Construction fundamentals

The basic basics

Exactly how buildings are constructed, the resulting problems and how to fix these is covered in the rest of this section, but a good question to start with is why buildings, in this case houses, are constructed?
The answer is pretty simple: to create a good home, which means

  • To provide a dry, warm, protected space in which to live
  • And, beyond these basics, to facilitate lifestyles and interests and to make the home’s occupants happy

These answers could actually apply to a mud hut, and indeed for many millenia well built mud huts must have delighted many of our ancestors. Today, of course, we have much better building technology so it’s also important to consider that what constitutes a good home must meet modern expectations.

To construct a house the major elements are:

  • Exterior walls that shield us from the weather (cold, wet, heat) and provide security.
  • A roof that shields us from the weather (rain, snow, cold, heat).
  • Windows that allow in (in a controllable and also a pleasing fashion) light, heat and fresh air and that connect the inside of the home with the views and spaces outside.
  • Doors to allow and control entry and exit.
  • Interior walls and doors that divide up the internal space into places for cooking, eating, sleeping, toilets, socialising, privacy, etc. as required by the occupants.
  • Interior lighting situated, controllable and of necessary brightness to meet the needs of the occupants.
  • Water supply and drainage situated and controllable to meet the needs of the occupants.
  • Electric (and gas) supplies situated and controllable to meet the needs of the occupants.
  • Layout suitable for purpose and all surfaces painted and decorated

The vast majority of buildings in Galicia provide (or can provide when restored) all or nearly all of the above but, as is so often the case it’s that last 10% that makes the difference. In the case of houses, this is the elusive difference between a house and a good home.

Improving on the basics

Sometimes a property is so stunning in one way or another (like the location and views of this one in the search service real life case study) that its good points blind you to its flaws, but in fact almost every property can be improved in all the areas listed above by the correct application of modern building technology, and this can turn out to make that crucial difference…

So, revisiting the components of a house listed above to make a good home:

  • As well as simple protection exterior walls should be designed to not have problems with moisture and damp that cause mold and make a home feel unhealthy and uncomfortable.
    As well as this they should preserve heat (or cold in summer) within the house with high efficiency so that occupants can feel comfortable whatever the weather outside and so that the minimum of energy is used to achieve this.
    Finally, wall design plays a big role in how much the outside world can be heard inside the house.
  • As well as keeping out the weather roofs should also, like walls, be designed not to have problems with moisture and damp.
    A roof should also preserve heat/cold inside the building and resist the heat from the summer sun. In a badly designed house the space under the roof can be an oven, but in a well designed house it can make wonderful bedrooms with the best views in the house.
  • Window design should take into account the desired lighting and also privacy in a room, which is all dependent on its proposed use and what the window faces outside.
    Opening parts of the window should be optimised for the required level of ventilation, prevailing winds, the connection of spaces and also with controlling the inflow of exterior sources of noise (eg. a busy road) in mind.
    Windows also need to protect against heat loss in winter, solar gain in summer, and potential damage by wind and rain.
  • As well as dividing space doors control the flow of heat and ventilation around a house.
    Whilst able to provide privacy, an opening door actually takes up a lot of space on both sides of a wall and also has an aesthetic and feeling-of-a-room impact.
    Open plan designs are an alternative to walls, doors and corridors, but a home should always be designed with its occupants and how they use the home in mind.
  • In the UK new build houses are now a larger equivalent of an IKEA Billy; variations on standard divisions of interior space with walls for various average buyers …and, albeit cleverly, made out of cheap and nasty materials.
    With land prices as they are you have to admire the efficiency, but there is no individuality and next to no potential for the occupants to give the house any character or even change its internal space distribution significantly to match changes in their needs over the years.
    In Galicia land is much cheaper, houses are bigger, and the resulting internal space allows houses to be given the character and individuality that makes them into homes.
  • Standard lighting does what it says on the tin. Bad lighting makes people irritable and rooms unpleasant, but well thought out lighting can transform a room and how it feels.
    With the widespread availability of low consumption LED bulbs the options for lighting a room have never been greater.
  • Humans are something like 70% water and our lives depend on its availability so it has an important place in our homes.
    Water is also, though, the major cause of structural problems in houses and the quantity of it in the air and fabric of our homes makes an enormous difference to how a home feels both in terms of cold/damp/humid and of feeling healthy (mold, dust, dryness).
    So as well as thinking where you need water in your home, you also have to consider how to not let it degrade your home, which generally means separating, heating and ventilating areas with water in.
  • Ignoring the (generally quite small) danger aspect, plug extension leads trailing everywhere form dust traps, are annoying, look ugly and generally make a home that little bit less pleasant.
    Electrical installations are expensive, but if done once and done right they don’t need to cost a fortune and those little bits of less irritation and more enjoyment of the home each day add up over time.
  • Aesthetics, colour, decoration and architecture are staring you in the face for every minute of every day you spend in your home. The difference between doing these well (for you) and not is a little bit of extra happiness for every one of those minutes.
    Get it right and it can trump every one of the eight other components listed above.
Building regulations

In the EU there is now a largely harmonised core building code that gives required structural strengths and imposes design guidelines on things like stairs (and also making all new houses disabled accessible, which is a significant design limitation).

If you’re doing a new build or a major reconstruction you will need to comply with this building code, plus the national add-ons to it (of which there are many in Spain), in order to get building permission.

It’s easy to think of planning restrictions and building codes as repressive and limiting individuality, especially if you made your design first without reference to them. As, however, that won’t take away the need to comply with them, it’s better just to accept that they do actually enforce a lot of basics of building safety and usability and focus on this while you go through the tedious process of compromising your design so that it complies.

Even if you are doing a restoration where you may not need to need to comply with these regulations, it’s generally a good idea to at least refer to the EU building codes as a reference for safe and sensible design.

As well as structural stability and certain design pre-requisites, building codes are increasingly starting to enforce energy efficiency.
At face value, ie. looking at the additional materials and build costs of increasing the energy efficiency of a building, making a building more energy efficient can often seem to be a waste of money.

If, however, you consider that society has an obligation to start making more efficient housing, that an energy efficient home proofs you against future energy cost increases and that resale values of energy efficient houses are higher the perspective often changes.

And of course there is what to me is the major plus that invariably comes as a byproduct of energy efficient houses, namely the ability to control moisture in order to make a comfortable and healthy home.

Design, comfort and health

When trying to achieve the creation of a good home with a new build or restoration, complying with building codes really leaves just two areas of focus; design, and constructing for health and comfort.

  • Design: Design at its best would see every element of a house from its basic layout and position in its surroundings right down to paint colours and furniture mapped out prior to starting and with every element tailored to the needs and desires of the inhabitants.
    Obviously this level of bespoke requires a lot of money, but every property development has some level of scope for design tailored for the building’s inhabitants, and the maximum should always be made of this so that if you’re making a home you make a home that’s the home you want.
    To this end, design beyond structural stability and energy efficiency in any Galician new build or restoration should be bespoke and individual, and so there are no more generalisations to list here.
  • Comfort and health: finally, the often (especially in Galicia) overlooked factor of building to produce a comfortable and healthy home.
    To do this well requires and understanding of modern building technology and materials, and it also costs a bit more and takes a little more time.
    The difference, however, you will feel every single day, and so because this issue is so important we have a construction for health and comfort section specifically to cover it.