Ah Italy... innovation for housing by observing and using nature! by Florida Custom Home Architect John Henry

Services for Real Estate Pros with John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. 13013

The beautiful ochre and stone houses that dot the Italian countryside sit by themselves on acres of green fertile fields and cypress trees.  The same building techniques are used for houses in the towns and villages.  Thick stone walls hold up wood beamed roofs and ceilings.  Stucco is the favorite material for the exterior finish.  And ceramic tile graces the roofs.

First question: Do you know why the roofs are multicolored and rarely even hued unless brand new?  Why are the tiles curved so deeply?  How were they made?

Second question: How is it that the stucco seems to last forever and retains the color so well?  Are there any other salient attributes of the stucco mix?



Ceramic roofs originally were gathered from clay deposits at the closest river.  Before machines the roofer (typically the homeowner) would scoop out the clay and pat it on his/her thigh with about an inch of thickness.  They would collect a batch and then bake them in ovens. When dry they would mortar them together in a cap and pan fashion.  The bottom row would lay curves up and the next row curves down over the intersection.  A very neat system that often needed no mortar at all.  The tile gets its shape by being narrower at one end due to the fact it was formed closer to the knee! 

When the next time for roof repair came up they would go through this process again but the clay in the river would have seasonal changed ore deposits from up-river and the color would be slightly different!

Now machines make these clay tiles in the same shape and out of concrete in a slightly different cross-section for modern house construction.  And you can get mixes in different colors on the first roof. (for a less clinical view of ceramic roofs see the nice post by Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI on AR here.)



Stucco, as we apply it today, is not the same mix as that developed from ancient Italy.  The stucco of old, and much to current time there, has a secret ingredient - lime.  Our modern exterior stucco does not have lime.  The benefits of lime stucco: less brittle and not prone to cracking, it is vapor permeable -- allowing excess humidity to travel through walls, it leaves no carbon footprint, it contains no Volatile Organic Compounds, the finish is brighter due to the crystal compounds, the lime repels insects, there is almost zero mold, and integral color lasts longer!  Amazing, huh?  Unfortunately, lime plaster takes longer to put up, cure, and time to mix and apply the integral coloration.

Stucco in Provence and Tuscany was not automatically added over the stone exteriors in every case because it was an extra expense.  Some came to realize it inhibited the cold from penetrating through cracks in the stone construction and you will see more often stucco in the northern parts of Italy rather than the south.

The great house built by Palladio in Vicenza, Villa Rotonda (above), was built of brick and faced with stucco.  It has stood for a few hundred years intact and did undergo a renovation with a new coat of stucco.  When in Italy looking at other of Palladio's designs in the Veneto I noticed that in one or two cases the immense columns on the porches were losing some of the exterior plaster and brick was peeking through.  Owners of these houses could have asked for all stone columns but the cost was obviously prohibitive.  They built everything with brick using the concrete method described below.  ALSO: If you visit a Baroque or quite decorative Church in any part of Europe and do not see separations of drum to drum in the shaft (indicating a pieced together stone column) and that the columns look like they are nonetheless made of marble, they are NOT and are merely plaster on brick with a 'photo-realistic' painting technique called 'scagliola' which mimicked the veining in plaster! (see right photo)

Local Observation: (see below) this house was built about 4 years ago in a nearby subdivision.  The first floor is concrete block, the second is wood frame.  Both have the exact same modern stucco mix.  Notice how on the north side the concrete block wall on the first floor is free of mold while the wood framed walls above have a terrible case of it. Why?  I really don't know!  But exterior stucco adheres best to another porous masonry material like brick, stone or block as the molecular connection is best.




Did you know where concrete was 'invented'?  Why, in Italy of course.  The volcanic residue: ashes and excretions were observed to harden when water was added and it was a simple step to use it to connect ceramic brick upon brick to build walls.  If you go to Rome and see the thick walls built in the days of Empire you might notice that bricks were on the inside and outside while some kind of infill was used.  This fill is comprised of stones, pottery shards, sand, and concrete.  The method was to run the exterior and interior walls several feet at a time and then pour the infill concrete mix while everything was still 'wet' in order to get the strongest wall construction.

(Aside of the day: A book was written a few years back claiming that the Egyptian priests had invented concrete when the stone blocks being floated downriver on reed boats seemed unwieldy and also due to the immense manpower needed to move them in position.  The author thinks the priests came up with a system to 'form and pour' thus reducing the huge labor and time required to erect the pyramids.  They simply had wood forms that they moved around row after row and poured concrete until they reached the top.  It is said that you cannot put in a straight razor in the cracks between the 'stones'.  hmmm)

And finally, below, not an Egyptian pyramid, but a period style Italian baroque stucco house designed by John Henry Architect for the Payne Stewart family.  The stonework is hand carved from volcanic stone in Mexico; the ceramic tile roof was imported from Argentina:

More photos of project above here.


