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How We Restored an Ancient Stone House in Italy Ourselves

Posted by on in Restoration works in Italy

 We bought our house in Italy because we fell in love with it, ruin and all, with no mains services; it had been abandoned for twenty years. We could see the heaved floors, soaked walls due to lack of guttering and the land piled over a metre high at the back wall, north side of the house. We knew that the house involved hard work but honestly we had no real idea, we were excited, enthused by the prospect.

We wanted to embark on the building works ourselves, our finances were low and so we knew that we couldn’t afford surveyors, architects, builders, landscapers, designers, etc... We decided to take on the project ourselves, for most the project would have involved planning on many levels, financial, practical, long term, short term, and critical path analyses! But we were enticed, spontaneous; we were keen but also complete novices.

We both have creative backgrounds and are open to challenges, diversities, the changing ebb and flow of life. And so full steam ahead, fuelled by enthusiasm, drive and commitment we began. Long, long days, weeks, which became months that led to years of long days – time, that is the key. We thought of ourselves as time rich and cash poor, we were happy to invest our time into something we felt important and time is what was required, lots of it and hard work.

We wanted to keep our costs low but also to sensitively restore the house with as many natural, traditional materials as we could keeping a rustic yet visually pleasing look.

We met with our local comune, council and organised the relevant permissions to complete works ourselves. Every local council here is different and permissions and laws change not only from place to place but by year to year. We found ours to be encouraging and whilst there are always hurdles to jump we found this part relatively easy.

So feet first we dived in using just our common sense and a bit of internet research to work out the order of events and the tasks themselves. We wanted to keep our costs low but also to sensitively restore the house with as many natural, traditional materials as we could keeping a rustic yet visually pleasing look. We were keen to be as environmentally friendly and green as possible while not looking for a complete eco house we preferred to minimise the impact. We tried to tread lightly. This we achieved by reusing natural materials and using hand tools for the majority, breathing life back into a smallholding that had been left dormant.

We invested in minimal tools and no big machinery but I would say that our most vital tools became wheelbarrows, shovels, pointing trowels and SDS drills.

We started by firstly working from the top of the house to reduce further water damage on repairs to the caving roof, we replaced main beams and installed all new guttering and drain pipes, repairing the roof ridge tiles, guttering ledges.

We then knew that we had to dig around the house to build armoured cement terracing, this was also stipulated for seismic security. We wanted to dig all of the earth away from the back of the house as this we believed was what was causing the damp walls and heaved floors.

At this point we did employ a man with a digger to excavate around the house as this work with a spade well quite frankly we would still be here in 20 years time. Tons upon tons of earth was removed that we used to landscape around the house so that we could build the terraced floors.

We recycled and used all of the stones that we dug out of the moved earth and we collected more form all around the land, wheelbarrows upon wheelbarrows moved to fill the terraced floors. We even sifted stones from a local farmer’s field as we knew we needed tons more. We then shuttered and armoured 130 plus square metres of terrace ready to pour cement.

Waiting for the cement lorries was a bit scary as we knew we had to lay huge amounts in a really short time, the lorries themselves are quite daunting but surprisingly it isn’t as scary as it seems, just dirty sweaty work!

We had no basic utilities or services and so had to install mains water pipes to the house and around it, we installed a septic tank and system as there are no mains drains in the countryside. We put in land drainage systems to move the ground water from around the back of the house, French drains, and layers upon layers of all kinds of tubing. There were a few stressful moments standing head high in trenches trying to lay sand to the’ turn of a bubble’ on the spirit level to ensure our sewerage pipe was laid at the right incline to drain properly!

There are points when you feel that so much of this work and time and money goes down under the ground where you will never see it again but it is all crucial foundation work. Who would know what you had been playing at all this time!

We slept in a camper, had a simple solar shower and a camp toilet, we realised that you do not need much in life.

We then decided to remove all of the dreary grey concrete render from the external walls so to reveal the beautiful warm maiella stone, we removed, cleaned and repointed the whole house with a traditional lime mortar to not only reflect the stones beautiful colour but to let the walls breathe.

We lime plastered around doors and windows and plastered a band around the roof which we hand painted a pattern to decorate. We used lime washes on the lime plastered areas a colour to match the stone and mortar.

We then dug up all of the downstairs internal floors including the room that once was the cow stall, having to dismantle the cement feeders, again we refilled with found stones, bricks and slowly built layer upon layer including, eco clay balls as insulation and a final screed level to produce a perfect floor with a humidity barrier.

