Buying and Restoration
There are some important things to consider before you buy a house or riad in Fès. Or even start looking for one in fact. Here are some points to consider:
Your price range: Think about how much you are prepared to spend on your house and what sort of house you can buy with that budget. Remember to consider restoration costs when deciding a budget.
The location: There are many different areas in Fez with many different architectural styles, and prices!
The type of house: A large riad, a small house/dar or something in between?
The condition: The condition of a house can seriously affect the price. Unless you are experienced in restoration you may miss vital warning signs that the house is going to require a lot of work, and money to restore it.
The purpose of the house: For example, do you intend to make a Maision d'hote, hotel or guesthouse? Perhaps you are just looking to make a small holiday home or even try some property development.
The restoration costs: Don't break the bank buying the house. Remember that it usually costs the same to restore the house as it does to buy it, sometimes more! Speak to people with experience in restoration to get a ball park figure of the restoration costs.
Try not to visit too many houses/riads in one day. Take a camera and make notes so you can review the houses you viewed at the end of the day.
Once you have decided upon a house that you would like to buy you will need to make an appointment with an adul or notaire.
Fees associated with buying a house in Fès:
Agent's fees (usually 2.5% for a local agent and 5-10% for an international agent)
Notaire's (usually 1%) or addul's (500-1500 Dh tip) fees
Gratification of deeds (3.5%)
Court payment (1%)
Figures expressed as a percentage of the purchase price.
Although each renovator has different goals (creating a guest house or holiday rental, a hobby or an investment) and constraints (time and availability of funds) the order of the work in a good restoration is principally the same.
To avoid workmen and artisans damaging each others' work it is important that the renovator completes the restoration in the correct order; Structural problems are solved first, followed by any new modifications to the building's structure, followed by the 1st fix plumbing and electricity and so on.
Below is an example of a Gantt Chart for typical restoration.
When choosing an architect and/or a contractor it is important that you feel that this is someone you trust, can communicate with and has similar tastes and values to yourself. In addition you should certainly see some of the contractor's previous and current works to make sure that you feel comfortable with their standards. References from previous clients are great also.
If you decide to move to Fez to supervise the restoration of your house or ryad yourself then it is important that you have somebody who has experience about restoration in Fès to help you. Use the same techniques in the paragraph above to find good consultants and craftsmen.
Before you start your restoration you must first get a building permit. Currently there are four types of building/restoration permits (roxa e'sla) available to house owners in Fez:
V2 - This is the simplest type of permit and is suitable for minor work such as re-tiling and plastering. No modifications
V2+ - The same as V2 but with the addition of the option to do structural work.
Authorisation to restore a traditional house - Allows the owner to add bathrooms, kitchens as well as doing simple repairs to the house.
Authorisation to create a guest house or maison d'hotes - Allows the owner to restore a house with the intention of opening a guest house.
There is an information leaflet in the local planning department (Baladiya) explaining what papers are necessary for each type of renovation permission. Typically you will need a copy of your passport and a copy of your deeds. If you are doing structural work you will need a letter of supervision from an engineer. If you are making any modifications you will need (several) copies of architects plans (pre and post renovation) of the house or ryad.
Getting a building permit can be a long and frustrating process (especially if you plan to make modifications to the property). Not only can an architect draw the necessary plans that you may need for the permit, it is also likely that they will provide invaluable help in facilitating the application process.
Rachid Haloui. Architect. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel.: +212 (0) 535 62 00 25, +212 (0) 661 13 56 70
Youssef Berrahou. Architect. tel.: +212 (0) 535 61 22 63, +212 (0) 663 08 08 32
Zaina T Charaf El Ouedghiri . Structural Engineer e-mail: email@example.com, tel.: + 212 (0) 535 94 16 72, + 212 (0) 661 64 57 16
There are advantages and disadvantages to choosing a moroccan or an expat to restore your house in Fez. For the sake of fairness we have listed one of each - People who we believe to be the most honest, relaible and of course producing excellent results:
Moroccan: Jawad Bedairi e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel.: +212 (0) 662 24 60 56
Expat: Bonnie Kaplan. e-mail: email@example.com, tel.: +212 (0) 670 89 25 64
Types of guest houses and rules
Financial advice here is given informally. We strongly recommend you speak to a financial advisor before investing in property in Morocco.
