Defining and Refining Some Design Decisions Dealing with Materials, Colors, and Placement

After a break of a couple of hours where Anne and I had enough time for lunch and a small rest, we set off to Kevin’s office. I was sure I knew the way — until we had been driving farther than I expected past San Ginesio. Just as I figured I’d gone wrong, we came around the corner and there was his driveway.

Primo, Alessandra, Kevin, and Francisc
Primo, Alessandra, Kevin, and Francisc
Click image to enlarge

Our topics during the meeting included an overall project review, with timing and budget, a discussion of the electrical plan with a focus on lighting, color decisions about the beams and walls, a little bit about the pool finishing materials, and a brief overview of the structure relative to earthquake regulations. Joining us for parts of the meeting would be Alessandra, Francisc, and Primo.

Budget and Timing

We started by reviewing the budget and timing. The budget is right now still the same as December, but based on this morning’s look at the slopes of the property, we do have a major unbudgeted expense for dealing with them, either for earth moving, for buying more land, or both.

The construction team still thinks the house can be ready by the end of the year, but the contract date is the end of February, 2018, extended by any days lost to bad weather.

Lighting Plan

Next, we were joined by Alessandra. She is the architect of the house and we’d asked for her input on some design questions, as well. Anne noticed right away her glittery sneakers, which seem to be the style among young women in Italy these days.

The lighting plan was our first topic. I had done a detailed plan in November, but I had started to wonder if my numbers, types, and placements of lights made sense. I’ve seen some “rule of thumb” charts about numbers and wattage of lights needed that gave me pause.

Alessandra had made some changes to my plan, mostly minor ones, changing some hall lights to sconces rather than hanging lights, converting the recessed lights to cable lights as recessed are hard to do in our type of construction, and adding a light here and there both inside and out.

Not knowing our style, she showed us some design options which were probably too modern, sleek Italian for us. We promised to put together a style guide with pictures to give her some guidance.

Examples of Stone and Brick Work

As a follow-up to this morning’s discussion about stone and brick wall construction, we looked at Kevin’s house as an example. We saw how the bricks and stone of different sizes and fragments are used together to give an irregular appearance, so as to mimic an old stone house. We also saw on his house an example of the stone molding that will be at the top of walls near roof.

Our walls will be similar, even including dovecotes on the back. We looked at his lintels for color and he pointed out that whatever we do they need to be treated every few years because they fade.

Pool Liner and Surround
Pool Liner and Surround
Click image to enlarge

Our first topic with Francisc was to look at pool materials and colors. Step one was to pick a liner color. Kevin told us we had a difficult choice to make as Francisc pulled out a color deck with dozens of colors, some of were unbelievably garish. Kevin then pulled a Henry Ford on us: we could have any color as long as it was white or tan. This was a local rule with the goal of making pools blend in more. We chose a tan, sand-like color. In the photo, there’s a blue overlay that simulates what pool will look like with water in it.

We moved on to the pool surround. Again, we had a small choice of materials and colors. Here we went with a brown real stone surround, with the pool border being a light gray.

Internal Colors
Selected beam color
Selected Beam Stain
Click image to enlarge
Interior Paint Colors
Interior Paint Colors
Click image to enlarge

Now it got a bit trickier. We needed to select a stain for the beams, one that would look traditional, complement the windows, and give us paint color flexibility. After some discussion, we selected a medium-dark color. (When Kevin sent us a picture of this after we returned home, it looked too orange. We hope that’s just the photograph or that the chestnut beams will tone it down.)

Anne had chosen the paint colors she wanted earlier, based on US colors from Benjamin Moore. Not surprisingly, we were able to find nearly exact matches from the European paint colors.


Finally, joined by Primo, we discussed how the structure was designed and built to be earthquake-resistant. This was just to satisfy my curiosity. During the discussion, we learned that the structure had been made even stronger during construction by enlarging some columns and beams.

Now 7:30, about 10 hours after we started, we were done with our first day. We felt we had made a lot of progress.

All images: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

April Progress and Lost Days Report Lost Days Up to 18

The report says the project is progressing well and that the work has been completed in accordance with standards. No surprise, as we’ve seen the pictures.

The report does contain a picture, the upper right one, we haven’t seen, of the construction of some interior walls on the ground floor.

Bigger news is that 8 days were lost to bad weather. That brings the cumulative count to 18 days, which would be added to the end of the project, if needed. This is significant only in that it extends the time before which the contractor has to pay daily penalties for lack of completion.

Monthly status report
April Monthly Report
Click image to read report

Image: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

Working to Tame the Hillside Earth Movement, Terracing, and Back-Filling

Today, Kevin sent a long explanation of the “lay of the land” situation. Some of the major earth moving has been done, so he went to check out the status. After being on site, he decided we need to make some changes to the grading and terracing plans.

Virtually all of what he says makes sense, so rather than rewrite it myself, I will more-or-less quote his email, but I’ll add some comments and pictures.

