Dec 23, 2022 • 4M

S1:Ep3 - How hard can reinforced concrete be?

Of course we can build our own conservatory

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Appears in this episode

Alastair Leithead
From Our Own Correspondent-style despatches from a former BBC reporter who's now battling to live off the grid in the Alentejo countryside. Selected audio recordings of his weekly blog which began in 2020.
Episode details

An ambitious start to learning how to build with a lot of help and a few injuries in the process from November 2020.


You know you’ve done a couple of good, hard days’ work with your hands when your iPhone no longer recognises you.

Even if I had a newer phone I’m sure the “wild man of Alentejo” beard would have flummoxed facial recognition, but now steel rods and wire have laid waste to my fingerprints.

In my dogged pursuit of learning how to do stuff I can happily, but stingingly, report that reinforced concrete has been added to my CV.

It’s all down to the fabulous Rui Dias of course who’s returned home to São Teotónio with his family after spending nearly 18 years in Australia…much of it in construction.

Ana and I had been hovering around a material supplies store in the nearby Boa Vista de Pinheiros (Nice View of the Pine Trees) for a few weeks now, window shopping.

It’s been a bit like going to a Louis Vuitton shop (I presume)…except the other way around.

We were exuding confidence and eyeing up purchases while having no idea how it works or how much anything is…whilst also not looking the part. 

The very friendly, no-nonsense chap we see each time has been very patient, but Rui’s little material list on the back of an envelope somehow translated into three delivery trucks arriving in the Valley of the Stars on a Friday afternoon.

There were cubic metres of gravel and sand with long lengths of steel rebar and accoutrements of metal squares and wire on two trucks, and a pallet of concrete and a pallet of bricks on another (with its own crane).

That’s it all pretty much covered

I think that was the point I realised I was actually trying to build a conservatory.

Utter madness you may think (I did), but we not only have planning permission, but also some drawings and code numbers plotted out by a structural engineer.

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Part one is four columns protruding two-and-a-bit metres from ground level, all joined together by a 9m underground beam – a trench filled with reinforced concrete.

That will be the front of the conservatory.

Part two is a 4m concrete beam which will link the new front to the existing house and enclose a brick wall.

Then comes the “glass curtain” of folding doors, a sandwich panel roof supported by wooden beams and a couple of other off the shelf aluminium doors to fill a few gaps and create a room!

Oh yes, this training course includes brick laying, plastering, woodwork, roofing and professional painting.

Easy. Especially once Rui had decoded the structural engineer’s instructions.

The materials sat on their plastic sheets all weekend staring at me. 

So how does that get into the hole?

The holes dug the week before with the help of a jackhammer, shovels and wheelbarrows of relocation were waiting.

I wasn’t entirely sure how the two were going to combine until Rui rocked up at 8.15am on Monday with an angle grinder…and then the fun started.

And then the fun started…

I’m sure there are far more informative YouTube videos on how to make reinforced concrete, so I’ll save the details for a highlights video (which is in production!).

In short, it involves a bit of steel bending, copious amounts of cutting and counting, some maths and measurement, and a lot of wire twisting.We cut rebar and connected rectangles at regular intervals – each corner joined by a bit of wire weaving.


I haven’t had so many puncture wounds in my hands since the last time I had so many puncture wounds in my hands (which was only about three posts ago).

We lifted and lowered, bent and boxed…and then unloaded a bright orange cement mixer from the back of Rui’s van.


The second afternoon was a blur of buckets: each mixer filling contained four gravel, two sand, one and a half cement…and an expert eye to pour the right proportion of water.

The wheelbarrow-loads were poured, the mixture shovelled, and I’m pleased to report stage one of operation conservatory is complete.

Pour me

It hardened just enough overnight to repel the rain which put a pause to the work…and gave my hands a welcome day of respite.

Now, about those columns …

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