Foreign investors are advised to open a convertible bank account. This should allow investors to expatriate their investment capital and any profits. To do this all capital brought into Morocco must be registered with the Office des changes, within six months. Please see below for assistance about setting up a convertible account.
Please see our House Buying Section (above).
Taxes for house owners
Municipal taxes or 'Rates' in Morocco are calculated at 10% of the yearly rental value of the property.
Taxes for sellers
Capital gains tax is calculated at 20% of the difference between the purchase price and the sale price, less purchase and renovation expenses and interest payments. A minimum capital gains tax is set at 3% of the selling price.
Exemptions for properties less than 1,000,000 Dh: If the house or riad has been the vendor's main dwelling for the past 5 years then they are exempt from capital gains tax.
Exemptions for properties more than 1,000,000 Dh: If the dar or property has been the seller's main dwelling for the past 8 years then they are exempt from capital gains tax.
Taxes for rental - Coming soon
Abdelatif El Quortobi. Accountant and business consultant. (Casablanca based) e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel.: +212 (0) 22 26 36 70, +212 (0) 661 16 54 85
Abdelhay Bahhad. SGMB Banker to see about opening a convertible account. e-mail: email@example.com, tel.: +212 (0) 535 94 94 50
Fouad Ouzzine. Director of the Center for Regional Investment, Fes. tel.: + 212 (0) 535 65 20 57
In July 2005 We moved to Morocco to restore an old traditional house in the medina of Fez. During our time in the Fes medina we have learnt a great deal from our experiences and advice from friends. We have created a diary our our experiences during the restoration of our house so others can learn from them. We hope that you find this useful, informative and enjoyable.
Please note that this is a diary of our experiences, yours may differ. One of the little joys of living in Fès is that ten people can go through the same procedures yet experience ten completely different events.
July 26th 2005:
Journey from England to Morocco: There are many routes into Morocco. We decided to take the longer scenic route to Fez, which at the time was cheaper. There are now direct flights into Fez at a decent price, which speed the journey up. Our route involved flights from Bristol to Malaga and then a coach to Algecerias, on the South coast of Spain. Here we crossed the mouth of the Mediterranean to Tangier in the North of Morocco. To be a walk on passenger on the ferry crossing from Algecerias to Tangier is well worth the 32 Euros. The first sight of the African hills appearing on the horizon will never fail to bring a smile to my face. This can be one of the best ways to arrive in Africa.
Addition: There is also a ferry available from the small surfer town of Tarifa. Tarifa is a much nicer place to spend the night or travel through in our experience than Algecerias. For details of travelling to and from Fès look here.
This part of our journey took most of the day so we spent a night in Tangier. We stayed in the Continental Hotel which is just a stones throw away from the port. It is just on the edge of the old Medina and has lots of traditional Moroccan artefacts. At 400dhs for a double (including breakfast) it is not the most luxurious hotel in Morocco but it is still very reasonable.
After a well deserved nights sleep we embarked onto the Moroccan railways (ONCF). The train journey to Fes took about five hours and cost about 120dhs. The train journey was very comfortable. Most of the coaches have air conditioning and very comfortable seats in small 8 or 6 person cabins. There was plenty of elbow room and ample space for baggage. Meaning you can be in relative comfort to watch the beautiful Moroccan countryside roll past en route to Fez.
Arriving in Fes: The Fez Medina is a beautiful and enchanting place to be. I will always feel lucky to be among the small number (but growing) of foreigners who live in a dar or riad in the Medina of this magical city. On entering the Medina your senses will immediately be engulfed by the amazing sights and smells. With only people and donkeys you will feel cocooned from the chaos of the modern world. This traditional centre with tiny, cobbled streets leaves you feeling as if you have stepped back in time to a captivating ancient world.
