When we moved in, the kitchen seemed quite a cold room. Which seemed odd, because even though there was only one window to the side, it was a light room. The walls were white (and this was the only room that had actually been decorated) and the units were pretty inoffensive cream IKEA base and wall cupboards, with a standard laminate worktop. But nothing really seemed to work, design and layout wise. Terrazzo floor tiles can be stunning, but the ones we inherited were the blandest of the bland, and some had cracked, through obviously not being installed correctly – and they were COLD! There was no additional heating in the kitchen, so the floor always felt icy. The sink was positioned under the only window, which looked over the side of the house, so it always felt in the wrong position. And where we thought the sink should be – looking out to the front – was where the oven was. But there was no window. Electric sockets were in the wrong places. The ceiling was quite low, with an awful glass lightshade in the centre. And we also had a very peculiar step up into the kitchen, which was about 25cms high – a complete danger if carrying anything in or out of the kitchen…

What we inherited, kitchen-wise...

What we inherited, kitchen-wise…

As soon as our belongings arrived, we set about doing what we could with the kitchen. As we’d be spending so much time in it, it had to be as nice as we could make it in the short term. However, there were things that we just didn’t want to spend unnecessary money on as we knew that a whole new kitchen would be being designed, so things like the curious gap between the oven and the cupboard remained. And the issue of the window (below) which we could never really open – as the tap had been fitted right in front of it. (We did do a cheapo replacement of this tap, as we did need to have air in the kitchen from time to time, but it was never right).

There's no way that window was going to open properly. #designflaw

There’s no way that window was going to open properly. #designflaw

One feature that we did love, and which we have kept, was the sink. This will be relocated in the garden, as an outside sink is something that will come in very handy, especially as over the summer, we need to do a lot of watering of plants.

It was all well and good deciding we wanted a new kitchen, but we were in Istria – and had absolutely no idea where you’d get a kitchen from, so we had to begin researching. We had bought bedroom furniture from IKEA in Zagreb (these were the days before discovering the much closer IKEA, near Trieste), but we knew that there had to be something closer to home. Bit by bit, the pieces came together – and we found the kitchen we wanted in a store in Koper, just over the border in Slovenia.

Once we’d found the kitchen, it was actually quite an easy process – the in-store designer helped us choose the components, once we’d provided the measurements and then came out to do a site-visit to make sure that was what was planned would fit, and all was ordered.

The kitchen plans...

The kitchen plans…

It hadn’t actually been that long since we’d remodelled our kitchen back in West Didsbury, and once our builder was on the job, here we were again. Back in kitchen chaos!

We knew that the ceiling was false, but didn’t know what would be revealed if it was to come down. But once the seed of the idea was planted, it wouldn’t go away and so the demolition started. In November. We definitely hadn’t thought this one through, but out here, when you get a builder who can start work, you start the work. Even if winter is setting in and there’s going to be structural work.

All starting to be stripped out...

All starting to be stripped out…

The first job to be tacked was the ceiling. I had naively thought that the plasterboard would just be taken down and that we’d have a new ceiling. All done and dusted quickly. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen that way. Our builder (like most out here), doesn’t do just one job – he can be working on various projects and so can’t really commit to being with us full time. Initially this was frustrating, as it just wasn’t what we were used to, but we are used to it now and so don’t panic if he now disappears mid-job and we don’t see him for two weeks. We’re much more relaxed about this side of things now, because this is just how it happens out here. So, back to the ceiling…

Breaking through...

Breaking through…

A decomposing wasps' nest...

A decomposing wasps’ nest…

How insulation used to be done in these traditional Istrian stone houses - soil and twigs. And lots of them!

How insulation used to be done in these traditional Istrian stone houses – soil and twigs. And lots of them!

The start of the building site in the garden. Which we had for nearly six months.

The start of the building site in the garden. Which we had for nearly six months, over a wet winter.

The original ceiling is finally exposed.

The original ceiling is finally exposed.

The above photos do belie how long it actually took to take down the ceiling – don’t forget, we didn’t have the builder full time, so it was a good couple of weeks of living in utter chaos and filth.

We had a major stroke of luck, window-wise, which saved us quite a lot of money. The front of the house always looked odd, without a window. But there had, at some point, been a window here – if you look closely, just to the left of the drainpipe on the right hand side, you’ll see where a very small window once was, now bricked up. Our stroke of luck was the discovery of a new window frame, complete with glass and handles in the cellar. It has obvioulsy been intended to be fitted, but for whatever reason, never was – and this meant we had a window, which matched all of the thers, which could be fitted to the front of the house. All that was required now, was scaffolding and the power drills to knock through an Istrian stone, wall which was measured at just over 80cms thick!

