Why you should restore your traditional Croatian stone house properly

The "Stone & Straw” holiday home and retreat in the Učka Nature Park
The “Stone & Straw” holiday home and retreat in the Učka Nature Park – an ecological work of art; Image by Stone & Straw

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 the following sequels of this series, we discuss the challenges you will face, and how to overcome them. We also give tips on choosing a building team, working with builders, and sourcing materials.

In this article, we cover:

And now to the facts…

Reasons to properly restore old Croatian stone houses

Meeting the challenges in Croatia

We have turned a stone house in Istria into a much-loved family holiday home – a fulfilling but challenging experience. In Croatia, it’s hard to source traditional building materials, artisans skilled in using them, or even contractors that believe stone houses need special treatment.

The trend today is to clad these old homes in concrete and replace stone doors and window frames with plastic – all leading to mould and an increased need for heating and air conditioning. This is also destroying the charm of natural stone architecture that in places like Italy and France attract tourists.

The result is most foreigners bring in their own building teams. Or, like us, muddle through with local builders and inferior building products, making mistakes and paying a lot of money to undo them.

The challenges had one advantage for me: I learned a lot about the history of these houses, the logic of their structure, and, above all, how to use traditional building materials. Here, I pass on this hard-won knowledge, as well as tips from architectural preservation experts Branko Orbanić, Igor Staraj, and Marko Franković, to all those starting on this journey.

4 good reasons to do an expert restoration

In the following sections, we will cover the most important reasons for doing an expert restoration on your traditional Croatian stone house.

Here are the reasons in short:

  • Stone houses are sustainable, ecological, and climate-friendly
  • They are a valuable architectural legacy
  • They make an excellent investment
  • They are lucrative as holiday rentals

#1 Stone houses are sustainable, ecological, and climate-friendly

Ancient buildings harness nature to insulate and protect from harsh weather – a job high-tech does today. If you harness this natural system, you can enjoy the ecological benefits. If you interfere with it, you can cause damage. As Igor Staraj says: “Don’t mix modern construction ideas with the old way of doing things. It won’t work!”

For example, traditional buildings have a double stone wall filled with rubble that enables the evaporation and diffusion of moisture. Walls are plastered in an equally porous lime-based mortar. This “breathability” prevents damp getting trapped in the walls. The thick walls also insulate. Sealing houses in polystyrene insulation, a cement-heavy plaster, or synthetic paint destroys this breathability.

Lime mixed with sand or stone aggregates is also far superior to a modern cement-based plaster: It absorbs large quantities of moisture (great for bathrooms!); its alkalinity prevents mould; it is a natural disinfectant, killing bacteria, absorbing smells and creating a healthy internal climate. (It was even added to wells to kill bacteria.) Finally, it gives mortar the flexibility it needs not to crack when the building moves, as all old buildings do.

Using traditional methods to restore stone walls is therefore as much about physics as it is about the romance of cultural preservation.

Restoring an old home – a project by Branko Orbanić’s firm Kapitel in Žminj; Image by Kapitel, Žminj

#2 Stone houses are a valuable architectural legacy

Old stone houses are an important part of Croatia’s architectural legacy. Croatia was under Venice for over 400 years, so the architectural influence is mostly Venetian. Earlier influences reach even further back, including from the Etruscans, the Asian Phoenicians, and, in the region stretching from Istria to just beyond Rijeka, the Liburnian tribes. For example, the round cooking area, found in houses with a Liburnian past, has its roots in the circular “kažun” huts with conical stone roofs used by shepherds in antiquity.

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

Croatian stone houses are designed according to the classical architecture ideals that influenced the Venetians but have roots in ancient Greece: they are functional, enduring, and beautiful, but also, built for the soul. They are carefully located to enjoy sun and light while protecting from heat, cold, and winds.

[Read: Why wind is important – bura vs jugo]

Croatian stone houses are structurally sound – in our house, the ground floor walls are 20cm thicker than those on the other floors – so that the weight of the walls gets less as the walls get higher. But most of all, the buildings are a symphony in classical proportion. Not a window is out of place, not a door too large or too small.

