Tuesday, 19 November 2013

An Organic Renovation

An Organic Renovation

To live in an old house is to live with an old house. It requires a degree of unrequited love, a romantic disposition, and a distracted and remote state of mind. Kevin McCloud

The house and bathroom roofs today

The first year we went we had to do something about the roof. It was leaking badly and had caused the floor boards to warp. Takis found someone who had experience at repairing roofs and told out two Albanian workers that they’d be assisting, and they all began by removing and sorting out the better tiles. The broken ones were thrown onto a pile in the garden. Anestis then made and carried cement up the two flights of ladders to Marcos who was on the roof helping Capos. I might add that Capos, who was in his seventies was clambering all over the roof like a young goat, however it was soon obvious that one of the men was not very happy helping up there. As Takis doesn’t believe in getting anyone to do a job that he’d not be prepared to do himself, he decided to climb up onto the roof to check the working conditions. Moreover as Capos was the same age as he was he felt he had to prove himself as capable! 

Unfortunately, on reaching the top he looked down. That was it: he was terror-struck – he froze, unable to turn around and return via the ladder. It took Capos and the other helper a long time, and careful guidance to get his feet on the first rung to climb back down. When he did eventually reach ground level he told me his legs were shaking and that he’d thought he’d have to get Capos to take tiles off the roof and lower him down into the attic. 

             Stage one, removing and replacing the old roof tiles

Stage two building a roof over the bathroom

It all began with a watermelon

Were we renovating, restoring or repairing? People in various countries tackle renovations in different ways. I’d found that old houses in some countries are renovated to create an exact replica, while in other countries, such as Italy, the practice is to replace the old with newly distressed materials. The first approach in my opinion could end up looking like a sort of Disney-World construction, and the second isn’t really telling the truth.

There is another approach. This tries to preserve what is old, adding new materials where necessary but only choosing materials that are as close a match as possible. The idea is not to conceal the addition and to let the new age naturally. (This, a TV program told us, was the English way.) I suggested to Takis that perhaps we’d used all three processes, in different parts of our building – though we were probably favouring the third.

Francis Bacon’s idea of building, as he wrote in his treatise ‘On Building’, is that ‘Houses are built to live in not to look on, therefore let use be preferred before uniformity, except where both may be had.’ So when we were asked why and how we were doing what we were doing, we’d sometimes joke that we were renovating in an organic fashion with our fingers crossed. However, while we’d stumbled on an organic approach, we often disagreed about what methods we were using when replacing parts of the house.

It seemed that each day we’d be faced with decisions about how much and how far to take a repair, and this produced continual dilemmas. Kevin McCloud addresses this in his Grand Designs Handbook. When I read it I found I usually agreed with him, especially when he wrote that old houses ‘require love and quite a lot of money. And although they can reveal great joys and provide great style, they do not bend themselves easily to modern living.’ However, as we wanted to live in our house comfortably – to be able to sleep, entertain, and watch television – I did baulk at other aspects of his manifesto, for instance, when he wrote that one might need to decline ‘many twenty-first century pleasances, such as draught-free warmth, underfloor heating and double-glazing.’

But this need to make the house liveable didn’t stop us from thinking long and hard about changing the windows, because we loved their fragile old frames with their rippled glass and we knew that they gave the house a particular character that we’d lose if we changed them. The final decision to have double-glazed windows was probably mostly driven by a need to block out the sound of the noisy motorbikes. Though the traffic outside the house isn’t continual, when those motorbikes rush up the cobbled street at three in the morning it sounds as if you’re about to be struck by a hurricane. So in the end we’d settled on Takis making new wooden windows, in the old style but enclosing panes of double-glazed glass.

                                            Two new windows

While there are obvious cultural differences in this renovation game, for us the guiding principle meant we had to live in this old house in today’s world, and so (sometimes reluctantly) we’d often made compromises, such as those we’d made to deal with the island’s extreme weather conditions. And there were those we’d made because the house is sited next to two roads: we needed double-glazed windows to keep out the noise as well as the cold and heat.

As with the windows, so with the floorboards, we felt we had to make some changes. The floorboards too were character filled – wide and old, held down with huge square-headed iron nails. After much debate I agreed with Takis that some of the most warped, and those that had large holes, had to go. In addition, in places the mice were obviously using the space under and between the joists as a freeway to their homes.

Those floorboards told us something special about the history of the house. We could see the skilled tradesmen’s marks where the boards had been hewn, and Takis admired (and cursed) those huge old square iron nails. As a result, when I read McCloud’s passionate detailing of old methods of carpentry I nodded vigorously. Describing old skirting boards he wrote,

If buildings reverberate to anything, it is to the energy and commitment inherent in the craftsmanship of all the details in the place... Human effort required in 1720 to produce one metre of skirting = 10 hours. Machine effort required in 2000 = 3 minutes. So what the hell are we doing when we rip out an old moulding and replace it with a new one? We’re devaluing the building, devaluing the human effort that went into it in the first place, and actually eating into the thing that some call ‘soul’, the genius loci…

So again we had to come up with an answer for our particular situation. Takis laid new oak floors on the much-used middle floor, levelling where the floor sloped badly towards one corner. In other areas Anestis and Takis took up the boards, straightened the joists, and then replaced the same boards. And in one room the floorboards were so badly nibbled and so smelly (with mice nests underneath) that the whole floor with its joists had to be replaced. But whenever possible we left the old floor in place and just gave the boards a light coating of preservative oil.

Books on Old Houses...

Kevin McCloud’s Principles of Home: Making a Place to Live (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012) offered thoughts about renovating old houses that I found inspirational and challenging.

On Demolition and Rebuilding

John Mole, Its All Greek to Me! (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2004). This book is about an English banker who came to Greece and lived there 30 years. This is very much a story of house building in Greece.

John and Christopher Humphrey, Blue Skies and Black Olives (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2010). A tale of house building in Greece, written by a father who is an ex BBC journalist, and who does up a cottage in a part of Greece where his son is already living and bringing up a family.

Jeffrey Greene, French Spirits:A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy (Harper Perennial, 2003) Greene tells in lyrical prose the story of turning and old presbytery into a home. He is an American poet and I find his account charmingly sympathetic to the neighbourhood and house.

Eleni Gage, North of Ithaka (Bantam Press, 2004). Eleni is the daughter of Nicholas Gage who wrote a book called Eleni about his mother. This book was later made into a film and it told of her imprisonment and execution during the Greek Civil War. Eleni, the grandaughter, goes back to rebuild the family house. This is the book that most echoes our building adventures while also drawing on references to the family’s past.

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