Green Building Blog

low cost eco-building

El Valle de Sensaciones, Yátor, Spain June 15, 2010

[Versión en español abajo]

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 bolted each end – creating a suspended building that is able to move as the tree does.



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.


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 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.

For more information about el valle de sensaciones see their website: All visits must be pre-arranged and they would prefer you to attend a course or workshop (see listings on the website) rather than just do a tour. However, email them and let them know your interests. Achim has also developed a brilliant community game – Mandala – which allows for the collective organisation of chores while maintaining the choice in tasks. Costing 44 euros it is available from the website.

(Granada, 12th June 2010)


Escondido en un valle de lados inclinados justo al sur de Yátor en Alpujarras, España, El valle de las Sensaciones es maravillosa creación artística de hermosos eco-edificios. El motivo principal de su origen era el de fundar un centro cultura y crear un “verdadero paraíso artístico”. Éste no es una ecoaldea o una eco-comunidad y hay pocos residentes. Achim, el fundador, organiza una gran variedad de cursos y talleres sobre habilidades prácticas sobre la construcción de eco-edificios (entre otras cosas) y por los que muchas personas de varios lugares lejanos viajan.  Es un lugar experimental en donde el conocimiento es compartido y nuevas ideas son comprobadas a través de práctica.

Los mas sorprendente al llegar es la estética y la creatividad de cada edificio y los objetos creados. Abundan hermosas esculturas de madera, una  estufa solar de cuidadoso mosaicos; ésta esta situada majestuosamente a la par de un set de sillas y mesas hechas de pequeñas ramas entretejidas. Hay, también, una construcción elaborada de metal la que es una lavadora, que funciona a través de pedales.

Este énfasis en la estética es aún más evidente en los doce o más edificios que se encuentran en el lugar. En la cocina, en una casa grande octagonal de adobe con un techo de madera bilateral, varias ventanas y una puerta con formas onduladas desiguales de ramas de olivo deformes y vidrio recuperado que se ha cortado inspirado en imágines de la naturaleza – trabajos de arte manuales. Mosaicos coloridos cubren las paredes y las ramas son utilizadas como manijas para los armarios. En todos los lados la arcilla se ha utilizado para crear curvas y moldearlas en espacios para crear espacio. Dos lados del octágono están hechas de contrachapado o madera terciada (plywood) que se puede remover durante el verano para tener ventilación adicional. El techo con un gran alero que protege la arcilla está cubierto de asfalto para protegerlo del agua.

Dejando de ver la cocina hay una cabaña que es una cúpula geodésica arriba en un árbol de olivo. Hecha de garrotes de madera, está impermeabilizada con láminas de corcho y sus ventanas miran hacia más allá de un árbol – un lugar muy tranquilo. En otro sitio hay otra cabaña sobre un árbol – Casa 3 ‘alamos’ – con paredes hechas completamente de puertas viejas. Éstas están conectadas al suelo y techo a través de una serie de vigas atornilladas en cada extremo – creando un edificio que se puede mover conforme el movimiento del árbol. Estas cabañas, sin embargo, no tienen la finalidad de ser sitios de permanencia a largo plazo – son demasiado calurosas con este clima. Más bien son los edificios de adobe – incluyendo una habitación modesta y una tienda refugiada por la tierra que está construida de arcilla que se encuentra en el sitio (tan buena en su calidad que no hay necesidad de agregar arena a la mezcla) que están construidas para acomodarse al clima del área.

Adobe ha sido usado no solamente porque es un material fácilmente accesible, pero porque, si se obtiene el grosor indicado, mantiene los edificios frescos durante el día y templados durante la noche. El calor del sol se mantiene durante el día “viajando” por las paredes para dispersarse dentro de las habitaciones conforme la noche cae. También la arcilla es divertida (dando espacio a la creatividad), un material natural no-contaminante y robusto cuando se seca. Sin embargo, toma bastante tiempo en construir con ella – con cada capa en la pared teniendo que dejarla lo suficiente para que tome el peso adecuado, pero no lo suficiente para que se seque ya que hay que prevenir que las secciones se fundan. Idealmente es una tarea que se hace colectivamente porque requiere mucho tiempo y trabajo.

