Tag Archives: Italian housing

Raising the Roof: Expanding Housing Space Vertically

For several months now, we’ve had a close-up view of a major construction project in a neighboring building. When you buy a top-floor apartment in an Italian condominium building, you often (usually?) also buy the right to some or all of the attic space under the slanted the roof, called the solaio. Where building codes Read More…

For several months now, we’ve had a close-up view of a major construction project in a neighboring building. When you buy a top-floor apartment in an Italian condominium building, you often (usually?) also buy the right to some or all of the attic space under the slanted the roof, called the solaio. Where building codes permit, you can use this to increase the size of your home, by transforming the solaio into living space, sometimes lifting the roof while you’re at it. Most new townhouses (rowhouses, to Brits) are designed this way, with a top floor mansarda, a room carved out under the slanted roof. These often have only skylights for looking out of – a terrible waste of a top-floor view – but the better-architected ones have real windows, and sometimes terraces sunk into the pitch of the roof.

There are tax advantages to building this way, because, under Italian property tax law, any space with average headroom less than a certain height is not considered living space, and is therefore taxed at a lower rate than other parts of the home. A lower tax rate also applies to the underground and semi-underground rooms that you find in homes that are built into a hillside (as many are in Lecco) – if it can’t have a window, taxes are lower.

So the folks next door have only recently had the scaffolding removed from their building, after months of construction. I originally thought that this was about cleaning and repairing the outside of the building, as had been done to our building last summer (and very annoying it was to have scaffolding blocking our balcony all summer. The landlord had conveniently not mentioned that, and it started going up the day after we moved in). But the scaffolding in this case went up beyond the edge of the roof, and in short order they had ripped the roof completely off and redone it, maybe a little higher than it was before. They put a new plywood skin in place and covered it with plastic sheeting, held down by a lattice of thin laths.

Then they let it sit for quite a while. I don’t know if the weather was simply too bad to be working up there – we had a very long, cold winter, and could hear the plastic sheets flapping in the wind all night – or if there was some reason the whole thing had to sit for a while. At any rate, after some weeks they came back with terracotta roof tiles and new copper sheeting for the gutters and the bottoms of the chimneys. These are cheerful bright metal right now, but with exposure will soon turn green.

Then, having completed an intact roof, they cut holes in it for terraces and skylights. Don’t quite see the logic here – why would you build a new roof and then cut holes in it? Why not just leave the holes you would need to begin with? But that’s what they did. The final touch was to water-blast the outside of the entire building to clean it, before the scaffolding went down – a sop to the downstairs neighbors for having put up with the scaffolding for so long.

The interior still appears unfinished, or I’m guessing it is since terrace doors have not been put in yet. I haven’t seen much activity lately, but maybe it’s taking place indoors.

Americans may ask themselves why Italians go to so much trouble and expense to make such extensive renovations – if you need more room, why not just buy a bigger place? One reason is expense: housing costs are very high in many parts of Italy, and the considerablec legal and financial transaction costs of buying and selling property are an additional burden. The cost of moving itself is also high, especially when you consider that you will strip the place you are leaving down to bare walls – kitchen cabinets, light fixtures, everything but the toilet goes with you. The place you move into will be similarly stripped, so you need electricians, plumbers, etc. to help you reinstall everything. You’ll probably also want it painted before you move in. Italians are rather sensible on this score: house paint is all water-based and easy to work with. But ceilings are high, so you need ladders and long-handled rollers – easiest to leave it to a specialist.

For many Americans, especially young ones, moving means getting a bunch of friends (paid in beer) to help you pack boxes and load and unload a U-Haul trailer. Americans tend to have a lot of stuff, but it’s usually more easily-moved stuff than Italians have. In Italy, you need a team of specialists to disassemble enormous closets (no such thing as built-in here), take down those kitchen cabinets and put them back up (fitting them into a new space usually requires a carpenter), and so on. Most of us live in condominium buildings, and you don’t use the building elevator for moving: it’s usually too small to hold a lot of what needs moving. Your moving company will show up with an extending crane on the back of a truck, so that furniture and boxes can be passed out a window to a van waiting in the street below, even from a high floor.

