welcome to emmas housethought

adventures may not always turn out the way you expect them to, but they are still adventures,

Kevin McCloud said, at the end of Man Made Home.

Inevitably this blog would have something to say on the subject of Kevin McCloud, Grand Designs and Man Made Homes.

I only vaguely recall Grand Designs being around before I bought my house in Portugal. Back then it was a show whose principal theme was failure: it invariably ridiculed people’s ambitious building projects which ran over budget, over schedule and failed to meet McCloud’s style expectations.

To be sure, reality TV is not documentary. Punters are deliberately exploited and their stories manipulated to suit the format. I should know, having both worked in TV and been a participant on one of these shows.

I’m not denying that real life ‘grand designs’ are without mistakes or drama. Of course not. The point is that big building projects are inherently problematic. The mistake you make is expecting things to go as planned.

As Grand Designs went on and McCloud’s star rose, it has become a better show. The emphasis has shifted towards more ecological and interesting house plans. Grand Designs today focuses less on the naivety and wasteful spending of the protagonists and more about their ingenuity and endurance. McCloud still makes they should have known better type remarks but almost always credits the builds for their sustainability, which apparently is McCloud’s own interest. Man Made Home demonstrated McCloud is not actually the condescending queeny bitch of the earlier Grand Designs, but someone passionately crafty and planet loving and not really that shallow at all.

I reckon McCloud and/or the producers started off not really understanding the owner-builder story, and only after several years they realised what sort of integrity the program’s concept had. All they had to do was stop looking down on the protagonists and embrace the essential theme of the human search for shelter. Building a house is not just about somewhere to live, or making money. Nor is building your own place just a technical exercise in engineering and project management or budgeting. Maybe there’s a bit of playing with toy-tools and making mud pies, I’ll admit that. Certainly it’s a type of artistic expression, it’s about creativity and craft and imagination. And it can be about our interaction with nature and finding a compatible place on the planet. But ultimately, building a house, your own house, is like a great voyage; you pack your bags with your itinerary in hand, and the rest is unpredictable, challenging, complex, marvellous and humbling. It can turn out to be something of a massive life experience.
It’s not only my story that turned out that way, but many of my friends building houses in Portugal have also had pretty monumental experiences: huge relationship challenges, incredible feats of architectural artistry, financial wins and losses, but above all the imagining and realisation of a home, a cave where we get warm and fed and loved.

So next time you’re wondering why Kevin’s waxing lyrical and getting a bit teary eyed over a piece of junk he’s converted into something useful… well that’s because he’s tapped into a primordial human need to make a space to call our own.


Meanwhile here’s what happened in my life where we left off.

I came back from Sydney, we went on a fab luxo tour of the Douro, and then we built a new bedroom where the hole in the wall was. Then we were planning to strip the floors again and put in the kitchen, as per the last post. My back wasn’t getting any better however. Any time spent in the car getting to the osteopath would kill me, and all that was there every day when I opened my eyes was masses of work to be done on the house. I finally realised that the house would quite literally, never be finished.

(As an aside, it’s got to be said one of the great misconceptions about retiring from city life and living a simple country idyll is that it is relaxing. The idea that I would go back to Portugal and my back would get better is ridiculous. Portugal has never been anything but brutally hard work. As my own boss I am meaner than any city employer I ever had. Whip cracking, cake-eating bitch is she.)
Anyway, we were going to run out of money again sooner or later. So I went back to Sydney again in December 2013. Once the adrenaline I was burning to keep going in Portugal wore off, the full catastrophe of having a fractured spine sunk in. I was in unbearable amounts of pain, going a bit nutty and all the qualified people were looking worriedly at me. My osteopath of 25 years flatly told me he’d never seen me look so bad in my life. Just his professional opinion; but it cut through *ahem* to the bone. I got rushed off to a surgeon who got out my life book, went to today’s page and tore up everything after.

Building a house in Portugal is over. We are moving to Australia for good.
In those first few months in Sydney, I was consumed with regret and failure. Yes, failure. That same illusion Grand Designs plays upon. I suppose it was some sort of grief, for Portugal, for my health and for the dream of building a house. It was all nice and hopeless in my dark hole until I read an article about Bryan Smith, a National Geographic adventurer who says “If you don’t fail every once in a while, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough to try different things.”  So there.