Ellos también están experimentando con cuevas en el área intentando de mejorar las tradicionales casas subterráneas de la región con el uso de vidrio y absorción de sol controlada para aumentar la temperatura de las residencias que tienden a estar a un nivel de 16 grados centígrados o menos. Este es un interesante intento de mezclar el sistema tradicional con lo ecológico. Al igual como los cortijos, las cuales son pequeñas casas rurales hechas de piedra y madera, éstas normalmente son oscuras y por lo tanto pueden ser modificadas ecológicamente sin perder su tradición o encanto. Finalmente, el baño. Los lectores comenzaran a asumirá que yo estoy obsesionada con los baños de compostaje – pero simplemente estoy inspirada en el empeño que se le da para hacer un espacio funcional, un espacio agradable. En El valle de sensaciones el espacio para el inodoro y el baño son una visión de creatividad – altos y delgados bloques de cáñamos de concreto con techos curvos y una pared externa cubierta de mosaico – es algo completamente nuevo para mí.

Por lo tanto, los edificios aquí son una magnífica mezcla de materiales locales, estética inspirada por la naturaleza y bajo costo. Solamente unos cien euros se gastaron (en cada edificio) en materiales, los cuales además de poder encontrarse en el área, nadie los puede reclamar. El costo de mano de obra puede ser significante, sin embargo, es claro que se espera que los voluntarios trabajen diligentemente. 

El mayor problema que encuentran los que viven en esta área ha sido la planificación. La mayoría de las personas con las que hablé describieron a las leyes de planificación  y su aplicación como un completo misterio. De lo único que se está  es que nada está seguro y de que nunca se sabe que es lo que es legal o no.  Todo depende de con quién se hable y todo puede cambiar dependiendo del cambio de la burocracia local. El valle de las Sensaciones se ha enredado dentro de este sistema por 8 años y solamente se ha encontrado con demoras y denuncias (reportes oficiales de mala administración lo cuales pueden llevar a multas, casos presentados en la corte por obstrucción, pero normalmente son ofensas menores). Los efectos de las leyes españolas siendo tan poco específicas llegan a ser costosas (financialmente y consumientes en relación a tiempo) para obtener permisos y la incertidumbre del resultado disminuye el interés para seguir con el proceso legal. Tal inseguridad puede se difícil, y no se sabe si es un poco mejor el sistema tan restricto de negro y blanco en Inglaterra para la planificación, el que tiende a no tener ningún tipo de misterios.

Lo más importante que me llevé de mi corta visita a El valle de Sensaciones,  fue que vale la pena pensar cuidadosamente sobre la estética de un edificio – no solamente el diseño o el volumen, pero también los colores y las texturas. Esto, el como una casa nos hace sentir, talvez es una de los criterios más cruciales cuando juzgamos el éxito de un edificio.

Para más información sobre El valle de Sensaciones visité su pagina de Internet: Todas las visitas tienen que estar previamente planificadas y ellos preferirían que usted recibiese un curso o taller (vea la lista en la página de Internet) en lugar de hacer solamente un recorrido turístico. Sin embargo, escriba un correo electrónico y deje saber sobre sus intereses. Achim también ha desarrollado un brillante juego comunitario –Manala – el cual ayuda a la organización colectiva de tareas mientras mantiene la opción de labores. El costo es de 44 Euros, está disponible en la página de Internet.

(Granada, 12 de Junio 2010)


5 Responses to “El Valle de Sensaciones, Yátor, Spain”

  1. John Bray Says:

    Jenny, perhaps you could be a bit more critical in your research – especially as it may lead to people making decisions about what they can and cannot do with their lives. The Spanish system is not as grey as some people would lead you to believe – it’s not really all that different to planning restrictions in the UK.

