The Rimetea Heritage Conservation Project
Philosophy, Aims, Objectives and Results
Over the last ten years the Rimetea Heritage Conservation Project has encouraged the pro-active conservation of the area’s architectural heritage. This project was initiated by heritage professionals to stop the unsympathetic adaptation of Rimetea’s most valuable but greatly threatened historic buildings. Following a recommendation by Dr. Andras Roman, (former ICOMOS vice president) in 1996 the City Council of Budapest’s V.th District decided to financially support the architectural heritage of two Transylvanian villages. These villages were Rimetea and Inlaceni. The principal tool of this conservation program is the grant system co-ordinated by the Transylvania Trust Foundation.
Since 1996 a conservation grant (Grant A) has been offered annually to 130-140 of Rimetea’s historic building owners. All the parties involved in the conservation agreement sign the three conditions attached to the grant: The historic building owners assure that good conservation practice will be carried out on the property. The owners also agree not to change any of the valuable architectural features on the plot. Finally, in cases where changes and/or new development are proposed the owner will take the professional advice of the Transylvania Trust. A restoration grant (Grant B) for larger works can also be obtained through an application.
The Rimetea Heritage Conservation Program is based upon a successful partnership between the Local Authorities and historic buildings’ owners. The program’s strategy was established to protect the settlement’s character. There is no strong desire to restore the buildings to former periods nor to rigidly preserve them. The program’s principal objective is to promote sustainable heritage conservation and demonstrate how this has an important role in a community’s socio-economic development. This approach means that solutions differ from case to case, normally based on compromise.
At the beginning, the program’s main objective was to stop unsympathetic changes. (Alterations to different parts of the settlement suggested a negative trend that could have severely harmed the architectural heritage’s integrity, likewise to the neighbouring Coltesti). In many cases the conservation grant helped avoid this threat. Furthermore, proposed conservation and maintenance works helped secure buildings. More importantly, the attitude of the buildings owners changed. Today, Rimetea’s inhabitants are no longer ashamed to live in historic buildings but actively work towards their preservation.
The first ten years of this grant scheme have produced promising results. The conditions of the conservation agreements were met in the case of 96% of the grant-aided properties, i.e. the appropriate maintenance works were carried out and the valuable architectural and street features were conserved. Generally, sums 100-150% greater than the grant were spent on maintenance and repairs. More than 70 buildings obtained restoration grants following a successful application process. (Inspired by the Europa Nostra Awards ceremony, 111 conservation works, among which 20 substantial fašade restorations were completed just in one summer during 2000).
Part of this program’s strategy is the protection of architectural heritage through ownership. The sponsor (the Vth District Municipality of Budapest), using the legal framework of the Transylvania Trust, purchased a Classicist-style house at the corner of the Main Square (Rimetea nr. 15) in 1998. This building was condemned for demolition but the sponsor’s action saved this structure that was both important architecturally and to the streetscape. The restoration and refurbishment of this building as a holiday home for the sponsors was complete in 2004.
The Trust purchased two endangered properties in 2000. The first, a dwelling house built in 1749, is considered to be the most authentically preserved vernacular building in the Rimetea ethnographic region. The other property was a serf's house, dating from 1668, and is one of the oldest peasant houses of the Carpathian Basin. This property was in a very poor condition. The structural repair works for this house were carried out in the summer of 2002 within the Built Heritage Conservation Training Project, organised in collaboration with the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC, Great Britain).
The scientific foundation of the program is a database containing architectural and structural information on 160 buildings. This information is continually being updated with new research and survey work. An architectural survey of Rimetea’s buildings was carried out between 1996 and 1998. This survey work served as an important educational tool by familiarizing 41 students who participated in the surveys not only with surveying techniques but also with the general principles on vernacular architecture and historic building conservation.
The conservation work provided employment for local craftsmen and the possibility to learn traditional skills necessary for historic building conservation.
Since the beginning of the conservation program, the Trust have used the long-term goal of the development of rural tourism, that uses historic buildings as its infrastructure, along with the short-term financial benefits of the grant scheme. Visitor numbers in Rimetea have increased as a result of the conservation program. In addition, more than 40 owners aided by the program and with professional help and support from the Trust obtained licenses required for rural tourism. Tourism is now the market leading activity in Rimetea.