The concerns and changes all stem from the slope of the land. Anne, in particular, has commented about it when we’ve seen pictures.

Let’s go to Kevin:

I wanted to review the subject of earth movement, terracing, and back-filling.

The main impetus behind this is the fact that excavation and terracing plans are like battle plans … the first shot is fired and the plans are obsolete. As we dig and as a house takes shape those plans invariably evolve.

Last week, on Monday, I was on site and did not like the “feeling” of the house having earth on two sides — front and left side, looking downhill — that was just too high. To exaggerate the point, I didn’t like the sense of looking down at the house from those two spots. In addition, out in front of the house, the steepness of the drop was not to my liking.

Part of what was contributing to the issue was that when we/you moved the position of the house further back on the plot, it meant that we were closer to the triangle point that forms the top extreme of the property. I don’t want you to misconstrue that the way in which things were taking shape was a huge problem; it was not. It was just that I thought it could be improved and I thought it needed to be more reflective of our conversations when you were here.

So, I got the various people on site — Francisc, Jimmy, and the head of the earth moving company, plus Pippo given his experience in such things. We reviewed various ideas and options.

Grading Plan Changes

We decided to do three important things that have required a significant amount of planning and execution.

Indicating Edge of Portico
Indicating Edge of Portico
Click to Enlarge
Unfinished Slope Behind House
Unfinished Slope Behind House
Reclaimed Brick at Left
Click to Enlarge
Excavation and Cherry Tree
Excavation and Cherry Tree
Cherry in Bloom, Pool Further Down
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Pool Terrace
Pool Terrace
Click to Enlarge
  1. Parking Area: We rearranged the parking area above the house, pushing it up, closer to the triangle point and changing walking access to it from a direct line to a meandering one, which is actually far superior to the direct line as it’s more “dolce” (Pippo’s word) and natural. It also is more practical as it allows “everyday access” to the kitchen door, and makes the main entrance a more dramatic one. This is in contrast to the direct, up/down, straight line that was originally in the plan, The latter proved too steep and required keeping the height of the earth at a level I found to be just TOO high.
  2. Area Near Portico: We have maintained the distances at the portico side of the house — portico 2.8m (9.2ft) plus 5m (16.4ft) farther out from there — as per plan, BUT, we have extended the slope of the earth down to the next level. In practical terms we have added a LOT more dirt to that bank and that has allowed for the slope to be far LESS steep.
  3. Pool Area: We have significantly altered the areas surrounding the pool. The idea was to carve out a lot of FLAT space for the area (i.e. the “house” side of the pool area) where you look out at the mountains, and then, to significantly reduce the slope of the drop off on the other side of the pool that was just too steep for my liking.
What Does All This Mean?
  1. Slope Reduction: We have dramatically reduced the severity of inclines both front and back of the house.
  2. Increased “Breathing Room”: We have maximized the house’s breathing room on the parking lot side and the left side (left when you have your back to the house and look at the mountains)
  3. Parking Area Higher on Hill: We have maximized the parking area and pushed it back slightly up the hill (to allow for more breathing space on that side of the house)
  4. Improved Access: We have created a much more pleasant and natural (and dolce) entrance to the kitchen door and main door.
  5. Better Pool Area: The pool area has been sculpted and back-filled to create a lovely, open space heading back to the house and a gentle slope on the side versus the mountains.
Practical Implications
  1. Earth and Fill Equipment Needed: To do all this we require 130 cubic meters of earth — that is, the earth, its transport, the machines to move it around, and the machines to compress it. Francisc has been a star on this. He has recovered 20-ish cubic meters from the plot (mostly from where he’s removed earth to create breathing room), he has another 80 he has trucked in from another site he has open, and, he’s done a trade of 2 days work with one of his crews for 30-ish cubic meters trucked in from a 3rd place. So, our cost of earth is zero, amazingly. The costs of this work that we do have to incur are found in (1) the need for VERY HEAVY equipment, machines capable of serious digging, moving and compressing and (2) the transport of the earth from two other sites. Total cost is likely to be around €2700-€3200 when it’s all completed. We had previously communicated a back-fill number of around €800, but we have significantly increased both the amount of earth and the amount of work needed to move it and shape it.
  2. Olive Relocation: Due to the magnitude of digging, we have had to prune and transfer the parking lot olive trees or we would have risked killing them. At the end of the heavy work, and with the landscape planning, we can decide the optimal places to position olive trees for maximum esthetic effect. (Pippo has pruned half the olive trees and will do the rest this week.)
  3. Budget: Regarding the money to do this. If we take a mid-point of €3k we can handle it any number of ways — 1-take it out of the contingency line, or, 2-take it out of the landscaping line and see when the time comes to do the landscaping, how far that remaining budget takes us.

To cover the last point first, I decided to take the money from the contingency. The landscape budget is only €15,000, which seems low to start, so I don’t want to reduce it even before we have a landscape plan. And this was a contingent/unexpected expense, not one caused by a design change.

