When you’re (still) in a hole….

So: that ‘work in progress’ I mentioned the other week when we went for a walk around the garden; those cantina excavations. Well, it all started back in the autumn of 2020 just before lockdown 2 when Mr Blue-Shirt finally decided it was time to tackle the problem of the damp in the cantina. Or grotto. Or cellar. We’ve never decided what to call it this small, cruciform space with it arched, brick roof that actually gives the impression of a tiny, subterranean chapel – probably because we have never been able to use it properly. In fact, perhaps ‘dungeon’ would be a better name. For like all the best dungeons, I suppose, it leaks like a sieve and whenever it rains, moisture trickles in through almost every mortar line, forming tiny glistening beads on the lattice of cobwebs that permanently garland the damp brickwork. As this renders the chilly space almost useless except for storing things made of plastic, glass or stainless steel, we can store little more down there than a collection of plant pots, our big olive oil flagon, a couple of beer crates and a few bottles of wine, even though patches of grey-white mildew leave their labels unreadable within a matter of weeks.

The whole structure was originally designed as a rudimentary refrigerator and so always contained blocks of ice in order to help make perishable foodstuffs last longer, and one reason it leaks so badly is because it extends north beyond the footprint of the house and has a thick layer of compacted soil on top of it. This certainly still helps keep the temperature down, but the inevitable moisture ingress that would have been largely irrelevant when it was used as a fridge is a different matter now, as its effects are not only depriving us of some much-needed storage space but are also now spreading to the body of the house itself. And largely thanks to works carried out when the building was converted to a two-storey residential property. As part of these works, the downstairs internal floor level had to be lowered to achieve the required ceiling height, and then the outside ground level along the northern side of the house had to be lowered to match – although for the section over the cellar this was obviously impossible as its roof by this time extended some sixty centimetres above the new internal floor level. So once the structure had been excavated to install the obligatory anti-seismic concrete bracing, the cellar just had to be covered back up to the original ground level. But it was left under a mass of heavy clay soil a metre deep that was packed directly up against the outside wall of the house, to which, crucially, no waterproofing had been added. To make matters worse, the finished surface of this elevated section sloped in towards the house, thus funnelling yet more moisture into that compacted clay and eventually through the outside wall, leaving a metre deep strip on the inside permanently mottled with pale green-grey mould.

So Mr Blue-Shirt’s plan was to scrape away the rough concrete surface and dig out the tonnes of soggy soil from around the cellar structure. He would then strengthen its foundations, clad the whole thing in concrete, cover both the cellar structure and the outside wall with a waterproof membrane before backfilling all the soil and finally re-landscaping the new elevated section. This would then just leave the cellar floor to waterproof, the internal brickwork to re-point and utilities for the washing machine and a second freezer to sort out.

The thing was, by the time he had completed the first phase of the project, which with the alarmingly deep crater around the hump-backed cellar had given the area more the look of an archaeological dig than a building site, Mr Blue-Shirt felt that he might for once have bitten off a bit more than he could chew. So he decided to get in touch with Silvano, the geometra who had overseen the earlier works on the property, and get a bit of professional advice before going any further. Silvano was horrified to find how much Mr Blue-Shirt had already done as technically it is apparently not permitted to undertake such work on a DIY basis, so told him we would need to get a professional builder involved and put us in touch with a chap who introduced himself only as Cecchi. Cecchi proposed simply patching up the cellar and waterproofing the whole thing and after some nudging, eventually provided his proposal for the works written in blotchy blue biro on a page torn from a child’s exercise book. ‘Proposal’ is probably an overstatement, though, as it gave no indication of timescales, no breakdown of costs, and the final figure was suspiciously low – and not just because there was no mention of VAT.

Silvano was just as suspicious of Cecchi’s low price as Mr Blue-Shirt was; nor was he convinced that a simple patching up operation would be sufficient, so suggested we seek a quotation for knocking the whole structure down and re-building it with the original materials and gave us the number of Lorenzo, another of the builders he regularly works with. Lorenzo duly came and had a look at the job, made a couple of non-committal suggestions but never even bothered to send us a quotation. Then came Mara, a contact of our friend Antonio and a qualified geometra working in her family’s building company. We thought it was going to be third time lucky when she came along with one of their team. They asked lot of questions, offered lots of ideas, told us exactly what permissions we would need and even came armed with a document for us to sign giving them our authority to obtain the relevant drawings from the planning office. And when her quote came in, it was incredibly detailed and professional, but it was for removing the lovely little structure completely and replacing it with a simple square box – at a price that an investment banker commissioning a luxury villa in Tuscany would have blanched at.

So once Mr Blue-Shirt had put a plywood and tarpaulin roof over the site to provide it with some protection from the elements, back we went to Silvano for a further recommendation. But builder number four promptly tested positive for Covid before we had a chance to arrange an appointment and was then too busy on other jobs, many of them already delayed by the pandemic. It was a similar story with Alessandro, the builder who helped out with the demolition of the pigsty and from whom Mr Blue-Shirt has hired diggers and tipper trucks on several occasions since, and whom Mr Blue-Shirt decided to call almost out of desperation: one after another several of his team had gone down with Covid and they then had a massive backlog to deal with. But he does keep promising to come and have a look at the job at some point, at least.

Then on top of the ongoing effects of Covid, there are the ongoing effects of the Eco-Bonus scheme.  This is the government initiative, financed through the EU Covid recovery fund, that is designed to get the construction sector back on its post-pandemic feet and give green building technologies a leg up, while at the same time improving the fuel efficiency of Italy’s housing stock and helping homeowners reduce their heating bills. The scheme offers discounts of between 50% and 110% on among other things the installation of solar panels, heat pumps, insulated cladding, heat-efficient windows, and is the scheme that gave us a 60% discount on the solar energy system we installed last year.  Not surprisingly, with its can’t-afford-not-to discounts, the scheme has proved incredibly popular with consumers and has also succeeded in giving the construction industry the boost it needed. But to an extent it also seems to have been a victim of its own success. The inevitable bureaucracy connected with the scheme has made most projects move very slowly, added to which demand is so high that certain materials and components are in short supply, causing further delays. And the upshot of this is that for the duration of the scheme at least many building firms simply have no spare capacity to take on other projects such as ours. And so for now, here we must continue to sit with our half-finished cantinagrotto… cellar… dungeon… archaeological dig… total pain in the ****…!

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