See MORE Italian ingenuity in my subsequent post here!

by Florida Luxury Home Architect John Henry https://www.dreamhomedesignusa.com/



Re-Blogged 1 time:

Re-Blogged By Re-Blogged At
  1. Joyce Marsh 11/09/2018 05:05 AM
Real Estate Technology & Tools
origins of concrete
how ceramic tile was made
lime stucco benefits

Spam prevention
Show All Comments
Georgie Hunter R(S) 58089
Hawai'i Life Real Estate Brokers - Haiku, HI
Maui Real Estate sales and lifestyle info

Fascinating stories and you obviously know what you're talking about.  Love all the pictures too.  Congrats on the featured post.

Nov 09, 2018 11:48 AM #17
M.C. Dwyer
Century 21 Showcase REALTORs - Felton, CA
MC Dwyer-Santa Cruz Mountains Property Specialist

This post is a breath of fresh air - loved reading it, imagining the craftsmen of the past, and pouring over the pictures.   Congrats on the feature, and what a lovely home you designed in the last photo.

As a side note, I am so sad about my fellow Californians whose homes are lost to wildfires.... I can't help but wonder if some of these construction methods *might* have survived whereas stick built homes are instantly gone.

Nov 09, 2018 02:39 PM #18
Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP
Selling Homes Changing Lives

John Henry - I am so impressed with your talent, writing style, and the education you are bringing to ActiveRain. Tuscany is one of my favorite places on earth. We have a few luxury homes here in the Dallas and North Dallas area. I sold a few stucco homes and issues came about. After reading about it from what you wrote, it sounds like an art and a science that has to be much more precise than a recipe for a wedding cake for a Princess!

Over time, it can be a disaster. Cracks, water penetration, and potential mold are issues I ran into. As I was staring at old, very old stucco buildings and ceramic roofs in Tuscany, Monaco, and Sardina, I couldn't believe the difference from what was there compared to stucco and ceramic roofs in my area. 

I was happy to see this one featured! Your expertise is refreshing and valued. Thank you. I was happy

Nov 09, 2018 03:28 PM #19
Debe Maxwell, CRS
www.iCharlotteHomes.com | The Maxwell House Group | RE/MAX Executive | (704) 491-3310 - Charlotte, NC
The right Charlotte REALTOR!

What a wonderful, educational post, John! I had no idea how the tiles were originally created - very interesting! I found it curious that Palladio faced brick with stucco. Of course, I'm from the southern US where brick is the preferred facade so, to have both, brick & stucco seems so different to me!   

Nov 09, 2018 08:19 PM #20
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Richie Alan Naggar "I was born under a pondering post"

Georgie Hunter R(S) 58089 Thanks Georgie, these posts make me look up plane fares back to where it all started...  Appreciate your comments!

M.C. Dwyer Hi M: To get a slight feeling of what it was like in those days

check out the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Michaelangelo's painting and sculpting techniques are on display in a fantastic period piece between him and the Pope.  You also get the different 'class' structure between painters and sculptors, the personal fights for expression and glory, etc.  Fantastic movie.

And we all have heard about these terrible fires in California!  There must be something that can be done to keep them from raging so quickly.  Thank you!

The Payne Stewart home was very private and not advertised for years.  There is a third generation of homeowner there now gracious to let us have taken the photos.

Nov 10, 2018 04:44 AM #21
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Patricia Feager Hi Patricia, once again your compliments shame me.  I am only the storyteller, and there are better.  Yes, the real thing is quite a learning experience.  BTW: I think Austin homebuilders may be doing the stucco a bit better than up north.  The biggest problem I see in making modern stucco "work" is the application on wood frame which simply does not hold over time.  If you apply stucco, old or new, on stone or concrete block, it adheres molecularly better.  It is rare to see mold on lime stucco but over time it will appear on the north faces especially.  You can see the mold on the north face of Foscari in the photo above.  If the sun doesn't hit stucco and there is a moisture issue, mold will show up.

The old stucco surfaces and multiple ceramic tile redo's on houses in Italy are inspiring and remind you how time and weather affects everything.  When I see mold on a multicolored roof in those areas it speaks volumes of time passing, etc.  Take a drive down the Amalfi coast and walk through those famous towns on the water.  Just breathtaking.

Thanks as ALWAYS!!

Debe Maxwell, CRS Hi Debe, you can face ANY brick building with stucco and it will hold longer than siding.  It STICKS best on a porous or similarly composed molecular surface.  The story about how they patted down and formed the roof tiles is amazing.

Nov 10, 2018 04:53 AM #22
Mary Hutchison, SRES, ABR
Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate-Kansas City Homes - Kansas City, MO
Experienced Agent in Kansas City Metro area

Had to open this blog because of that title!  Those Italian homes, built hundreds of years ago...still standing strong!  Very sad to hear of the earthquakes there destroying so many buildings. Esp enjoyed the tile roof info!