So where do you park the crane? The street is full of parked cars, and, frequently, so are the sidewalks. You need a permit from the city to block off the street and sidewalk that day, putting up signs in advance to let people know not to park there. Professional moving companies will do this for you; on a DIY move, you’ve got to, well, do it yourself.

Aside from the costs and hassle of moving, there is the Italian propensity to stay in one place. When people do decide to move, they often look for a new home in the same neighborhood where they’re already living, or even in the same building. There are many cases of grown and married children living in the same building as their parents, giving easy access to famously intrusive Italian mothers-in-law – a large number of Italian marriages have foundered on this arrangement, but no one ever seems to learn the lesson. In fact, home-enlargement projects often come about because of parents making more room for their grown children, or the children, in turn, making room for their aged parents to live with them. The strength of the Italian family unit, for better and for worse, is thus reflected in architectural habits.

Making Room: Italian Stratagems for Living in Small Spaces

^ top cameretta a ponte in Ross’ room in Milan. Where the chair is at right, a desktop slides out, though Ross never used it that way. (This fuzzygraph is Ross’ early work when we got our first digital camera.) Living space is tight in Italian cities, which are often geographically constrained because built into, on top Read More…

^ top cameretta a ponte in Ross’ room in Milan. Where the chair is at right, a desktop slides out, though Ross never used it that way. (This fuzzygraph is Ross’ early work when we got our first digital camera.)

Living space is tight in Italian cities, which are often geographically constrained because built into, on top of, or between mountains – the kind of urban sprawl you see in America simply can’t occur in most parts of Italy.

Even where there is room to spread out, historically Italians tended not to. This may be due to centuries of history: until recently, Italy was a collection of separate city-states which were often at war with their neighbors; people huddled into fortress towns and cities for safety, and many Italians have never lost this preference for living close together.

Urban Italians have been living in apartments, condos, and townhouses since Roman times. The apartment building was invented in ancient Rome, and even in those days single-family dwellings were only for very rich families. Italian cities today are almost entirely apartment buildings, four to five stories tall in mid-sized towns, eight to ten in larger cities. In many buildings, the lowest floor sare reserved for commercial use. Where we lived in Milan, we had a greengrocer, bar/gelateria, baker, and butcher right downstairs – extremely convenient, since I was always forgetting something in my shopping.

The primo piano (first floor above ground level) is undesirable to live on, partly because of pollution, partly because it’s more vulnerable to housebreaking (that’s why you often see bars on the lower windows of older buildings); first floor apartments are often used as offices.

The higher up you go, the higher the value of the real estate, because the higher floors get more light and air and less pollution, and are less susceptible to being robbed. But the floor space remains the same – usually small. So how do you fit, say, three people, with all their possessions, into 70 square meters (~750 square feet)?

One way is to go vertical. Ceilings in Italy are higher than the American average, (although they’ve gotten lower in modern buildings). You build your bookcases go all the way to the ceiling. Closets are divided vertically into two sections: use the top sections for out-of-season clothing, lifting the clothes on hangers up to the high rod with a long-handled hook.

In some old buildings, the ceilings are so high that apartment owners are able to build in a loft. If you don’t want to go to that much trouble or expense, you can buy a loft bed from Ikea, which leaves a nice workspace underneath. I’ve been tempted by those, but I’m scared of heights, I get up a lot at night, and getting sheets onto such a bed looks like a hassle.

Bunkbeds and loft beds are quite common for kids’ rooms, often built into closet/desk/bed units called camerette (little rooms). A cameretta a ponte (“with a bridge”) has part of the closet built over the bed. There are entire furniture stores devoted to camerette in every conceivable style, some of them the kind of fun furniture kids dream about, with playspace under the bed, a miniature staircase going up to a loft bed (the steps lift up to provide storage space) and/or a slide for disembunking.

