Holiday house available in July, August and September!

In these times a question looms large: where do we want to go as humankind and which choices will make it possible for us to follow that path in the future. Worldviews and laws are changing faster than day and night, the chaos of urgent measures is blurring the overall image for each of us.
To the question ’how to change the world for the better right now’ I’m responding by continuing the renovation of the stone house in Istria, despite the disarray of impossible circumstances. After years of hard work I would like to fulfill my plan and show alternatives to building and lifestyle to anybody who is interested – starting this summer, the summer of 2020.

The project is still in the making so not all the pieces of the puzzle are in place yet – the kitchen is temporary, some furniture will materialize as the right people come and help me make it and the outside space needs grooming. When these steps will be accomplished, pictures will come 🙂

So what is the place like?

The location
The house is located on the edge of a small village called Brajkovići, the towns of Rovinj being 12 km and Kanfanar 7 km away. The nearest airport is in Pula (35 km), long distance buses and boat lines arrive in Rovinj.

There is a gas station with a tiny supermarket really close by (300 m on foot), nearest larger supermarket is in Rovinjsko selo (5 km). There is also a lovely family restaurant in Matohanci (600 m).

Rovinj is a lovely little coastal town with wide-ranging tourist services, where you can find everything from grocery stores, restaurants, bars, shops, vegetable and fish market, to small museums, a vast selection of open air summer events and, of course, gorgeous beaches (rocks and stones, mostly).

If you’re a more outdoorsy type, a walk in the woods, a trip to the Lim bay (4 km), the Dvigrad castle ruins (11 km) or cycling on the numerous Istrian bicycle trails might be just up your sleeve. I shouldn’t forget to mention other gems in the colorful mosaic of beautiful spots of Istrian countryside, for example cute little towns like Višnjan and Motovun; or Parenzana, the walking/bicycle trail which leads along the former narrow-gauge railway line coming down from Trieste to Istria.

The property
The heart of the compound is an 80 year old, now renovated, Istrian stone house. In front of the house there are green surfaces, enclosed in the old dry-stone walls, with the total area of about 250 m2. Part of the green area is a permaculture garden with tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, lettuce and herbs. There are 3 fig trees, a persimmon tree and an almond tree. There is a parking space behind the house.

The house
The building is small according to standards of today, but it has one big open space 5 m x 6 m, with 4 m high ceiling. Behind a clay plastered partition wall there are a small bathroom and a storage room.

The furnishing of the house will be very basic, because the whole experience is about inviting you to spending as much time outside as possible. In the main space there will be a double bed, a table, an assortment of chairs and a provisional kitchen including a fridge with a freezer.

The bathroom is 1 m x 3 m, it has a shower and a washbasin with hot water. The composting toilet is fully mechanized so it needs no extra work – you use it as a ‘normal’ toilet, only no flushing is needed.
At the moment there is no washing machine, but there is a public launderette in Rovinj.

The east wall of the house has a huge window that opens all the way to the terrace area with a table and chairs.

The is a hammock outside between 2 trees.

If you want extra sleeping space for kids (or adults), a tent can be put up in the garden.

The renovation
I invested years of my time, together with all available energy, financial and other resources to be able to renovate the house with mostly natural materials and traditional building techniques.

Stone walls were refurbished with lime mortar, partition wall is made of wood and reed panels, plastered with clay (made from local earth), the bathroom will be coated in tadelakt, lots of wood in many forms was used – just to mention the highlights.

When renting this house you support the local economy by repaying the hard labor, the quality materials used for the works and of course the local experts, who helped me rebuild the house.

Random information
There is no TV, no air-conditioning and no swimming pool. If you want additional entertainment to the above mentioned gems of Istria, I have some nice books you can dive into 🙂
There is no wi-fi.
The house is not accessible for wheelchair users (yet).
Pets are welcome, but they need to stay in the green surfaces outside the house.

Requirements
I ask everyone to use only bio-degradable soaps, shampoos and dish-washing liquid at the premises (they will be available here) – gray water will be processed by a plant-based wastewater purification system and used in the garden so the less chemical compounds we use, the easier it is for the environment.
The garden needs water to flourish and feed us, so I would appreciate you watering to the plants regularly while you are here during the hot dry summer.

Possible ways of using the premises and/or participating in the project
(for any kind of participation or arrangement please contact me to discuss options and availability)
– you can rent the premises and use them by yourself
– you can come when I’m here and help me as a volunteer or in another ingenious way of your choice
– you can come for a visit
– other options possible – our imagination is the only limit 🙂

Price list for renting
– 2-3 nights: 60 €/night
– 4-6 nights: 55 €/night
– 7-10 nights: 50 €/night
– more than 10 nights: higher discounts possible.

If you are thinking about any option to get involved or just coming for a visit, please get in touch – my contacts are:

Phone/Whatsapp: +386 41 649474
Skype: nina.kozin
E-mail: nina.kozin@gmail.com

So many of you have supported me on my path already. Without you the project would never have gotten this far and I am sincerely grateful to all of you. I hope you join me in the next step too – celebrating the works accomplished and visiting the house if you manage!

Clay partition wall

It has been more than a year since I last managed to write a post for the blog.

Before I started renovating the house, I remember watching reports of building projects, thinking ‘how can people miscalculate the budget by 30%’ or ‘why is it taking them 3 years longer than planned’.

I’m starting to realize that the misconception of what is possible, and how fast anything can be done, lies way beyond the commonly mistaken belief in the principle ‘that could never happen to me’.

A big part of why creating a legal object in the physical reality of our world takes such a long time, is because we have made some very complex systems of theories (bureaucracy); constituting a base in which the consumer industry is maneuvering their clients (building companies); while they try to create a dream object for their end client. In short: putting a house together requires the cooperation of a lot of different people who have completely different interests. And I’m not just pointing that out to identify excuses for the length of my project. 😉

So what was going on with the renovation in the past year?

After the house has been refurbished from the outside, time came to start focusing on the interior.