Once we had reached Fez by train we headed for one of the small, red, fasi taxis. Everybody who got off the train seemed to have the same idea and unfortunately the queuing systems that we were used to in England do not exist. It was every man for himself. After a short wait we found one and headed for Batha (pronounced Bat Ha, otherwise the driver may believe you would like to see a shoe shop or could just look at you in confusion). The taxi journey is about 10dhs to the medina. At the sight of foreigners just off a train some drivers will try to get some more money than they should. Just ensure they turn on the meter and you should have no problems. Visitors to Fes who have been to Marrakech will be relieved that drivers who don't turn the meter on are very, very rare.
We reached the Fez Medina in a few minutes. Batha or Bab Boujloud are a great places for new arrivers to the Fes medina. There are several taxis, shops and cafes. This will also start you off at the top end of the Medina. It is a good place to be begin your exploration of the enchanting labyrinth that is the Fez Medina. In this area you will find two of the largest commercial streets. These are named Tala'a Kbira and Tala'a Sghira. For your first visit to the Medina it would be worth investing in a guide or the extremely good book Fes from Bab to Bab - Walks in the Medina (Which comes with a fantastic map). Both methods will reduce the likely hood of getting lost among the maze like streets. Our dar/house is in a small side street at the top end of Tala'a Sghira. Close to the hustle and bustle, but secluded from the noise.
Dar Seffarine: For our first night we had arranged to stay with friends of ours named Alaa and Kate. They own a large beautiful riad in R'cif (Dar Seffarine) which had been recently meticulously restored.
Estate agents: The efficiency of western estate agent systems do not seem to exist here. Offices with pictures of houses and set prices are far from the norm. This means searching for houses and riads tends to prove much more difficult than most people expect. Word of mouth is an extremely important business method in the Medina. The local estate agents are called simsars (in Moroccan dialect this literally translates to snake venom, needless to say sometimes estate agents get a bad reputation!). Getting simsaars to stick to your budget and produce houses/dars/riads which are value for money can take a long time and is extraordinarily hard work. It is normal to pay simsaars each day they show you a selection of houses/dars/riads in the medina. If you buy a house that they show you it is usual to pay 2.5% of the purchase price. Some foreign ran estate agents charge more due to higher overheads. Generally they have website and small portfolios so they offer a more efficient service for the extra money.
Handover transactions: There were two families already living in the first dar we purchased in Fez. The negotiations took 4 months and involved a number of problems. Problems do not always occur but they are very common. It is important to have all transactions overseen by the notaire or addul. The final meeting with previous occupants was at our Addul's office (located in Fes Djedid). We handed over the outstanding balance and received the keys for the house. Before the final transaction it is wise to check that everything has been left in the house as you would expect. It has been known for owners to remove items from the house that are assumed to be included, such as boilers and even doors.
August and September 2005:
Moving in: It is important to change any existing locks immediately to make the dar/riad safe. New locks can be found throughout the medina in local shops. It is common for houses/ryads to be left in living conditions that we would not be used to, for example, no hot water or cooking facilities. We gave ourselves a week to get to a suitable standard of living. This involved cleaning the house from top to bottom, then we fitted a shower head, bought a bed, cooking equipment and fitted a new traditional toilet as all the existing ones were blocked.
Once we had the house clean and liveable, and the stress had lifted, we were able to sit back and really appreciate the beauty of the house. The first few days were busy and tiring but it was a joy to be living under the roof of our very own stunning Moroccan dar!
One of the main problems we encountered in our first month in our new Moroccan house was cockroaches! The house was infested and continued to get worse as summer unfolded. However we did manage to get control over the situation after a couple of weeks of laying traps and carefully packing away food. Do not worry I have not subsequently heard of anyone having the problem that we did, I think we were just very unlucky! It is not usual and the problem is over now.
Supermarkets: One of the first things we did was set ourselves up with some modern necessities. We bought a mattress, fridge and cooker from a modern supermarket on the outskirts of Fez called Marjane. Marjane is a short taxi ride from the Medina. There was a large range of mattresses of which most of you would be able to find in Europe, for similar price. All are available to buy in and around the Medina but being new to Fez we chose the easier option (Marjane delivers large items and its possible to buy the whole lot in one swoop). There is also a smaller supermarket in the ville novella called Acima and a larger cash and carry called Metro just past Marjane.
