SQUISHED BY LEMMINGS - PART THREE
P on SURVEYS IN SPAIN SAY MAINLY THE SAME - RUBBLE IS
the architect was a large nervously ebullient individual who talked
quickly and intensely. Based in Granada he was well established
locally for his specialist knowledge of vernacular building processes
and was in great demand with the expats round about.
Perhaps in his late forties he was Anglo-Spanish of Jewish origin,
and had worked in Britain for various local authorities before moving
back to Spain to the house he had bought on behalf of his father
in the Albaicin, the old town surrounding the Alhambra.
He seemed to know
exactly what he was talking about when it came to the ins and outs of
the local village houses, and was able to show us the very entrails
of the history of ours. The rumour that it had once been two separate
dwellings was indeed fact, and Pablo showed us how the problems involved
in joining the two houses had been overcome. One house had been built
on a slightly higher level than the other, and in one place a quarter
circle had been hewn out of the stone floor to accommodate the action
of a new internal door.
Elsewhere, extra steps , up or down, had been made to allow for the
change in levels. Originally the ground floors had once housed farm
animals, just as the old long-houses in Britain once had. Long since
vanished stairways had connected the living quarters of the people upstairs
to that of the animals below.
Fascinating though all this was we wanted Pablo to concentrate on as
thorough an inspection of the state of the building as possible, so
we went outside into the sunshine to await his verdict.
After an hour or so of measuring, scraping, poking and prodding, Pablo
emerged blinking into the sunlight, smiling and brushing lime-wash dust
and cobwebs from his hair and clothing. He was obviously hot and thirsty,
so we adjourned to the bar so that we could discuss his findings more
Essentially he felt that the house was basically sound and that the
cracks were more likely to be due to the earlier removal of some beams
which had facilitated the installation of two new fireplaces than to
subsidence. The bad news was that the roof was shot and needed replacing.
This was all something of a roller-coaster ride, and bracing ourselves
we waited for the next surprise. It seemed that nothing was as it appeared.
The good news was that putting a new roof on was by no means as big
a deal as it would be back in Britain. The even better news was that
fitting a steel belt around the building along with the new roof would
not be expensive, and would offer all but bomb-proof security against
any further movement.
By now thoroughly bewildered we didn't know which way to jump. The best
we could come up with was to ask Pablo if we could engage him to carry
out a detailed survey, together with a break-down of likely repair costs,
and whether he would be prepared to act as a professional project manager
if the deal went ahead. He said that he would be happy to do this and
we agreed terms.
After that we all relaxed, Wendy and Jonathan appeared and the afternoon
dissolved into a langorous haze as a long lunch at the nearest restaurant
became a bucolic bachanale. Pablo regaled us with tales of the time
he spent photographically recording every single manmade structure in
the Alpujarras for a national survey commissioned by the new government
following Francos demise. He had actually worn out the shutter mechanism
on a Nikon SLR taking hundreds of thousands of photos in the service
of a census of the state of the nation.
We heard stories of octogenarians emerging from self-imposed exile in
the hills, unaware that the civil war was over. We heard about whole
communities of seven-fingered in-bred troglodytes from some of the mountain
villages who couldn't understand why their beautifully hand-crafted
gloves were not popular with the tourists. There were tales of the Russian
State Orchestra, in town to perform at the famous annual Granada festival
of music. Not being able to afford to buy vodka they had resorted instead
to denatured alcohol bought from the ferret shops (ferreterias or ironmongers),
having pawned their dress suits to pay for the stuff and then having
to defect in order to avoid the consequences. The stories became more
implausibly surreal as the afternoon wore on, a feast of fantasy and
fact that was difficult to forgo, until at last we found that ours was
the only table still occupied and that it was gone four oclock.
Reluctantly we gave up our table and wandered towards the door.
Outside we found to our amazement that a blizzard was raging once again,
and of course we had no coats. We staggered off into the white-out,
still bewildered but with the feeling that the best may be to come,
despite the omens.
Back in Britain we returned to the daily grind and awaited news from
Pablo. In due course we received a fat stack of detailed notes and drawings
that gave a very comprehensive overview of the deficiencies that needed
to be rectified. Initially this seemed to be depressingly long but on
analysis it was the same situation one faces with an architectural survey
in Britain; ignore the bulk of it and identify the real issues.