As Kevin said, the parking area has been relocated higher on the hill and the driveway shortened. I wonder how that might affect access.

I have three questions about the land near the house: Do we have enough flat land? Could it be extended? To accommodate the cherry and fig, will we need tree wells?

As to the slope, despite all these changes, I’m concerned it will still be steeper than we’d like going from level to level. That leaves me with a question about the way to deal with the level transitions:

The plan calls for the levels to be divided by earthen slopes, not retaining walls, and connected via paths, not stairs. I posed to Kevin the question whether this is still reasonable. I’m sure retaining walls and stairs are more expensive, but I don’t want things sliding down the hill or having it too difficult to go up and down.

Further, when I look at the picture of the pool, I really wonder if we don’t need a retaining wall to keep the earth from sliding down into the pool after rain.

Finally, Anne commented on how far down the hill the pool seems to be. I have to say it didn’t surprise me, having walked the land, but it will be a hilly hike down and back.

A Final Point

It certainly seems that the contractor, Francisc, with Kevin’s urging, is keeping costs down as much as possible: the zero cost earth here, the assumption of work from the utility company on the water line before, the supply of larger and chestnut beams. We have to be pleased.

All the photos. Notice that in the last one it shows that them preparing to build the walls:

All images: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

Beam Us Up Chestnut Beams Instead of Pine

We received a small bit of nice news today about a quality step-up in the ceiling beams with no additional cost. Here’s Kevin:

Swiss stone pine sample
Sample: Swiss Stone Pine
Pinus Cembra
Click to Enlarge
Europeam chestnut sample
Sample: European Chestnut
Castanea Sativa
Click to Enlarge

We had in the plan standard 16cm x 16cm pine beams. In getting ready to order the beams Alessandra and I got to discussing if a bigger beam might look better (though the 16s are perfectly nice and regularly used). We discussed this with Francisc and he came back to us with this: we will go to 18x18s and we will substitute CHESTNUT for pine, at NO extra cost … these will look better and add more character.

Wood images: |

Transfer Problems A Small SWIFT Code Error

Last week, Kevin asked me to make payments to the geometra Jimmy and the contractor Francisc. They have both been doing a lot of work in advance of payment as we waited to get the final construction contracts signed.

Kevin sent me the bank details for the transfers and it all seemed very straightforward.

Foreign currency wire form
Currency Transfer Form
Click image to enlarge

The only tricky piece is getting the correct SWIFT/BIC codes for the receiving bank and the IBAN code, which determines the bank and the receiving account at the bank. (This second one is the place where it can be easy to make mistakes, as it is of variable length and can be up to 28 characters. Here’s and example: IT57O0570469010000000013861)

The transfer to Jimmy went smoothly, but on Friday afternoon I found out something had gone wrong with the transfer to Francisc. Apparently, one of the codes was wrong.

This created a bit of a problem for Francisc. Apparently, he had told his bank the money would arrive within 72 hours. Kevin told me that if it didn’t, he’d have to pay penalties and fines.

We scrambled to get some document to them explaining the problem and promising a transfer as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the following Monday was a bank holiday, so the transfer couldn’t go out until Tuesday.

Again, when I prepared the form, I was told the SWIFT code was wrong, even though I’d used the exact code for a successful transfer in December.

So, we’re still struggling to get the money over to Italy.

An Update

It’s Tuesday and we’re still having problems. I checked all the codes and numbers against the paperwork I got from Francisc and resubmitted the transfer. We still were told the SWIFT code, BPSPIT3S is wrong, even though we had used it before.

I searched online for the code and it still seemed right. Finally, I found a source that used BPSPIT3SXXX. It said the XXX represented the branch, but I don’t have a branch code.

I looked at the successful transfer we made to Jimmy and his bank’s SWIFT code ends in XXX. So we’ll try adding the XXX and see what happens.

Another Update

It’s a day later and the problem still is unsolved. Adding the XXX didn’t help. We’ve exhausted all options from this end. I asked Kevin to ask Francisc to contact his bank and explain what we’ve done and see if they can enlighten him and then us.

A Final Update?

Let’s let Kevin tell the story of what we hope is the resolution of this mess.

You’re getting a dose of Italian incompetence at its BEST (WORST?).

I went with Francisc to the branch today where we were told to send the transfer to that other BIC your guys discovered yesterday. The director then called him after we had departed to say that the regional direction in ANCONA had confirmed to her that in the last 10 days they had INDEED executed a change and that with the release of February statements they would be communicating this change. Can you believe that?? I can’t even imagine the chaos created over 10 days for all their commercial customers doing business with foreign clients.

So, the attached has the CORRECT, UPDATED, NEW BIC/SWIFT CODE…please use this and disregard all other communication on same.

The bank has waived all fees and penalties levied against Francisc due to this being THEIR error.

While clearly this is completely out of our control, I am nonetheless VERY sorry that you and your transfer people have had to waste so much time on this crap.


Finally, ten days after we started the process, the transfer went through.

Image: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure