The Sala Nobile: the main family room of the house; the driest and coolest in the summer; the most naturally lit with the best ventilation and proportion


Published: 27 Oct 2021
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Architect Chris Briffa is known for his sympathetic work with old buildings. He gives his advice on how to bring an old property into the 21st century, without losing its heart

What are the challenges of renovating an old building to make it a modern home?

It’s challenging and often even costlier, to live in an old building. Some people can live with the humidity, crumbling walls, and constant maintenance, while others can’t. One of the most common mistakes when purchasing an old property is that people tend to be romantic or nostalgic and that they might not realise what they’re going in for. 

One of the biggest challenges of old buildings is being able to install modern building services without causing obvious, and often irreparable, damage to the architectural spaces. This was a major concern with The Harbour Club, for instance, a challenge which we overcame through the creation of a kiosk-like space on the exterior of the build to hide and contain the backbone of the services infrastructure: ACs, water & gas supply, extraction and so on.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, living or refitting an old building to a new use can bring about very rewarding qualities: specificity, honesty, details, and character that modern spaces generally lack. Somehow the proportions of an old building are so faithful and innately local, in keeping with both climate and history – factors that add pleasure and comfort when living within such spaces. 

What should be your aim when designing a new function to an old structure?

I guess one should primarily do his best to understand the building, its history, and various layers, and the concerns of its previous inhabitants. That is why I often find myself going back on-site to revisit a design or a detail, even after works are in full swing. I camped for about two weeks in my first apartment to grasp how it felt, and to understand how the light changed accordingly from space to space during different hours of the day, and I still changed its layout dozens of times before I settled. 

One should aim at striking a balance – between understanding what is crucial to retain and safeguard within a space, and what is not. During the actual works and transformation of an old space, one really needs to be present on-site, and be more flexible to adapt and welcome changes and alterations that might make more sense than the original designs.  

‘When I walk around an old building I cannot help myself from imagining all those hands, which have worked on each and every element around me’

How do you mix old and new?

There is no formula here. Each renovation scheme is unique and has its own set of patterns – each project is a prototype; a building is designed around its context and its clients, their family, and their way of life: a story in its own right.  

However, a good example would be with the flooring. In my new office, I managed to salvage all the old patterned tiles in the building apart from the ones on the ground floor. Here we had to revisit the floorings because of serious issues with humidity, so I opted for a cast, polished concrete floor. Concrete has natural cloudiness, stains, and texture – qualities that lend themselves well with the monolithic spaces of masonry structures; somehow marrying happily with the imperfections of the rest of the building. 

What are the commonly made mistakes?

At the moment I am quite upset with the Boutique Hotel cliché developments, which are taking Valletta by storm. There are many of them that are coldly splitting the Sala Nobile in their palazzos in order to maximize space and win more rooms, often with irreparable concrete structures that will be impossible to reverse in the future. These people are destroying the DNA of the city and its finest monuments since the Sala Nobile was the main family room of the house; the driest and coolest in the summer; the most naturally lit with the best ventilation and the proportions that reflected the status of the people who built it hundreds of years ago. They fail to realise that guests will pay double and even more in order to be able to stay in these unique spaces, which are slowly disappearing and will one day become more valuable than the hotel itself or its number of rooms. 

Another common mistake is to relegate all the building services on the roof slab instead of planning to hide them elsewhere; with the result of losing the best outdoor areas of the building. I often do my best to devise a well-ventilated space within the structure and rid the roof of ugly AC units or water tanks.  

How do you insulate the building? Protect against damp?

Insulation is normally effective externally, and because one needs to respect and protect old façades, it’s not always easy to achieve. The roof, however, is typically the most important envelope to insulate, and here one can easily utilise properly detailed thermal insulation coupled with effective waterproofing. Other elements like canopies or decking or any kind of shading devices are also effective, while a roof garden with a minimum of 50cm of soil is the ultimate insulation. 

Damp, on the other hand, is always a persistent pest, and the best way to deal with it is always to ensure constant natural (or at times forced) ventilation in all the lower floors. 

What original elements should one always try and keep? What’s best to get rid of?

When I walk around an old building I cannot help myself from imagining all those hands, which have worked on each and every element around me. That innate beauty, at times with evident imperfections, which one-day will become so rare that future generations will value more than us. 

As much as possible, I would recommend getting rid of nothing; retain as much as you can; from the volume of rooms to the floors and apertures. At times one needs to remove later additions – such as elements not forming part of the original; or produce openings to improve lighting and ventilation – but in general, a good rule of thumb is that one never completely destroys what was there before; always leaves a trace of the layers which formed part of the story and try and make all new interventions easily reversible in the future.