Galician construction methods

Stone walled buildings

Galicia has an abundance of various types of granite and, before most of them were cut down to make way for lucrative and easily managed eucalyptus plantations, also had prodigious chestnut forests.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the traditional Galician building is stone walled and has upper floors and a roof structure made from chestnut wood (castaño). Buildings were still being built in the traditional way right up into the 1980s in some rural areas, and these old buildings are valued for their character, charm and restoration potential …mostly, it has to be said, by people that have never spent a winter living in one of them.

A traditional Galician stone building was built as follows:

The site and layout

Galicia is mostly either going uphill or downhill at any given point so the location of the front wall was selected and then the site dug out to give a level base to the back wall.
Digging out a site in this way meant that stone walls could be (and invariably were) built directly on the ground without foundations – had ground been built up artificially it would have compacted under the weight of the stone walls and the building would probably have collapsed, stone walls having very little tolerance for movement.

The cut into the earth nature of typical sites means that most old Galician buildings have windows and doors on just one side of the lower floor, and therefore poor natural lighting. They also have significant ground floor damp problems. For this reason and for security concerns (even modern Galician buildings often tend towards the lightly fortified despite low crime rates) the lower floor normally housed a kitchen/dining room and animal stabling, with the bedrooms on upper floors.

By happy chance this layout also helped reduce the effects of Galicia’s radon problem – both the kitchen and animal stabling tended to have high levels of ventilation and so any gas which did leak into the building from the ground would normally disperse too quickly to allow a buildup of sufficient concentration to pose health risks.

The walls and ground floor

Stone walls are normally made of roughly faced on one side pieces of the local granite and are around 50-60cm thick consisting of what are essentially two separate walls forming an inner and outer face joined into a single wall by filling the gap between with rubble and mud.
Just in case you are thinking that this might function as some sort of cavity wall, don’t, they don’t. Any water arriving at the back wall will easily find a way through to the inside of the wall.

An additional bonus (in the sarcastic sense of the word) with this type of wall is that the loose rubble and mud filling can easily be removed by mice and insects to form extremely secure and often quite extensive tunnel systems and nests.

The footprint of the building is dictated by two factors, width by the length of the available chestnut beams to build the upper floor(s) and roof structure, and length by how rich the client was.

As beam spacings were fairly consistent (2-3 metres apart) and an upper floor window was normally sited between each pair of first floor beams, the length of old Galician houses can more or less be described in window terms with 2 windows being the smallest, 3 or 4 normal, and 5 or above unusually opulent.

Apertures in the walls would normally consist of a front door, a kitchen window (often fortified with iron bars – bear in mind many of the houses predated the civil war), stable doors as necessary and perhaps some small ventilation windows in the stabling section.

Stable floors were earth but the kitchen floor was normally flat stone or slate slabs laid directly on the earth.
Most of these kitchen floors have subsequently been updated by pouring a thin slab of concrete to cover the flat stones and then tiling on top. This doesn’t, of course, really do very much to prevent the damp from entering through the tile joints.

Internal walls in the building would normally be formed with single skin (8cm or 4cm wide) brickwork. These walls may stiffen some of the structure but they are generally not supporting and can therefore be removed without anything collapsing – but not always so do make sure first!

Upper floors

Traditional Galician houses often had three floors (2 full height and 1 under the roof), although sometimes just one or two and very occasionally four.

Floors above the ground floor would be made by fitting large chestnut beams from outer wall to outer wall across the width of the building, typically 2-3 metres apart, and fitting a beam structure and planking on top of these.

The beam structure over the main beams was often rough cut and wider than it was high, which gives a strong enough but very bouncy floor if there are no stiffening internal walls underneath.

The planking was sometimes chestnut but could also be pine of some variety, which was also abundant in Galicia and cheap to import.

The entirety of pine and all but the central core of chestnut is vulnerable to woodworm infestation, and in most old buildings the structure is degraded enough by this to require all but the main beams to be replaced.

If the walls have or have had significant moisture content in them (typically from roof leaks or from broken or missing render) then the ends of the major structural beams can be rotten, often to the extent that the beam must be replaced or new columns constructed to support it where there is still good wood.

The roof

The roof structure would be made by constructing triangles of the same large chestnut beams as those that support upper floors (the floor beams of the top floor act as tie beams for these triangles) and continuing the two end stone walls of the house up with matching angles to form gable end walls.

Timber joists would be laid across these walls and beams and then on top of these timber planks would form a base for rough cut slates, the extremely beautiful but also tricky to maintain traditional roofing material of much of Galicia.

A very common renovation during the 50s to the 80s was that the original slates were replaced with some form of interlocking clay or concrete tiles held on by timber batons (often made of pine, so if these aren’t treated against damp/mould and insects the roof may be in quite a poor condition).

