’t provide enough, the generator kicks in automatically. Also, we made sure we could do several things at the same time – the dishwasher, washing machine and (electrical) oven can all be on while I’m vacuuming without the whole system failing. We have made very few concessions; although I rarely use a hair dryer and don’t care much for an electrical water heater, which are the kind of things that take the most electricity (especially in winter, when there are less sun hours), we made sure our guests will be able to use those if needed.
    Take a look at other people’s systems and talk to a few knowledgable people (I don’t mean the guy selling you his system) before planning your own; don’t rush into ordering a system that might not cover all your needs.
  • Heating & cooling – obviously, there is more work to be done in our house when it comes to cooling; we’ll need outside shades for a fair lot of windows to keep the sun out, we might install some fans in the ceiling at some point as well. Having air conditioning makes no sense to us; if my house were really really cool in the middle of summer, I wouldn’t be able to cope with even moderate heat when going out.
    Many people living off the grid around here seem to struggle with keeping the house warm in winter; big rooms with high ceilings feel nice and airy in the summer, but it’s a lot of extra room to heat up on colder days.
  • Internet and phone connection – to some this is an afterthought, but if you have an internet job like me it’s important. Off-grid houses around here usually have their internet either from satellite or through radio waves; which one is better for you depends on your line of sight (for radio waves you need to be able to catch the antenna in a neighbouring village). Same goes for phone reception; we made sure before buying we had perfect reception on most of our land, but if you don’t a reception booster could help… Again, talk to your neighbours and with other people facing similar challenges.
That should do the trick...

That should do the trick…

8. Start a business

Ah, the joys of starting a business in Spain. To some, it makes sense as it’s a way to get into the social security system and to get VAT back, sometimes there’s even talk of a grant you could get for starting something new that’s beneficial to the area; however, you might not get all the VAT back, I haven’t heard of anyone ever really getting money from that grant and there is a lot more paperwork.
It can also a lot of money, depending on the type of business you are going for. You can’t do without an accountant and those are not cheap; if you start a S.L. or similar, there are notary costs involved as well. Depending on the type of business you might have to meet all kinds of requirements (for instance for a B&B, we need to have chlorinated water, somebody needs to certify your well produces enough water for the amount of guests you’re allowed and things will generally get checked more thoroughly). If you choose to be self-employed, there are the autonomo payments which can be very high. And last but not least, you might not be allowed to officially start your business before all requirements are met, which means it takes a long long time before you can start reaping any benefits.
So if your main reason to come and live here is to start a business, do go ahead and good luck; if having a business would just be a way for you to make things cheaper, please do your calculations before diving into it head first.

9. The project and building permit

I am still not 100% certain how a project is supposed to go around here, but this is what I know for sure… Building a house (or more, that’s why it’s called a project) is something that takes many steps. From the moment you agree on the plans with your architect to the moment you have an officially registered house, it will take many years – nothing you can do about that, it’s a slow process.
From the start of the project and the moment you’ll be able to live in your house, a lot of time will pass as well; it is very advisable to think first about the life you’ll live while you wait – most people start out renting a house in the village, but I’ve talked to many people who would rather have lived in a caravan, a yurt or a temporary building on their land in the years they spent waiting. Nothing compares to living on your own land, spending zero on rent / electricity / gas / whatever (unless you count the occasional bottle if you’re cooking on gas) and just being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want it.
Between the day the architect told us the whole project was ready to go into the building permit process (January 2014) and the day we did get said building permit (February 2015) it seemed like so much time passed – and although the foundations were dug in March 2015 and the builder put the last hand to a last detail in May 2016, we’re still waiting for the architect, the builder and the surveyor to come together and sign the “final de obra”, meaning that the house is ready. We know that when we have that final de obra, it will still take years for our house to be registered; as we’re living completely off the grid and no house has been here before, officials will have to come and check if everything has been done meeting the necessary requirements, the architect will have to compose a completely new book of plans and technical stuff (including many small changes the builders have made during construction), and hopefully in a year or 2-3 we’ll be able to go to the notary to sign the enormous amount of paperwork involved… and we’ll have a fully regulated house.

