The Italian Tiny House Project
Last summer, when we were least needing or wanting a project (we were up to our necks building a one-of-a-kind online business to sell Piemontese wine throughout Germany and the rest of Europe), we came across something that caught our attention and wouldn't let us go.
My friend Annika from Sweden posted on an Italian renovation facebook page that she was starting to think about finding an apartment or other property in Italy that she and her family could use as a vacation spot and possibly retirement residence in the distant future. It needed to be very affordable, it could require cosmetic work and should be exactly where she wanted to be. As happens on those kinds of open calls, the entire community chimed in with ideas and opinions. I started scouring the sites I knew for properties she might like. I didn't find anything for her. But, as destiny would have it, I found one that interested us.
That particular property ended up getting sold almost before I could write an email requesting information. But as I was letting go of the idea, another property popped up; it was half the price of the one I had seen previously, was closer to the area we have come to love, and had a smaller garden (an advantage to us as there is little gardening work to do). It had about 48 square meters, or about 516 square feet, of living space and about 35 square meters of cellar space. It was located just on the edge of the Langhe Barolo village of Novello, and enjoyed views both vineyards and the Alps. It's located in a borgata of about 12 houses, full of life, kids, animals and friendly people. Yes, there's a connector street in the distance too, but that was a small compromise we were willing to make; we've since discovered that small, very well priced properties like this never stay on the market for long as they are quickly snapped up by locals who know the owners.
Up to this point we had kept a long term rental in Piemonte. After selling our B&B and moving to Germany, our plan was to start the wine business, requiring us to be in Piemonte for long stretches of time. The rent is super fair and the apartment has been very good for our needs, but we both want Piemonte to be a permanent part of our lives. We loved the idea of having a small bolthole of our own that we could design to our own specifications -something that could be bought and renovated for a modest budget. We don't do vacations in a traditional sense. We go home to Italy. That's what we love to do.
Neither of us were compelled to do a large renovation project in Italy. We'd had a 6 phase monster of a project under our belts and it had been an exhausting, frustrating process. But we also felt that we could take on something small, and try to use all of our experience to extract the best ideas with the least amount of money possible, creating a minimalist space that would be functional, cool, and welcoming. We knew, even though it's a small house, that this would be a challenge. Italian builders and geometre (the surveyor that helps you get your plans through the city) almost always have an extremely conservative viewpoint of what materials should be used, and also assume that foreigners have deep pockets. So, with that in mind, we were prepared to stand our ground during the design process.
Here's the original floor plan. You enter from the car park (driveway) into the living room (soggiorno). The shower is located outside on the balcony (wc). You can see the exterior staircase that leads from the driveway to the basement. This is staying. We thought about bringing it inside, but the costs were too high and the compromise on interior space too great.
And this is the basic redesign plan that we'll apply for:
We're removing the wall between two of the rooms to create a long space - it will most likely require an iron support beam which will be left exposed. This space will be about 9 meters long and about 3 meters at its widest. This will be an open plan kitchen, dining, and living space with a wood burning stove as a heat source. It opens onto the back balcony. The bathroom has been moved and will contain a 70x 100 cm shower, sink and toilet. The bedroom also opens onto the balcony. The headboard will double as end tables, with a shelf and lighting. The floors will all be simple concrete that we'll either acid wash and polish or paint with Carte Colori floor paint. This was a tough sell with the geometra and he's still not really buying it. The existing ceramic tiles will come up and a reinforced concrete screed will be poured. This would need to be done even if we were putting wood or tiles down. The concrete will be compressed with a concrete compressor and then treated.
For wall color, I will be mixing my own natural lime wash with pigments. I hope to get the advice of my friend and natural color artist Alison Faith Kay in the process. Alison's work is amazing. We've known each other for years, and watching what she's doing now in terms of living life on her own creative terms is so inspiring.
We opted against an expensive central heating system, much to the consternation of our geometra. The space is small and can easily be heated with the wood burning stove. We're going to be there a few weeks in winter only, so why do more than is necessary to be comfortable and have a great atmosphere? We'll have a very small water boiler for the hot water, enough for a couple of showers and service to the bathroom and kitchen. More is simply not necessary.
The far wall of the kitchen is planned with white subway tiles up to the ceiling. My neighbor here in Germany is a blacksmith and is helping me make thick wood slab shelves with iron shelf brackets for that back wall, which will be spot lit - I plan to make a set of natural wood ashed glaze plates, bowls and cups specifically for this house. This will be showcased on the natural wood shelves.
Our plan is to be in the space by August. The cellar space, which we had originally planned to renovate with the house, will remain untouched. We've had several ideas for the cellar space. I think, in the end, it will be a wine cellar and art studio. Turning it into official living space would have been costly. The ceiling highs downstairs are 260 cm, and Italian building regs require 270 ceilings on renovations. That would have meant digging out the cellar and repouring the floors 10 cm lower, lowering doors, windows, etc. In addition, there would have been a 5% change of use tax on the renovation costs. We simply lost interest when we carefully looked at why we are doing this project. It's to provide us with joy, not headaches and anxiety. We are putting in a tube to be able to install a wood burning stove at the lower level. Next year, we might have the builder just put down some rebar and a cement screed to level off the floors. But the rest of the downstairs we will do ourselves over time. What's the rush, really?
This whole project is a bit of an experiment in letting go of things that do not serve. I have been fascinated by small spaces for years, ever since making Tammy Stroebel's acquaintence on the internet back in 2009. I would like this house to be of good design, and the lessons drawn to be of living large through going small.
So this is a bit of a spiritual journey, this little house, quite an unexpected one. I am finding myself very excited at what is to come, about doing art work there and seeing what results.
Here's a short video of how the front and interior look right now. I'll keep filming through the renovation and completion - the good and the bad :) I like to say the Tiny House is all Annika's fault! I will make her pay by coming and sharing a bottle of wine with us when it's all finished!