A Renovated Farmhouse in Northern Italy
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After nearly eight years of renting a tiny apartment in the center of Asolo, in northern Italy, Guido Chiavelli and his wife, Sabrina, were ready to find a house outside of town and start a family. "Our dream was to go back to the countryside where we both grew up," says Chiavelli, who runs his family’s clothing company, Il Gufo. "We want our children to experience close contact with nature. If you live in an urban area, you have a different kind of childhood."
The Chiavellis knew exactly where they wanted to live—a short drive from Asolo in an area called Monfumo, or "silent hills." And so on nearly every free day they had for two years, the couple drove around, looking for just the right sort of site: one that would be accessible but not overly visible from the main road. Three different real estate agents later, Guido and Sabrina found a crumbling and abandoned farmhouse with an overgrown vineyard, tucked away amidst the rolling hills. "We knew immediately what it could look like with our efforts," says Chiavelli. "We like fascinating old houses, but we also share a love of contrasting old and new."
In Italy existing structures are well protected by the government, so every step of a renovation is strictly monitored and evaluated by officials who repeatedly visit the site before, during, and after construction. "They judge you on a scale of zero to four, and we received a two for the stable and a three for the house," Chiavelli recalls. "We were not allowed to raze the buildings, even if we’d wanted to, which we didn’t. It would have been quicker and cheaper to knock it down—and in many times in this area, structures just happen to fall down during construction because they are ‘old.’ But we liked its character so much that we wanted to keep thinking that our home would be the old structure."
The farmhouse was in rough shape. The stone facade had been clumsily covered in cement, and when they started scratching the surface they realized there was no insulation. The stone itself, a yellowish sandstone called pietra gialla con sabbia erega, is indigenous to the region and had special significance. "There are stonemasons in this area who have spent their entire lives working with this stone," explains the architect, Filippo Caprioglio, an old friend of the Chiavellis who came to the project after touring the site with them and who shared the couple’s reverence for local materials. "Each stone is completely irregular," adds Chiavelli. "One person spent days and days with a hammer to shape every single one, and that is long, patient work. Only the older stonemasons know the technique, and it’s an art we are going to lose if we don’t keep the tradition alive."
Caprioglio turned to Luigi Bordin, a seasoned local contractor who employs stonemasons trained in this precise technique. "I had a splendid professional relationship with him," says the architect. "He is a man of wide experience, and I learned so much from him in terms of operating in such a complex site’s orography and soil conditions. He led a team of five stonemasons, supervising and also physically working at the site for the entirety of the project." Because the Chiavellis wanted to preserve the shell of the existing structure, the process of shoring it up was of paramount importance, particularly since the house is situated in an earthquake-prone area. "Building is different than renovating, and just holding up the building was the most delicate part," explains Chiavelli. "The perimeter, the shell, was so tenuous that people thought we were fools—I mean, there were times when if you just touched the wall, it would have come down." Caprioglio braced the building with a steel pilaster to support the main structure of the roof. "This was an important component in particular, but in general I tend to expose structural elements in my work," says the architect. "I prefer to highlight elements that give strength without appearing heavy in dimension."
Once that was accomplished, it was time to focus on the interior and start planning a modern addition. "This was a farmer’s house, and they stored crops here," says Chiavelli. "The rooms were so tiny, and there were so many of them. We wanted a luminous space to capture the beauty of the surrounding environment, and we knew we wanted our living areas to be at the very top to make the most of the light. Once we shared our desires with Filippo, and told him how we wanted to live in this house, he made it happen by addressing every one of our needs."
By the time construction was well underway, so too was the Chiavellis’ plan to start a family. Their son, Rocco, was born toward the end of the project and therefore fundamentals of baby-proofing were built into the design. At first glance, however, the house does not necessarily look very child-friendly, particularly when considering the most defining element of the first floor— a massive central staircase and catwalk system composed of glass and steel. "It’s beautiful, but it’s dangerous," admits Chiavelli. "Protecting him was, of course, our main priority."
Notions of protection and accessibility figured into every decision the Chiavellis made. Due to the high volume of the structure, the team decided that the home would be comprised of four floors connected via an elevator accessed from an underground garage and wine cellar. "Having four different levels, well, at first we thought we might not need that much space. But then we started thinking long term. We look at this house as the home of our lifetime," explains Guido. "That means we envisioned that someday we may not be able to climb steps without difficulty, and we wanted our friends and family who may not have the easiest time getting around to be able to visit us comfortably." When the new home was complete, the couple hosted a party to thank the 100 or more people who worked on the project. "It was a very emotional moment; we were all crying and congratulating each other, drinking prosecco and hugging," Chiavelli recalls. "All the effort and hard work of these people, every day for two years, to give us such an extraordinary and special home—we are so proud, my God, that whatever it cost, that moment paid for it."