The kitchen is above ground level (the outdoor cellar is underneath), so we needed scaffolding – which we got. Thankfully, the H&S inspectors didn’t pay us a visit 😉

Health & safety...

Health & safety…

The window knock-through begins.

The window knock-through begins…

Our builders pointed put that different coloured stones had been used below the chimney – and they suggested using the grey stones from the window to replace them. Once the reddish stones were pointed out, they became very obvious and so we went with the suggestion. It looks lovely now – and we’re very glad we did it – but at the the time, it did mean that we had a huge, gaping hole at the front of the house, only covered by plastic sheeting, and we were approaching December.

One thing which hadn’t considered previously, when we found the window, was that all of the other windows in the house, have traditional stone surrounds. Because this new window was going in right at the front, we decided that we wanted to keep it the same as all of the others – and so beautiful, creamy Istrian stone slabs were ordered. They were a bit eye-wateringly expensive, BUT we figured that if we were going to to do this kitchen renovation, we had to do it properly. And they really are quite stunning –

Once the window was in, attention turned back to the newly exposed ceiling – the boarding out was an exciting stage as for the first time, we were able to begin to see what it might look like. We also began to think about the beams – newly exposed, they were beautiful, but weren’t in the best condition. However, we decided to wait until we made a decision about them, as we wanted to see them against the ceiling when it was painted.

As we were in utter chaos anyway, we decided that new electrics would be put in. The sockets were all now in the wrong places and we wanted the option of being able to dim the lights and have undershelf LED lights, and on the step risers, into the kitchen. We also decided that additional wiring would be installed so that we could eventually run power and lighting outside, into the garden, and control from the kitchen. Looking back, it was the best thing we did, as we’ve since added a new overhead concrete pendant, over the breakfast bar, and our electrician had everything already in place. So, a good bit of forward planning on his part 😉

Because we were moving the sink and dishwasher, the plumbing also had to be sorted. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say – and more chunks were hacked out of the walls as new channels were made for the piping. Oh, and in the middle of all of this, the tiles were taken up from the floor, in preparation for new concrete being poured in and the underfloor heating being installed.

The entrance to the kitchen was potentially quite tricky – for some reason, a very steep step had been built and we had concerns about people tripping, or it being too high for our younger visitors.

Smashing out the step up into the kitchen

Smashing out the step up into the kitchen

We thought we’d have to have a second, lower step built, extending out – but our builder came up with a much better solution. He hacked out half of the depth, creating two much more accessible steps – and it was at this stage that we decided to have LED lights embedded into the steps. With hindsight, another great feature, because they look very effective, especially at night and even more so if they are the only lights on in the kitchen.

New steps with reinforced plates, with gaps for LED strips

New steps with reinforced plates, with a tiny overhanging lip for the LED strips

All of the original sockets and switches had been binned because they were cheap, bog standard and not all attractive to look at. Again, we decided that if we were going to to do this renovation properly, everything had to be done to such a standard that we wouldn’t look back and wish we’d pushed to boat out a little more. So, knowing that the walls were eventually going to be Farrow & Ball Hague Blue (we brought it back with us, from a trip to England), we opted for matt black switches – they are super touchy-feely and we are so glad we paid a little bit extra.

By March (over four months since the work started), spotlights were in and the ceiling had been completely boarded out, all ready for plastering. We were quite taken with the white of the walls at this point, as it looked so bright – but, with the rest of the house largely being white, we wanted something more dramatic for the kitchen. Maybe one day, we might go back to the whites, but for now, we love how the kitchen has turned out.

The plastering was a long job, simply because our builder is meticulous. And, boy, are we glad he is, because, unlike the walls in the rest of the house, the ones in the kitchen are super smooth and every line is straight. I think this is what makes the kitchen so special at the moment – but hopefully one day, ALL walls will be dealt with and we’ll iron out all of the wonkiness.

It was a big day when the Hague Blue came out and the first coat was applied – even though the actual kitchen was still to be delivered and installed, we felt this was a massive milestone. We still had a long way to go, but for the first time in months, the kitchen was beginning to feel like a room.

The builder did think we were quite mad, concerning our choice of colour. Having done lots of research and seen inside quite a few Istrian houses, it is an unusual choice for here. But, we love it and when the walls were painted, it was exactly as we had imagined. This was another good day – we had lights, the window frame was painted and the walls and ceiling were painted.

