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We called it Tres Robles, after the three mighty oaks that line our half-acre plot nestled in the Andalusian olive groves in southern Spain. It was going to be our dream eco house, with the aim to be as self-sufficient as possible. But that was 13 years ago — long before the dream became a nightmare, long before it became a surreal experience of years wading through the quagmire of Spanish bureaucracy. The plan was to convert our 100-year-old farmhouse with its animal sheds and ancient threshing floor into three casitas, or self-contained apartments, set around a traditional central Spanish courtyard. We would rent them out individually or all together.
That was back in 2002 but it was only in December 2015 that my husband Jonathan and I spent our first night in the property.
Life can be harsh in the countryside, and I’m not just talking about dealing with government red tape. A storm tore one of the gnarly oak trees out of the ground. Years later amid severe winter storms, the stream that lined the property — and which turned out to be the bane of our entire project — was overrun by a torrent of water that ripped through the landscape, taking out large chunks of earth, olive trees and one of the access roads to our property.
The stream feeds into the Embalse de Iznájar — a huge area dammed in 1969 to create the largest reservoir in Andalusia. We had spent years altering our plans and even after purchasing a building permit for about €3,000, it was the green light from the water authority that proved elusive.
When we first spotted the property, which is set in a conservation area in Córdoba province 600 metres above sea level, it could only be accessed via a dirt track. Under Spanish laws on inheritance, estates are typically shared among heirs. Yet under Franco, many of the locals in the area, including some of the family of the previous owner, had relocated to the four corners of Spain. It took us 18 months to track them all down and work through generations of inheritance paperwork before we could finally purchase the property. It was a warning of things to come.
By the time the purchase came through in 2004, Spain was at the start of another drought — water levels at the reservoir had plunged so low that buildings and an ancient bridge that had been flooded to create the lake were exposed — thousands of dead fish lay rotting in the sun. Struggling to get the build off the ground, the place stank both literally and figuratively.
Our lawyer said the water authority was concerned about water contamination from our property — notwithstanding the fact that some of our neighbours upstream didn’t even have septic tanks — and that the only way we’d get permission was if we built a “family home”, rather than a “rural tourism project”.
So we did.
But then we had to battle to get the building permit reissued — and in the end decided it was quicker to buy a new permit and seek a refund for the old one.
We were now on our second architect, working out the hard way that going local is the only way to go. We contracted Carlos García, a renewable energy expert at Energon Renovables, and an amazing team of local builders headed by the wise and wonderful Isidoro Molina. He not only built our rustic-chic house in just six months, but became our business partner in another venture — Cortijo La Presa, a working olive farm and holiday retreat — and renewed our love for this beautiful Spanish landscape and its hardworking people.
Am I glad it’s taken this long? Yes and no. No, because Spain is its own worst enemy and exasperating to deal with, so much so that our Spanish friends are largely embarrassed by our experience. And yes, because green technology has changed so much in the past decade that we have been able to incorporate state-of-the art ecological features such as an air source heat pump, photovoltaics and water recycling into our five-bedroom, three-bathroom home.
If we had built the property 13 years ago, we would have installed wood burners with air ducts to heat the place. A few years later it would have been ugly and cumbersome pellet burners. We had also toyed with the idea of installing a ground source heat pump, but as this was not cost-effective, we opted for an air source heat pump in the end.
The house has underfloor heating throughout, which we will be able to control from our mobiles, even when we’re living in London. Construction of the property was so dizzyingly rapid — going up in six months, compared with the torturous process of seeking planning permission, which took 10 years — that we wanted the builders to slow down so we could savour each moment. I became so entranced watching Juan the digger man remould the landscape that after a couple of days he jumped out of his cab to give me a go.
I grew up on building sites and spent numerous school holidays hanging out on rooftops with my dad Frank, who worked in the solar industry in Australia. I got my passion and inspiration for this technology from my father, who believes each person can make a difference to help the environment. To this day he will beckon me up a ladder to check out his latest solar set-up, which he profited from by feeding unused energy back to the grid. However, this practice is something utility companies in Queensland are limiting or no longer offering.
Growing up in Australia, you get used to drought. My dad was a true environmentalist way before it became trendy. He designed and built solar hot water systems that ran off-grid for medical clinics on the Solomon Islands. And at home, he rigged up the washing machine so grey water ran directly on to the land. Showering was an Olympic affair, with an egg-timer on the wall and a simple bucket at your feet to collect more grey water. We had the greenest garden.
Our house is a homage to him.
We have installed an advanced water-recycling system that uses rain and grey water to fill the toilets and irrigate our olive trees and garden. The aim was to use as little fossil fuels as possible, which is why we decided not to use gas, even for cooking, and to cover the roof with photovoltaic panels, which we will eventually connect to storage batteries when the technology improves and the price comes down. With a well on the property, we hope one day to go off-grid.
Not yet, however. Before we installed the air source heat pump, work ground to a halt. The authorities disconnected the water because they’d only allowed six months on the building permit.
It has taken us eight months of petty bureaucratic toing and froing between the town hall and Emproacsa, the privatised water company based in Córdoba, to reconnect the water. Not only was none of its documentation held on computer, but it would not reconnect the water until we secured a contract to empty the septic tank despite the fact that it will rarely need emptying as it is a special biological system containing bacterial organisms to help break down fecal matter and chambers of volcanic stone to filter and cleanse the water.
When it finally reconnected the property to the main water supply, it insisted that we change the cover on the water meter cupboard because it was not its standard issue.
More than a decade of battling Spanish bureaucracy does not come cheap, and if we were ever to sell, we would be lucky to recoup the money we have sunk into this project.
We’re hoping that the heating and internet will be installed next month and that we can finally move in. We now call it Casa Bellota, or Acorn House, because with time and a little water, from little things, big things grow.
Where Iznájar, Córdoba, Spain
When Purchased March 2004. Build began in August 2014. Work due to be completed next month
Cost Land and farmhouse: €96,000. Estimated build (including taxes and professional fees): €210,000. Actual spend: €225,000
Size of build 195 sq metres
Worst moment Years of waiting for the water board
Architect Isabel Muros
Best tip Employ good local professionals
Claire Barron is section chief of FT Weekend and part-owner of Cortijo La Presa, an olive farm and holiday retreat in Priego de Córdoba, Spain
Photographs: Isadoro Molina; Jonathan Smith; Antonio Llamas Ordoñez
FT Graphic: Graham Parrish