Our Home Land

Side story: One expression of our attempt to be focused and clear about finding land where we can create a home manifested the week after we arrived in Romania. Andreea began to purchase a local advertisements newspaper “Piata” which is published every Tuesday. She began to look at real-estate options so we could get a sense of what was out there. We didn’t make any calls or go to see anything. Some weeks later when we had an initial sense of what we were looking for, Andreea began to put together a spreadsheet list of potential properties. She would review it every week, update properties that were re-advertised and add new ones. Over a couple of months this gave us a sense of how long properties were on the market and changes in their asking prices. Still we didn’t call anyone or go to see anything … though by now we were beginning to feel a little guilty about it.

After our trip around Cluj we were geared up to dig our hands deeper into real-estate dirt. We were now focused on two areas – Cornesti (where Andreea’s phone number began, and maybe still is, circulating) and Mociu. Mociu appealed to us more then Cornesti – it felt more spacious, lighter and younger – and it came to us by surprise! So Andreea began to make some phone calls. One of the calls left Andreea exhilarated – she described a charming conversation with an old man looking to sell 10 hectares of land in Mociu. Andreea was all giddy with excitement – for no logical reason – though we’ve both learned to recognize and appreciate that when this happens to her we’ve come across something good.

Later that week, last Friday (February 18th) Sabin and Ina once again came to our karmic rescue. They borrowed a car from a now mutual friend (thank you sooooo much Alex) and we drove together, the four us and the land-owner, to see the land.

Mociu is about 40km (30 minute drive) east of Cluj. The name Mociu relates to both a communa (an area that encompasses numerous villages) and the central village itself. It feels like a developed village – it’s center feels like a living public place (not a typical village scene) – including kids walking around (even less typical). At the center of the village we took a left turn and the property we came to see is about 2km removed from the center. Now is a good time to let some images do the talking.

We couldn’t arrive directly to the house with the car because the final segment of the road leading to it will only be completed this coming spring. So we drove into a nearby field and began walking in.

It sloped and led us to a small bridge over a small stream

and this is the view that opened up before us (slightly to the left/north because a blinding sun was shining down on us from the south) – it’s a panorama – so you are welcome to click on it to see more (that invitation extends to the other panoramas on this page as well).

We continued, passed one property where a young farmer greeted us and arrived at our designated property – this image looks back at the path we took to the property – the land on the right hand side is one of the agricultural hectares belonging to it.

and just passed it is this:

from left to right: garage (red doors), summer kitchen (pink walls), main house (long blue structure), and finally a barn (great space for all the wood working in our future) … and there are smaller structures for firewood, pigs and chickens. Both the main house and summer kitchen are built of thick cob walls. The other two structures were built in recent years. The whole “complex” is perfectly oriented with protection of both a hill and trees on the north and then complete opening to the southern sun. It is also hooked up to electricity and telephone lines (no gas and no sewage).

Across the “street” (to the left) are 6 additional hectares sprawling up a gentle hill of land and a water well (amazing water!):

The summer kitchen is a small structure with one room and a stove installed behind one of it’s walls (with access from within the room)

And this is the main house – a 60 year old structure which testifies to the strucutral quality of both the land and the construction.

We wouldn’t want to live in this house but we are also not happy to tear it down. It’s also very useful for us for living in while we build the main house. We are considering leaving it as is for now and maybe using it as a basis for the Feminitate center we have envisioned.

To the east of the entire complex is a beautiful clearing where we could easily envision our house being built.

We fell in love with the place and speak of it as ours.

For those interested in the workings of Karma here’s one amazing fact about this place. I didn’t know this until we arrived back back in the city and parted from Ina and Sabin – that’s when Andrees told me about it. This was the first real-estate listed in Andreea’s spreadsheet. It has been with us, waiting for us, from the first weeks we arrived in Romania. We had to patiently follow a trail of clues for it to appear before us.

By the way … the property to the east of us (just beyond the clearing above) is also for sale 🙂

Suceagu

Our architect (so wonderful to be able to say that, deserves and will be treated to a separate post) Horatiu sent us to see Suceagu. We were taken on a tour of the village and area by his friendly and generous friend … and so our land-finding journey and education continues.

Suceagu is rather large village 12 km north-west of Cluj. It’s hidden in a valley that actually worms back in the direction of Cluj – it’s about an hour walk from the city limits to the village. It is half Romanian and half Hungarian village. The part of the village closer to the main road and train station is Romanian dominated and deeper inside and higher up is Hungarian dominated – though there is some intermingling. The lower, Romanian part is very crowded – houses felt packed together. As we traveled deeper into the village there was a bit more sense of space. Towards the end of the village there actually was space. I am guessing its crowded because of it’s proximity to the city – and from what we were told there is a movement of people from the city to the village.