It makes sense to build on this legacy. For example, windows are small to keep out cold and heat. However, they are built into wide-angled niches that maximise light. So if you want an authentic restoration, you can keep the small windows, enjoy their energy efficiency – and have light-filled rooms.

For more information on traditional Istrian homes, read this translation of an interview with Igor Staraj.

Marko Franković has written a booklet on rural coastal houses in the north Adriatic (Primorje and Gorski kotar). For now, it is only available in Croatian. You can contact him here. More information on the book is available here.

Also view our interview with historical conservationist and architect Branko Orbanić on lime, an ancient and important building material here.

#3 Stone houses are a good investment

Stone houses are in high demand from a small, niche market but they are rare on the market. Why is that?

Most have been modernized, destroying their traditional architectural features. “With the turbo development of new building materials on the market, and consumers being deluged with ads about “better and better” materials, there is huge pressure to modernize,” says historical preservation expert Branko Orbanić.

Modernization has also led to many ancient villages in Croatia losing their charm, making stone houses there no longer an attractive option.

At the same time, many old homes cannot be sold because of property ownership issues.

[Read: How to find property ownership records in Croatia]

According to real estate agent Brigitte Franz from Domizil d.o.o, 15 years ago, there was high demand for stone houses. Architect Igor Staraj says he restored some 200 stone houses in the following years. “Today, the trend is for investors to build modern villas with swimming pools. Those who value stone houses now want solitary houses in nature far from any future development, also hard to find,” says Franz.

So if you have an old stone house in a beautiful setting, you have a rare treasure.

[Read: How to buy residential real estate in Croatia]

#4 Stone houses are a lucrative holiday rental

Finally, being sustainable, climate-friendly, and energy-efficient, stone houses plug into the global trend toward climate-friendly tourism. This speaks to a growing global niche market – in its infancy in Croatia.

Our house is on Učka Mountain, just below the Učka Nature Reserve, with wide views over the Adriatic and islands. This is a paradise for the burned, corona-weary, climate-aware tourists. Yet, there are very few beautifully restored stone houses in our area.

The Stone and Straw house, which is right on the Učka hiking trail, surrounded by nature, is one of them. Regarded as an ecological “work of art”, it combines modern comfort with all the charm of a stone house: terracotta roof tiles, oak beams, stone walls, wine-covered pergolas made from local chestnut trees, and wonderful flagstone floors. Demand to rent the house – both from individuals or groups coming for seminars – is great, according to owner Aldelheid Grupp, who says her house is often booked out a year in advance.

[Read: 5 hiking trails on Učka mountain]

Traditional Croatian stone house; Image by Kapitel, Žminj

Useful sources on renovation in Croatia

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.

Translated interview with Igor Staraj on Istrian stone houses

The new soul of old houses

25.11.2010. 13:36:00 | Architecture, urbanism, and politics

Source: Novi List; translation provided by Igor Staraj

Some of us do not see our dream home in modern buildings with straight and cool lines, surrounded by glass and stainless steel, but want a home “with a soul”. And that soul can certainly be found in the autochthonous coastal house with its rustic plaster, old shutters, stone staircases, and entrance porches, sometimes with a romantic pergola with vines and a well in the yard.

These ancient homes also have an increasingly recognized ecological component. We talk about “eco-homes”, passive and low-energy houses, and old houses that emphasize the traditional and for centuries “tested” way of building with natural materials, openings of optimal size, “man-made” squares, with favourable insulation and in micro-locations protected from bad weather conditions. In addition, these traditional homes are already built meaning no new “patch” of greenery needs to be devastated for their construction. If adapted to modern life with maximum respect for tradition, then their cultural value can be attributed to that ecological domain.

Unfortunately, after the Second World War, the population moved from rural areas to cities en masse, from the hills to the coast, and old houses and even entire villages in many cases over the decades remained completely abandoned. Today they are only ruined reminders of some past times. Their indisputable value in domestic architecture has remained almost unrecognized (with some exceptions), and they have an even worse status when it comes to cultural protection and conservation. For now, few city dwellers see their ideal home in a peaceful rural environment, within the walls of a centuries-old house. Especially one that needs to be thoroughly renovated and adapted to new life.