The first thing I wanted to put up was the partition wall. After lengthy discussions on the type of materials to be used and how to put them together I decided to use the following wall composition:

  1. vertical wooden studs dim. 10/6 cm fixed to the floor and roof
  2. horizontal wooden boards 2.5 cm thick attached to the vertical studs
  3. reed panels 2 cm thick attached to the wooden boards directly on the front side and on 2 cm thick wooden spacers on the back side
  4. 2 cm air gap between the wooden boards and the reed panels on the rear side of the wall constituting an opening for the plumbing and electrical cables
  5. clay plasters in 2 layers, 2 cm thick in total: base coat 1.5 cm and finish coat 0.5 cm.

Again it took me quite some time to find an appropriate person to put up the wooden construction. Once we got started though, the groundwork was put up in 2 days.

   

After the base wooden structure was set up, I could take my time and continue to put up the rest of the elements by myself, experimenting as I went.

First the wooden boards came up.

   

Then there were the reed panels.

And then the clay plaster experiments could start.

 

First I needed the right material. Instead of buying the already made clay plaster mixtures, I decided to start from scratch.

So what exactly is plaster? And what is clay plaster made of? Let’s talk terminology 🙂

Plaster is the finishing layer of a wall or a ceiling used as decoration and/or protection.

The base of each plaster constitutes 2 ingredients: aggregate and binder.

Aggregate is stone decomposed to various dimensions, ranging from gravel (>2.0 mm), sand (0.06 mm – 2 mm) to silt (0.002 – 0.06 mm). 

Binder is the gluing agent combining the aggregate into a usable mixture. Commonly used binders are clay, lime, gypsum and cement.

Clay is the ultimate decomposed product of rocks, primarily comprised of minerals. The particles have a diameter smaller than 0.002 mm.

Water is mixed into the combination of aggregate and binder to make it more plastic, which means creating a workable mixture that is easier to apply to the supporting structure.

Other components might be added to improve certain characteristics, but they are optional (fibers, oils, pigments,…). 

 

When I started discovering the incredibly vast world of natural materials in Istria, the local earth stood out as the most fascinating element to me. I tried to find a way in which I could use the beautiful reddish soil as it is and add as little as needed in order to use it as a building material.

Since soil is naturally a mixture of stones of various dimensions combined with clay, what else would I need to add to be able to use soil as plaster?

I hauled 9 m3  of local soil from a nearby building site and started experimenting.

First the classic tests: mixing the material with water, making a ball, rolling a cigar,… The real breakthrough came when I went to an amazing workshop in Austria where (among other things) we made a sample out of the Istrian soil I brought with me.

The material dried and it seemed to behave like a proper plaster. The only thing we added to the original soil was sand. Could it be that easy?

I decided to give the simplest option a try: adding only aggregate (sand). The first thing I needed to test out was how much sand to add.

I made different mixtures of earth and sand (grain size from 0 to 4 mm) and applied them to my reed panels, in order to figure out which one has the best combination of properties: holds well on the reed, has no cracks and does not fall apart easily when you press on it.

  • 1 volume of earth combined with 1 volume of sand (top frame)
  • 1 volume of earth combined with 2 volumes of sand (middle frame)
  • 1 volume of earth combined with 3 volumes of sand (bottom frame).

The best combination of characteristics were demonstrated in the bottom frame: the material stuck well to the reed (enough clay to bond the aggregate together and stick it to the support construction), almost no cracks (not too much clay), fell apart only when I hit the plaster with a lot of force (not too much sand).

What is the right thickness of a clay plaster? It depends on the sizes of the grains in the mixture. Optimal is 3x size of biggest particle. In my case the biggest sand particles had 4 mm which made the optimal plaster 1.2 cm thick.

   

I mixed (quite) some buckets of the concoction, got helpers and we started applying the mixture on the wall. Finally!

The function of the base coat is to smooth out any irregularities in the wall, in order to obtain an even surface with good binding attributes on which the finish coat can be applied evenly. There were a lot of details that needed to be refined before the finish coat could be applied.

The door frames were installed so I put some flax net around the corners to prevent the cracks from appearing while the material dries.

I put the little windows in place, installed the electrical outlets and filled in all the holes I could find. The base coat was ready.

Because I wanted a smooth finish for the plaster, I sieved both of the materials through a mesh with openings the size of 1 mm.

I did a new set of tests to try out the finishing layer on the dried base coat.


I chose the composition (1 volume of earth mixed with 3.5 volumes of sand grains 0 – 1 mm), made enough mixture to cover the whole wall in one go with 3 mm cover and got to work.

It took me 21 hours and it looked amazing.

Then it all cracked.

*Mistake No.1: no fibers in the base coat (a conscious choice).

So I sanded all of the cracks.

I filled up the cracks with material in order to make the plaster more stable, and had another try with a layer of material between 1 and 2 mm thick. I took me 16 hours this time and again it looked amazing.

And again it all cracked.

*Mistake No.2: if the supporting structure is as unstable as reed panels and you don’t use fibers to stabilize the base coat of the plaster, you can secure the plaster surface with a mesh (jute, flax) spread out across the entire surface of the base coat (again a conscious choice not to do that).

I was getting tired of the game of putting up a new beautiful layer of material and have it crack when it dries. So this time I tried another experiment: I sanded the cracks and filled them up with the material, but instead of putting on another layer of material, I dissolved the clay in water and applied it as paint. 

It took me 4.5 hours and it looked good. And this time it didn’t crack. 🙂

So what were the lessons of my experimental procedure with the use of Istrian earth?

The most important one: yes, you can utilize the soil just as it is and use it in various ways as a building material. But through the different mistakes I made I also realized another important aspect: by using proper additions with the mixture, you can make your life a whole lot easier. 🙂

Doors and windows

Winter is knocking on our doors again. It’s time to put down the trowel, reflect on the year gone by and share all the steps we managed to make on our path of the stone house renovation.