The development of rural tourism generates an increasing demand for development, change to the existing dwellings and the construction of new houses. The Trust answered this challenge by partially grant-aiding new design and establishing a legal framework for protecting the area. A Conservation Urban Study of Rimetea, later included in the Urban Development Plan, was financed by the Foundation. This was followed by a request to the Ministry of Culture to designate Rimetea a protected area. As a result Rimetea was designated a Conservation Area in 2000. Consequently, all new development proposed in the village, or located in a large buffer zone around it, must be authorized by a Commission for the Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, this governmental body invited the Foundation to control all schemes proposed in the area. This way the Trust’s pro-active work could be complemented by the statutory development control measures. Unfortunately, enforcement of the legal framework is worryingly flexible in Rimetea.
The project is co-ordinated by the Program Director and the Executive Director of the Transylvania Trust. The Co-ordinating Committee makes major strategic and financial decisions. This comprises architects, ethnographers, different heritage professionals and representatives from Rimetea’s Local Council and the Vth District of Budapest. This body also controls design projects.
The Rimetea Heritage Conservation Program was awarded with Europa Nostra Medal in 1999, the highest European award at that time. This accolade acknowledges that the Rimetea program offers an example of viable conservation change based on partnership between local communities and Non Governmental Organisations, in a region where heritage is threatened by rapid socio-economic change.
A wide variety of conservation works have been completed on more than 160 of Rimetea’s historic buildings. These works were generally carried out in phases. The conservation of a whole building was rarely possible due to considerably high costs. Most of the works comprised fašade restoration, roof repairs, structural and/or emergency works. In order to improve the townscape, historic gates were repaired and modern metal gates were replaced with traditional timber ones. External works to more modern dwellings, mainly re-rendering, were also grant aided for the same reason. Over the last two years the cemetery has also become the focus of our activities. Matters concerning the public realm, i.e. squares and streets, were dealt with through design and consultation. However, in the future the Trust will also consider grant aiding the revitalisation of public wells.
Most works carried out under this program were initiated and sometimes even completed by the owners. Sometimes, the Trust suggested to the owner the type of work which was required. In the case of works assisted through the conservation grants (Grant A) the owners did not have to adhere to deadlines or prepare financial reports. However, there were more restrictions with the restoration grants (Grant B). The Committee annually received between 40-60 applications. Only 8-12 of the best applications were selected. These were based on criteria related to the importance and sustainability of the works; along with the architectural value of the buildings. The Trust supervised the implementation of the works but the owners also had a great deal of input. If any deadlines or requirements of the conservation agreement were not met then the historic buildings owners were legally forced to refund the grant.
Fašade restorations were common during the program. Most of the defects in the facades were caused by a lack of regular maintenance. Rimetea’s inhabitants used to whitewash their houses bi-annually, before Easter and the autumn festival of Thanksgiving. This tradition was broken during Communist era. Most of the buildings’ facades looked neglected and cracked with failures even more apparent on the houses rendered with clay.
Moisture also has its own negative effects. Rimetea is rich in underground water and springs. The moisture content of the soil in the area varies through the year. Most of Rimetea’s cellar walls are affected by humidity and this situation is exacerbated by drainage failure and/or the use of cement based repairs.
Uneven subsidence caused cracks on fašades. However, this problem only occurred in a limited area in the village.
A general problem was the minor works that damaged the buildings’ aesthetic qualities. Original colour schemes had been changed, fašade decoration had been simplified or removed and fenestrations had been altered. Cement based renders had also been frequently used. This type of render is not just technically inappropriate but also aesthetically unpleasing.
Most of the works carried out on facades comprised repair, maintenance, improving the building’s technical and aesthetic qualities and conserving its historic merit. Repairs were carried out with lime based mortar and whitewashing was also undertaken in a traditional manner. There were instances were only the whitewash required renewing and others were all the plaster had to be removed except for the decoration. Where required, cracks were filled with mortar. Original colour schemes, mainly white, were restored. The original decoration, fenestrations and/or carved stone details were restored, reconstructed and re-instated, all based on thorough research.
