Work Exchange at Friend’s Place Near Alpedrinha

Natural Building in Portugal

This is my third year in a row of coming to Portugal and I’ve decided to put myself to work once again in an effort to keep learning as much as possible about building while keeping my living costs low. I keep coming back to the same area not far from Alpedrinha and Vale de Prazeres in the Fundao region, south of the Serra de Gardunhas. Since I’ve spent a bunch of time in this area over the past few years, I’ve met a lot of people and I feel like I’ve started to become a small part of the community.

Most of my time so far has been spent at Keela Yoga Farm as a volunteer, helping them build two large straw bale structures – first a rather large bedroom and then a huge community building. I’ve been lucky to work alongside local natural builder, Barbara da Nova Leite, who has so far run two 8-day natural building courses and a bunch of day and weekend courses at Keela. Each time I’ve been at Keela I’ve arrived a bit before the courses and stayed after they finished which has given me a good amount of experience building. It’s been an awesome opportunity so far to be able to glean a lot of great knowledge from an experienced builder and being able to continue the build after she moves on has also been a great way to learn by doing.

Natural Building in Portugal

I’ll be back at Keela in late June to help prepare for some more natural building courses but, in the meantime, Barbara has been working on a large annex at a mutual friend’s place. I had yet another opportunity to work closely with her for about a month. There were a few volunteers here and there but over the course of the month I was able to work alongside her learning loads, yet again. Working with Barbara at my friend’s house has been a much different vibe from life at Keela. For some of the time I was actually the only volunteer, which I think I sort of liked. It’s been a very chilled month and I’ve enjoyed meeting a few new people, hanging out and working with old friends, and also spending a good amount of quality time with my hammock.

I’ve been able to work on some new things on this build and I’ve seen a few new techniques in action. One thing I’m solidly certain of, though, is that I don’t want to build anything close to as large as this for myself. I love the idea of tiny houses (and I love the idea of natural tiny houses even more) and I think that’s more what I’ll be aiming for. Perhaps not so extreme as a typical tiny house, but not so large that I have to be building several metres in the air. It’s scary up there! The more buildings I work on the more I see what the steps are for each part. This is a perfect way to discover the things I feel comfortable doing myself and what would require a small team of friends. I’m constantly learning new things and as I work each day I’m also getting a good idea of what I’ll need in my tool kit, what skills I need to improve, what sorts of things I might want to hire people to do, and what I need to research more. This really is the perfect way to learn and working on this build has been a really great opportunity.

Natural Building in Portugal

But I do have to say that I’m getting just a bit frustrated that I’m spending a third year now working on other people’s projects. I still have lots to learn and I love helping, but I’m getting really anxious to start my own thing. I could probably spend years telling myself that I don’t yet have enough building experience or money to get things moving, but the reality is that it really is just about money right now. I feel pretty confident in the building skills I’ve picked up over the years and, more than that, I’m confident in my ability to earn. Plus I’m very happy to go slow and figure things out as I work… I just need to actually start!

The thing holding me back at the moment is not feeling like I have enough money saved. I’d really like to have at least €25,000 that I’m willing to spend on land, a car, a lawyer, and all of that fun stuff plus at another €5,000 that I keep stashed in my savings as an emergency fund. For day-to-day living I’ll have a monthly income coming in from my Nairobi map that I’m expecting will be enough to keep me fed, the car gassed up, and to be able to get some things started on the land, including buying some materials. Plus I’m working on a new Kigali map that will be out around October which, if all goes well, will give me the money I need to get things going. So that means that it’ll probably be November before I can start seriously looking for a piece of land, and that just seems so far away at the moment.

Natural Building in Portugal

But for now, I’m helping build other people’s projects and it’s been as fun and educational as always! I’ve absolutely loved working alongside Barbara, as usual, and it’s been really cool living with my friend and getting a glimpse into what life is like in this area. I’ve enjoyed time with other volunteers but also enjoyed it when I’ve been on my own. It’s been a perfect balance and quite a contrast to life at Keela where there can be up to 20 people there at once when a course is on. I like both for different reasons and so, before I head to the craziness of Keela in a few days, I’ve made an effort to soak up some quiet time and to take on some small, solo projects.