I suppose, as with all renovation projects, things seem to move very slowly at the beginning, but then there’s suddenly a point when things start to come together, and this is what happened after Easter last year (2018), when the underfloor heating was installed, the new flooring laid and the LED lights wired into the steps.

After nearly five months, we were almost there – and the next big thing was the delivery of the kitchen. This was a fantastic day, but all was a bit tricky space-wise, as we had to store everything until the next day when it would be installed – and at the same time as it was being delivered, the well was being relocated outside, the downstairs bathroom was also being renovated, with the Well Room being used as a kitchen, and our concrete table was being built. Oh, and we had a week until friends arrived. It is amazing at how you cope with madness all around you, but all we could think was how delighted we were that the Well Room was also now choc-a-block full of boxed up units and appliances…

The kitchen installer was actually fantastic – we couldn’t believe that one person would fit everything in the timescale he’d estimated. In fact, he was so swift and speedy, he’d largely put the units together before I even thought about taking photos. And by mid-afternoon, we were starting to get everything back into their new homes.

Putting it all back together...

Putting it all back together…

And so, with a day to go before friends arrived, and five months after it all started, we had a working kitchen!

 

However, all not entirely finished, and over the past twelve months, we’ve been adding the finishing touches. The window cills have also been painted Hague Blue, just as a “make-do” because the intention here, is to have mustard coloured tiles. We just need to source these out here – we did find them in Topps Tiles when we were back with the car at Christmas, but unfortunately, due to my excessive purchasing of food stuffs we can’t get here and cushions and bedding and candles, we literally couldn’t fit the boxes of tiles in the car. When we can source the tiles, they will also go around the worktops and especially as a splashback by the side of the hob and breakfast bar. So, these are still on the “to-do” list.

The beams have now been painted and they are a super soft pale grey. As we suspected, there was woodworm, so they were treated and caulked, prior to undercoating and painting – and they now are home to hanging plants and faux ivy which wraps around one of them. A concrete pendant has been hung over the breakfast bar, giving us additional lighting when needed, or moodier lighting if we don’t want too much illumination. Our mustard yellow bar stools, which were bought for our West Didsbury renovation, sit perfectly at the breakfast bar – it was if they were actually bought for this kitchen.

This weekend, we think might finally have finished the kitchen (apart from the elusive mustard tiles) – a second coat of Hague Blue has been applied as there were paint splashes from the beams and a bit of general wear and tear. The entrance into the kitchen (where the new matt black switches are positioned) was left white, but it never looked quite right. It’s now Hague Blue and just perfectly frames the kitchen. The last couple of jobs to do are a little bit bonkers and involve spray paint, but they have to be done. I’m not going to say just yet, what they are – I think I’ll leave it until they’ve been done and I’m sure that they have been successful.

So, this is the kitchen as is now…

 

We think, looking a little different, to the kitchen we inherited…

What we inherited, kitchen-wise...

What we inherited, kitchen-wise…

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNT FROM THIS RENOVATION?

Renovating at home is a challenge. Doing it abroad, is doubly challenging. If you’re doing something similar, here’s what we found – hopefully, these may help and/or calm your nerves!

  • Although it’s wonderful to learn a new language and be able to practice, during a renovation is NOT the time to do this. Try and find someone who you can communicate easily with – there are far too many possibilities for misunderstandings, misinterpretations and general confusion – all of which can be costly;
  • If you’re a novice, like we were/are, buy your big ticket items from big stores. It’s more likely that you will be understood, the range is bigger, you’re more likely to find someone who can understand you/communicate with you, returns policies are better, and you’re more likely to find most of the things you’ll practically need, under one roof. Go indie and local for your accessories, if this is important to you – but go big and national for the main items;
  • Be patient – especially, if like us, you are using a local, to do your building work, as opposed to a company. You will find they probably won’t work to set hours and may seem to be “unreliable”. Chances are, you’ll find out that as well as working for you, they’re working for other people, holding down other jobs, perhaps doing seasonal work (especially if you’re in an area like ours, which is in the country);
  • Know that your builder will become part of the family;
  • Depending on where you are, be aware that Health & Safety regulations literally do not exist in some countries. However, because your worker is probably multi skilled and completely sensible and able to improvise, you’ll (probably) be fine;
  • Negotiate how you pay from the outset – we pay by a fixed rate for the hour and we keep a meticulous record of hours worked;
  • Always have beer/wine in your fridge. We find it to be a very motivating tool, as well as a nice way to get to know your builder. At the end of the day…