The grant scheme strictly imposed the use of lime based mortar. However, the transition from cement to lime was not an easy process. The attitude of the older generation of renderers, who mainly worked on the construction sites of the old system, was fairly inflexible. However, the reduction of cement in mortars was an achievement in itself. The younger generation, especially those craftsmen who were trained in conservation by the Trust, had a much better attitude.
Old buildings in Rimetea do not have damp proof courses. Two alternative damp proofing methods are physical or chemical barriers. However, these can be very expensive and difficult to install. Additionally, chemical barriers are not assured to work. We therefore tried to convince owners that the best solution for their budget would be to use lime based mortars when repairing their facades. These mortars enabled moisture to escape from walls. We also acknowledged that patching small areas of the plaster every two years was still cheaper than a longer term solution of re-plastering whole facades. Some of the owners used chemical solvents in their mortars - this method did not prove to be efficient. Wherever possible damp was eliminated and drainage was repaired. Despite an almost continuous public awareness exercise that explained the reasoning behind the recommended interventions, we were still faced with owners interpreting the technical solutions incorrectly.
Street facades were at the top of the Foundation’s and owner’s priorities. The repair of facades was carried out at most of the houses within the program’s first year. Gradually, an increasing number of courtyard facades were also repaired. The third step, assisted by the grant process, was that elevations facing neighbouring properties started to be repaired. For this reason five properties in one row were grant aided. The aesthetically pleasing appearance of this row and the success of the works acted as a catalyst for further work.
The repair of clay renders needed a wider knowledge of traditional methods. This work was traditionally carried out by members of the roma community, or by very poor people, therefore even today many craftsmen refuse such jobs. Larger clay rendering schemes required a work force from the Open Air Ethnographic Museum in Cluj.
In recent times, more works are being completed on non-traditional buildings. This has been partly motivated by a hope of future grants or simply by the restoration “mood” in the settlement. Some of the modern buildings were plastered and whitewashed without any grant assistance. The enhancement of the urban fabric is also now encouraged by a special grant scheme.
Clay tiles are the predominant roof covering in Rimetea. Repairs normally entail the re-fixing of tiles and the replacement of damaged ones. Round edged tiles are difficult to buy. A few owners have re-used old tiles from demolished structures. Factories have more recently started to produce appropriate clay tiles. These have been used on a house on Upper Market Row.
The roofs of 18th century structures were covered with split pine shingles made in the Mot Land, (Romanian ethnographic region in the Transylvanian Carpathians) the neighbouring highlands. Most of the shingle roofs in Rimetea were damaged, protected with insulation paper or in some cases with metal sheeting. Total restoration involved the complete recovering of roofs with new shingles. This was carried out at three of the houses in the village. Master craftsmen from Varsag made the new shingles in line with the size and form of the original ones. Site research helped determine the roofs’ form, the angles and decoration. Smoke holes were located their original positions but their form was determined by similar precedents.
The relatively few tin roofs in Rimetea were repaired using traditional repair methods. Missing or corroded sections were replaced. The roof was then cleaned and painted. The school’s metal cladding has been replaced but not within the framework of this grant program. The cladding’s shiny finish is not considered appropriate for a building in this sensitive location.
Repairs to roof structures were carried out when the shingle roof coverings were being restored. The complete reconstruction of a roof structure was only carried out in two instances. A more sympathetic approach, based upon minimal intervention, was applied to the house built in 1668. Here, only damaged elements were replaced. Traditional methods were used to dress and join new timbers.
The original roof forms of two properties that had been altered during the last few decades were restored. Special emergency works were required at house no. 78.
The structural repair of walls was determined by the wall’s structure. Cracks in stonewalls were generally caused by the weakness of the mortar, irregularities of the stone blocks, or the uneven displacement of different wall sections or foundations. Works to foundations were rarely possible. We therefore had to carry out local repairs to cracks. This was obviously only a temporary solution because if the foundation is not stable then cracks will reappear. The structural problems at house no.15 were properly solved whilst a unique situation, demanding special treatment, was carried out at house no.16.
Damage to timber walls was mainly caused by the biological failure of the material itself. The Trust always proposed solutions that replaced only the damaged parts and conserved the remainder of the structure. The restoration of house no.260 and the reconstruction of house no.208 were both interesting professional achievements.
The vaulted cellar at house no.132 had to be consolidated following a failure that had already been treated in the 1970’s, therefore a new repair approach was required.