Last year we managed to brush off the marks of time off the stone walls and protect them with a roof. Before the next stages of refurbishment took place and we started with the renovation of the interior, the outer shell needed to be waterproof. We filled up the smaller holes with mortar. What belongs in the bigger remaining openings? Doors and windows 🙂

 

I do have to confess I still get confused with the Istrian time warp; it takes me by surprise again and again. The perfect example is the story about how the doors and windows came into existence.

The first time I met (the third) carpenter on site was on 16th February. We went through all the plans, looked at every technicality, measured every possible dimension and agreed on every detail. 1 big door, 2 smaller windows and a big glass wall were to be made and installed in 3 months. Far from cheap but the quality would be worth it. It sounded fabulous and we shook hands on it.

The first complication was the steel frame on the east wall. It needed to be installed before the final measurements for the glass wall could be completed. After a year of searching for anyone that would be willing to make a non-corroding steel frame and talking to all the uninterested companies in the vicinity I gave up the search for local production and ordered it in Ljubljana. After I waited quite some time for the order to be made, it was done exactly as we agreed upon (thank you Klemen!). Then some more waiting for the zinc plant in Austria to accomplish its anti-corroding magic, some more waiting for the painting of the frame to take place and I could finally transport it to the coast. The steel frame was installed on 10th July.

    

Now everything was ready and since we agreed on the schedule with the carpenter there will be no more waiting for the manufacturing of the doors, right?

As it turned out, the carpenter did not order the wood yet so there was no appropriate material to manufacture the elements yet. So we waited for the ordered wood to make its appearance.

After the wood came there was no suitable steel track for the glass window. Why? The manufacturer stopped delivering the product to Croatia and soon I was looking everywhere, including all the neighbouring countries to import the part myself. Since it was the beginning of August already everyone was off for vacation.

After some remarkable stunts we managed to get the steel track. There were the wood and the track, but there was no suitable varnish. Then the varnish came and the weather was not right for the application. What else could we have possibly still been waiting for? Oh yeah, I forgot the yearly vacation the carpenter’s company takes in August that they forgot to mention to me…

    

The doors and windows were finally installed on the 31th August. Even though it took almost 4 months longer that agreed upon, I was happy with the accomplishment. They looked beautiful and for the first week I couldn’t stop folding the glass wall…

      

 

What were the reflections behind the outer appearance of the house?

It is always hard to find the right balance between preserving the old and implementing the new. How do you specify the parameters that make out the right balance?

Vitruvius put it neatly: firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

Firmitas (strength)

It was highly important that the majority of the old stone volume was preserved, but looking at the house from the structural stability perspective, the strength of the east wall was questionable. The original chimney was too heavy and unstable for the wood structure of the roof. The bulky thing broke the supporting structure and leaned its entire weight on the corner of the east wall making a crack in the wall about 10 cm wide.

 

Utilitas (functionality)

Times change, people’s lives change and the use of buildings with it. Do we want to smother potential and life with the rigidity of the past? I don’t believe absolute preservation is the right approach. This house has seen many glorious moments when people enjoyed their time with each other on its premises. I find this to be one of the key elements of this renovation: to give the people as many options as we can provide them with so they can enjoy the true beauty of the moment in this magical setting. Some people look for tranquillity, some look for nature, some for companionship. Be what it may, cutting an opening in the only wall where we were allowed to do that – in order to connect the inside of the house with the outside space – seemed like the right choice.

I am aware it is not a traditional feature by any stretch of the imagination. But do I want to relish the outside while cooking under the pergola and at the same time have the option to share my time with someone inside the house? Yes. So that’s why I yielded to making a big opening in the east wall, a folding glass surface 3.7 m wide and 2.3 m high.

For the times they are a changin’ (B.D.1964).

 

Venustas (beauty)

I’ve come to cherish the simplicity of form, the usage of the materials in the close proximity of the building and the durability of technically well executed details. Beauty? I will let everyone judge that for themselves.

The roof

After putting in all the effort in the last year’s renovation battles, we needed to protect the hard obtained achievements somehow. What sort of a safeguard is the best to protect a house from the weather and other ambience influences? A roof 🙂

We took great care at dismantling the old roof. The goal was to reuse the maximum quantity of the substance used for the original cover. Unfortunately, the whole wooden construction was eaten away by termites.

 

The only material, that was still usable, was the old roof tiles. Of the 1500 we took down, about 1000 could be reused again. The roof tiles need to be attached to the new construction somehow in order for them not to fall off the pitch of the roof. Nowadays 3 methods are commonly used: they can be glued to the surface with mortar, glued to the surface with polyurethane sealing foam or they can be hammered to the wooden battens.

The mortar was too heavy for the foreseen construction, the polyurethane foam was a no-go for me, so the option we were left with, was putting a nail through each tile to attach it. There weren’t any holes in them yet so Matej took on the arduous task of drilling through a 1000 tiles last summer. My deepest gratitude to yet another astonishing human being for putting in so much time and effort needed to bring my dream a step closer to reality.

  

The cover made of roof tiles was taken care of, what else is needed for a proper roof? Construction and thermal insulation.

It was always clear the construction was going to be made out of wood. It was an endeavour to find an 8m long beam of the proper height that would serve as a main supporting agent. I was enthusiastic about finding and old oak timber but after a month of fruitless attempts we’ve settled on a company in Bani (a village 80 km away) manufacturing poles out of new spruce wood in appropriate length. We were still left with the issue of the height of the beam though, because the material available did not have the height our construction engineer proposed for it. After some contemplation we have found the solution: we got two beams, stacked them one on top of the other and connected them vertically with wooden pins. It took quite some coordination to get a skilled carpenter that could pull away such a stunt but we found the right person and the ridge beam was built in.

We’ve prepared a dent between the outer layers of stone on the top of the wall for the concrete crown and the mixture was poured onto the steel reinforcement that was laid out inside the dent beforehand.

   

The wall plates (spruce) were connected to the steel spikes attached to the concrete crown beforehand, consequent parts of the timber construction were the rafters out of larch.

