|An example of a Casa de Cos, Vilassar de Mar|
The house is on one of Vilassar´s oldest streets but unusually the part of the street in front is at least three times wider than is normal in the old town. There is a good reason for that but it was some time before we found out why. Our neighbour to the north is the marquis de Santa Maria de Barberà i de la Manresana who lives in Vilassar’s most imposing private residence, a thousand-year old castle. Depending on who we talked to, our more modest home is between a hundred and two hundred years old. Like most of the houses in the old part of the town the front façade is built directly to the property line on the street. There is a small courtyard (eixeda in Catalan) between the back of the house and the retaining wall that separates us from the castle grounds. Soon after buying the house we learned that it is a typical example of what in Catalonia is called a Casa de Cos—sometimes also known as a Casa d’un Cos. Groups of near identical Casas de Cos were built in rows along urban streets throughout Catalonia. They are particularly prevalent in the Maresme comarca, or county, north-east of Barcelona. The Casa de Cos first appeared in the 18th century, was built in considerable numbers throughout the 19th century and new examples continued to be built during the first three decades of the 20th century. During all that time the basic layout hardly varied. The prevalence of the Casa de Cos is tied to the industrialization of Catalonia, specifically the growth of the textile industry. I find it intriguing that the Casa de Cos is so common and that it was built with so little variation in many places throughout Catalonia. Of course, row houses—lines of identical units built shoulder to shoulder—are not unique to Catalonia but it is perhaps interesting to examine this type of structure using our Vilassar house as a basis.
|A Casa de Cos in Premia de Mar, dated 1823|
Row houses developed in Europe during the industrial revolution as a means of providing medium density housing for industrial workers and their families. For Anglophones the term row houses is sometimes replaced with “terrace houses” and brings to mind images of working class neighbourhoods in England—think of the television show Coronation Street. With the movement of people from the countryside to urban areas, property owners maximized their profits by building standardised units and squeezing as many of them as possible on a given area of land. Because of the delayed state of industrial development in Spain the row house developed later in this country. In Vilassar de Dalt the appearance of the Casa de Cos coincides with the establishment of textile factories that in the 19th century became the backbone of the town´s economy. Rows of houses clustered around the factories to house workers and managers. Often the factory and housing were built at the same time as one single project financed by the factory owner who wanted both to attract workers and house them nearby. In neighbouring towns, such as Vilassar de Mar and Premia de Mar, the Casa de Cos also served as housing for fishermen and their families. It should be noted that these towns also had significant textile industries. On the other hand the Casa de Cos is absent from Alella, Arenys de Munt, Calella, Malgrat, Mongat or Premia de Dalt, all nearby towns but which did not have textile industries.
|A row of Casas de Cos in Vilassar de Dalt. Most of the houses have been renovated, some of them beyond recognition.|
Our older neighbours have told us that our house is one of at least four on the street that were built to an identical plan. This is not now apparent as over time the other houses have been altered almost beyond recognition with the addition of extra floors or changed façades but the houses as originally built would have been all much the same. Of the houses on our street, ours had been the least altered. The simple plan of the Casa de Cos allows it to be renovated with relative ease to modern standards of comfort. Across the street, neatly illustrating the symbiotic relationship between Casas de Cos and industry, is an old factory now converted into several individual houses. It is not obvious at first but Vilassar de Dalt retains one of Catalonia´s most extensive conglomerations of early industrial workers´ housing and industrial buildings. The last of Vilassar´s textile factories closed in the 1980s but several empty structures remain awaiting conversion to new uses. One is presently in the process of being changed into the town library.
The phrase Casa de Cos in Catalan means literally house of a body, the “body” in this case being a unit of length. However, in this instance the word cos derives from Latin cursum which meant this portion of land. It was an ancient unit of measurement used to divide land and later used in the construction of the traditional Catalan masias, or fortified farm houses. As unit of measurement the cos was based on the maximum span of a beam made from the native white pine (Pinus halepensis) trees. A Casa de Cos was usually built one “body” wide, but it could be a “body and half” wide or even more. The owner of a property would have asked the municipality for permission to divide a section of land into coses. A cos is approximately 20 pams wide. (A pam is literally a hand span with the pam de Barcelona set at 19.43 cm and the pam de destre at 23.5 cm.) Our house in Vilassar de Dalt is roughly rectangular in plan fitting between two parallel party walls, the corners not quite forming 90 degrees. The long axis of the house, from the inside faces of the front and rear walls, is 10.4 metres, the inside width of the house is 4.70 metres. These are typical measurements for a Casa de Cos. Presumably, our house was built using the pam de destre as 20 pams de destre equals 4.70 metres. Throughout Catalonia the Casa de Cos could vary between 20 and 30 pams with some exceptional examples up to 40 pams.