The idea of Portugal being just another adventure settled on me, and no, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but it has been an adventure nonetheless. Now I’m more resigned to put it in the box of many mad journeys I’ve been on. It was like a long safari in Egypt. A love affair with someone who doesn’t speak your language. It was like making a film. Like a cliff-edge taxi ride in Morocco. A great swim between the heads of Bondi at three in the morning. It was a test and it changed me.
Still, I’m not patting myself on the back every day about coming back “home”. As great as Sydney is, it still feels like a step backwards, away from what I wanted for so long. I’m sure that’s common amongst ex-expats. But shit hey, that’s life, and when I’m feeling like a loser someone usually comes along and says “I was just telling someone about you how threw it all away to become a Portuguese-speaking peasant”, and I feel so much better.

Então. One year later and I’m not so fatalistic about it all. It’s not like I’m never going back. The house, emma’s house, is just where I left it and is an ongoing concern for The One and our Wookie, Mao and Purdy. Their story is still to come as we embark on new battle with the dark forces of immigration – this time to import 85 kilos of Englishman into Australia.

Actually right now I’m organising some more work to be done on the house. At arm’s length. Across the oceans. I won’t be getting dirty this time. Quite excited.

And I’ve finally found some time to write again…. So stay tuned for Emma’s House, The Final Season…



  1. Ana Camille April 16, 2015 6:48 pm Reply

    Dear Emma,

    Thank you for sharing .

    Best Wishes Ana Camille

    [Reply to comment]

  2. ourlifehandmade April 16, 2015 6:48 pm Reply

    so, so good to have you back in blogging world Em, well done. We, left over here struggling along, think of you often and never, ever think of you as a failure, as you say the house will always be there and my god you tried, it’s not over yet Em, it’s just another chapter. We are so proud of you and what you achieved here and, lets not forget you may not have completed your house project but you did get a husband!!!!

    I too have come to realise that it is not about moving in to our home, it’s always been about the journey, we are building ourselves through our house and when and if we ever get in it won’t end there, there is always more to learn and experience and struggle through. Like Guy Martin say’s “if you’re not crashing, you are not riding hard enough”….

    You just put a new crash helmet on, some new armoured clothing and are taking care of yourself, the rest will look after itself……

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: April 16th, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    @ourlifehandmade, you are a complete treasure xxx

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  3. Mike April 16, 2015 8:35 pm Reply

    Well, what a nice surprise to read your latest blog entry. I cannot remember how i found your blog but i was glad when i did. You should keep writing. It’s always interesting. I guess i should update my own blog which was supposed to document my motorcycle trip through the Americas: my writing petered out in Mexico…but i still have my notes! After 15 years in Australia i am back in Europe and scouting for a small property in Spain or Portugal…maybe i’ll write about it. Good luck with your back and the importation project!

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  4. steve April 16, 2015 8:38 pm Reply

    I love your blog and enjoyed reading

    keep going for us chickens back here

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  5. catherine january April 16, 2015 10:11 pm Reply

    Great to hear an update! Your right, we never know how adventures will turn out but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them!
    Catherine x

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  6. Jennie April 16, 2015 10:23 pm Reply

    Better to have loved (Portugal) … Than not at all I say!!
    Well done on taking bold risks, learning from them and moving on…
    Your experience, tales and adventure are an inspiration to us all!

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  7. Lauren April 16, 2015 11:00 pm Reply

    I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed your blog and how inspirational your experiences have been. Thank you so much for sharing them! Before we even started down the insane path of planning our move to Portugal, my husband and I read your blog faithfully and really appreciated all your insights into a different country and culture. I wish you all the best in this next chapter in your life and hope you will continue to write regardless of where you live.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: April 16th, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    @Lauren, thanks, that’s really nice of you, best wishes.

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  8. Lisa April 17, 2015 5:52 am Reply

    I admire your decision to go back home, but as an ex-pat who loves Sydney like no other place except Portugal, I know you’ll be back to kill saudades and enjoy your unfinished but still remarkable masterpiece. Happy new adventures, Emma.