  

It was quite a struggle to decide on the right materials to use for the complete composition of the roof and the insulation part was proven to be very tricky. Ever since I came in contact with straw as a building material, I thought I was going to use it for the insulation on our roof.

Last year I attended the first Croatian convention on natural building materials and heard that across the country rats have a devastating effect on straw roofs. I wasn’t able to shed second thoughts and started looking for an alternative. Since we are close to Adriatic coast my ideas went as far as seaweed: it has excellent resilience qualities and it has been commonly used for centuries on islands like Læsø in Denmark as cladding and roofing material.

 

© Holger Leue and realdaniabyogbyg.org

In the end I settled for another idea: wood chips from a local woodworking mixed with lime powder. 

Wood has decent thermal qualities and lime would suppress any desires animals might have to look for a shelter in the roof.

  

The mixture of the two ingredients was distributed between the boards anchored to the top and bottom side of the rafters. The vapour control layer (paper membrane) was preventing the mixture from falling through the holes between the boards.

  

I wanted to prevent the summer overheating with insulation instead of cooling the house with air conditioning, so I wanted to make sure the roof is sufficiently protected. Another layer of lining was foreseen on top of the rafters (hemp insulation) and underneath the rafters (wood fibre insulation).

We finally agreed on how to assemble the elements of the gutter detail and the auxiliary wooden construction for the gutter stone was put in place.

  

The insulation was installed and the roof was covered with impermeable membrane.

The last issue I wanted to address was the rats. We did make sure they would not like the materials used for the renovation of their former residence, but what if they still somehow got inside the roof? The idea was not something I would want to deal with later so we decided to install a steel mesh with apertures smaller than 1 cm (the magnitude through which these wicked animals can squeeze their entire heads and bodies).

We rolled out the net across the entire surface of the roof, over the membrane.

  

There was one problem though: the overlapping. The mesh came in rolls 1 m wide and as we were spreading them across the surface, they refused to stay flat. The waves of the steel edges were parting for a lot more than 1 cm. My team’s suggestion was to staple the mesh to the wooden construction underneath the membrane but not every joint was on the top of a wooden batten.

I suggested using a thread to unite the 2 separate layers. My construction team was comprised of the most patient workers on the planet Istria and they played along with almost all of my brilliant ideas. But at this very suggestion even Kristijan raised his eyebrows in disbelief. Sewing the roof together?

Thank god I had an ace up my sleeve for this one. I spent that weekend on the roof and my knowledge of sowing was finally used for something other than bag-making 🙂

The last thing regarding the roof we need to decide on: the gutters and the drainage positions.

  

We’ve managed, somehow, to resolve all the issues we’ve stumbled upon. The time has finally come to nail those tiles down.

   

   

It took some more gorgeous sunrises and some more strings but there it is:

the roof 🙂

Restoring the stone walls, Part III

We finally made it through this year’s prolonged winter, congratulations everyone! I don’t know about you, but I feel like a new person now and I am ready to take up new adventures.

So what is left of the last year’s restoration tale, before we continue with this year’s mission to finish the renovation?

As I’m sure you have already noticed, there are many mysteries the stone can reveal to us. It can perform in astonishing compositions when it’s handled with great care by professionals.

We’ve built foundations, replaced the unstable parts of the walls, changed the openings and constructed arches. Then all we needed to do is raise the walls a little bit, fill in the joints from the outside and inside to plug the holes in the walls and fill it up with liquid mortar.

Let’s do it the old school way 🙂

      

You grab a string, position it on steel bars at appropriate heights to shape the desired form of the house and secure it with a stone.

 

Repeat on all 4 sides of the house and fill in the missing parts of the façade with stonework up to the chosen vertex.

Next step is to make sure there are no cavities in the walls. Yes, that’s right: scratch out any old mortar that remained in the walls, then fill up all the joints with new mortar.

   

If this were a normal house with a normal client the story would end here. Because this is not the case, the client (yes, that’s me:) wanted the stones to stand out a few centimetres out of the mortar. What does that mean? Well, scratching some new mortar out again until the client is happy with the depth of the joints 🙂

The reason behind me being tenacious in this case was this: the sealant between the stones of the house used to be made out of orange coloured mortar (Istrian earth) which accentuated each individual stone in the wall.

The replacing mortar’s colour was very similar to the colour of the stones which could mean the whole wall could visually melt into a soup. I liked the accentuated stone structure and the way in which I thought we could accomplish the same effect was by pushing the joints a few centimetres into the wall so the stonework would be underlined by the shade around each stone.

   

I am happy I made that decision. Besides achieving the desired effect on the walls a by-product were some of the finest moments of last year’s summer. Mladen, Kristijan and I, sitting on the scaffolding, scratching out the joints surrounded only with peaceful nature and discussing random thoughts while deeply immersed in work. Ah, the bliss of working with professionals.

Filling up the walls with mortar (no cement!) was the last step to making the structure as stable and solid as possible without building in any steel wires or apply concrete across the whole surfaces.

During the process of the joint making there were about 200 hoses inserted all across the surface of the walls.

      

When the joints dry out enough so they are stable (not a problem in the mid summer heat in Croatia), you prepare the mortar for the filling, which needs to be a bit more liquid then the mixture you use for the joints.

Fill up the machine and fill in one hose after another. Start with a hose at the bottom of the wall and pour in just enough material so it starts leaking out of the hose next to it.

   

Wait until the first fill solidifies enough and continue with the next hose. All 200 of them, one after the other.

It sounds painstakingly slow, right? That’s exactly what the process felt like.

 

There was a surprise waiting for us in the wall. A small ornamented gem of antiquity, quietly sitting in the wall all those years just waiting to be discovered. I still don’t know how the team managed to find it because it was built into the wall with its decorative side hidden.

  

Spolia is a conservationist term used for building stones or decorative sculptures reused in a new construction. The practice was common in late antiquity. Entire obsolete structures are known to have been demolished to enable the construction of the new ones. The practice is of particular interest to (architectural) historians and archaeologists since the gravestones, monuments and architectural fragments of ancientness are frequently found embedded in structures built centuries or millennia later.

