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Did The Earth Move For You? PDF
 

By Liam Kellehar

alt  Olive Country Life magazine, July 2009

 

 

It is common to assume that traditional building construction adequately responds to the structural necessities of the local habitat and that foundation design is no different. Surely, you just dig a hole, chuck in some rocks, perhaps throw some concrete over them and you have a satisfactory foundation. Not so as described in “South from Granada” by Gerald Brennan.

“The houses built on the mountain-side were always slipping, and the cracks that were then formed needed to be stopped with plaster”.

It is easy to be scornful of past building techniques, but that is to misunderstand the financial imperatives and priorities of the local population. People had little enough money to feed themselves, so when it came to building, they just used what they found lying around. Basically mud and stone. But by now I would have expected things to have progressed and for builders to have a better idea of soil dynamics.

Not so. What happens when you cannot be bothered to build a proper retaining wall? It rains and both the soil and your building decide to relocate to the valley below. It is quite clear that ladrillos and concrete blocks were simply not man enough for the job and that the contractor had not understood the problems posed by erosion.

Soil Types

 

Ignoring peat, for construction purposes soils break down into four categories: gravels, sands, silts and clays. Each has a distinctive characteristic and behaves in a specific way. Unfortunately soils are a mixture. A recent site investigation showed the soil was arenas arcillosas con grava (clayey sand with gravel). So, a soil with the water-logging characteristics of clay and the lack of cohesion of sand and gravels.

I spoke with Patrick Walter, a builder who has experience of building both in the UK and in Spain. Had he found local soils to be unstable?

 

“Well of course it does vary a lot around here. If you are on the top of a mountain you will have exposed rock, but in some of the valley areas of Priego de Córdoba you can have three metres of loam topsoil, no good for building on. And in Iznájar; the land is so unstable you cannot get buildings insurance.

“But what surprises me most is how a run-of-the-mill storm can dramatically change the soil’s characteristics. What appears to be solid rock one minute can turn to something with the load-bearing capacity of hot chocolate the next.”

Patrick gave me an example. He had been working on a rural house near Priego, when it started to rain. At first nobody thought anything of it and they all took shelter. After 10 minutes it became clear there would be no more work for that day, but to their horror they realised that the path out of the site had become a river of mud. Fortunately they had a retroexcavador (JCB) and managed to dig their way through. They bid the driver of the retro goodbye. Out of courtesy the client had come with them, but when they turned around the route was closed once again, and he was left stranded on the wrong side of the river.

 

As I have noted soils can vary greatly, even within a matter of metres. So: Find out the soil make-up of your site.

• Take the routes of watercourses seriously and understand how water movement will affect new and existing buildings.

• Think about water run-off from roofs; is it being collected or eroding the soil next to the foundation of your house?

 

Whilst we watched my colleague Joselu’s daughter Paula dancing at her guardería fiesta, I decided to quiz him about the problems of foundation design here in Andalucía.

“Well I think a big problem is that nearby Granada is a major centre for earthquakes.” Paula swayed in time to the music and took some cheesy crisps, proffered by her abuela. “The mountains here are quite young and there is still some movement of the tectonic plates. So the landscape and the soils are still in flux.”

But pure technology cannot hold an architect’s interest for long, it is only a means to understanding the human condition and the conversation soon drifted to discussions of how topography had more effect on the trading and political links within Andalucía than provincial boundaries.

Joselu could be right. Perhaps the soil is responsible for the devil-may-care attitude of the Andalucian Spaniard, not the ever-present sunshine. After all, what is the point of worrying about the future, if the next set of rains can sweep away your house in a torrent of mud? You can either go with the flow, or you can struggle against it like Michael Palin’s Yorkshire accented knight from the film, “The Search for the Holy Grail.”

“People said I was a fool to build a castle in a swamp, and that it’d fall down. But I built it anyway. It fell down. So I built another castle and that fell down too. So…etc., etc.....” 

Liam Kellehar BA (Hons) Arch., RIBA, COACo no 570, is a British qualified architect registered to work in Spain.  He  lives in the Sierra Sur area of Andalucía.  He can be contacted by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by mobile telephone on 690 721 141.