The third of my personal favorite DIY tips for restoring property in Italy looks at recycling the original materials found in your Italian home. We’ll focus specifically on the materials that one finds in a traditional rural farmhouse – terracotta floor tiles, granolithic (graniglia) floor tiles and wooden ceiling beams.
DIY Tip No.3 – Recycling original materials
One of the biggest selling points in any real estate listings for property for sale in Italy is that of the availability of the original materials in situ. The agent will eagerly tell you how all those wonderful terracotta floor tiles and ceiling beams can be recovered and reused in the restoration of your property. It comes as a shock, therefore, when your geometra (surveyor) or architect shakes his head sadly and tells you that most of the materials are not worth recovering or that contrary to everything you’ve been told, the restoration costs are actually going to cost more if you recycle the on site materials rather than buy new! This article seeks to give the unwary a few pointers as to when and where it is realistically possible to reuse the materials you bought lock, stock and barrel with your farmhouse.
Terracotta floor tiles
Hand made or antique terracotta floor tiles cost a fortune …so why are so many builders and geometras reluctant to recycle the ones actually in a farmhouse to start with? I think primarily it’s a question of the extra work involved – they need to be lifted without breakages; they need to be individually cleaned thoroughly i.e. all old cement has to be removed, often by hand; heights and dimensions tend to be irregular making them more difficult to relay. As rewiring and plumbing of properties will inevitably require lifting up all existing floors in a farmhouse to allow for pipes and conduits to be placed on the floor and then set in a concrete screed, it’s often simply easier to lay new reproduction terracotta floor tiles. However, if you’re planning on DIY and want to lay your own floor tiles and can invest the time and energy required to use the original tiles the results can be stunning. I’ve set small areas of terracotta floor tiles myself – painstaking work but enormously satisfying! Lay the tiles in a herring bone pattern to more easily disguise irregularities in size and lay your deepest tile first to give you a bench mark height for all the further tiles you lay!Beware using the tiles in the stables of your farmhouse however – they probably aren’t floor tiles at all in fact, but rather bricks. If the ground floor has been used to house cattle the tiles or bricks will inevitably have been ruined for any internal use by years of contact with uric acid but can still be put to good use in the garden for paths.
Graniglia – Granolithic Floor Tiles
Many farmhouses which have seen some modernization within the last fifty or sixty years will have some room with concrete floors and granolithic floor tiles. Not universally popular, I happen to have a particular passion for graniglia and took great pains to recover and piece together jigsaw like the broken pieces of a graniglia floor in one of my restoration jobs to create a border around the edge of a bedroom floor. The non tiled areas were filled with smooth-setting tinted cement polished to look like stone. Graniglia floors often simply require polishing to bring back their original splendour.
Wooden ceiling beams
Original ceiling beams in a farmhouse are probably going to be highly durable woods like oak or chestnut. Geometras can, on occasions, be over cautious and advise complete replacement of beams in a property – responsibility for the stability of the building falls inevitably on their shoulders after all, but there are some easy ways one can check the beams as early as a first viewing with the estate agent. Simply tap along the beam – ideally with a metal ruler – and listen to the sound. If you hear a solid knock! knock! the beam is probably fine! You’ll quickly notice the difference in sound and feel of rotten wood. Pay particular attention to the area where the beam actually enters the wall – this is the area most likely to be affected by rot. Tiny woodworm holes are not usually cause for concern, but do take a moment to listen in every room for the presence of large wordworm…strange but true, but the munching of a largetarlo is actually audible to the naked ear!Any beams that do need to be replaced will usually only be partially damaged. Old beams can often be recycled as fence posts or support pillars for external structures such as porches.