I’ll leave it to you to find the exact position of our adorning jewel of former age in the wall. Good luck with the search! 🙂

Restoring the stone walls, Part II

I do have to confess, I am a junkie. I’m addicted to excellence, quality and beauty, that arise from a complex situation in which people apply their knowledge and passion to solve a riddle. Add a pinch of synergy and the potion becomes magical!

Last time I shared with you the story about a segment of a load bearing wall that was removed and rebuilt, this time, there is more magic wall tricks in store for you.

Want to make the doors and windows higher? If you’re an architect, I’m quite sure you’re familiar with the command ‘stretch’: you select the end points of the lines on a drawing and extend them to the desired length. So that’s exactly what I have done on the south façade to make the windows and doors suitable for people higher than me 🙂

How does ‘stretch’ translate into real life on a stone wall? Piece of cake. You just remove the stone frames around the openings, raise the aperture, rebuild the structure above the hole in the wall and voilà, you have extended your view onto the world.

 

 

Step 1: remove the stone frames of the doors

 

Step 2: get the new, higher stones for the sides of the frame

 

Step 3: transport the heavy stones with the crane

  

 

Step 4: build the frames in

      

 

 

What about the windows?

 

Step 1: remove the existing frame of the window

    

 

Step 2: use the stone acquired from the door frames and cut them to the desired height (we recycle as much as we can)

 

Step 3: transport the stone frames manually

 

Step 4: build a wooden construction for the arch

 

Step 5: build in the stone frames and insert the temporary wooden construction

 

Step 6: support and align the wooden construction

   

 

Step 7: build an arch above the window

         

 

Step 8: repeat for the other window.

 

We did find one intriguing detail under all the layers of paint we removed from the stone frames and I can’t resist the temptation to share it with you.

It is an art work containing a star and the name of a personage who sculpted the Balkan region more than any other force in the 20th century. Can you recognise the name?

Restoring the stone walls, Part I

I have been waiting for such a long time to be able to bring this bewitching old pearl back to lustre. Finally, the time came to focus on the most intriguing part of the project: renovation of the beautiful stone walls.

I was filled with high hopes and expectations we can rescue the walls in their entirety, reverse the wary time and usage inflicted upon them. Before we began a dark thought fluttered by: were my expectancies too high and not all of the walls can be brought back to life as I imagined it? As I was about to find out, true skills crack the hardest restoration nuts.

Old structures are an asylum for stories and myths. So many tales lie written in the dust of those walls. As people pass on, only substance remains to pass on the story it beholds. If only walls could talk. And in our case, they do.

Today I have an interesting story the whispering stones wanted me to share with you.

It is a fable about a person being hidden in the house while the WWII army was sweeping the premises. Was he really stashed underneath the floor behind the bed? We didn’t find any holes in the floor, but there was a big round swelling behind the bed on the bottom of the west wall. Big enough to hide a human being back in the time of need? I’m not sure about that, but definitely big enough to need reconstruction.

 

How do you replace a part of a load bearing wall weighted with all the load of the stones piled upon it?

Step 1: get the best possible restoration team experienced in making rocks fly 🙂

Step 2: create a self supporting arch in stone hammering conical wood parts in the joints amongst the stones

 

Step 3: support the weight with a wooden beam resting on 2 jack posts (one on each side of the wall)

   

 

Step 4: hammer in some more wood to brace the arch

 

Step 5: remove the stones underneath the arch (meaning: fabricate a gigantic hole in the load bearing wall!)

   

 

Step 6: make sure to extract the human being hiding in the hole before filling it up with cement and stones; after all, this isn’t Italy (any more)

 

Step 7: dig up the earth and make foundations underneath the wall where needed

 

Step 8: fill in the hole building a typical stone supporting wall with mortar filling the joints and wait a week or so for the mortar to dry

   

 

Step 9: remove the supporting construction and admire in awe.

 

Foundations

After you clear away everything you need to let go of, where do you start?

With the foundations, of course. This time I’m talking concrete, not the theoretical architectural mumbo jumbo behind it.

How can an 80 year old house stand the very strict structural stability regulations was a debate for quite some time. Ideal situation would be to sustain the structural authenticity and preserve the building material compounds while guaranteeing the construction won’t collapse even in case of an earthquake.

One solution would be to make a solid box connecting everything from foundations to the roof of the house making the whole structure very stable. The extreme interventions in our case would involve concrete foundations underneath the whole perimeter (= digging up segment after segment underneath the stone walls making sure they don’t collapse while we fill the holes with concrete), putting a steel wire on the insides of the walls connecting them with concrete sprayed over the entire surface and a concrete structure for the roof. Besides covering up the beautiful stone walls these interventions would mean turning the whole house into a rugged Faraday cage.

I was trying to go in the direction of using as little cement/concrete as possible, so we tried to go in the other extreme where barely any interventions would be needed. In the end we settled on this version: most of the house sits on solid rock so we’ll just fill in the holes with concrete in the foundations underneath the wall removing the earth where it’s visible. Walls will expose the stone on the inside as well as the outside of the walls while filling entire walls with lime mortar (no cement!) to stabilize them. The concrete crown sitting on top of the wall will support the wood structure for the roof.The structural engineer could justify the interventions for the building permit as reconstruction work and I was happy with the following compromise: we keep the beautiful walls but I comply with the risk that everything goes down with the next earthquake. Beauty always comes with a price 🙂

 

As it turned out, almost all the walls are sitting on rocks. There were a few patches of earth underneath some parts of the wall so we excavated the earth and filled the holes up with concrete.

 

The corner on the south east end of the house demanded the most attention. Excavating earth, making the wooden frame and filling it up with concrete should do the trick of stabilizing the walls.

      

After 2 years of planning and struggling to get the paperwork sorted out, I am still amazed how fast things started happening on the building site. The foundations were ready before we knew it. It’s a good feeling knowing that the house is sitting on something solid.

