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How to properly restore and renovate Croatia’s old stone houses

Old stone kitchen that is more traditional in design
A restored old stone kitchen with an emphasis on traditional design; Image by Kapitel, Žminj

Not sure how to turn your traditional Croatian stone house into a jewel? Good news – we have prepared a series on how to expertly restore or renovate old Croatian stone houses.

To start, read our tips on why an expert restoration of a Croatian old stone house is a good investment in part 1 of this series which is available here.

In this part, we discuss the challenges you will face and how to overcome them. To complete the story, in our third section, we will get down to the essentials: choosing a building team, working with builders, and sourcing materials.

In this article, we cover:

And now to the facts…

How to properly restore and renovate an old Croatian stone house

What is a proper renovation?

A properly renovated stone home uses traditional materials and methods and is designed with respect to the house’s cultural legacy, says stone house expert Igor Staraj: “It means sensitively restoring the old without losing the house’s patina – the crooked lines, weathered stone, original roof tiles.”

If you want to do an authentic restoration, you need to become an expert on traditional homes in your area because, as Staraj says, there is no typical Croatian stone house on the Adriatic coast: “Each region is influenced by historical and environmental factors as well as available building materials – typically collected within a 40-mile radius. One common mistake is the belief that all stone houses have exposed stone. However, seaside houses typically had a white plaster facade.”

However, renovations do not have to be a slavish restoration, especially as people use houses differently today. For example, the ground floor area, the konoba, was initially used for housing animals and later for storing olive oil and other foodstuffs. So, as Staraj says, you can restore authentically externally, but modernize internally. We opened up our internal spaces with an eclectic mix of modern and historical elements.

Above all, a proper renovation is a labour of love. Almost all work needs to be done by hand. Traditional mortars need long drying times. You may need to search for antique materials to replace missing stone and woodwork. And then – there are those challenges specific to Croatia.

Key renovation challenges

In the following sections, we will discuss the key challenges in renovating an old Croatian stone house.

Here are the key challenges in short:

  • Little awareness of sustainability or cultural preservation
  • Lost knowledge of traditional building materials and methods
  • Difficulties in securing skilled building teams
  • Difficulties in sourcing traditional building materials
  • The usual bureaucratic challenges

Little awareness of the cultural value of stone houses

After the Second World War in Croatia, there was a mass exit to cities and from the hills to the coast, leaving old houses and even entire villages completely abandoned. “They are now only ruined reminders of the past,” says Staraj. “In Croatia, traditional houses are not regarded as a cultural legacy. They have an even worse status in terms of cultural protection and conservation.”

Croatia is, in fact, still in transition. We have watched this in our own village, where within 12 years, the once tight-knit community of self-sufficient farmers has been replaced by foreigners owning holiday homes. We may regard their homes and lifestyle as romantic, but as my neighbour says: it was a hard life.

It is therefore understandable that “modernization” is the new aspiration. For example, my neighbour advised us to paint our wooden windows white so they “look like plastic”!

Restored sink in an old stone kitchen
Restored sink in an old stone kitchen; Image by Kapitel, Žminj

Lost knowledge of traditional materials and methods

In the last 10 years, the knowledge of ancient building construction once passed down from one generation to another, is fading – even though, until very recently, each village had its own lime kiln and slaking. Read about how Orbanić has revived the ancient method of making lime in a traditional kiln and pit near Žminj, Istria here.

All this means the bar for renovating stone homes using the proper materials and methods is still low in Croatia. Even reputable architects and building firms, who understand stone houses, make compromises, often because of the difficulty in finding materials and skilled artisans.

Difficult to find building teams

In the last decades, there has also been an exodus of skilled artisans and craftsmen from Croatia. The recent investment-driven building boom has put even more pressure on these resources. At the same time, builders and architects skilled in stone house renovation have moved on to larger, more lucrative projects.

Staraj says that although demand for stone house restoration from a small niche market is high, his firm Organicarch no longer does small jobs. In fact, he has shut down his website because of the demand. “When I do something for my soul, I will renovate. But I don’t do small projects anymore because it needs the same time with less money. I cannot support myself with that.”

So, you may need to go it alone or build your own team. And then you will need to be armed with knowledge – both to ensure a proper restoration, but also, to give your team clear, authoritative instructions.

So, what do you need to know?

Golden rules for structure and design

Golden rules for structure

  • The ancient methods to build, stabilize, and protect the building still work today. Working with rather than against these principles will cost less in the long run.
  • Many of an old house’s weaknesses will be hidden behind plaster or within walls and roofs so getting an expert to assess the status is your most important first step. “Before you start work, you need to have uncovered 90% of the potential problems. If you don’t know about these problems, then your costs can rise dramatically during construction,” says Orbanić.
  • You need time! Just restoring a stone wall requires removing old, loose mortar, filling in gaps with traditional mortar, and then giving each layer of plaster time to dry. Conventional building teams will not give you this time. Or they will use cement, which dries quickly and is easily applied but is a disaster to your wall. Experts who know how to restore stone houses will charge more. But again, this is a good investment!
  • Use traditional building materials. Modern materials can cause damage to structure and ruin the self-regulating internal climate of these ancient homes. Cladding homes in polystyrene is an absolute no-no! Built with stone, lime, pottery shards, and sand, your 60cm thick walls deal effectively with moisture and provide good insulation. If you need more insulation, choose ecological building materials from a reputable supplier.
  • Lime is the most important building material you will need, but you will need to become an expert in qualities, applications, and where to source it.
  • To carry the weight of the heavy stone, the walls are thicker at the bottom than at the top. Architect Igor Staraj warns that heavy concrete added to the walls or the roof – standard practice today – will affect stability: “You will see this in cracks above the architraves.”
  • Don’t be persuaded to tear down old walls – even if you have bought a ruin. With traditional methods to stabilize walls using iron (a thousands-year-old method), you can save more of the walls than you think.
Combination of traditional and modern elements in old konoba's kitchen
Combination of traditional and modern elements in Victoria’s konoba with an emphasis on modern design; Image by Victoria Sussens