The refurbishment of structures improved the comfort of apartments and the development of rural tourism. More often, new bathrooms were required. The Trust tried to be present and take a strong stance in the decisions made about the location of new bathrooms. The use of existing rooms was preferred instead of new subdivisions, in some instances additions were proposed. There are examples where bathrooms were installed in timber walled buildings or ancillary structures. The original fabric of these walls was carefully conserved and the visibly historic surfaces were kept. Where ever possible, traditional doors and windows were maintained. The pipe-work was commissioned, and in many cases even completed, by the owners. This varied in quality. The second most frequent demand on the buildings from tourism, was the arrangement of the guest bedrooms, but this did not involve considerable structural change. Cellars were gradually refurbished: two successful restaurants, gift shops and wineries were opened. It is also worth mentioning that some later partitions were removed so that original layouts were reinstated. However, in order to accommodate some of the owners’ needs, the Trust approved the removal of original partitions at two of the properties.
Ten cases of large-scale conservation works have been carried out in this program so far. These are described in detail in the next chapter. Three of these were possible as they were endangered buildings purchased by the Foundation. The rest were enabled by a beneficial change in the buildings’ ownership or were linked to tourism.
Gate restoration and replacement
The restoration of traditional gates had been planned since the start of the program. The large gate at house no.285 and the popular dragon-handled gate at plot no.12 had been on the Trust’s grant list since 1997. Initially, craftsmen that could carry out the appropriate works could not be found. This situation was resolved when a small team of three craftsmen received professional training in 2000. The two important jobs, mentioned above, were completed in 2002. The works were guided by the principle of minimum intervention. The posts and boards were repaired and not replaced, and the joints were carefully repaired. (Minimum intervention meant that only rotten elements were replaced and for years this principle was the largest obstacle in the restoration process. The owners and the craftsmen did not initially accept the partial repair of the gates as they believed that only large-scale replacement would bring successful results). Timber was treated and the appropriate colour schemes were chosen. The colours matched the original, making sure that new elements were recognizable.
The replacement of modern metal gates with traditional ones was successfully launched in-conjunction with the repair of existing gates. The first works improved the streetscape of the Main Square and other important streets. New materials and traditional methods were used in the scheme, in some cases hardwood posts were fixed to the metal posts of former gates.
New Development, Planning, Implementation and Legal Framework
One of the objectives established at the start of the program was that the design of new buildings and additions should be in context with the historic environment. Unfortunately, this area proved to be less successful. In the first years there was no legal framework to support the Trust in controlling design. Since 2000 the whole settlement and a large buffer zone became a designated Conservation Area but enforcement is a slow and difficult process. Between 1996 and 2000 the Foundation could only negotiate with the historic buildings owners by using technical and financial arguments. Our experience about these long and exhausting discussions is bitter. Most owners did not accept aesthetic arguments at all and the technical and financial ones were hardly understood. The requirement of an architectural plan was considered a burden for almost all the inhabitants. In addition, architects were considered necessary but were viewed as an undesirable source of expenditure. Deceiving the system therefore became a regular objective. The success of our conservation work is only apparent to a few insiders who were aware of what would have happened to these buildings if the Foundation had not carried out negotiations. Although some examples of unsympathetic architecture were avoided, the architects and the conservation officers cannot be satisfied. This is because despite the fact that a design had been given permission, the owners always changed parts of the agreed scheme and something different was constructed. Later, those owners that had been primarily influenced either by their own fixed ideas or by the craftsmen recognised their mistake.
Two important studies were carried out between 1998 and 2000. The Foundation financially supported a case study on the settlement’s historic core. This was later used as a basis for an Urban Development Plan, required for issuing building permits. It’s a relative success that parts of the Foundation’s research is incorporated in these studies.
One of the Foundation’s greatest achievement was the settlement’s designation. After several attempts, the Ministry of Culture finally declared the whole village an architectural Conservation Area. Consequently, building permits for development in the village and in the large buffer zone can only be issued following the authorisation of the Zonal Committee of the Ministry of Culture.