 

I did get a comment about the sunny weather lurking from the photos. The pictures were in fact taken a while ago but since I didn’t have the time to write about our progress then, I’m trying to catch up with it now. But getting back to the intensity of the blue on the pictures – you’re right, it cannot be that perfect. It’s all photoshop 😉

Opening the building site

A wise man said to me recently: it’s all just a construct of mind. He was referring to the world as we see it and the actions we take according to those views, but the same goes for the limit we invented separating one year from another for example. It does help to have those kind of reminders built in our culture and society to remind ourselves to pause from time to time, to review where we are and whether or not the direction we’re going to is where we actually want to go.

So where were we with the renovation?

The house was stripped of everything we could bare to miss.


Not many things went in the desired direction on this project but on a good day I still consider myself quite lucky. I was amazed with all the work Marko, our Croatian partner architect did in the struggle to keep the dragons of bureaucracy happy in the quest for a legal renovation.

On top of that we stumbled upon the perfect contractor to renovate the stone walls. A small family business from Sutivanac, a village 30 km away. The dad (Mladen), the son (Kristijan) and their young employee from Slavonija (Domagoj). They have an incredible range of experiences renovating stone buildings in the vicinity for the last 40 years and are one of the rare companies in the surroundings that can validate their knowledge with a conservationist license. They care about quality, strive to make lasting details and there is unpretentious beauty in their technically superb solutions. They are amazing and as fast as greased lightning on top of that.

The moments we shared solving problems over ‘voćkanje’ (a break in the afternoon munching home grown fruit) or talking about daily occurrences while cleaning the joints of the stone walls will go down in my memory as pure jewels of quality cooperation when life and its struggles make sense.

I did realize a while ago it is extremely important who you work with. Because no matter how carefully you plan things, there are always unexpected situations that occur and to be able to rely on people doing their best to solve the issues in those situations is priceless.

So what else have we gotten apart from the perfect contractor?

A crane

skela (=scaffolding)

     

a fridge


limenka (=a box to keep our belongings safe)


a moving office with the best view ever

     

and two boards clearly stating we’ve turned into a building site!

 

Looking over the shoulder I was throwing some last gazes on the year behind us. Doing this type of project was/is really hard from time to time and I am truly happy we made it this far. I have yet to thank everyone involved making my dream come true endowing professional or personal assistance. Many thanks to everyone that expressed an interest for this project in one way or another as well. I wouldn’t get as far as I did without any of you so my deepest appreciation for your support. I’m gathering my spirits to finish the rest of the stone house renovation this year and if you would like to be a part of it in any way, let me know.

Wish you all a colourful year full of hope and magic. It’s nice to get some of both from time to time 🙂

Renovating the existing house

There were a lot of discussions about what to place inside the house, how to use the existing volume and how to find the right balance between the old and the new. What is minimum, what is necessary and what is enough always turned into lengthy discussions where cultural background and personal preferences played the most important roles. Every person presented with the circumstances saw one and only logical solution for the given situation yet astonishingly no 2 people ever had the same idea 🙂

The concept I was after mixed the traditional and contemporary renovation approaches with the emphasis on one or the other according to the given detail or building element. Complying with all the legislation and laws valid for our case was a must. We tried out drawing every possible version from implementing a gallery to partly closing up the space on every side of the building. Conclusion: everything that you place inside 35 m2 takes up too much space.

What are the bare minimums in this case? The solution for most people was a point somewhere between 2 extremes: the luxury of having everything at hand on one pole and admiring a magnificent empty volume while kicking the functional facilities outside on the other. Bathroom or no bathroom, that was the menacing question for it meant a separation of the volume that was already very small. The commodity to some extent prevailed and we decided the bare minimum was in our case constituted of a place to sleep, a place to cook and a place for personal hygiene (toilet, sink, shower).

 

How do we change the closed dark insides into a self-sufficient unit, full of light and connected to the outside space?

 

1. Placing everything that we need for temporary use on a single level within the house.

   

Basic live-eat-sleep facilities will be placed in the heart of the restored house, a partition wall extending to the ceiling will separate the bathroom and storage/technical room from the rest of the volume.

East part will see the most changes. In order to permit the light to enter, two major interventions took place: the storage unit outside the east wall was removed and a big opening carved out of the east wall.

The darkness will be replaced by openness to the sky and a wooden pergola which will host the outside kitchen and a huge table. The connection between the outside and inside will be a 3.80 m wide and 2.25 m high glass wall that will fold away completely when not needed.

 

2. Increasing the height of the building for 60 cm, utilizing the full height of the volume (removing the suspended ceiling) and exposing the stone walls.

   

The walls made of stone are the most amazing component of this whole story so we are keeping those and letting them be visible from the outside (traditional to some extent) as well as from the inside (contemporary or at least not traditional).

 

3. Preserving the façades

   

The south façade is gorgeous so we are keeping it mostly as it is: the 2 windows and the entry door remain in the same positions, all three slightly higher (functionality).

The west and the north façade border the neighboring plot so no openings are allowed – we’re keeping them as (closed as) they are.

East wall gains a humongous opening forming the connection between the house and the nature.

 

I would like to dedicate a separate post to the topic of materials since it was such an important subject in this project – but let me just mention a few highlights: wooden floor and furniture, use of clay for the ceiling and partly also wall plaster, tadelakt in the bathroom.

Building permit

It has been quite some time since I last published anything about the progress we are making with the project. It’s not that we weren’t busy with the renovation of this beautiful stone house, quite the contrary – there was in fact a lot of progress.

It’s just that life sometimes blows the leaves of our experiences in very unexpected directions and managing the situations takes up more time than one could ever imagine. Looking after ourselves and the people around us is a vital component of the holistic approach to sustainability. With personal growth we contribute to social and planetary well-being. People have the highest priority in my world so I hope I will be forgiven for shifting my priorities for a while, focusing on people and leaving the blog for cosy winter evenings.

Nonetheless, what ground breaking event has taken place in the meantime?

We have gotten the building permit for restoring the stone house!

