“Otra habitación, sin ventana,” sighs our estate agent, Manuel, as he despondently shows us around yet another flat that has little or no obvious potential. Or does it? Anyone who has ever embarked on a house hunt in Barcelona, will probably verify that the housing stock can suffer from limited natural light and incomprehensible space distributions, making it difficult to spot the potential for transforming it into your dream home.However, if you’ve been following our new feature, ‘A place of my own’, we’ve already met a handful of happy reforma residents, proving that with an empty space, an eye for opportunity and bags of imagination, you can, indeed, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Crisis = Danger + Opportunity?
As is often said, crisis is a fertile ground for opportunity. Despite the well-documented economic crisis that has had a decimating grip on the Spanish construction industry over the last six years, a surprising number of projects still seem to emerge from the creative hothouse of Barcelona, popping up across the international architectural press, even if the majority are of a restorative nature.
It’s no secret that architects have seen better days in this city. In the good times, there were projects and practices aplenty, and architects could pick and choose where and what projects they worked on. Since then, scores of practices have closed their doors, talented youngsters and established professionals alike have sought pastures new, whilst many have reinvented themselves in other sectors. Some, however, have bitten the bullet and opened their own practices, arguably in the worst possible moment.
One such practice is Nook Architects, who set up shop in 2011. Anna García met Joan Cortés and Rubén Férez whilst working at a larger practice, where they formed a strong design team from the start. “We’ve worked and designed together for many years now,” says Cortés. “Ana has always been the boss,” adds Férez playfully. When the crisis started to take hold, the three architects made a firm decision to stand their ground, stand by their profession, and not become another emigration statistic.
In search of a Plan B, Nook began as a hobby for the trio, who continued with other work alongside. What turned out to be a golden opportunity arose when an acquaintance (and property developer) offered them the chance to renovate a dilapidated apartment in the Gothic Quarter. With a very low budget, no fees, but complete design freedom, Nook Architects was born.
This first project—Casa Roc—led to three more renovations within the same building, several further commissions, and a growing client base and reputation. Since then, they have become masters of making something out of nothing, and have recently been nominated for the prestigious FAD awards.
In with the old, out with the new
Not surprisingly, Nook have worked exclusively with existing buildings thus far, in sharp contrast to the pre-crisis years, when the trio worked primarily on new-build construction. After all, making the best of what we have is pertinent in a time of austerity.
Indeed, prudence can be a virtue in Nook’s opinion; “In some ways, our design mentality is in harmony with the frugality of the current economic situation,” explains García. “Before the crisis, attitudes were wasteful and there was a lot of unnecessary expenditure, with generous budgets often blown indiscriminately on expensive products. We believe that the key focus of a project should be identified, and design and cost resources concentrated on that element. If a project can come in under budget, even better.”
In terms of the environmental agenda, the reinvention of space also represents a large-scale form of recycling, a merit appreciated in a forward-thinking city like Barcelona. “We have come to realise just how many empty flats there are in the city centre; flats with lots of potential in fantastic locations, which can be renovated with a much smaller budget than building a new building,” says García. “It makes a lot more economic and environmental sense to improve these flats and make them last another 100 years than to consume more land resources with new construction—and we come from a background of new-build!”
Of course, if the building is in good shape, then the major work is half done. More often than not, however, Nook have found their projects in a terrible state, requiring a lot more than interior finishes. “Although working on small-scale renovation projects has given us the opportunity to really get involved with the finer details of the interior spaces, we don’t consider ourselves interior designers. It would be more accurate to define us as ‘Architects who intervene in existing buildings’.”
How things have changed
And radical interventions are often required. We’re not just talking about papering over the cracks or knocking down the odd wall; these renovations represent another concept for the traditional buildings of Barcelona, many of which are over 100 years old and were designed for a different era and lifestyle. These historical buildings often have great potential, but can present considerable challenges in meeting the comfort requirements of today’s society.
The typical building depth can be a serious obstacle for natural light and ventilation, measuring around 25 metres front to back in many cases, resulting in small rooms with little or no natural light or ventilation. Location or lack of drainage pipes can also cause problems with incorporating the bathroom internally. In the past, communal bathrooms were located elsewhere, the private bathroom was a late addition, which is why it is often found within the balcony or gallery area.
And besides the physical limitations, lifestyles across Europe have changed radically over the last century. “I think there are two key issues,” summarises García. “The first relates to thermal comfort. Before heating or cooling systems were introduced, people sought refuge in the inner spaces of the apartments for warmth, away from windows and drafts. Large, open rooms were synonymous with discomfort. The second relates to the sofa and the concept of living with which it is associated. In the past, the concept of eating dinner then relaxing on the sofa simply didn’t exist, at least not in the same room. We’ve gone from social areas that featured the dining table and little else to practically bypassing the table and eating on the sofa.”
In Spain, these changes have happened very fast, influenced particularly by Nordic ideals. “As you flick through an Ikea catalogue, they’re not just selling you home furnishings, they’re marketing a lifestyle.”
“I think there is also an element of space colonisation,” adds Férez thoughtfully. “In the past, people lived in much smaller, modest spaces with strictly defined uses—bedroom for sleeping, dining room for dining. In fact, in the typical Eixample flat, certain spaces were closed off according to season.”
