Vanessa and I had the opportunity to visit some friends who are building a new home just south of Arezzo, Italy. The home was in a partially-completed state, which afforded a very interesting look at construction techniques.
The first thing you notice about homes built in Italy – and across most of Europe – is that they are built almost exclusively out of concrete and / or stone and brick. The “bricks and sticks” construction we use across the United States is practically unheard of.
The construction is very, very strong. The home we visited was a modest, three bedroom home of perhaps 1500 sq. ft. The walls were built of three layers: an inner structural brick honeycomb is layered with sheets of textured sytrofoam and then covered with exterior stonework. The resulting wall is well over a foot thick: exterior stone / concrete / honeycomb brick / styrofoam / inner concrete. As you can guess, these layers can withstand significant earthquakes and are almost impervious to heat and cold extremes.
The foundation is likewise impressive. In the US, a typical slab foundation has footers poured around the exterior and a thin slab floor. Here, deep and thick footers are poured underneath all of the walls, and the slab itself is about six inches.
Heating is provided with floor heaters. The slab is covered with textured styrofoam, onto which is laid heat transferring tubing. This is then covered with a thin layer of self-leveling concrete. The insulated concrete layer holds heat well and keeps the interior isolated from the cold foundation.
Each room is a separate zone, so it is very simple to heat some areas of the home and not others. This is a very efficient design. The multi-zone distribution system with its independent thermostats and valves is a work of art in itself.
We have a floor heating system in the home where we are staying and it is interesting how well it works. Since the building itself radiates heat across the entire floor, it is virtually draftless, and you feel very comfortable even though the room itself is much cooler than would feel comfortable with a furnace. The home is a rambling restored farmhouse, but due to the multi-zone heating system, we only bother to heat the bedroom, since we aren’t at home much. This would be impossible to pull off efficiently using American style furnaces. My sinuses are also really happy with this approach.
Furnaces and boilers are practically unheard of. Here, homes are outfitted with powerful, efficient instant water heaters. The heaters are designed to heat water for the radiators and floor heaters as well as the hot water supply for the home. Unlike models I’ve used in America, these suckers pump out a lot of heat.
Since the home is very dependent on a lot of water tubing, and since this tubing is built into foot-thick walls and foundations, plumbing is taken quite seriously. Instead of the haphazard approach taken in American construction where water supply is run rather ad-hoc, in Italy the water is brought to a central utility room where each zone has independent cutoffs. As you can see from the photos, the tubing is substantial and built to last. It needs to be – any leak is a major headache.
Roofs here are almost universally made of Italian tile. It’s a shame we can’t use tile in Texas any longer – ever since the Mayfest storm of 1995, tile is a thing of the past. The layers of tile, styrofoam, and more tile create a well-insulated roof that doesn’t produce radiant heat like asphalt shingles.
Windows, as in the States, are double-paned “Low-E” design. Unlike in the States, however, almost all Italian windows can be easily opened and are installed with shutters. The combination of open windows and shutters to block the hot sun helps to keep the heat out while still providing a breeze.
Most Italians don’t bother with air conditioning. Summers are hot – about as hot as in Texas – but with such energy efficient homes, a reasonable set of fans can keep you comfortable on all but the hottest of days. Homes, however, are often plumbed for air conditioning with coolant tubing pre-installed. This makes it easy to decide after you’ve lived in the space for a season or two exactly how much air conditioning you want and in which rooms.
Likewise, all homes are required to have preinstalled hookups for solar panels. You see a lot of solar going on here. The farmhouse where Vanessa and I are staying features an array of 40 panels producing quite a lot of power.
Since the home is hard to modify once it’s built, Italians have a strong incentive to go out of their way to use good materials and put a lot of thought into planning. Electrical utilities along with phone, cable, fiber, alarm wiring, etc. are all carefully planned and brought into a central utility room. We do the same in the States, except that here, you’ll see a lot of wiring pulled for appliances that don’t exist, “just in case.”
Italy is a nation that learned lessons about “building to last” a thousand years ago. All over the country you find homes, churches, and entire towns that are well over five hundred years old and still in perfectly usable condition. It’s no surprise, then, that while we build homes and neighborhoods that last fifty to a hundred years, the Italians are still building homes and neighborhoods that can last five hundred or even a thousand years.
It is a set of lessons we would do well to learn.