Invariably, the typical Casa de Cos consisted of a ground and second floor. Only in renovated houses would there now be a third floor. Entry into the Casa de Cos is via a pair of massive wooden doors. Although they now serve as decorative features originally the massive doors would have had a functional purpose as they led into the largest room of the house, a space that would have served the original owners as a workshop or storage area. The oversized doors would allow large objects to be moved in and out of the house. The front rooms have now, of course, been converted into living rooms. In our house we have created a threshold by adding a pair of French doors just inside of the main doors. Located near the centre of the house are the stairs to the second floor. The stairs were positioned so as to create a direct uncluttered passage from the front entrance to the eixida, or courtyard, behind the house.
|Ground floor plan of a typical Casa de Cos. The front of the house is at the right.|
The eixada, or rear courtyard is at the left.
On the ground floor of our house the original flooring consisted of terracotta tiles 23 centimetres square and 4 centimetres thick laid on a skim coat of mortar laying directly on the leveled soil. We decided to conserve as much of the flooring as possible despite the wear in some areas. Some of the tiles had to be removed in order to install a new under-floor drainage system but our contractor was able to remove most tiles without damage and reuse them. Still, there was a deficit of tiles. The shortage problem was neatly solved by creating a runner of hydraulic tiles laid from the front door to the rear door. The hydraulic tiles are 15 centimetres square and added an interesting feature to the ground floor.
The second floor of our house is divided into three bedrooms. Many Casas de Cos would have had two bedrooms, and perhaps a large closet or storeroom, on the second floor. The front and back rooms originally had each a single window but we have added a second window to each room. The centre room, of course, did not have any windows but did have a small skylight set into the roof. The front room being larger would have been used by the parents’ of the family. The other room divided amongst the children and possibly the grandparents. Despite the size of the Casa de Cos it would have been a crowded place to live.
The structure supporting the second floor consists of three Catalan vaults. These vaults are the most singular architectural and structural features of the house. The Catalan vault (la volta catalana) is a traditional technique for building a shallow lightweight vault or arch. The vault over the front room is a barrel vault spanning 4.70 metres between the supporting walls and with a rise of only 45 centimetres. The vault is 6.15 metres long. Over the rectangular kitchen is a domed vault—the loads supported on four sides—where the corners are the lowest points of the vault. A small barrel vault, beside the stairs, spans the area between the two larger vaults. The term Catalan vault is somewhat of a misnomer because this building technique is found in various regions around the Mediterranean. To construct a barrel vault, rectangular terracotta tiles bricks are laid edge to edge on wooden form work. In the case of a domed vault the form work can be sometimes be eliminated. Using wooden battens to guide the laying of the tiles a domed vault can be quickly constructed. Depending on the span and loads to be carried by the vault, two or more courses of tiles would have been laid. The advantages of the Catalan vault are its light weight compared to a stone vault, the economical use of common terracotta materials and the short construction time.
|A Catalan vault spanning over the front room of a Casa de Cos|
|A Catalan vault consisting of four layers of ceramic masonry supporting a small|
Not all Casas de Cos would have made use of the vault. Other examples would have floors supported by wood beams. But timber of sufficient size would have been difficult and expensive to obtain in 19th century Catalonia. (Old photographs of the surrounding mountains reveal how few trees were available in the 19th century.) Still others used a system of iron beams with ceramic infill blocks supporting the floor above. In many renovations the vaults and wood beams have been replaced by modern concrete or wood structural systems. This probably reflects the reluctance of contemporary contractors and architects from dealing with structural masonry systems.
|Looking up at the structure of the second floor of a Casa de Cos.|
The rough hewn pine beams support wood stringers which in turn
carry planking. The finished floor consists of ceramic tile laid on
The roof line of the Casa de Cos is simple, a ridge over the centre of the house slopes both to the street and the courtyard. The original roofing consisted of teulada, the traditional roofing tile found throughout Spain. Both our contractor and architect agreed that it would be very difficult to remove the original teulada without damaging the individual tiles to some extent so we replaced them with new ones. Nevertheless, we did note that the contractor carefully removed the old roof tiles and trucked them away. We were happy to use modern roofing tiles if they could guarantee the integrity of the roof—i.e. that it kept the rain out.
|Cross-section through a typical Casa de Cos. The front facade is |
to the right. There is a vault over the kitchen, ground floor left, but
wood beams span over the ground floor front room.