Fighting for this cause over the last 3 years was a nightmare at times and it feels I have paid my debt to society in sweat, tears and money. To be quite honest there were plenty of moments when it seemed just too absurd and time/money consuming to continue acquiring the permits. But I am happy we did and owe my eternal gratitude to everyone who stood by my side and helped me battle the windmills of Croatian bureaucracy. I raise a glass of white wine to my friends in arms, to celebrate this moment, and the hope and dreams yet to come, with all of you.

Even though it took so much effort and such a long time to get to where we are now, this is only the first battle to be won. The permit allows the old existing stone house to be reconstructed but there is a long way to go if we want to build another construction on site out of clay, earth or other natural materials (legally ;).

 

I have been dreaming for such a long time about the moment when I would finally be allowed to continue my efforts to restore this perishing jewel legally. Dreaming to help preserve a beautiful piece of tradition and memories that still spring up in people’s imagination when they see that humble stone house defying the test of time.

‘In this country almost all of the renovations are done without paperwork – why is it so important to you to do it legally?’ was a question that popped up again and again. Yes, why indeed?

It took me a while to find my answer to this simple yet very important question.

Nowadays it seems like building with natural materials is something only the privileged few can afford – the people who have the luck of having time and money (or both) to be able to afford the luxury of living in a healthy environment. Building lobbies certainly don’t have people’s health as their main objective and from the looks of things neither do governments with their absurdly complicated laws as far as building with natural materials concerns.

I am dreaming about the day, when the luxury of living and building with materials that are found in abundance in our surroundings, materials that make us less ill and cause no damage to our environment, will become the affordable right for everyone who will desire it.

 

Autumn has already coloured the path for winter to come with its gorgeous orange, red and golden colours. Taking into consideration that it is better to wait for warmer times to continue with the renovation, I will be taking advantage of the time bestowed on me to dive into another field that is vital for this project. I will be expanding my knowledge about permaculture to learn more about how to combine human life with wildlife (plants and animals).

In Brajkovići project I would like to demonstrate a more sustainable approach to using all types of natural resources to make our lives and the life of our planet more enjoyable. Cultivating land while utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems seems like the right way forward.

I have gotten a chance to learn about the holistic approach to a more sustainable way of living on a permaculture farm in Málaga, Spain where I will be spending the next few months.

If you happen to be in the neighbourhood, make sure to drop me a line 🙂

Architectural background

The more I learn about architecture, the more complex the field seems. It has so many layers – history, locus, building regulations, visions, ideas, aesthetic norms, economics and finances, cultural beliefs, interests of every kind, (geo)political amongst them, (psychological) issues of the people involved. The list goes on and on. That makes architecture so interesting on one hand and so exhausting on the other.

I am amazed how this tiny house manages to stimulate imagination of each individual in such a way that everyone comes up with a completely unique solution. I guess because it’s small enough to let each person express their ideas and taste according to the individual experiences and beliefs without having them shaped by some commonly accepted concepts around living spaces.

 

So what is my version of what makes sense in the given situation?

As I remember the life here, it was so beautiful because it was so simple. The majority of time was spent outside living and breathing nature in all its ever-changing glory. That was the spirit I was after.

The house itself is gorgeous and adding something new to it, which would match its beauty, proved to be a difficult task. Going through all the versions of additions we discovered that nothing we add will do it justice, so we decided not to add anything at all to the existing volume. Moreover, we decided to only keep the elements that are truly worth keeping and remove everything else. The storage on the east end of the building with its insufficient height wasn’t usable so it had to go.

We were left with 35 m2 nett floor area – how can we expand it to fit normal contemporary needs if we are not going to add anything to the house?

Let’s separate the program units and make rooms in the garden!

So that was the initial idea: the house keeps its outer appearance while being used as the living room (A). The kitchen will be placed outside on the east side of the house (B), the bedroom (C) and bathroom (D) each become a separate unit in the garden. I believe that opens up the possibility for the people to truly experience the beauty of every moment in a day while being connected to nature.

 

Then bureaucracy enters.

2015: The plot we started with had 230 m2. In total.

2016: Through all the paperwork that we needed to gather to be able to renovate this 60 m2 house legally (yes, there will be a separate post on that) the plot first grew to 251 m2, then to 275 m2 – you have to love Croatian bureaucracy 🙂

2017: Acquired the neighbouring plot to raise the grand total to 562 m2 of surface we can play with.

 

While the basis for the renovation of this tiny house changed sooooo many times, the ideas of course changed with them.

 

What is the current situation, what’s the plan?

We are keeping the idea of creating separate units for different programs and spreading them out on the plot.

In phase 1 we will renovate the house that remains the central character in the play and convert it into the living room of the premises.

The newly acquired north garden will be the main entrance with some parking space. We would like to use part of the plot for a tent area, outside living area with an open fireplace and a ping-pong table, all of that combined with permaculture garden plots and art spaces.

 

 

The private garden south of the house will host an outside leisure spot that converts into a cosy outdoor bed at night, a couple of deckchairs, an outdoor shower and lots of green bushes between different points of interest to create even more intimate spaces.

In the next phases we hope to continue with bedrooms and a bathroom placed somewhere in the garden. Ideas grow all the time.

 

Yes, I know – I am gifted for getting myself into somewhat demanding situations; thank god I’m stubborn enough to finish what I’ve started 😉

Remove everything that we would not like to keep (Part 3)

I’ve gotten some surprised responses to my last post. How much of the existing are we keeping, will there be anything left at all?

There is a reason behind every subtraction, of course. Some of the removals of existing material and structures needed to happen because the time took too much of the stability and safety away – the state of these wooden trams that were supposed to support the roof say something about the roof construction and why we decided to remove it.

     

Other removals happened because of the vision to create an enjoyable space that would use the traditional techniques of building typical for these parts of the world, and combine it with contemporary knowledge and desires about the space and materials.

I promise to dedicate my next post to the architectural vision behind all of the bold removals, but let me first finish describing what else we decided wasn’t worth keeping.

