CONTRADA PETRARO, Sicily (AP) — Everywhere you look in Italy, it’s there: It can be hulking and gray but also colorful and fun. Ominous but also beautiful.
Masonry using concrete and its old ingredient, cement, are inescapable here. It’s a crucial difference between construction in North America and in Europe: the carpenter versus the stone worker.
That was the difficult reality I faced when I moved from the U.S. with my family into a long-abandoned farm property 3 kilometers (a couple of miles) outside a town called Castelbuono in the Madonie Mountains in north-central Sicily.
I had a whole bunch of ugly and crumbling concrete to deal with. Or that’s how I saw it at first.
Coming from a background in American carpentry, the art of masonry was entirely new to me. But here, in a land where laborers have long excelled with trowels, chisels, mortar mixes, stones and bricks, I realized I’d have to become familiar with them too.
Masonry is especially legendary in Italy, home to many of the world’s most spectacular examples of stone and mortar work. The country also boasts the largest un-reinforced concrete dome still in existence: the Pantheon of ancient Rome.
As I began experimenting with concrete work and got a little better at it, I also came to appreciate more all those concrete buildings around me in Sicily — from the ancient beauties to the clunkier, Brutalist-style versions that went up in a post-World War II building boom.
The farm’s main part consists of two barns: an old stone structure, and a newer, tower-like one made of concrete blocks. Nearly five years went by before I finally attempted to turn the barns into a house.
During those years, my family had been living comfortably in a tiny modern home, also built in concrete blocks, a few yards from the barns where the farmer who built this place kept animals and tools, and made wine and olive oil. The 430-square-foot home – with a flushing toilet, lights, shower, windows, veranda and tiled floors – was the reason we’d bought the property.
The hulking barns, though, remained always at the back of my mind, holding the potential to be transformed into a bigger, more beautiful house.
Finally, one day I picked up a borrowed, hand-held jackhammer and started busting into the work.
My first objective was to remove a concrete-and-stone bench sitting against a sagging wall of the old barn. After a few weeks of work, I’d burnt through my friend’s jackhammer and a cheap new one.
It was hard going. Hand chisels were more apt to bounce off than accomplish any demolition. Normal drills were absolutely useless. The hours accumulated, along with a pile of busted concrete bits, stones of many sizes, lots of sand and cement, steel rods, broken bricks, pebbles.
My back was sore. I was exasperated. I looked up and sighed at the thought of what still awaited:
One side of the two-story barn was bereft of even a coat of plaster, and bats flew in and out of its gaping cracks. A big concrete trough was pulling away from the wall of the main barn. Inside the barns, the walls had no electrical outlets. Water lines and windows were scarce. The floors needed to be layered in new concrete.
And maybe worst of all, concrete beams throughout the structure were showing cracks.
Overwhelmed, I went back to jackhammering, chiseling, cutting steel re-bar, piling up rubble, cutting electrical lines into the concrete walls and, eventually, even beginning to plaster.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, I suppose,” I bolstered myself.
In town, a friend and marble worker tried to teach me the mysteries of Italian construction, running his hand over a massive stone and mortar edifice.
“Look at this ancient place’s walls; look at how thick these walls are,” said Antonio Capuana, admiration in his voice. “These are load-bearing walls that keep up the entire house. This wall was part of a barn for an old monastery.”
Back then, he said, cement didn’t exist. The builders used stone and cocciopesto — a clay mixed with lime — to make huge structures.
Widespread use of modern concrete and cement arrived in Sicily in the early 1900s and boomed after World War II, as it did in much of the world.
“Cement changed the world,” Nicolo Pierlucio Raimondo, an architect in Castelbuono, told me.
The art of mortar-making goes back to the ancient Romans and Arabs, he said. They experimented with the binding qualities of pozzolans, naturally occurring cements such as volcanic ash and gypsum. The invention of Portland cement in the 1820s, and its mass adoption in the early 1900s, was another game changer.
“Think about how much bigger cities have gotten in these last 100 years. Cement had a big part in this,” the architect said. “It helped speed up construction.”
But he added a cautionary note: “How long will these concrete structures last? No one knows.”
Capuana, the marble worker, pointed across the street to a row of concrete homes built in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Look at the overhangs on all those buildings,” he said. “They were made with steel and concrete. Over time, we’ve had to rebuild them all.”
By contrast, experts are still trying to understand the secret to the longevity of the ancient Romans’ concrete.
Modern concrete’s biggest weakness is water seeping through its tiny pores, a major factor in hairline cracks. Once water penetrates and rusts the steel used to reinforce concrete, a cracking process known as spalling worsens.
Gioacchino Allegra, a master builder overseeing the remodeling of a concrete home on the outskirts of Castelbuono, said today’s concrete is more compact than that of the building boom of the 1960s, which reduces spalling.
I also reached out to the International Masonry Institute for guidance.
Amy Lamb Woods, a concrete expert and preservationist there, said the post-World War II boom in concrete construction — the Brutalist stuff — was made possible by the advent of better kilns in the early 1900s.
On the down side, concrete became associated with urban decay. On the plus side, its use helped create so much modern infrastructure, from highways to hospitals.
“There’s this onslaught of: ‘Oh, it’s concrete, it’s ugly,’ and they want to tear them down,” Woods said. “All of us preservation people are advocating for their preservation because we believe these buildings are iconic, breathtaking, especially when they’re maintained well.”
In the U.S., that debate has intensified because concrete structures older than 50 years are now eligible for landmark status.
Also, because concrete is now recognized as causing some 8 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, most of that from cooking that cement in those kilns.
Yet as Woods noted, “The most green building you can build is the one that you restore and preserve. You’re in essence keeping the building. And so, you’re not putting it into a landfill, and you’re continuing its use.”
Listening to her made me feel so much better about the potential in my towering and downright ugly concrete barn, and about all the concrete work waiting to be done.
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