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    Emma   Reply: April 23rd, 2015 at 11:38 am

    @Lisa, yeah! Thanks lisa.

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  9. Denise Rousseau April 17, 2015 9:06 am Reply

    Emma, your fearless posts from the remote Portuguese countryside gave me the courage to find and restore a country house in Portugal. There have been setbacks along the way, of course, but the house remains our lodestar – where we want to be in the future. So thank you – your blog was such a good companion along the way. But maybe the whole point was to find your true love on the other side of the world – the house was just the means. And now you are a true Portuguese, living in exile with saudades de Portugal. Please take good care of yourself. Saude!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: April 23rd, 2015 at 11:37 am

    @Denise Rousseau, thanks! Saude to you too!

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  10. spownall April 17, 2015 11:19 am Reply
  11. Ana Pedrosa April 22, 2015 8:34 pm Reply

    Emma, I remember seeing you on House Hunters international when we still lived in Canada and were just thinking about a move. But, reading your blog is what has made me smile the most. Whatever you are, please continue writing about it, you entertain and inspire. Enjoy the journey and the best of luck with the immigration process. As an aside, when we are frustrated with the Portuguese bureaucracy, I remind myself that Canada’s tax office gave 26 weeks as the time required to prepare and send a letter about my Canadian tax status. Immigration in Portugal is much better than in Canada, hopefully Australia is better as well. All the best in your future adventures, and thank you for sharing your adventures in your unique way with the rest of us.

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    Emma   Reply: April 23rd, 2015 at 11:36 am

    @Ana Pedrosa, thanks Ana, I really appreciate it. xx

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  12. Andrew June 2, 2015 11:21 pm Reply

    Great you are back to blogging. You’ve helped me keep my dream alive and I missed it when you stopped. We have a small house in the North of Portugal and WILL get to live there one day soon, encouraged by all your adventures and tips. I wish you well in the next chapter of your life.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: June 3rd, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    thanks andrew, and good luck to you too

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  13. Paiz October 10, 2015 6:32 am Reply

    Long time reader, first time commenter 😉 I’m with everyone else on this – you’re a great writer! So life has changed, life inevitably does that to us whether we want it or not, but I think most of your readers came for the house and keep reading because of your personality. Keep writing… Maybe start a side project in Portuguese about your “new” life in Australia? You’ll keep your language, your ties to the country and expand into Brasil?
    Whatever happens, I wish you all the very best.

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  14. monica October 13, 2015 9:45 am Reply

    Hi Emma. Chanced upon your site. I am about to journey TO Portugal. Solo traveller. Ive just sold my home and put my business on a “creative sabbatical” Portugal invites me and I want to slow travel. I have been to Lisbon and Porto as a tourist but want to discover portugal at a slower pace. Probably 2 months. Also budget. Any advice at all? Btw i am not a loner and love meeting people… so a shack in the hills probably wouldnt be good for my sanity 🙂 appreciate any advice. Yours embarking on an audacious adventure! Monica

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  15. Michael Lough December 8, 2018 4:44 am Reply

    Hi Emma

    there are two types in this world those that gave it a shot and succeeded and those that didn’t Thats ONE group …The other group is those that never had the imagination guts or will to try..
    My name is Michael, another pom living in the frozen wastes of Canada now 70 but still dreaming of living in Portugal going ‘home’ (well ok almost home ) but I have an unfinished house build here to finish first (going on for 18 years now)
    I also worked in media here Television no less as well but like you yearned for a return to organic self sufficiency surrounded by nature that I could eat.
    My partner here wants to rent in Portugal for a time prior to buying and we have been looking at properties online and did visit Pt. last year for a nice drive round (no big waves in Nazare but the prawns stunning ) We are off there again in Jan/Feb …

    just a thought ….would you rent your place out? would you sell it ? There might be light at the end of your tunnel y’know?
    OK heavy lifting would be out for you with that back of yours but you could still go there ? Maybe …maybe… ?

    whaddya say mate…? Any thought(s) ??


    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 1st, 2019 at 3:10 pm

    @Michael Lough, thanks Michael. Yes the house carries on (it has happy tenants now)

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  16. Tori October 3, 2019 10:28 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing your story, Emma. Good luck

    [Reply to comment]


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