Since 2000 The Foundation’s position has gradually strengthened. The Transylvania Trust has been acting in an advisory role to the Zonal Committee since 2004. All building permits are issued after consultation with the Trust’s specialised committee. Although this legal framework is in place, planning still involves long negotiations and growing frustration on all sides. Basic attitudes have changed considerably but we still do not have examples of good quality contemporary architecture which is sympathetic to the historic environment. However the involvement of the Trust has successfully avoided additional damage, and more intrusive alterations.
The Utilitas design company, the Trust’s twin institution, designed the new buildings and/or additions in the program’s first year. Later, other firms were also involved. If the Trust is asked to suggest a suitable architect for a scheme then an architect trained in historic conservation is recommended. However, it is also quite normal for the Foundation to co-operate with design firms, chosen by the owners, who do not have any affinity with the historic environment.
However, we have to admit that over the last ten years good quality projects have been carried out. Sadly, due to the lack of finances some were not built. The conversion and extension at property no.259 was undertaken successfully. It is a pity that the new extension to house no.15, was simplified due to financial restrictions. The design for house no.1 was slightly altered by the owner during construction. The design and execution for House no.224 was completed in good co-operation with the owner. This project is still unfinished. We tried to redesign the scheme for no.254 so that it was in-keeping with the historic environment but this project has also been slightly altered. The same happened with the design for house no.14. In 1997 a good quality plan for plot no.235 was completed but it is highly likely that it will never be built due to a lack of finances. These projects were all controlled by a committee, which represented the Trust. Unfortunately, the quality of more recent projects is not as high. Negotiations during the construction of house no.186 positively influenced its design. There are situations in Rimetea were structures have been built without any permits. Sadly, the Local Authorities are not handling these situations strongly enough. The worst works were carried out in the same neighbourhood of house no. 299. The form, materials and proportions of this new house detract from the area’s character.
Some projects were retrieved from misguided interventions through the work of the Foundation which was acting in parallel with the legal committees in charge. Sadly, despite long negotiations and an appropriate design, some buildings have been constructed completely different, for example house no.201. Unfortunately, even today many people prefer the illegal option, including influential personalities among the local community.
Many of the projects which are controlled by our Foundation refer to buildings from the buffer zone. This area, especially the valley connecting Rimetea with Buru, has suffered major changes over the last five years. Two large Orthodox monasteries and dozens of holiday houses have been built in this area. Most of these structures were built before 2004 but the land is still sold and even today construction continues. Many of the buildings were illegally constructed. Under the present circumstances, the Trust does not apply severe restrictions for the area next to the Orthodox monasteries which is the farthest from the village. There are stricter conditions on materials and buildings proportions in the proposed buffer zone of the future World Heritage Site. Obviously, the Trust tries to be as firm as possible in Rimetea’s historic core and its immediate setting. Considering the general situation of the country as far as the enforcement of construction regulations is concerned the Trust’s situation is not easy. However, as more and more projects arrive on the desk of the Trust’s Committee the authorizing procedures are slowly being accepted by the community.
As a result of the experiences over the last decade we can conclude that historic building conservation has become an important activity in everyday life in Rimetea. Undoubtedly, the historical integrity of the architectural heritage has been preserved thanks to the grant scheme. The condition of Rimetea’s buildings has been improved and rural tourism has created conditions for the sustainable development of heritage conservation. Most importantly, Rimetea’s inhabitants now appreciate traditional values and acknowledge that the conservation of historic architecture is not just a cultural obligation but also an economical opportunity. On the other hand we also have to concede that as tourism develops it is not only beneficial but may also be a threat. The battle to designate the village as an Unesco World Heritage Site, to protect the cultural landscape around the settlement and to control the architectural quality of the new development in the village is still undecided. The possibility of losing historic buildings through demolition is less and less but we have to be aware of inappropriate decoration, poor additions and unsympathetic new buildings. The ability to apply correct aesthetic judgement and the respect of professional opinion is insufficient within the thinking of the every day influential younger generation, and the efficiency of enforcing the legislation comparable with the national average is still worrying. Although, almost every participant of Rimetea’s public life is interested in successful heritage conservation there are major differences as far as the methodology is concerned and this can be a risk.
It is therefore obvious that Rimetea’s heritage conservation program still faces many tasks and challenges and we hope that the diminishing financial support will not force the Trust to give up its objectives. We hope that the forthcoming decade will bring new results and accomplishments just like the first ten years.