Nov 10, 2018 12:54 PM #23
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Mary Hutchison, SRES, ABR  I wish I could include a whiff of freshly made pasta too!  Earthquakes all along the Mediterranean have ruined many towns and monuments, yes very sad.  The colorful roofs always intrigued me and finally found out why that was so.  Thanks for reading this Mary.

Nov 11, 2018 03:55 AM #24
Patricia Kennedy
RLAH Real Estate - Washington, DC
Home in the Capital

John, I included this post in today's "Last Week's Favorites on ActiveRain.

Nov 11, 2018 01:03 PM #25
Elizabeth Weintraub Sacramento Realtor Top 1%
RE/MAX Gold - Sacramento, CA
Put 40 years of experience to work for you

One of the features I love about centuries old homes in Italy, well, anywhere, pretty much in Europe, is the deep window ledges. You just don't see that today.

While at Teotihuacan in Mexico this spring, we saw a lot of ancient pink plaster made with lime. They made sidewalks, too.

Nov 11, 2018 04:23 PM #26
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Elizabeth Weintraub Sacramento Real Estate Agent, Top 1% of Lyon Agents \

Elizabeth, some of the French castles and older Italian Palazzi have two and three foot wide outer walls.  If a remodeled defensive castle the walls are even thicker.  Window ledges are deep due to this reason.  The Italian country folk realized that to build taller in stone the walls had to be thicker.

When I design larger houses I build out the walls at the Foyer to about a foot to give the impression that the house is substantial.  Archways should have a minimum of 8" width and more if possible at the head and legs.

I have not seen the ancient sites in Mexico but would love to one day.  I had no idea sidewalks were built.  Must have been from stone.  Thanks.

Nov 11, 2018 06:00 PM #27
Michael Jacobs
Pasadena, CA
Los Angeles Pasadena 818.516.4393

Hello John- - -informative and entertaining.  An ideal combination. 

Nov 12, 2018 02:41 AM #28
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Michael Jacobs Thanks Michael.  Unfortunately I can't keep this up.  The stress is killing me... 

Nov 12, 2018 04:54 AM #29
Grant Schneider
Performance Development Strategies - Armonk, NY
Your Coach Helping You Create Successful Outcomes

Good morning John - If I were building a luxury house I would want you to design it.  We can learn from the those old world Italian craftsmen.

Nov 12, 2018 05:22 AM #30
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Grant Schneider Thank you Grant: YOU'VE MADE MY DAY... or two or more.  It's amazing what people have done before we came on the scene.  James Dray knows fully well.

Nov 12, 2018 05:27 AM #31
Debb Janes EcoBroker and Bernie Stea JD
ViewHomes of Clark County - Nature As Neighbors - Camas, WA
REALTORS® in Clark County, WA

So lime is the ingredient missing in today's stucco, eh? Makes sense. You really do know how to write an entertaining and informative blog. So happy to see the feature star too. You earned it - but you're making me yearn for a trip to Italy. :)

Nov 12, 2018 08:32 AM #32
John Henry, Florida Architect
John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc. - Orlando, FL
Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design

Debb Janes EcoBroker and Bernie Stea JD Yes Debb, Italy is a land of imagination, history and wonder.  Venice is just spectacular and Rome and Florence are marvels to behold.  I come back from these trips with amazing memories: sights and sounds.  And then see what little detail and lack of sensory perception in our New World offers -- and jut get frustrated.  Thanks, glad you liked the info.  The Lime da Coconut is the main thing.  Lime actually was used in concrete as well as all the other techniques mentioned except the tile roofs.  Lime apparently makes concrete and terrazzo, wall plaster last longer.  It is biodegradable, unlike our current mixes.   Arrggghhh!!  and it costs too much to put on stucco houses...

Nov 12, 2018 09:19 AM #33
Kevin Mackessy
Blue Olive Properties, LLC - Highlands Ranch, CO
Dedicated. Qualified. Local.

Architecture around the world is always so great to see.  There are so many universal design languages out there.  

Nov 15, 2018 10:59 AM #34
Jan Green
Value Added Service, 602-620-2699 - Scottsdale, AZ
HomeSmart Elite Group, REALTOR®, EcoBroker, GREEN

Wow!  Amazing information.  Since a HUGE portion of our homes are built with stucco here in Phoenix, I was most curious as to how stucco didn't crack and the creation of roof tiles' color and shape.  Read your entire post, fascinating.  Love your baroque design.  Gorgeous! And the additional photos - stunning!  Congrats on your many successes :)

Nov 16, 2018 02:01 PM #35
Scott Miller

Yes but Italian houses are freezing in the winter and hot as hades in the Summer unless there is a breeze.

Nov 19, 2018 09:32 PM #36
Show All Comments

What's the reason you're reporting this blog entry?

Are you sure you want to report this blog entry as spam?


John Henry, Florida Architect

Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design
Ask me a question

Additional Information