Starting in the 1960s and ubiquitous since the 1980s is renovation of the roof by replacing the original slates with cement fibreboard panels (uralita, named after the major Spanish brand) often with lurid orange concrete tiles on top.
These panels contained asbestos right up until 2001 (when use was banned in the EU), and whilst asbestos isn’t a problem as long as the panel isn’t cut and doesn’t degrade it’s worth bearing in mind that probable future changes in health and safety law may make these panels an expensive liability.

Windows, doors and lintels

On more expensive houses the window and door apertures were completely framed by cut pieces of granite.

Otherwise the sides would be formed by using stones faced on multiple sides to build the sides of the door or window frame and several chestnut beams would be laid over the top to form a lintel.

Other features of old stone houses

Many old stone houses will feature a kitchen sink hand carved from a single piece of stone, and almost all will also feature an “estufa de leña”, which is a small wood fired stove that heats a large iron top plate and an oven.

In older and/or more grandiose houses you will often find large granite fireplaces occupying a sizeable portion of the floor area, and a massive wood fired bread oven is also a common thing.

Outside the house you are likely to find an hórreo. This is a corn/grain storage housed raised on a plinth to be above the height of rising damp and with a protruding ledge to stop mice and rats being able to get in.
Galicians take hórreos very seriously (including protecting them under Galician law to the extent that doing building work within 100 metres of a 100+year old horreo requires special permissions) as they are still remembered in the collective consciousness for revolutionising Galician agriculture such that surviving the winter and spring became considerably easier.

Hórreos were also a major status symbol and demonstration of wealth and as such are often a useful indicator of how much money was initially put into building a house (the bigger and fancier the hórreo the higher the build budget).
As houses have often been rendered and considerably altered the hórreo method is actually extremely useful to get a handle on whether the original core of the building is likely to be of good construction quality or not.

Immediate surroundings

The vast majority of old stone farmhouses are clustered closely together with other old stone farmhouses and various hideous outbuildings (think exposed concrete blocks, cement fibreboard roofs, oil drums and agricultural feed sacks, etc.).

Whatever land comes with a house very often extends in a long strip away from it, with the house being situated at one end of the strip right next to all the other houses in that cluster (hamlet, normally called an “aldea” in Spain) and with some form of road in front.

More isolated farmhouses are less common but are still plentiful in Galicia, particularly in the north, and completely isolated (ie. you can’t see your neighbours) properties and even complete aldeas which have been abandoned can also be found.

Variations on the theme

Everything above describes the traditional Galician stone built farmhouse, but of course larger and more complex buildings built in the same way also existed, the two most notable types of house being pazos (Manor houses) and casas Indianas (a 1920s/30s art deco style).

There are a fair number of pazos available to buy but they tend to have a hefty premium placed on the price and be very dark and cold (farmhouses are dark and cold as a result of being built into the ground, and the structural basis of most pazos is often in essence just a double width farmhouse with internal columns or supporting walls, slightly more fortification and decoration, and the same number of windows and doors as a farmhouse). That said,  they can form amazing buildings when restored, if your health and money have lasted that long.

There are also a handful of casas Indianas available, but most are expensively priced and more challenging than average to restore.

The typical problems you can expect to encounter with a stone walled building, and how to fix them, are covered in our stone walled problems and solutions section.

Concrete framed buildings

From the late 1950s onwards Spain started to open up to the tourism trade from a northern Europe that was finally recovering its prosperity after the war, and with this came a swathe of new building using reinforced concrete frame technology.

This tourism boom didn’t significantly impact Galicia at this time but the style used for throwing up hotels and villas all along the Mediterranean costas arrived and the Galicians, who had still been building with rough cut stone, embraced it. This love affair endures to this day, with this still being the preferred style of construction in Galicia.

The idea of a concrete framed building may sound cheap and nasty, but bear in mind that in the UK this is regarded as a style of construction that is too expensive and unnecessarily strong for conventional houses but that is widely used for new office buildings that require a lot of glazing.

Reinforced concrete framed buildings are constructed as follows:

The site and layout

As with stone buildings, the site would often be cut into a slope to give a level base for the building’s footprint, and this of course has the traditional problems of poor ground floor lighting and damp ingress.

Not all framed builds are cut into the ground; as the building is supported by columns, concrete footings for these (roughly a 3×3 metre grid for the columns is typical) can be made giving a good foundation for the building (if done correctly) and also allowing the base of the site to be made up with infill or an air gap left under the ground floor so that construction of the ground floor could start higher up, often allowing ground floor windows on all or most sides.

In buildings with reduced ground floor natural light the ground floor would often function as a basement with access to the house at first floor level (which, due to the prevalence of sloping sites, is normally ground floor level from the other side of the house).