Today, on the contrary, light, open spaces are in vogue. Although open plan living is not a 21st-century concept—Frank Lloyd Wright first pioneered the idea in the early 1900s—it is only in recent decades that it has filtered down to the everyday home. The idea of a light, open space where you can socialise, cook, and share everything together is becoming the preference of modern society, particularly where space is limited. It is not without its inconveniences though: noise, smells and a lack of intimacy being the primary downsides.
Peeling back the years
Before a space can be reinvented, apartments para reformar often need to be stripped back completely, with no guarantee of what might be lurking below the surface, for better or worse. “The strangest thing that we have found so far has probably been a rotten leg of jamón. The smell was abominable,” recalls Cortés. “We’ve also found many hidden doors,” adds Férez, “Although no hidden rooms...yet.”
“And what about the well?!” exclaims García. “We found an inaccessible volume within an apartment. We thought it was a well until a neighbour presented an alternative theory; that it was a secret escape route used during the Civil War, leading to a series of tunnels beneath Ciutat Vella!”
“There are a lot of legends surrounding the old town,” adds Cortés. “I suppose that some of them must be true, or I guess there wouldn’t be so many.”
However, this stripping back of material can also pleasantly surprise, and present the opportunity to reveal the hidden beauty in a space. Commonly in Barcelona, this can mean removing layers of false ceilings to expose a beautiful barrel-vaulted ceramic ceiling, known as the volta catalana.
In the past, however, exposing this structural element was to leave the building unfinished with its skeleton on show—not the done thing at a time when extravagant, decorative finishes were all the rage. “Today, we often say that this process of stripping back a building to its bare bones is to regain the original spirit of the building, when, in fact, these ceiling structures, no matter how beautiful, were not built to be seen,” observes García.
A false ceiling, with decorative mouldings, would typically sit below the arches, serving as both an acceptable finish and to conserve heat. “If we find an original false ceiling in good condition, removing it would be unthinkable, vault or no vault!”
Another jewel that often comes to light is the emblematic tiled flooring. Colourful designs composed of 20cm x 20cm tiles emerged in the 19th century, when a revolutionary tile-making technique was introduced that involved the use of a hydraulic press rather than firing. The ‘hydraulic’ tile soon grew in popularity, fortuitously coinciding with the rise of Catalan Modernisme, which favoured bold, decorative patterns.
These tiles have found a new 21st-century life in many recent renovations; they’ve been inset as 'rugs', laid in stripes, used to demarcate seating areas, or simply left in their original position to tell the story of the apartment’s former life.
The biggest diamond in the rough?
“It has to be Casa Roc,” asserts García. “It was in a deplorable state, worsened by the unfortunate previous tenant, who suffered from Diogenes Syndrome and filled the place with rubbish. I really didn’t see the potential to create a decent living space when we first visited the flat; it felt more like a cave.”
But as layer after layer was stripped back, potential started to appear. “It’s like a grand mechanism whereby opening up channels and ducts you allow light and air to flow and breathe new life into the space,” summarises Cortés poetically.
On the market
With house prices bottoming out, and some areas dropping by 50 percent per square metre, it is undoubtedly a good time to invest in some bricks and mortar.
Choosing to renovate not only makes for a more rentable and sellable asset, but will also normally increase the property value, circumstances permitting. “If the flat is in a terrible state and you do a fantastic renovation, then it is likely that the value increase will absorb the cost of the renovation,” speculates García. “However, if the flat is perfectly liveable in its existing condition, then that might not be the case, particularly as property valuations are currently very conservative.”
But how much will all this cost? “To start with, we try to give an idea of price per square metre, before pricing each item individually. Obviously, this depends on the desired quality of finishes and comfort levels, but a ballpark figure, which represents a medium to high standard renovation, can be estimated at around €1,000 per square metre,” evaluates García. This is also the figure recommended by the Col·legi d'Arquitectes de Catalunya. “Many of our projects have cost less, but we would say that most projects fall within the region of €600 to €1,000 per square metre.”
Whatever the budget, how it is spent depends largely on the condition of the existing apartment. Structural remedial works, if required, can absorb a very high percentage of the budget, leaving little to spend on fittings and finishes. “In Casa Roc, around 80 percent of the budget was spent on reinforcing beams, removing damp, demolitions, and general structural stabilisation.”
As for our own house hunt, we’ve seen it all—techno-dancing dogs, tasteless décor, false advertising, fast sales and fictitious buyers. It has been an education and a rich source of anecdotes, but the search continues for our diamond in the rough.
NOOKS AND CRANNIES
Looking for your own renovation project? Here are some tips from the experts.
Look for…Location, location, location! Somewhere close to public transport connections in a well-serviced neighbourhood. Good orientation, plenty of natural light and a building that is in a reasonable condition. The rest doesn’t matter because it can be modified.
Minimum requirements...None. Obviously, if the existing structure is in good condition, the budget will not be tied up in remedial works. In century-old flats, however, most facilities will need to be replaced in any case, and therefore, buying a cheaper flat in poor condition can leave a larger overall budget for the renovation.
Find out…If there are any communal projects pending, as this can increase costs at the time of purchase. Any other investigations can be conducted via an architectural survey.
Love thy neighbour…In terms of getting the work done, doing it all at once limits disturbance and ensures a better outcome. Although bringing in the builders as a new resident to a building may not be the best way to introduce yourself to the neighbours, bringing them back at a later date could be the nail in the coffin, and it is highly advisable to keep the neighbours onside.