Once we got to the top we got out and this is the view that appeared before us (click the image below to see a larger image):

This image is looking back in the direction we came in – facing north (on the left side is west, on the right east), it is ~10:00am – you can see the sun shining from the east – brighter on the western side. We liked this area very much – rounded and spacious hills with plenty of light.

Though it looks fairly flat – it has good north-south orientation – if you look closely you can see that on the left the hill rises gently to the north – creating a subtle but effective potential shielding from the north (if a house is properly sited).

Also, the left (west) side is very accessible by road, the right (east) side is less so and in some parts there is an additional valley that needs to be bridges to get to it.

Our host made a stop on the way down to ask about these lands. It seems that, typical of Romania, the lands are very fragmented – small plots (2 or 3 acres) owned by different people. This makes it difficult to purchase a larger area of 1 or 2 hectare. The village is also growing and creeping up the road – which means that in the future it may not remain so spacious. From what we can tell lands prices are currently ~10euro per sqm – way beyond our budget.

Our host then took us to see lands on the other (northern side of the main road) a couple of minutes drive out of the village.

We loves this land even more. These are deserted (from the 90’s) fruit tree orchards with excellent north-south orientation. The land here is clay-heavy (maybe good for people interested in building with cob?) and therefore less suitable for diverse farming. Otherwise a nice place, great view, spacious and close to the city.

Learning from Passivhaus Building

The people of Green Building Store (UK) have generously produced and published a freely available online movie about some of the challenges they faced in a Passivhaus construction project in the UK. Though I am wary of taking on the Passivhaus standard as is (reservations I’ve written about in posts about Passivehaus and Rural Studio) I am also trying to be careful not to pour the baby out with the water. There is a lot of common sense in Passivhaus and much of it is excellently communicated in this movie. You can view all the parts here or possibly start with this embedded video and then continue to each consequent part:

So, with much curiosity and interest I watched the movie (reviewing some of the chapters numerous times) and made some notes of things that I hope to incorporate into our building process. This list does not include the core-issues of Passivhaus construction (insulation, minimal thermal bridging, air-tightness, ventilation and passive solar gain) which deserve careful context and consideration – especially when it comes to hemp-lime construction which introduces unique qualities to both the construction process and the resulting structure.

Design & Details

It is invaluable to spend time designing and paying attention to details before the actual construction process. Construction is an established process and skill which carries with it a taken-for-granted attitude. Professionals have a way of doing things and will prefer to do things the way they’re used to doing them – which may lead to cutting corners in design and to on-site improvisation.

This can be destructive in a project where new standards of building, new materials and new techniques are involved. Taking the time to plan things in advance, to drawing diagrams & making calculations creates a thoughtful path towards a desirable result. Of course it is inevitable that unforeseen challenges will arise during construction and that some changes and improvisation will be required – in which case a plan gives some indication of how far you’ve deviated and what you need to do to get back on track.

Special attention should be given to details. I’ve been working on a wall-to-floor detail for weeks – compiling all the information and knowledge I have come across, reconsidering it in the context of hemp-construction, our house design, minimizing costs, minimizing the use of concrete and relying on locally available materials. There is no ready-made template for what we are doing, there are many options to choose from, there are many considerationt to incorporate. We could take the easy path and hire foundation contractors and let them do their thing – but that would lead away from the kind of warm, pleasant, ecological and efficient house we hope to live in and bring us to the standard cold and humid house that contractors have been building in Romania for may years.

Team Work

A typical construction process tends isolate and compartmentalize knowledge and skills. We would consult with an architect to design our house. Then we would pass the plans to an structural engineer who would need to figure out how to support our house. Then we would pass the architectural and structural engineering plans to a heating engineer who will try to provide an adequate heating solution within the existing constraints.

This kind of approach can lead to an inefficient process and an inefficient house. A good engineer can provide a structural solution to meet almost any need – but at what price? How much extra work, materials, construction effort and waste may be required to implement the engineered solution? Similarly a heating engineer can theoretically heat any space – the question is how expensive and complicated will the system be and how much energy will it consume? This is a brute force approach.