    I have no gripes with Achim (whose land is only a mile away from mine). If he can make money from people by running courses then good look to him! However, anyone who thinks that they would like to follow suit should bear in mind that they may need support from a father of some means to be able to get started. Alternatively, simply inherit some fertile land or a significant trust-fund. After that, some help will be need in the form of free labour (WWOOFers are a good source). But bear in mind that – if the money runs out – you may have to sell courses to pay for stuff (it’s either that or grow your own food).

    You say that ” in Britain low-impact environmental living tends to be the preserve of the wealthy who can afford single-dwelling eco-homes.” So, maybe not much different in Spain then!

    • naturalbuild Says:

      Hi John

      Thank you for this very constructive comment, especially from someone so local to the site. I have no doubt that you are right, that people may simply wish to interpret the planning system in Spain as being ‘grey’ because it may not be clear to them. Equally, in any country I think we might wonder about the logic of planning decisions which, for example, may approve a large-scale industrial development or housing estate but refuse a small eco-house (as happens all too frequently in Britain). So although it might be black and white in law there remain plenty of cases where the logic of the outcome remains questionable for many. At La ecoaldea Del Minchal, west of the Alpujarras they have chosen to navigate planning in a far more open way and as such are restricted to a broad range of regulations about building plot size, dimensions, position from plot boundaries etc, just as you say anyone would be in Britain. However, there are still a staggering number of illegally built homes in the Aplujarras and it will be interesting to see if in the coming years demolition orders are issued and whether they are enforced. For anyone thinking of building out there it is certainly an interesting time to navigate the system. In terms of costs you are right to point out that it is as hard to financially survive in Spain as it is in Britain. All the places I visited utterly relied upon free labour from volunteers.

      Finally, it is important especially as an academic that I critically explore these issues, rather than paint a rosy pitcure which, as you say, might mislead people. I have taken on board your suggestions and might write a little more freely in future. It is the first time I have written a research blog and while in my formal academic publications critical analysis is expected I am still experimenting with the tone of pieces I write here.

      Thanks again for contributing and if you have any other points, or links, which you think would be useful to readers please just let me know.

      • John Bray Says:

        Jenny, it’s probably a bit late now as you seem to have left our area, but I think that one aspect of building you seem to have overlooked is the Alpujarran Cortijo. It may be a similar method throughout Andalucia but I don’t get out enough to know :o)

        The Cortijo/Corttijada would appear to tick all your boxes …. “I intend to achieve my aim by exploring successful projects which are small-scale, community-led, rural, self-built and targeted at low-income potential residents”.

        They were built from local stones, earth, tree-trunks and bamboo. They were built “by the people, for the people” and when it comes to low-income it certainly didn’t come much lower in Europe than round these parts.

        As a construction method they have stood the test of time – mine was built about 150 yrs ago (and is not particularly old). Thick walls are essential because of the difficulty of stacking stones on top of each other – with nothing more than mud to hold them together. This means pretty good insulation for the hot as well as the cold spells. The roofs were covered with launa (a sort of decomposed slate/clay that kept the rain out most of the time. When it failed it was just a matter of getting some more or rearranging what’s on the roof. The old village houses didn’t really vary much from these methods either – they were just closer together.

        Nowadays of course a Cortijo would be made from contrete/bricks/cement and steel – because it’s easier and quicker. Progress I suppose: earn money to pay someone to build a place that you could’ve built for nothing if you’d only had the time :o)

        In years to come (as energy becomes scarcer for producing steel and cement & transporting stuff around) these older methods may well become the norm again.

      • naturalbuild Says:

        Hi John

        I totally agree. One of the things I am interested in is the vernacular architecture of the areas I am visiting, in other words what houses have traditionally been lived in and what are they made from. I did spend quite a lot of time visiting cortijos, I simply have not written into a blog yet. Readers might be interested in a good description of what it is like living and maintaining such a house in Chris Stewarts’ book Driving Over Lemons.


  2. Casas Says:

    Sabía de la existencia de ciertas comunidades en las Alpujarras, pero desconocía ésta que describe el artículo. Veo cierta inspiración de Gaudí en algunas de las construcciones, aunque las que más me han interesado han sido las fotos de las casas en los árboles, una tipología de la que hemos escrito algo en nuestro blog.

    Un saludo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s