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How to choose a building team and materials when renovating an old Croatian stone house

A worker renovating a house
Using natural pigments on a facade in a traditional way; 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 restore or renovate an old Croatian stone house properly.

We’ve already discussed the 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. We’ve also covered the challenges you will face and how to overcome them in this article.

To complete the story, let’s now get down to construction essentials, including choosing a building team, working with builders, and sourcing materials.

In this article, we cover:

And now to the facts…

Getting down to work: How to pick a team and materials when renovating old stone house in Croatia

How to choose a building team for renovating stone houses in Croatia?

Choose a building team that understands your needs. You don’t want to debate about things you feel strongly about on the building site. Question candidates closely about things that matter to you. They may say they understand old houses, but in fact, use the wrong methods.

How to tell if your applicants understand stone houses

  • Their eyes light up with passion at the idea of the restoration
  • They wrinkle up their noses at the idea of using cement mortars
  • They do not insist on a concrete roof
  • They know how to preserve damaged walls using iron and beams
  • They wax lyrical about how every small village in Croatia once had its own lime pit and knew how to work with traditional materials
  • They have restored a stone house for their own use
  • They come strongly recommended from people you trust

Going with a construction firm or alone?

Getting a construction company to take over the whole job is easiest. However, because really good firms are booked years in advance, or only take big jobs, you may need to go it alone, using individual artisans and experts.

If you go it alone, you will most likely need:

  • An architect to draw up plans, get building permission (if required), and negotiate bureaucratic hurdles at the local building office. (Read architect Marko Franković’s comprehensive list of steps architects must take to develop a building project here.
  • A stone house expert to assess the state of the house – roof, walls, drainage etc. This is essential to give a realistic idea of work needed.
  • The same – or another – expert to oversee the project either full-time or as a consultant.
  • A building supervisor, preferably local, who speaks the language and understands Croatians and understands stone houses. Unfortunately, the only way to find such an angel is through word of mouth. Building good relations to Croatians who can help you in this search is therefore very important.
  • Identifying the right team is hard. You will need advice! Again, having a good network and/or good relations to locals is essential.
A worker restoring stairs in a house
A worker restoring stairs in a house; Image by Kapitel, Žminj

How to work with a Croatian building team on stone house renovation?

  • Always work with a contract and guarantees. Research what goes into a standard Croatian contract, e.g., that a certain percentage of the fee is withheld for an agreed number of months to ensure the job is good.
  • Most artisans will want to do things na crno (“black”). Avoid this. Without a signed contract, there may be disagreements about quality, terms and final costs.
  • Never (ever, ever!) pay upfront either for materials or work – no matter how much you trust your team or persuasive they are, or how logical it may sound that they need to pay workers or materials to do the work. That is their responsibility, not yours!
  • Do not let any work begin on any detail until you are 100% sure of what you want, and you are sure your team knows what you want.
  • Building materials: spend time working out what materials are going to be used where, and make sure your team sticks to this. Get this signed into the contract if necessary. I once used a team that swore they would use lime but in the end used an inferior, cement-based product. That was two days work knocking the plaster off the walls!
  • Make sure your workers are supervised round the clock. If an artisan senses you have no clue about the job, or if you are not onsite, they may take advantage of you, cutting corners and using inferior materials.
  • Set firm boundaries: Building expertise is their area. Taste is yours. Stand your ground on aesthetic decisions eg. how to expose stones.
  • Above all, understand the Croatians! They are expert artisans, but sceptical of methods outside of their expertise. So expect heavy resistance to any of your ideas they know nothing about.
  • Never offend a Croatian artisan’s pride. I have had builders who felt I was calling their skills into question and who walked off the site without pay!
  • Convince by being an expert yourself. If necessary, provide the evidence that your methods work.
  • Never compromise for the sake of peace. You will kick yourself later.

[Read: Types of employment contracts in Croatia]

Which building materials to use to renovate old Croatian stone houses?

You will need:

  • Lime-based mortar
  • Sand
  • Mineral pigments
  • Natural stone
  • Wood

You may also need to source:

  • Old wooden beams
  • Bricks
  • Stone steps
  • Terracotta roof tiles
  • Flagstone flooring

Sourcing mortars and pigments

  • Branko Orbanić’s firm Kapitel in Žminj, Istria produces various quick and slaked limes, as well as mineral pigments made according to ancient methods. View more information here.
  • The Rijeka firm Terradecor sells ecological building materials, including interior lime plasters, pigments, waxes, and oils from the German firm Kreidezeit. View more information here.
  • The ecological building trend is big in Europe, so if you cannot source materials in Croatia, you can source them from Austria, Germany, or, across the border in Italy.
  • Industrially produced lime products available in Croatian building markets are often not up to standard for historical preservation work.

Sourcing antique materials

  • Many people discard these items as they modernize their homes so ask neighbours, friends, and builders for tips.
  • If material is lying around your village, make sure you get permission to take it. Good neighbourly relations are essential to living in Croatia!
  • Ask if any building contractors near you are selling this material.

Learning about materials

  • Cultural preservation sites (specially in Britain and Germany) have great info on materials. Google them.
  • YouTube is a great source on everything from the history of these materials to their uses.
  • Branko Orbanić runs workshops on using lime.

Legalization of your renovation of traditional Croatian stone house

Croatian building laws are strict, and before you start planning, you need to check a number of things. For example, does a communal path run along the house? If so, you may not be able to build balconies above that path.

If you are raising the roof higher than 60 cm, or making changes to the size, shape, and facade of the house, you will need building permission. For this, you will need a certified local architect to draw up a construction project. This is to make sure your project meets the standards of your local authorities.

[Read: How to get a building permit (građevinska dozvola)]

View detailed information on the steps needed to draw up a construction permit here.

If you are not changing the house’s size and shape in any way but there are technical problems with the reconstruction (eg: stability issues), you will need a building engineer to draw up a project to fix those things.

Cultural protection

Old stone residences are mostly not protected culturally unless they lie within a culturally protected village. However, you may need a certificate saying your house is not itself a cultural good nor does it fall within a culturally protected area to get building permission.

[Read: UNESCO monuments of culture and nature in Croatia]

Restoration work in the house and old furnace
Restoration work and an old furnace; Image by Kapitel, Žminj

How to work with an architect on stone house renovation in Croatia?

Here, the architect and historical preservation expert Marko Franković explains in detail all the steps an architect must take to develop a building project for your house, including the concept for your house and all the steps needed to get it legalized.

Step #1 – The offer

The architect’s offer defines all those steps required by law to complete the renovation, as well as any special requests from the client (that are not necessarily required by law). In our case, I would personally visit the site at this point.

Typically, a contract is then signed between the client and the architect. It confirms that the client is satisfied with all the steps in the offer.

Step #2 – Preliminary conceptual solution

The next step is designing the conceptual solution. Coordination with the client is very important here. We ask our clients to provide us with a brief outline of their needs. This lists all elements important for the project, including the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, orientation of living and sleeping quarters, etc.

At the same time, the architect assesses the state of the building and verifies the cadastral parcel(s). Based on the client’s wishes and the situation on the ground, the architect works on a conceptual solution. The solution takes into account all the elements integral to the project. Based on our experience as architects, we also include all those elements important for getting local office approval for the project.

Step #3 – Approval for the project

After the client agrees to the preliminary project, it is submitted digitally to the relevant local offices for approval. These include: the municipality (city), the utility company (water, sewage), the conservation office, HEP (electricity) and others – depending on the project and the technical elements it involves.

Step #4 –  Developing the main project

Developing the main project starts after all relevant public bodies have given their go-ahead. It involves all the elements outlined in the offer.

The steps that must be undertaken by law are:

  • Measurement of the existing building: visiting the site, measuring the building, digital drawing of the existing building
  • Preliminary project: blueprints, elevations, technical description, 3D visualization
  • Architectural project: blueprints, characteristic cross sections, elevations, technical description
  • Electrical installations: blueprints, technical description, electrical installation of illumination, electric installation of power sockets, calculations
  • Water and sewage: blueprints, technical description, calculations, schemes, pool installation
  • Structural project: demolition project, blueprints, technical description, calculations
  • Heating and cooling: blueprints, technical description, calculations

This building project is then submitted digitally to the local authorities to obtain a building permit.

Step #5 – Developing an executive project with a full bill of costs

The development of the executive project, which involves troškovnik – a bill of costs for each and every stage of the project, starts after receiving the building permit (digitally), which is legally valid (15 days upon realising). Work on the project begins only after the troškovnik has been approved and signed by the client.

Note: You should definitely remember that we are in Croatia and that situations can arise in both design and construction that take us by surprise. Don’t worry. In our experience, all problems can be solved – and must be solved together with the clients – with strength, calm and a short brainstorming session!

Useful sources on the renovation of stone houses 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.

View why you should restore your traditional Croatian stone house properly here.

Learn how to properly restore and renovate Croatia’s old stone houses 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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