The new roof and the carpentry were the main items, and we pored over
the figures, then cogitated considered and ruminated. We knew that we
needed to make an improved offer on the house if we were to have any
hope of buying it, but that if we sank all our resources into the purchase
the house would quickly disintegrate to the point of being beyond repair.
We had seen the effects of prolonged neglect on isolated houses around
the village where no action had been taken to repair roof leaks, and
ours had been developing minor leaks for some time.
All the village houses were built with the floors at a slight incline
from the back of the house , which was invariably built into the hillside,
towards the front which looked out onto the countryside and down into
the Gorge some hundreds of feet below.
The reasons for this were twofold. Firstly the lower quarters were always
used to shelter the livestock from the nightly depradations of wolves
and other predators, and so had to be sluiced out periodically to keep
them clean and free of pests. In some parts of the village animals were
still housed on the ground floor, although nowadays it was usually just
the odd mule, or some poultry, or perhaps a family of rather special
goats. The second reason the floors sloped had to do with the construction
methods and materials, and the local weather conditions.
All the houses were built with very thick stone walls, never less than
two feet thick and more usually four. This provided excellent insulation,
both during the long hot summers and the short but freezing winters.
It also provided a strong and stable foundation for the roof.
Uniquely constructed from local materials, these houses were more reminiscent
of of the work of a bower bird than serious architectural endeavour,
although perhaps this is true of vernacular buildings worldwide.
The roof was begun by embedding in the top of the wall the ends of heavy
chestnut beams, carefully selected for their size and shape, and then
carefully seasoned. These were usually twelve to eighteen inches thick
and between ten to fifteen feet long. Half a dozen of these would be
placed acrúoss the width of the house which was always long and
narrow. Interconnecting rooms run from front to rear, rather like a
railway carriage, with the marital quarters at the rear and the family
rooms at the front where the main windows are. The beams were set low
because the builders were limited by the extent to which they could
lift a heavy burden above their heads. Thus were the dimensions of the
dwellings dictated by the natural features of both men and materials.
At right angles to the main beams purlins of eucalyptus would be laid,
some made of split laths, some used as they came from the tree in the
form of small branches. Eucalyptus was chosen for its natural insecticidal
properties in deterring termites, and because it was plentiful.
Over these purlins were laid a layer of very big flat slates, again
carefully selected for size and shape, with this first layer providing
a foundation for subsequent laye¯rs of successively smaller slates.
A foot or more of these slate layers provided the weight necessary to
hold the roof structure in place. Above this was a final layer of launa,
a silica based mineral of pulverised mica that makes perfect waterproofing
if it is properly maintained. Provided that the top layer is is raked
over and redistributed to maintain a uniform depth, the roof will remain
watertight indefinitely. If it is not raked at least twice a year, the
rain gradually forms channels in the launa until it becomes so thin
in places that a leak occurs.If this is not rectified within a few months
or so the torrential winter rains quickly wash out a great hole in the
fabric of the roof, with the launa cascading down into the house, exposing
the slates and the beams to the elements. In a relatively short period
of time, two to five years, a once sound house can become no more than
a rotten brittle shell housing only a pile of rubble.
Clearly, if this project was to succeed we had to not only increase
our offer to the vendors but also ensure that we had sufficient funds
to cover the renovation costs. We did a lot of calculations a lot of
different ways and realised that any improved offer would have to be
We knew that the family of the deceased owner was totally disinterested
in the property, which was why it had lain neglected for so long. This
was in our favour, as was the fact that the successors were American.
This was important because property deals in Spain can become horrendouslïy
complex as the extended family of the deceased all have a claim on the
estate, thus making the purchase of a property sometimes impossibly
We put our case to the agent that the future of the house was in jeopardy
if it stood empty for another winter, and that significant resources
would have to be injected soon if it were to be safeguarded. We had
worked out that the estimated repairs would amount to about 20% more
than the purchase price, without leaving any contingency. Therefore
our increased offer of another 10% was very reasonable in the circumstances.
It wasn't without risk on our part, and anyway that was the absolute
limit that we could afford, take it or leave it. So we put in our final
and best offer and prepared to await the outcome. It had been an exciting
and absorbing adventure so far, but for now we had run out of road.
If our best offer was rejected it was indeed game over.
What will happen? Will Maggie get her dreamhouse? Tune in next month
to find out.
MISSED PART ONE OF MAGGIE'S
DREAMHOUSE IN SPAIN?
PART TWO OF SQUISHED BY LEMMINGS