Wait, is there more?

 

Removing the partition walls.

     

 

Removing the bigger part of the east wall.

      

 

Removing the plaster.

      

     

 

Removing the floor, the asphalt (!) and the giant rocks underneath them.

     

 

Removing the rats.

    

Removing everything that we would not like to keep (Part 2)

I am always amazed about how many things are needed for every building. I’m not even going to start talking about all the preparations and bureaucracy and permits, not in this post anyhow, but how much material is required to construct it, how much more for the fixtures, furniture, decorations. That makes the consideration about what type of materials to use in construction even more relevant. This is a really small house we’re talking about and still took quite some time to remove all of the layers of history that were piled upon it.

 

Removing the furniture (remodelled by the rats and time).

     

 

Removing the roof of the storage annex.

            

 

Removing the roof of the house.

    

     

 

For the last 29 years, stepping through the doorway into the house meant entering a quite dark and small space. Now, opening that same door meant stepping into light covered with blue sky. Quite a surreal feeling.

 

Phase 1: remove everything that we would not like to keep

When my parents bought the house 30 years ago, it has already been in use for a good 40 years. You notice it is situated in the midst of nature because we’ve had everything from rats, lizards, snakes, snails, spiders, scorpions, sheep and a dormouse at a certain time in the house or on the premises. Not to mention the plants – they just grow and grow.

The house has kept all of its residents in a more or less happy co-inhabitance for the last 70 years. Apart from rats nobody ever did any noteworthy renovations on it and it is beginning to show. But don’t worry; we’ll get the house back from the animal kingdom somehow.

Enough with the talk already: here are some pictures of the building site preparations 🙂

 

1. Removing the caravans*

    

*Special thanks to my dear parents 🙂

 

2. Removing the external toilet

    

 

3. Removing the plants

    

 

         

 

    

 

          

 

 

Ideological foundations

Istria has a special place in the hearts of many people.

The sky that is almost as pure and blue as the sea, the magic of misty mornings hovering over the beautiful landscape, the climate that can warm your soul up early in the year and stays like that until late fall, the smiles of the relaxed local people, the Mediterranean food in all its tastiness.

This year, 30 years are passing since my parents were lucky enough to have stumbled upon this tiny house. When I think of my summer holidays the stones of the façade, the cold water and the bus rides to the beach flash through my mind. I was a truly lucky child and it was impossible to experience that without having a piece of my heart stolen.

The house was left alone for long stretches of time and inevitably deterioration happened, nature took over. I didn’t want to let the house go completely, so with my family we agreed that I can renovate it. While the idea slowly turned from a vision to a somewhat perceivable reality, many ideas sprung to life.

 

What is my version of sustainability, this much (ab)used word that’s become so popular in the last years?

I would like to give people the opportunity to experience how beautiful life can be in a small house in a remote village on the margins of nature. I would like to create a place that will be comfortable, healthy, peaceful and will encourage the creativity of people with its simplicity.

 

What are the aspects that I find important, what are the goals?

  • focus on quality and beauty of basic forms
  • use natural materials as building elements
  • use traditional building techniques combined with contemporary knowledge to create a comfortable living environment
  • implement local knowledge to renovate the stone walls and employ local working force
  • heat the house with locally sourced wood in a cast iron stove
  • show that composting toilets really work
  • purify grey water using wastewater treatment with aquatic plants
  • sensible (re)use of water (gray water, rainwater)
  • use environmentally friendly, locally produced materials (soap, shampoo, washing detergent, oil, vinegar, wine, olives,…)
  • make a shelf of books amongst which anyone can find something to entertain their soul with as they sit in the garden watching the sun set in the vineyard
  • promote designers and artists through a ‘living gallery’ – the objects that will be in use in the house and around it will be carefully selected products from people who we believe in – everything will be available for purchase, in case you never want to part with a specific object again (furniture, decoration, cosmetics, art, jewellery,…)
  • use local plants to create a small permaculture garden that will produce herbs for cooking
  • enable the experience of living in the nature: a bed under the stars, a cold shower in the garden, a space to put up a tent or just a sleeping bag
  • give back to the community in the form of spreading the knowledge through workshops and restoration of dry stone walls that are characteristic for this landscape
  • work only with people who are magnificent at what they do, who respect work and the efforts of other people
  • use the space for creative writing workshops, yoga classes or tai chi chuan weekends
  • engage contemporary methods of connecting people from all over the world (in the spirit of Home Exchange, Airbnb, Couchsurfing, Eatwith,…)
  • learn about local plants and organize educational field trips in the local area using the gathered knowledge to prepare a meal together (with the plants we’ll pick on the way!)
  • find and mark paths connecting the house with some of the sightseeing pearls in the vicinity (Dvigrad castle, Lim bay, the Sosići quarry with the ancient Maklavun bronze-age tomb, the old abandoned Kanfanar-Rovinj rail road, many local winemakers, numerous climbing sites,…).

In future posts, I plan to delve into many of these specific topics, since learning about each of them showed me some important aspects of dealing with natural materials and sustainable approach to building.

Los geht’s!

It has long been a dream of mine to create an environment using natural building materials that would give people the opportunity to experience sustainable architecture by themselves.

The perfect opportunity showed up: renovation of a vacation house, where I’ll be able to test my ideas out on paper as well as on site. I am endeavouring to renovate a small traditional stone house near Rovinj, the heart of Croatian Istria.

On the path of gaining knowledge and permits I have encountered many questions that were not easy to answer. Walking the unbeaten track of building with natural materials is not an easy assignment. In the hopes of helping the next enthusiast on the way to their dream building I decided to publish my experiences.

There is nothing like gaining knowledge through own experience. That is why I would like to provide people the possibility to participate in the workshops on natural materials. I would love it if you would join me to build the stone wall, learn about clay plasters or tadelakt.

I am looking forward to the day when I’ll be able to invite you to visit the completed house. Until then I will be more than happy if you will decide to share your ideas, thoughts and comments with me!