We have spent many a night bobbling around on rocky floors or teetering off ladders to get in or out of the house as it has an external staircase to the first floor which needed repair work. We had a hairy moment when our dog tried to scale 4 metres of scaffolding to enter the first floor of our house when we had knocked down the staircase; he missed his landing fell and bounced but was miraculously unharmed.

The first winter here we decided to take out and restore all of the old wooden doors and windows, one of us being a picture framer meant that we built temporary frames with reclaimed wood and plastic sheeting, toasty!! We had no heat source, we had snow, we realised it was warmer working outside than in. We hand stripped all of the painted surfaces and sanded and restored with natural pigments and linseed oil. They look wonderful but are fairly impractical as they are very drafty. We spent three winter months on this, a long time for beautiful original wooden doors and windows but this saved us on something that would have been very costly to replace. This is where we always choose aesthetics over comfort and practicality.

Over these years we have as well always worked on the land, hectares of overgrown, unkempt land, rescuing olive plants and slowly landscaping, building paths and adding more fruit, flower and nut trees.

We knocked out and made some small windows bigger, we knocked down and rebuilt stone walls, built new rooms, and shaped and stained beams and built wooden terrace roofs with traditional coppi tiles on top.

We lived with temporary bathrooms and kitchens for years, moving them around and around, inside and outside the house depending on which part we were working on even into a tent at one point. We used camp stoves and portable fridges. I guess there is a double edged sword with living and working on a building site but we always tried to keep the site as tidy as we could, after all it was our home.

We knocked off internal cement render in certain places to compliment the original old brick pizza ovens and economic stoves which we also restored.

We did use an official electrician/plumber finally after 5 years to install our heating and water systems and our electrics and mains bathroom systems. We wanted expert advice for this and felt that the price was very reasonable which included our log burning back boiler system. We wanted to use wood as it is something that we are able to source from our woodland. We also paid for the rendered walls to be skimmed after the electrical system was in which we then painted.

We then reached the enjoyable and satisfying jobs like laying tiles and wooden floors; here you really do feel that the end is near and after looking at rocky or cement floors for so long the warm, soft look of terracotta was a dream. We used traditional techniques and invested in over 5000 old tiles, some more than 300 years old. We decided on the patterns to reflect the shape of the floors and laid over 300 square metres of tiles. Incredibly satisfying work if not a bit ropey for the old knees! We were lucky to have a friend who knew a builder, who knew how to use the traditional method to make lime grout and so he showed us how. We loved working in this way, it all felt so rewarding and the finish is rustic, warm and suited our old farmhouse.

There is a Zen like approach with these kinds of building methods, they are continuous, repetitive and mindful but I am certain that maybe the novelty would ware off when it is not your house, but watching metre by metre the beautiful old tiles slowly transforming our dream home was magical.

Our land and house require constant time and effort, love and attention; it is a living, evolving thing.

I guess the key to our approach was to be versatile, flexible, there are steep learning curves to be had but not to be afraid to try, and these things can always be redone. It is constant and ongoing, we are still working now, 8 years on, and there are always jobs, whether they are cosmetics or upgrading or restorative. Our land and house require constant time and effort, love and attention; it is a living, evolving thing.

There is a joy in watching a home appear and fulfilment in those long, hazy days shovelling gravel and sand or knocking down and rebuilding walls, it is tough but you feel content after a full day to sit and relax and savour a fine glass of local wine or to go out and party at a local festa and get up and do it all again. (Well that was in our much younger days!)

We had lots of fun and laughter along the way, the humour in learning building material terminology and trying to pronounce it all in Italian, in trying to barter, ascertain prices at the local builder’s merchants, ours is real character, often visits have led to some great anecdotes. It is all completely manageable but don’t ask me now the words for gravel, sanding disc or bolt as my head has moved on! I think we blew a few minds even changed a few attitudes; I am not convinced that women necessarily attempt these tough building works generally in our area.

This way is not for everyone, and of course it is not the only way. There are many experienced, decent local builders or you may like us have family and friends that were happy to help in exchange for a break in the sunshine with lots of great local wine and food. This is merely our experience.

We hope that the love and attention to detail and time that we have invested is reflected in the end result and that our son one day will smile warmly at his beautiful stone home or smirk at how badly we built that wonky wall!

Tagged in: Restoration