The decoration of old houses is often very colourful. Many want to replicate some indigenous coastal style, but out of ignorance, they mix various traditional ways of building that would be more suitable for some other, although perhaps neighbouring, areas. For example, old seaside houses in principle did not have a stone facade, which interested buyers of ancient homes often ask for.

Traditional materials are stone and wood, but the facades were mostly plastered, using ground stone material mixed with quicklime. Therefore, originally, the facades were white, but over time they got that recognizable gray patina. It was a proven way of plastering that was passed down from generation to generation, and its durability is witnessed in the many such houses today, which even after so many decades and centuries have no cracks on them, explains the architect and renowned expert in the restoration of traditional houses, Igor Staraj from Mošćenička Draga.

The historical preservationist and architect has made renovation projects for many old houses, and he gained a lot of experience working on Italian historical architecture from various periods. He emphasizes the different style of building ancient rural houses in the area, for example, Istria and the Littoral, which was inhabited by the Liburnians before the Slavs. It was from Liburnia and later that the Slavs took over this typical way of building that was completely in line with the rural way of life. Therefore, we can talk about rural, Liburnian architecture that stretched from Labin to Rječina, and which “moved” to the sea only after the end of the Uskok-Venetian wars, ie when the immediate danger of pirates, Turks, and Venetians was removed from the sea, he explains.

The typical coastal or Liburnian house, therefore, had a white plastered façade and a characteristic ground plan of the “Tforma”. The windows were framed with stone ers, and the roof cornices were highlighted mostly with stone slate, and only a few roof cornices in the front of the house ended in beamed remains of oak or chestnut beams. The drips above the windows or “pioveri” were made of slate, less often of wood and tiles, and the window was closed by full wooden shutters of very vivid colors: from blue, green, and turquoise to even orange and red, which fishermen once painted from the sea. On their way home, they found their home easier.

The shutters had a lantina on the outside, ie a bar that was placed in two wooden slots and which fixed them to strong bora and south winds. It is interesting that today’s forked skin was imported from Tuscany. The roofs were covered with terracotta tiles, which used to be made by hand a long time ago, “dragging” a layer of clay over the thigh part of the leg. From the moment the population began to settle along the coast, the seaside house gets a typical elevation along the side: a stone staircase leading to a covered stone-flagged porch and the house entrance, and, below it, an arched entrance to a covered porch and the Konoba, where food was stored and prepared. This had brick floors.

The interior was dominated by natural tones where upstairs the floors were made from wooden planks coated with animal-based oils. On the ground floor, the floor covering was tavelin, ie bricks “immersed” in the ground, and grouted with a lime-based binder. Terrazzo, for example, was more of a feature of urban areas and richer apartments and villas. Also, in principle, the coastal house did not have prominent wooden load-bearing beams on the ceilings, as is often reproduced during the adaptation of antiquities.

Traditionally, the beams were “dressed” with so-called stucco workers, where the beams were intertwined, which were plastered and finished with a layer of drawn lime, adds Staraj. He advocates replicating the most original style of construction when renovating old houses but warns that it is often very difficult to reconcile the traditional type of construction, layout, and size of rooms with today’s way of life. The former and modern house had a completely different role — Cooking and socializing in the tornic fireplace.

Traditional rural houses did not have a bathroom, the living room was called a “salizza” like a small salon and from it, one entered the rooms, and in the back of the house, there was a so-called “tornica”, ie a semicircular or later square space for a fireplace. There they cooked, ate, and socialized, and the towers were connected to the attic by a flue so that the meat could be dried and smoked upstairs. Also, the then rural way of life prioritized animals in every sense so that there was a barn and a Konoba under the salizza, and the warmth of domestic animals served as primitive thermal insulation. Later, however, animals were housed separately, adds Staraj. He, therefore, recommends that the house be restored to the original externally, while the interior design can introduce some architectural innovation, modern furniture, and the like, but only with the use of organic, natural materials.

If the existing façade is without plaster, it can be left as it is, and with proper grouting, the stone stands out as a visible element of construction. Procurement of traditional furniture can also be a good choice, but in our area, such opportunities are limited, because there is not a sufficiently developed culture of conservation such as found in some other countries. In addition, when reconstructing antiques, it is generally difficult for citizens to find master restorers who can restore and recreate the spirit of the past.

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. 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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