The loads supported by the roof beams and vaults are carried by the thick party walls (the side walls we share with the neighbours). These party walls are made of tapia, nothing more than packed mud and cobbles. Confined on either side by wood forms, moist earth is packed down with rams. Successive layers of tapia are gradually built up to the required height. Horizontal loads from the floor vaults between adjacent houses would cancel each other but still the walls had to be thick enough to eliminate the need for buttresses. During the renovation of our house when I looked at the exposed mud walls I had the impression the walls were made up of pre-formed blocks of tapia—akin to adobe blocks—cemented together with a mortar of some sort. It would certainly speed up the drying of the walls. One source that I found stated that it could take up to two years for the moisture content of a tapia wall to each a state of equilibrium. It would have made sense to use pre-dried and pre-formed blocks especially if the walls had to support the relatively heavy loads of vaulted construction. With brittle masonry vaults susceptible to cracking it would also be critical to reduce the amount of movement. Using pre-formed adobe-type blocks would help reduce movement due to shrinkage as the walls dried.
The use of tapia construction seems to have been common practice in Vilassar. I have seen other houses in town with mud walls. Certainly the workmen doing the renovations to our house were familiar with tapia walls and comfortable working with the material, for example when they made the openings for two new windows of the second floor bedrooms. However, I suspect that they would be at a loss if they had to build up a new wall of tapia, while on the other hand they were very adept with brick masonry construction. The exterior walls are thick, at the ground floor the rear wall is 58 cm thick, at the street façade it is 48 cm. From the second floor up, the walls are thinner, 56 and 41 centimeters thick respectively. I am not sure why the walls are were not built the same in front and rear but the tapia of the front walls had some larger pieces of stone embedded. The party walls, or rather the walls we share with our neighbours and carry the horizontal loads from the vaults are at least 90 cm thick.
It is important to allow tapia to dry out and then to protect it from rain and groundwater. Sometime ago we saw the result of water damage to a tapia wall not far from our house when the wall of an old house partially collapsed into the roadway. That house, which was then under renovation, had not been properly protected from the elements. After a couple of days of heavy rain a portion of the wall had been weakened. During our own renovation, removal of the old roof coincided with the April rains and particular care was taken to protect the tops of the walls by covering them with waterproof tarps. Our architect insisted that a continuous band of concrete reinforced with steel bars was added to the top of the tapia walls.
One source states that in Premia de Mar some of the old fishermen’s Casas de Cos were constructed with the ground floors below street level for two reasons. First, it helped stabilize the temperature within the house by increasing the thermal inertia of the ground floor thus making it more comfortable in summer and winter. During the day the lower floor was the centre of activity and keeping it cooler in summer and facilitating heating in winter would have been advantageous. The upper floor was used only at night. Secondly, by excavating below street level a ready source of material for building the tapia walls would have been at hand.
The bases of the tapia walls are also susceptible to moisture infiltration from soils supporting the walls. So it is also important to control groundwater near the building. In our house water leaking from the main under-floor drain likely caused some damage to the base of the wall in the kitchen. This was apparent when we first visited the house. It was obvious where the under-floor drain ran. It did not help that the original under-floor drain consisted of a rectangular channel formed from bricks—needless to say such channels leak tremendously.
The eixida, or courtyard, at the rear of the house is roughly 5 x 3.5 metres. About a third of the courtyard has a vaulted roof over it. There is a large safareig, or laundry sink in a corner of the courtyard supplied by an overhead water tank built into the corner formed by the walls. The tank would have been filled bucket by bucket and later connected to the municipal water supply. A few of our older neighbours who have lived in Vilassar all of their lives have told us that some houses on our street had wells in the courtyard. Access to these wells was shared between two or three neighbouring houses. That our immediate neighbour´s house had the well is obvious as there is a pulley wheel hanging from a bracket on the wall. A measure of how little altered had been our house can be inferred by the fact that when we bought it there was only one point of inside water supply, a cold water faucet over the kitchen sink. A shower and water closet had at some point been added under the vaulted portion of the courtyard but to access it one had to dash outside. A small electric caldera, or water heater, heated the water for the shower. Few Casas de Cos as originally built would have had inside sanitation facilities. The most common solution would be an outhouse over a dry well, or holding tank, that would be periodically emptied by a local farmer requiring fertilizer. Our house had been in the same family for most if not all of the 20th century and obviously the owners had not kept up with the times.
An interesting feature of our house is the front garden. The ownership of this small plot of land is problematic. Almost certainly it was originally part of the house but at some point it was severed from the lot and ownership passed to the municipality. The garden measures roughly 5 by 7 metres. It is very small to have served as a vegetable garden but still today there are in Vilassar similar sized gardens that supply their owner’s tables. Our immediate neighbour also has a similar space but, as far as I know, in Vilassar these are the only two houses with such an arrangement.
|These 19th century Casas de Cos originally housed|
fishermen and their families in Vilassar de Mar.
|Casas de Cos in Vilassar de Mar with their front gardens intact.|