New Things I Did

  • Worked on the roof, mostly putting up the rafters. By the 24th rafter I feel like I had a pretty good idea of the process which was cool. I’ve never done much roofing and it’s always been a mystery to me, so this was quite an empowering task.
  • Made my first ever tool – a mallet out of olive wood that I can use for chiselling.
  • Used a winch and pulley to lift large beams into place. Well actually, I suppose I just stood there and watched other people doing all of the work but it was great to see this system in action for the first time.
  • Going up on double-high scaffolding. It’s a bit scary up there.
  • Cleared land and actually liked it. The key is using a machete and feeling like you want to get some frustrations out on the innocent grass.
  • Picked strawberries! The neighbour has a rather glorious strawberry patch and they invited us to pick some of them. Whenever I see strawberries in someone’s garden they always seem so tiny (but super flavourful) but these ones were both gigantic and delicious and it opened my eyes to what’s possible in the realm of strawberries. Side note – remind me to get a cutting when I start my garden sometime in the future.

Natural Building in Portugal

Things I Want to Copy

  • I don’t fault anyone for charging volunteers to help cover their costs but, for me, I really love the idea of a pure work exchange where people work around 30 hours per week in exchange for food and a place to sleep. I’d like to try to be in a financial position to occasionally accept volunteers with this deal in mind.


  • Designing a compost toilet (much smaller and more manageable than the monster poo bunker at Keela) and then being able to spend time slowly puzzling my way through the build.
  • Working with Barbara again and continuing to learn loads from her both by following her lead and by attempting to figure things out together.
  • Being reunited with my chisels. I love to chisel.
  • My friend loves cheese which means there has been ample cheese on the menu. This brings me joy.
  • Getting to stay in the caravan which is separate from the house so I get a bit of privacy. I never thought I’d really like living in a caravan and it turns out that I actually do quite like it. Who knows, a caravan might be an option for me as an initial place to stay whenever I finally end up with my own land.
  • Checking out the quiet life to see if it’s for me. It is.
  • Buying a bike and a hammock – two key pieces for what I imagine my future life looking like. Bike rides and chilling – with a lot of hard work in between.
  • Feeling like I’m slowly learning more and more pieces of the puzzle to designing and constructing a small natural building.

Natural Building in Portugal


  • Drawing up a design for a compost toilet and then having the build sort of taken over by a guy who had just arrived. He was way more capable than me and worked a lot more quickly than I feel comfortable with, so I just let him do his thing. It was slightly annoying starting something only to have someone else take over, but it also showed me that if someone is working in a way that doesn’t fit well with my style (as in, super slow and probably annoying to everyone except me), it’s more important for me to just walk away. It’s good that I had the opportunity to do that and to go find something else to do.
  • Feeling a bit intimidated by the process but encouraged that what I’ll likely build will be a lot smaller than this monster building.
  • Getting a bit tired of working on other people’s projects year after year as I keep delaying buying land of my own. It’s awesome to be able to help but I’m anxious to get started on my own stuff, too.
  • Starting to get anxious about slowly accumulating stuff. I now have three suitcases full of mostly clothes and crap, a bike, some tools, a tent, and a hammock. I’ve never been so into stuff and have spent a lot of my life with one backpack and a small container of random things at home with my parents so this is starting to get a bit extreme.

Natural Building in Portugal

Working at my friend’s has been an awesome experience and I’m actually heading back there right now! I’m writing this from Toronto airport as I wait for my plane back to Lisbon. I’ll head straight to my friend’s house for a few more days of building fun before going to Keela and I’m hoping they’ve got some challenging jobs waiting for me. I’ve loved my time at home in Canada but I’m eager to get back to building and excited to see what’s been accomplished while I’ve been away.

I love these work exchanges and they really have been key to learning but I do have to say that I look forward to the day where I’m the one feeding volunteers an awesome variety of cheese as they help me with a project of my own. Soon! Maybe.