Rain in the mountains - beats a picture of me doing paperwork

Rain in the mountains – beats a picture of me doing paperwork

10. Mañana, mañana… the cultural differences

Most people back in the North would laugh at our ambitious plans – ah yes, but you’re going to Spain and it’s “mañana, mañana” over there. Has that turned out to be true? Well… yes and no.
Our experience working with local professionals is that if you make an appointment, they’ll be there; they might be a bit later (it’s very normal here to be stuck in traffic behind a tractor or a flock of sheep), but “la hora es la hora”. Often though,  appointments are not made for an exact time, but for a certain timeframe like”after I brought the children to school” or “before lunch”. Which might be difficult for people from a time-oriented society (like us!) to understand at first, but you get used to it very quickly; the trick is not to fill your time with waiting for people – but do your own thing until people show up.  One exception to this whole “showing up” thing turned out to be our project manager, who is a total sweetheart but gets so caught up in talking to people about their projects, that he will totally forget about the next appointment he made and either turn up hours late, or not turn up at all (and forget to cancel)… which made for many, many lost mornings / afternoons / full days waiting for him to show up. But since most of his clients know that after meeting him once or twice, apparently that’s ok.
People here do get their priorities straight though; they might tell you they will continue work tomorrow but if their child gets sick or if there’s an urgent job at another client’s place, who can blame them for changing their plans? Also, as soon as it rains, the whole area just hits pause – many roads (to off-grid properties) are difficult to drive on after a rainfall, and also going out in the rain is messy and not convenient. Social gatherings get cancelled, orders get delayed and many people don’t work when it rains… Rain is not a very regular happening here though, so that as well is something you get used to very quickly.

We look back very fondly on the time spent living in the maset..

We look back very fondly on the time spent living in the maset..

What would we have done differently? We regret nothing – but in hindsight, we would probably not have been this impatient to start a business (the B&B) and build the big house – we would have renovated the maset, invested more in tools, machinery and animal shelters / storage / workshops, and get everything else started before starting the big construction project. In the mean time, we would probably have had the time to think about the “whole thing” (the bungalows we’d like to build all around), so we’d have applied for a building permit including everything at once.
Living off the grid in a modest house is actually much more comfortable than we could ever imagine – and the best thing is, once you’ve got a vegetable garden going and some chickens free ranging around your house, living here costs next to nothing (at least, compared to living in a big city). And as I said, nothing compares to living on your own land – when everything fails, things are going sour, projects take too long to be finished, your olive trees failed to produce anything and the fox just ate all of your chickens… You’re still living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. On your own land. Doing whatever you like, whenever you want to do it.

Life on magic mountain

It almost sounds like an amusement park attraction (it might be – I haven’t been in one since over 25 years I think); it’s also a beautiful book. However, in our world, it is real… When you drive out of Cretas in the direction of Lledo, you will find yourself in Golden Valley (locally called Valletes) and there, in between a few vineyards, there’s this beautiful little wooden arrow that used to say “Mas del Encanto” (unfortunately, the rain washed away the artwork). If you follow the road up, up and a bit more up, there on top of the hill lies the House of Charm… on top of Magic Mountain.

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To make a long story short: we’re totally in love with our new house. Ah no, it’s not finished yet – but almost: the guest rooms are as good as done (we just need to get the mattresses and bed linnen out of their plastic packaging), the ground floor (which will be reserved for guests) just needs a bit of paint here and there, handles on the doors, and tiles on the balconies; and of course having the sliding door to the first floor would keep the dogs in, and other animals (birds mostly, and the occasional chicken) out. Apart from that, we’re all set for the summer; we’ve got a working kitchen, a big living room and the biggest storage room / walk in closet a girl could ever dream of.