We are trying to put together a team that will work together during all phases of the project. We’d like everyone to be there to provide input at every stage of the project. We’d like the architect to provide input on choosing good land and on siting of the house on it. We’d like the structural engineer to make suggestions on architectural decisions that may lead to simpler and more efficient construction using less materials. We’d like a heating-engineer to review the size of our spaces and to make suggestion that may improve the energy-efficiency of the house.

It takes integrated and out-of-the-box thinking to create the kind of integration that leads to a house that facilitates an “eco” existence.

Opening Details

I have been wondering about how to go about properly insulating openinsg like windows and doors. The movie offered some very useful tips about these issues and these are the ones I noted:

  • Windows should be placed at the center (depth) of the wall.
  • Windows should open inwards – placing the thicker part of the frame on the outside for better insulation.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Contega FC) should be applied between the rough structural opening and the internal wall and then covered by the the internal render.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Tescon) should be applied between the window frame and the rough structural openings.
  • A concrete slab should not extend to the door opening to prevent heat loss through it.
  • The door opening slab requires an insulated and weather resistant material (such as fiberglass).

A big thank you to the people at Green Building Company. This movie has been very educative and helpful.

Choosing Land

We are going to buy land – a special piece of land where we will make a home. What should we look for when buying land? At first we didn’t know how to begin answering this question. But by now we have a better idea of what we want and we put together this list of wishes we hope to balance together:

  • Designation: land that is designated for both construction and agriculture – the majority of which is for agriculture. Sometimes there is one part of the land where the house is built and the agricultural lands are separated. We are looking for land that is a combination of both. In Romanian this is called “intravilan” – land that is “inside the village” – meaning the housing area. We have plans for additional structures on the house – including a birthing center.
  • Orientation: North-South orientation – with a view in the south. That way we can enjoy both the view and passive-solar energy by having south facing windows (the north wall will be fairly closed to insulate from cold winds. It is preferable that the house can be placed in such a way that the entrance is from either the south, east or west (as the north is an uninviting fron).
  • Fertile Land: We want land that is easy to cultivate for diverse crops. Preferrably without stones, comfortable summer climate (not too cold so we can grow crops like wheat which suffer from cold weather) and ground that is not too acidic or salty.
  • Water Table: We expect to pump our water from a well. The water table should be between 4 and 10 meters. A water table that is too high can damage house foundations. A water table that is too low can be more difficult to pump and is more likely to dry up in dry seasons.
  • Flowing Water: Hydro-electricity is one of the most reliable and affordable green-electricity solutions. We hope to find land with running water with enough head to generate eletricity.
  • Near Water: If there isn’t running water on the property then we would like to live within walking distance from a body of water.
  • Proportions: We prefer land that is well proportioned – not too elongated. It should also be at least 50 meters wide to accommodate the potential length of our house (15-20 meters) with additional space on both sides (10-15 meters on every side).
  • Accessible: We prefer a town that is accessible by public transportation (bus or train) to and from a near city. Our land should be within a short driving distance from the town – preferrably even a short walking distance of ~ 20 minutes.

There are also a few things we know to look out for. Thanksfully this list it small and we hope it stays that way:

  • Altitude: If the area is prone to be flooding then our land should be located at a higher altitude so that water can easily flow away from and not accumulate on it.
  • Quiet: The land should not be situated on a main road.

Where to Place a House?

So you purchased some land and you are wondering where and in which direction to place your home?

We currently know of three considerations which pretty much answer this question:

  • We sleep with our heads in the east and our feet in the west.
  • We’d like to benefit from passive-solar heat – which means most of our windows (and thermal mass considerations) will be facing south
  • We’d like to have a great view

The order they are in is not random – it reflects our priorities. It’s hard to enjoy a nice view from a cold house. It’s also hard to enjoy a nice view in a warm house unless we sleep well. So sleep, warmth and view is how it goes.

Once that is set it can be useful to get more specific about the actual position of the sun over the months and seasons of a year. You can then place the sun relative to other natural elements in the landscape (hills, trees,etc.) and then decide where is best to place windows to make the best of what sunlight is available.

One way to do this is to actually be on-site for a year and make measurements. When this is not possible there are solar calculators to do the trick for you.

To do this you will need a solar map calculator – a few of which are available online:

  • I think the easiest and friendliest calculator is at PVEducation – where you can easily shift the time of year to see the solar path change.
  • A simple and useful charting tool I found (so far) is SunPosition Calculator which has basic free functionality and extended paid options.
  • A more complex and elaborate tools can be found at SunEarthTools.

To use these tools you will need to find the latitude and longitude of your site location. You can do that here or just search the Internet as there are many freely available online options.