High above Cerdanyola del Vallès in the hills of Collserola is a masia with a fascinating past. Its been a home to Barcelonese Counts, to Cistercian monks and to a brick factory owned by a wealthy industralist family. Now its old brick kilns are home to Valldaura Labs, a groundbreaking experiment in sustainable living whose mission is to revolutionize the way mankind interacts with his environment.
Here in this modernist farmhouse, whose foundations date back to the 12th Century, hundreds of students from all over the world are immersed in a series of ingenious programmes in autosuficiencia.
The goal, according to Jonathan Minchin, coordinator of the Green Fab Lab, one of three laboratories on location at Can Valldaura, is to 'complete the material circle.'
What does this mean? 'The forest affords us materials such as wood and resin we can use to create tools with advanced software, and with these locally sourced and produced tools cultivate food, produce energy and raise global awareness of how to manage the environment.'
Minchin's Green Fab Lab, a laboratory for digital fabrication, 'explores the frontier between technology, environment and people,' using earth, wood, minerals and waste from the immediate habitat to make all those things we need and desire in everyday life, from 'a shoe to a chair, a house or a mobile', with the help of a robotic arm, milling machines, a lazer cutter and a 3D printer. Essentially, it's the transferral of traditional craft knowledge onto new technologies, shunning mass manufacture in favour of locally-sourced, personalized production. Alternating groups of students operate the experiments under Minchin's coordination and stay in rooms in the masia itself. The Green Fab Lab is just one of hundreds of Fab Labs ('visionary places for the construction of the new industrial revolution') around the world, including a parent lab in Massachussets and one nearby in Barcelona's Poblenou.
In Can Valldaura's Endesa-sponsored Energy Lab, solutions are being explored for the hyper-important issue of management and distribution of energy resources. A team of experts and volunteers are looking for new ways to channel renewable resources, whether from a biomass plant, solar power or mini wind turbines. The idea is not only to turn Valldaura into an autonomous energy hub but to be able to measure and control its efficiency. This is achieved by inserting a microcomputer into each electrical switch or power point, so that individual consumption can be analyzed. Use can therefore be timed and controlled to avoid the problems caused by demand peaks, and the property can be run with the strictest efficiency.
Also in the Energy Lab is the Hydro-Grid project. This experiment in water management entails the separation of water resources into clean (drinking) water, roof-runoff water, surface-run off from plazas, greywater and sewage into five different tanks, where they are distributed for the most appropriate purpose and recycled.
The Food Lab is all about the Zero-Mile Diet. Closely associated with the global Slow Food movement, researchers work with volunteer gardeners and pioneering chefs on converting organic local materials into food. The 'material cycle' is completed in the 'smart' veggie patch, with the use of waste as nutrients for the next crops. For instance, the 'aquaponic' aquarium, where fish and plants are grown together. Fecal waste produced by fish is extracted and used to fertilize plants grown on the roof of the aquarium. These plants are also irrigated with water from the very same aquarium. Meanwhile a screen beside the aquarium shows real-time data including temperature and ph levels.
Might fish one day grow their own spuds? Giving us our first ever material cycle fish n' chips? Probably not. But we'll be able to grow vegetables using much less water. You can see here on the YouTube link below how Aquapioneers, the masteminds behind the project, grew their aquaponic lettuce using 90% less water than they would on a patch of earth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bex7U6VHGSU
Valldaura Labs is partly financed with seminars, as well as donations from crowdfunding, various environmental NGOs and in pàrticular, the IAAC (Institute for Advance Architecture in Catalonia), an organization exploring the 'development of architecture capable of meeting the worldwide challenges in constructing 21st century habitability'. The IAAC owns the property.
The goal, to provide a prototype for sustainable living in the 21st Century, has here found a suitable habitat, with a once-ruined masia - that symbol of Catalonia's feudal, agricultural patrimony - lovingly restored into an exciting space for innovation. Ditto its 134 hectares of land, once thick woodland home to diverse species, but ravaged during the industrial revolution and replaced by a carpet of quick-growing but low-quality pinos carrascos (aleppo pines). Now the land is being regenerated and carefully used for its resources.
Maybe one day the work being carried out at Can Valldaura will become not only an enivronmental solution but a domestic reality for millions around the world. Imagine; you get up, switch on a light powered through electricity produced by moss in a ceramic pot, take a shower in rainwater, phone a friend on a mobile created by your own organic 3D printer, print your newspaper using resin from the trees in your garden and begin making a salad grown by your fish. You've done it. You've democratized biology.
If you wish to learn more about Can Valldaura, and find out whether you can visit or volunteer to take part, you can do so here: http://valldaura.net/labs/