But best of all is the master bedroom. At night, we get to fall asleep looking at the stars – and in the morning, we get woken up by the most beautiful sunrises. Even last week’s storm looked impressive from up here – and when we got a few days of cloudy weather, we could usually still see the sun shining down on another hill further away.

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Yes, life is good on magic mountain.

In the mean time, we’re also getting ready to open up our bed & breakfast for “beta testing season” – people coming by this summer will have finished guest rooms to sleep in, but we’ll be experimenting with different formulas for breakfast, dinner, activities, extras,…
Now that our guest rooms are as good as ready, it’s time to think about the landscaping. The area around the house looks like any construction site would look after 15 months of trucks and cars driving around it – the difference is that here and there, we still have almond trees sticking out of the barren land. We have already put the chickens to work for some fertilising (and to eat the remains of our big party); next we have to decide on where to put paths (gravel or flagstones?), what to grow (grass to sit on, or nice smelling flowers and herbs?), where to allow cars (very convenient to drive up to the house, but it kills the beautiful green stuff) and much, much more.

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Nothing a bit of landscaping can’t save, right?

We still have one and a half months to make it work – and we know now that if we really set our minds to it, we can do it. The decision-making part if the most difficult stage; once we’re behind that, it’s a matter of working hard and getting creative. We definitely can’t wait to show you all the results…

The sun always shines on tv…

… but not in Matarranya.
Yes, we’re in Spain. And yes, it’s nice and sunny out here, and warmer than it usually is in most of Europe – but don’t mistake that for lack of rain. Although we sometimes go weeks without rain (and usually complain about that very loudly, as that means either our veggies aren’t growing, or we have to water them) – it does rain here, and quite a lot at times. Most of the time though, it’s just a light drizzle or a quick shower – just enough to slightly moisturise the vegetables, not enough to feed them for days to come.

However, rain in Matarranya is like snow in the UK: although weather forecasts have been warning us for days, we’re very surprised when it does come, and suddenly nothing works. You showed up for a meeting? Nobody else will – it’s raining. Important delivery planned? Well of course the truck isn’t going to drive up to your house today, it’s raining! (and not tomorrow or the day after either, as it will surely be muddy). And where did the masons go? Ah, they can’t be working in the rain, can they?

When we started building, in February 2015, people (outside of Spain) would laugh at our planning. “Building a house like that, in only a year’s time? In a country where it’s always ‘mañana, mañana?’ Prepare to be disappointed!”. However, our experience with working with locals is quite the opposite – when they say they will be there mañana (tomorrow), they show up on time. So when our project manager told us the house could be built in 6 months but the architect said 12 months “just to be certain”, we were confident this was going to work. We planned to move into our new house in March, we invited friends to come and stay (and help out with painting & stuff) in April, we planned a very big party in May – after all, we were assured the whole thing would definitely be built by December, the contract only said March 1st to account for possible delays.

Oh boy, how wrong we were. Apart from a mesmerising inability to plan in advance, most delays were attributed to the rain. It rained after our foundations were dug: we didn’t see a living soul on site for weeks. Rained in Burgos: delivery of the stones was delayed for weeks. Rain predicted here on a Monday: the truck (that already carried our windows) got a call they shouldn’t come this week.

And this is how, about 14 months after the first building day, we’re back to living in our little maset. It’s slightly colder than it was when we left in October (mainly because there has been a big rain on Tuesday, so everything was slightly damp when we moved in), and it’s not as well thought out as when we moved in last summer (as we were assured the windows would be in this week, we thought we’d only be here for a few days and moved all of our stuff to the big house), but we’re happy we’ve got this little maset and it does feel great to be living on our land again. Waking up with the sun, walking to the chicken coop every time a Sanchita makes her “I’ve laid an egg” call, writing this blog while hanging in my fabulous hammock – life couldn’t be better.

On the even brighter side: it doesn’t rain that often in Matarranya.

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