Golden rules for design

  • The Croatian historical preservationist and architect Marko Franković says rethinking an old house is like archaeology. “You first have to discover all the treasures hidden below older renovations: niches, fireplaces, arches, stonework.”
  • “Working out the design is about feeling. It can take ages, but is worth it,” agrees Staraj. I spent months sitting in different parts of our house to work out where the views were and where the sun and light sources were and how best to plan the interior. It has certainly paid off!
  • If you want authenticity, become an expert on traditional stone homes in your area.
  • Keep the patina! Ancient lime plaster on the outside goes dark with age. This is normal. Tile your roof with new tiles but place the ancient ones over these. Keep the stone door and window frames. Don’t straighten corners and surfaces when plastering.
  • Where possible, use natural pigments to colour mortars and grouting. “Colour, is very important in traditional building, says Orbanić. “The plaster depends on the sand used in the mix. In Istria, we have grey, white and red sands. So when the plaster was repaired it was often mixed with a different colour, meaning the façade today can be full of different shades. It is more charming to leave this than to replace the entire facade with modern white colour.”
  • “Obviously, houses are used differently today, so you need to rethink interiors,” says Staraj. “Sticking to organic materials (wood, ceramic, stone) will keep the soul of the original. If you want to make a modern statement, do so in furniture or paintings.”
  • But you can be innovative. One good source of inspiration is Pinterest, where you can look at thousands of photos of stone house renovations from the traditional to the ultra-modern.
  • Attention to detail is essential! Give clear instructions on things that impact aesthetics, such as how stones are exposed (this can look very kitsch!), the thickness and texture of plastered walls, or the type of roof tile. If you don’t, the building team will make decisions for you. We ended up with roof tiles that may be traditional in Slovenia (my team were Slovenians) but not here!

One of my hard lessons

My mistakes: To leave my plasterers unsupervised on two important jobs. They had done good work on the top floor and I trusted them to do the same downstairs and on the facade. I had no contract and no signed guarantees, so when I discovered the mistakes, I had to fix them at my own cost.

Outside: Plaster had been covered in the 1950s with a cement-based plaster. They should have removed this first, and then checked the original lime-based plaster below it, while at the same time checking the wall for hollows (which can occur thanks to leaks, building movement, and rats nesting). Instead, they simply covered the 1950s layer in a cheap, locally available industrial lime-based plaster. The finish is also much too perfect, robbing the house of its charming crookedness. I now have black streaks in the white plaster, because water is getting trapped in that old cement layer and cannot escape.

Inside: Instead of filling the hollow spaces in the walls with rocks and a lime-based grouting, they used a concrete-strength cement to plug the spaces (sometimes as big as 30 cm squared) and plaster the walls. The final layer was lime-based, so I did not suspect what lay beneath until one day I bored a hole in the wall. Why did they do this? Cement easily fills holes and dries quickly, so you can plaster it within a day. They were paid a flat rather than hourly rate, so there was an incentive to do a quick job. By contrast, I had paid them an hourly rate upstairs where they did a proper job.

My lesson: Never leave a job unsupervised! Take control of every detail of your building job. Make sure you have a contract and guarantees.

Useful sources on the renovation

Historical preservationist experts (Contacts and bio information)

Branko Orbanić is a historical preservation expert and architect, based in Žminj, Istria, where he runs the architectural firm called Kapitel with his wife Gracijela. The firm also produces lime using ancient techniques and is in the process of building new premises to restore wood and stone for historical projects. Orbanić is passionate about traditional building materials and methods and, together with renowned European preservation experts, takes part in and teaches seminars and workshops.

[Read: Croatia’s tradition of dry-stone walls]

Igor Staraj is a historical preservationist expert and architect, based in Mošćenička Draga, who runs the architectural firm called Organicarch. He worked in Venice and Padua restoring historical buildings from 1998 to 2004. Since then, he both manages but also acts as a consultant on large-scale renovation projects in Croatia.

Marko Franković is an architect authorized by the Ministry of Culture to work on cultural goods. He is also the founder of MF Arhitekti d.o.o., as well as a professor. He holds courses at the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Rijeka –  ‘Restoration of Architectural Heritage’ and ‘Fundamentals of Spatial Planning’. He has designed several reconstructions of rural buildings as well as castles in Istria and the Kvarner area. Currently, he is overseeing the restoration of the wooden part of the Galeb ship, Tito’s official yacht. It is a project he developed with his office in 2019.

Learn why an expert restoration of a traditional Croatian stone house is a good investment in part 1 of this series available here.

View our other architecture articles

Please note: All information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. It is important to understand that Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change and each personal case is individual and different rules may apply. For legal advice, you must consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, you must consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant. We can recommend one if you contact us.

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