Renovating an old property can be challenging – even when you delegate all the hard work. So, doing it for the first time, with a builder who doesn’t speak your language, might be called fool-hardy. I guess I was about to find out – let the work begin!
Renovation projects in Istria come in various forms. Many start with the walls being the only thing standing – and all too often, they need to come down and go up again: in effect, building a new house using old materials. Our project in Kovaci is different. Much of this building is still intact and in reasonable shape, so I want to preserve as much as possible, to keep the old feel of the house. I’m no builder: my DIY skills run about as far as putting up a shelf (under supervision) and repainting the bathroom. Phil can do a lot more, but a renovation like this is way, way beyond our abilities. It needs a professional and it was vital we chose the right one.
The right builder…
For Kovaci we need a builder who understands old buildings and old building techniques. We also need a builder I can communicate with (a challenge in a country where I speak little of the local language). As work progresses, there will be lots of questions and problems, things to be discussed, things to be changed. This will be impossible if we’re communicating via hand signals and translations via phone calls with local friends.
Istria has many fantastic builders and, like everywhere else, some not so good ones and some downright cowboys. Luckily my personal experience, so far, has been very positive and my knowledge of the cowboys has only come from other people’s horror stories.
…for the job
My first-choice builder was Damir, who I met during our house hunt last year. He’s a structural engineer who has his own building company, is passionate about old buildings and speaks English almost as fast as I do. Unfortunately he wasn’t available.
So I turned to my second choice, Miro. He’s already done quite a lot of work for us, including building the Little House. I’d been impressed by his thoroughness and attention to detail, and appreciated his sense of humour. While I knew he was a great builder, I had two concerns: how was he with old buildings and how were we going to communicate (his English is about as good as my Croatian)? A quick phone call and a visit to a few sites, and my worries were laid aside. Miro cut his teeth working on old buildings in Bosnia, so could easily handle a house like Kovaci. And, while he couldn’t speak English, he has three sons who all do and his two eldest, Toni and Miran, work in the business. They could act as translators.
While we were buying the house, Miro visited the property a couple of times to agree a list of works and prices, which we then turned into a building-works contract. With his team of four, plus some specialists, he expects the house and garden work together to take about 45 days; starting in mid-January, he hopes to be finished mid-March, weather permitting.
Let the action begin
Now, with the house ours and key in hand, it was time to see if I’d chosen the right man for the job.
Tuesday – getting things rolling
Builders keep early hours, and we all met at Kovaci at 8:00 am to get things started.
First was seeing how communications would work. The rest of the family had decided Miran, Miro’s middle son, spoke the best English, so he was appointed my translator and contact person. It worked really well: we went round the property together – Miran, Miro, Phil and I – and very quickly firmed up our plans, making several changes along the way. While Miro doesn’t speak any English, he understands quite a bit (it’s the same with me and my Croatian), so communication wasn’t as slow as I’d feared, with Miran often only needing to translate Miro’s answers.
While we talked, Toni and Amir (the other member of the crew) started demolition work – and by the time we’d finished our discussion, they had brought down a lot of the ground-floor ceiling, creating huge clouds of dust. Things were moving fast. If I was going to follow this project and not miss anything, it was clear I needed to visit the site every day.
Ideally we wanted the whole ground floor to be open-plan, which would involve removing both existing internal walls. Initially, it wasn’t clear if this would be possible without reinforcing. We wouldn’t know for sure, until all the false ceilings had been removed and Miro could see the top of the wall and the beam above it supporting the ceiling. It was agreed that, if the wall was load-bearing, it would stay. If it wasn’t, it would go. Until I knew which, I couldn’t plan the layout.
We left the crew ripping the place apart and, at the end of the day, Miran texted: all the walls were safely down: the beams were good. Where did I want the kitchen and downstairs toilet?
Not only were the builders moving fast, I needed to put my skates on as well and spent most of the evening drawing various ground-floor layouts. The loo obviously would go under the stairs – if it would fit. The location of the kitchen wasn’t so obvious. Eventually it became clear the best use of space would be to put it in the right hand corner, with the dining area on the left and the lounge in front. By bedtime I had a plan.
Wednesday – bye-bye floor
With scaffolding up and a truck outside, the house looked like a proper building site. Inside, downstairs was now one big open space with a dirt floor – a huge transformation. The old flagstones had been lifted from the entrance and carefully stacked outside (these guys are strong: I wouldn’t even be able to lift a corner of one!) The floorboards from the kitchen are also gone: what can be salvaged will be used to repair the stairs. And the remaining, cheap old floor tiling now resides in a pile of rubble outside.