  • also see: Housing: How Italians Live
  • Housing: How Italians Live

    During my July trip to the US, I stayed with friends in different cities and types of homes, giving me fodder for reflection on differences in customs, styles, and expectations for housing in the US and Italy. As I have mentioned before, renting an unfurnished apartment in Italy means completely unfurnished, so for our new Read More…

    During my July trip to the US, I stayed with friends in different cities and types of homes, giving me fodder for reflection on differences in customs, styles, and expectations for housing in the US and Italy.

    As I have mentioned before, renting an unfurnished apartment in Italy means completely unfurnished, so for our new home in Lecco we’ve had to put in a kitchen (including the sink) and all the appliances. (A friend here told me that she once looked at a place to rent which didn’t even have toilets!)

    Appliances are different here. Refrigerators are smaller. Traditionally, Italian mammas shop for fresh food daily, so don’t need as much storage space for perishables, although the trend nowadays is to less-frequent visits to larger supermarkets, which leads to larger fridges.

    In Italy, almost everyone has a (clothes) washing machine in their home, often installed in the kitchen or a bathroom (our second bathroom has a special washer-sized alcove, with pipes). In the US you’ll find shared, coin-operated machines in the basements of some apartment/condo buildings, but I’ve never seen this in Italy. Coin-operated storefront laundromats are a recent phenomenon here, and probably exist only in the big cities.

    With an Italian home washing machine, a single load of laundry can take two hours, depending on the water temperature you select, because the washers heat their own water. This makes sense, since many homes have only one small, electric boiler to heat water for the shower and kitchen.

    Most Italians don’t have clothes dryers. They are available, but, given the cost of electricity here (twice what Americans pay), a dryer would be very expensive to run. And dryers are bad for natural-fiber clothing – I much prefer line drying. We have a large drying rack out on the balcony which gets sun every afternoon, so things dry quickly. In winter, the trick is to hang wet clothes on or near the radiators, which humidifies the air as well as drying the clothes. In Milan I had mini drying racks designed to hang on the radiators. (In Switzerland, there is a communal drying area in the basement of some buildings. I don’t think Italians trust each other enough for that.)

    Plugging in appliances can be a challenge. There are three types of electrical outlets in current use in Italy, plus one weird one that apparently enjoyed only brief popularity (I’ve only seen it in my in-laws’ former apartment in Rome). There are also variants on the two basic plugs, with or without grounding (many older buildings don’t have it, and it’s expensive to add). Aside from the grounding, it’s never been clear to me whether one type of outlet is safer or can carry more load than another. If you’ve got something that has to be plugged in at a particular spot and the plugs don’t match, you either use an adapter or change the plug on the appliance. There are never enough outlets in Italian homes; sometimes entire walls have no outlets, which can play havoc with room arrangements.

    There never seems to be enough capacity, either. My in-laws’ Rome apartment was big, but very inadequately wired; you could never have two major appliances on at the same time. At night we always had to think about which bathroom water heater was already heated up and which needed to be turned on in preparation for morning showers; everything else had to be turned off before running the dishwasher, otherwise the fuses would trip and we’d have fumble our way down to the basement in the dark to turn the power back on. Here in Lecco, I’ve discovered, I can’t run the dishwasher and washing machine at the same time (this wasn’t an issue in Milan; our kitchen was too small to hold a dishwasher).

    Homes are constructed differently, too. Basic building materials in Italy are concrete, brick, and sometimes stone. In the mountains, some houses are chalet-style, made of thick wooden planks. In the US, most modern houses are wood framed, with wooden or aluminum siding or stucco outside, and sheetrock inside. By European standards, they’re flimsy, and they catch fire easily. Fire trucks screaming down the street are a common sight in the US; in Europe, they’re rare. The few city fires I’ve heard of in Italy were in factories, though we do have a big problem with forest fires in the summer.