Repair or build from scratch?

Recently a visitor of my blog posted the following questions concerning the efforts in rebuilding my farm:

…How did you find out whether it still make sense to repair? I mean some people have been warning me that the house is in such a bad shape that I shall rather pull it down and build a totally new house from scratch there. But I have some memories with that house that make me want to keep it in the old setup. Only how to find out whether it is feasible…
How did you do this evaluation? Did you get any expert help? How did you find the expert?
And once the evaluation had been done, how did you sort the repair work in the right order.

Let’s start with the first question – tear down and build new, or repair the old?

I think this is not an unique problem specific to my visitor’s situation, as I was given the same advice from various people when making plans about my farm. At the time I was facing this problem I decided to repair, for several reasons, but mainly because on the visceral level I felt it was not “right” to tear down the structures my ancestors labored to erect. The buildings in the part of Slovakia I live in are made from rocks the farmers collected from their fields, or dragged to the building sites from the surrounding forests. They used mud to bind the stones together to build walls typically over 3 feet thick, laboriously leveling the protruding stone faces with iron hand tools. The ceilings, the beams they rest on and the roof constructions were made from oak from the local forests. All construction was done manually, with primitive tools like axes, shovels and picks, resulting in structures lacking straight lines. This together with the natural materials used bring feelings of cosines and warmth. The building techniques and “architectural decisions” evolved over centuries and as a consequence the resulting buildings became well tuned to local landscape and climatic conditions.

I think the same reason we use to protect for example old growth forests from cutting down and growing wood in monoculture applies also to efforts to maintain old architecture regardless of whether it is in the countryside or in the centers of old cities. Many developed countries have legislative regulating building permits issuance and building codes for constructions of new building. I would argue that as a result not only such areas are attractive for tourists, but in the end they lower stress of their owners as they do not have to participate in the silly one-up-man-ship game people tend to play with their material possessions. Life is better that way.

That said, we often can’t consolidate old architectural principles and building techniques with the lifestyle dictated by discoveries about health and life standards we developed since the beginning of industrial revolution. For example, we need bigger windows that allow more light inside – and I believe the “old” builders would also opt for them if they had the kinds of heat-insulated technologically advanced windows we have today. So my philosophy was to try to strike a compromise where I wanted to get the comfort of a 20/21-st century dwelling while maintaining the character of the building, as nothing in this world can stay the same for ever. I was searching for an architect that would marry these two requirements. It is not easy in Slovakia where there is basically no legislative that would force builders into this kind of thinking. I found an architect in Zvolen who had done some projects in Zajezova – a nearby settlement known for folks who move from the “chaos of the cities” with a desire to live closer to nature. I hired him and executed roof replacement of the stable building I decided to renovate first. In retrospect I would do some things differently, but all in all am mostly satisfied with the result. Since I bought the place I knew I would use this smaller building as a “beachhead” in my effort to restore the main house that is located up the hill from the stable. I am not sure I will ever get to that point, but if I do, I will use the same principle of striking a balance between maintaining the best the old has to offer with the modern lifestyle requirements.

It is an advantage if one does not have to hurry – as was and continues to be my situation – because under pressure it is easy to get swayed by the prevailing opinion and building practice and end up with a wall built from prefabricated concrete blocks one would be doomed to stare at for the rest of his (her) life. Good things take time. In particular, good things take man-hours devoted to a problem, which means that it is worth hiring good artisans even if they are more expensive, but it is also important to not be coy and stand ground to fight some ingrained beliefs how things should be done. A case in point: I decided to build a shower area separated from the rest of the bathroom with just a single piece of glass. I saw this in Seattle and really loved the simplicity of the arrangement. When I presented the idea to the bricklayer who was installing tiles in the bathroom he objected that a single piece of glass without a supporting metal frame will not hold. I insisted he do it the way I imagined and we ended up with really solid structure that even he acknowledged was going to work just fine. Progress is painful.

So finding an expert was hard in my case. I do not know what country my commenter is from, but I would probably contact people from areas where building have been built or repaired in the above-outlined spirit as they might know somebody with the right expertise. Internet search might help as well.

I hope this helps somebody. And if you are from Slovakia (or CE region) I can give some tips about couple of specialists who share this building (renovation) philosophy. Contact me.

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