One of the questions I’ve been asked is this: Did you find so little information that you had to “re-invent the wheel”, for every little step, because there was no practical guide or information on what you were doing?
I come from a timber frame construction country. I understand that method of construction; how to build walls, how to run everything from hot air to water to electricity through them, and how to close them up with drywall, then hang a picture on them. Tah-dah, done. In Italy, you can’t even do that last step the same way. North American picture hooks don’t stick in plaster-over-stone, you have to use special little 3-pronged thingies. I guess that should have been my first warning that it would be a steep learning curve.
Although I viewed that as a point of interest more than an obstacle, it did involve an awful lot of research. Fortunately I have Italian friends, in particular DIY-inclined ones, who gave me tons of advice. I’m also language-capable, so I could read Italian renovation magazines and go to the local home shows to scout materials and learn about their use. And – this is really important – I could speak with our geometra, the contractors, and the product suppliers, to really understand the benefits and drawbacks of certain approaches.
Not that it always worked out perfectly. My post on the ‘effetto cassata‘ (When is a House Like a Cake) is a case in point. I’d researched a fantastic external plaster product from Venezia, went to their head office to learn about it, found the supplier in Liguria and spoke with him, then discovered that the contractor who had real experience with that plaster wasn’t available, so we went with someone who’d never worked with it before. Plaster is plaster, right? Apparently not. The house still looks pretty good – and the plaster is fantastically hard, hydrophobic yet breathable – but the effort of working with its different texture practically gave the man a nervous breakdown. And it did look rather unfortunately like a cassata cake before it weathered in a bit.
At other times, for example when the entire roof had to be replaced right down to all the beams, I had to trust our geometra and the contractor. This is pretty much true wherever you are, though. I’d researched the materials and the construction methods, discussed a number of options with them, and we made a decision. Language was again key; I don’t know how I would have done this without speaking Italian.
I guess it’s also useful to remember that we had a lot of time between activities, so the research could be really thorough. If we’d been trying to do the whole thing in a few months, I think I might have been far less sure of it all.
Advice: This is true for any renovation project – hire people you trust to know what they’re doing, research the methods and products so you can speak with them intelligently, use a translator (again, someone you trust to be thorough in their translations) if you don’t speak Italian.
Then be flexible in your expectations. Not everything that turns out differently than you expected is a disaster. You might even learn a thing or two.
Being 5,000 miles away made it more challenging; we thought we’d be in Milan when we first bought the place. That made trust and clarity of direction even more important. Once they started something, we didn’t see it until it was finished. Their internet services were really poor up until a year ago, so we rarely even got progress photos!
Trusting in the right people for the job without losing control or giving up responsibility for your project is a delicate balancing act Shelagh. It sounds like you did so many things right and learnt so much. The language is important as you say. But also humility and respect for the traditions and ways of another place. You have lots of both! x