With this style of building also came the concept of a lounge or living room, which hadn’t generally featured in older stone buildings in the countryside, where the human occupants were either sleeping, eating or outside working.
This meant that the ground floor would typically contain a lounge and a kitchen, along with perhaps a toilet and a laundry room, and the upper floors would contain bedrooms.

Animal stabling in all but the poorest examples of these buildings would be in separate buildings (often of significantly lower quality), although these were often attached at the side and could be accessed internally.

The walls and ground floor

Many framed buildings still used a ground supported floor for the ground floor (ie. concrete poured on top of the earth) but better ones used a raised floor supported by a ringbeam set into the columns with block and beam fill to give a complete floor plate with an air cavity underneath, which prevents damp ingress, retains heat better and also removes any radon risk.

Exterior walls were formed by filling in the spaces between columns along the edge of the floor plate with normally a double skin (to form a cavity wall) but sometimes just a single skin of brickwork.
Where double skin cavity walls exist they are (unless built in the last 10-15 years) uninsulated and they also seem often to not have weep holes so that moisture that gets into the cavity can get out again (at the bottom, to the outside).

Interior walls are typically single skin brickwork (8cm or 4cm plus render).

A major plus about framed buildings is that neither the exterior nor the interior walls (obviously not including the columns) are structural, which allows anyone wanting a lighter interior to enlarge existing and add new windows very easily and also allows redistribution of existing rooms (typically knocking together very small rooms and their interminable space consuming corridors to create larger, more open plan rooms).

Upper floors

Upper floors are formed in the same way as a raised ground floor, with a ringbeam set into the columns and filled in with block and beam to form a concrete floor plate.

Internal divisions are again made with single skin brickwork walls which are typically not load bearing and can thus be altered or removed, but which can sometimes be load bearing under a sloping roof.

The roof

Perhaps because it works so well for floor plates or possibly because Galicians have a thing about buildings being “muy fuerte” (very strong), roofs are normally constructed with the same block and beam to make a concrete plate method used for upper floors. The only real difference is that the roof plates slope and meet at the ridge.

This may come in handy in the event of mortar attacks on your house but is generally not good from a modern building technology point of view because it adds a lot of unnecessary load to the building and also because this large mass soaks up sun all day in the summer and then acts as a radiator all night.

On top of this roof plate will go the roofing material of choice. Sometimes this is slate but most often it is the ubiquitous “uralita y tejas” (Uralita was the major manufacturer of this material in Spain), which means a layer of concrete fibreboard (which typically contains asbestos if manufactured before 2001 in Spain) on which garish orange concrete roofing tiles are placed or stuck with expanding foam spray.

In rural areas people often leave off the tiles, some would say reasonably enough since these, although invariably required by planning permissions, just add cost, weight and maintenance to a roof that in any case is weatherproof and has a 50 year lifespan with just the cement fibreboard (if painted to avoid solar degradation – they can be purchased pre-painted).

Windows, doors and lintels

As external walls are normally not load bearing, other than their own weight, holes are easy to cut for windows and doors and small reinforced concrete lintels provide all the structural support necessary for these holes.

For alteration or new holes pre-fabricated lintels are readily available, but on some frame buildings you may come across homemade reinforced concrete or timber lintels.

Lintels are subject to damp penetration from within the cavity unless properly protected and should also, but often don’t, have weep holes to let moisture out.

Other features of framed houses

These buildings mark the period when Galicia was transitioning from a very rural economy to a more mixed, modern economy. As such, they come in a variety of styles from straight replacements for the functions of old farmhouses, in which case you may find hórreos, estufas de leña, washhouses, lots of outbuildings with animal pens and so on, to holiday homes for rich people from Madrid and the Galician cities, in which case you can find all sorts of examples of what was prevalent in Spanish taste at the time (often vaguely fascist bling) along with large sun terraces/outdoor eating areas that make the most of the light and views (nice!).

Frame builds made as holiday homes quite often feature swimming pools of varying quality.

The one near constant amongst all frame builds in Galicia is hideous (ie. garish patterns and colours with no effort to hide the repeat) tiling, and lots of it both inside and often outside too!

Immediate surroundings

The surroundings of a framed build can be more or less anything. You will find them squeezed into the centre of clusters of houses, standing on their own in positions that range from sensible to strange, and you will also find that nearly all the best positions for coastal villas are occupied by framed builds made as holiday homes in the late 1970s and 1980s before coastal development was restricted.

Increasingly since then there have been two trends in Galician building which are smaller plot sizes and greater planning controls, such that these days you can’t build anything at all within 100 metres of the coast and most new developer builds have an outdoor space of just a few hundred metres squared (whereas older buildings often come with a few thousand).

Galician concrete framed buildings have a range of typical problems, and these and the ways to fix them are covered in our concrete framed problems and solutions section.