With the floor up, Amir was chipping plaster from the walls inside while Toni started on the plaster outside.
Crawling over the house, taking photos, I passed Miro deep in conversation with the electrician. They didn’t seem to need me, so I left well alone. As nothing was said to me, I naively assumed no problems were discovered.
My evening text from Miran said Miro wanted to discuss electricity.
Thursday – electricity, toilets and kitchen
I wasn’t exactly sure what Miro wanted to discuss, as it’s sometimes not exactly clear from Miran’s texts what’s happening. I assumed it was something inside, but when I arrived, Miro waved an electricity box at me and asked if he could put it on the outside of the house?
The old electricity box is inside the house, and I thought it had been agreed the new one would go at the edge of the property, so the meters could be read without the gate having to be unlocked. It seems there now was a problem with this. We asked what it was? Miran translated, Miro looked worried. It seems the electrician had said it would be very expensive and need papers. “Why?” I wondered, my heart sinking. With Miran translating and Toni throwing in comments from the scaffold above (where he was chipping off facing), Miro tried to explain. I still didn’t understand. “Couldn’t it go on the house for now and then be moved at the end of the project?” I asked. Miro paused and thought: then made a phone call. We waited. A few moments later, he smiled: my suggestion was OK. I never understood what the problem had been. It was enough it had been solved. We could move on inside.
With the plaster off downstairs, we could now see the walls – they were in surprisingly good shape, which was a relief – and exactly how much space there was. It was time to firm up the ground-floor layout, starting with the downstairs toilet.
It’s always nice to have a downstairs loo, but did we have space? Back and forth we all experimented with layouts, to see just how small we could make it, until Miro had a eureka moment, swapping the toilet and sink positions, and the problem was solved.
Then it was time for the kitchen. In old, stone houses the walls are rarely even and often incorporate bedrock. Ours was no exception and in the right-hand corner the walls rested on a bedrock boulder, which jutted into the room – exactly where the kitchen would run. “We can’t touch this,” explained Miran, “it could damage the whole house.” Visions of him hitting the rock with a hammer and the whole house falling around him flashed through my mind and I quickly reassured him the rock could and should stay, untouched. It did however pose a challenge for fitting a kitchen: pre-built units just wouldn’t fit. Miro had a simple solution: he would build the kitchen on-site. Problem solved! He just needed to know exactly what equipment would go where: I went home to draw another diagram.
By the end of the day, Miro’s thoughts were moving upstairs and Miran’s evening text asked what were my bathroom plans? Back out with pen and ruler.
Friday – chipping away
When I took my works of art to the house, I found the site remarkably quiet, with neither Miro or Miran around. There was just Toni perched up on his scaffolding chipping away at the façade and Amir inside, removing barrow-loads of debris and soil from the floor to create a level surface. After three day’s work he was almost there and the pile outside was a lot higher.
I left my bathroom sketches with Toni and went home.
Saturday – drainage and sinks
Today they were concentrating on drainage. Toni was tunnelling under the house from the front and Amir was working from inside out, cutting a hole big enough for the sewerage and water pipes. I left them to it and went upstairs to take pictures of the bedrooms and discovered a huge gash in the wall – it was quite a shock. I assumed it’s for the bathroom down-pipe.
Just as I was leaving, Miro turned up anxious to discuss bathroom sinks. The family bathroom is a long thin affair, and in my plan I’d drawn in a double sink unit. Did I really want a double, he wanted to know? He’d planned on a single: not only would a double cost more, it also needed different plumbing. I needed to make up my mind urgently. It would be nice to have a double, I mused, but I didn’t know what was available. We agreed I’d go window shopping on Monday and, if I still wanted a double, I’d pay the difference.
Next came sink surrounds. On my sketch, I’d given the sinks plenty of work surface for lotions, potions, brushes and so on. Did I want these in red or white marble, Miro asked. That sounded very nice, I thought. “Red marble’s around €1000 or white Kanfanar marble’s €300.” “Wow!” I thought, “That’s expensive. Can’t we use kitchen work-top, instead?” “We could use polished old wood,” countered Miro. “How much would that be?” I asked. Miro shrugged the ‘not very much’ shrug and I was happy. Polished old wood they’d be and I’d go see what sinks were available on Monday.
Next week I go sink shopping, the façade’s finished and other contractors arrive on site.
- What do we hope to achieve? Our plans for Kovaci, including my famous drawings
- Wonder what it looked like before the builders started knocking it about? Here are some photos: outside, downstairs and upstairs.
First posted January 2012