Furniture: There is an abundance of places in the Fes Medina to buy furniture. As you would expect some carpenters are better than others. Also the prices may vary from carpenter to carpenter. As with all craftsmen it is wise to use the recommendations of others. If you have the time to look around you will be able to get some beautiful handcrafted furniture for a good price with the option of having furniture made to your specifications. We were after a table and chairs quickly so instead we went to the lovely antiques (some pieces are of a questionable age and origin!) area in the Fez Djeddid. You may have to hunt but you can find some nice western style furniture for a very reasonable price. Try also the Sunday market, it can be found close to Marjane on a Sunday morning.
Telephone and internet: We set about organising a telephone line and with broadband internet in our second week in the house. We spent over an hour in the Maroc Telecom office finding out set up costs, call charges, the process and anything else we needed to know. From then on we found the whole process easy and within 8 days we had the system up and running. (However we have heard of incidences of the process taking nearly 2 months!)
Learning Moroccan Arabic: We were welcomed into the Moroccan community within days of being in the Fez medina. The culture here is one of a strong family and community spirit. It is a lovely feeling being embraced into it. We instantly enjoyed the busy life of the Medina and relaxed café culture that Morocco has to offer. We knew that speaking the local Moroccan dialect would help get to know the locals. It would also allow us to communicate with craftsmen more easily. We began a course at the American Language Institute Fes (www.alif-fes.com) to learn the local dialect of Moroccan Arabic, darreja. The institute also provides courses in classic Arabic. We really enjoyed our course and the one-to-one lessons sped up the learning process more than we imagined. We found that speaking even a small amount of the language gave us much more respect from the locals and helps us to stand out from most tourists.
Addition: Laying the foundations (please excuse the pun) at ALIF has enabled us to build a good grasp of local dialect, especially around the worksite. We would really recommend a short course for anybody considering buying a house and spending time in Fes.
Preparation for work: We spent the next twelve weeks preparing ourselves for the beginning of the restoration. This included creating floor plans, deciding the optimum layout for the house, finding the prices for building materials, speaking to local artisans and researching the traditional building methods used within the Fez Medina. This involved as much work everyday as the actual restoration process! However, it was more than worth it in the end. When working in Morocco it can feel as if it is a land of smoke and mirrors. There are several different contradictory 'truths' to every question. Almost everything that is said to you needs to be taken with a donkey load of salt. For example, if you ask for assistance it is common for people to take the “leave it all to me approach”. This can end you up in a worse situation than when you began! After twleve weeks of hard work we created comprehensive price lists for wood, zelij, marble, electricity and plumbing. This is extremely valuable commodity as price lists don’t seem to exist here.
Craftsmen: Before work started we also spent several weeks researching craftsmen (malameen). Almost all Moroccans in the Medina would like to work for a foreigner. However good, honest, reliable and skilled craftsmen are certainly hard to find (as with anywhere in the world!), especially ones who are familiar with the traditional skills used hundreds of years ago. We have heard of horror stories of work. For example, many stories of botched work, beautiful zelij, carved wood and plaster being ripped out due to misunderstandings and people having to pay for work to be done several times. To save as much time and money as possible we interviewed several craftsmen for each trade and saw as many examples of completed work as possible. Usually for the best craftsmen one must expect to wait a little for their services and pay a little more than average. This extra small expense (perhaps 10-20 Dhs a day) is likely to save money, time and stress in the long run.
Ramadan: Ramadan began in early in October. During Ramadan it is compulsory for all Muslims to fast during daylight hours. This includes food, water, smoking and generally all bad habits. This means that most shops open at times that are different from usual. Cafes and restaurants are mostly closed, until about an hour after the sun sets. And of course peoples' tempers are a little shorter than usual. Also due to the fasting the workers do fewer hours than on a regular day.
The medina roads are lined with shops selling sweet treats that Moroccans gorge themselves on at sunset. The streets came alive during the evenings and the festivities can be heard long into the night, particularly at the beginning and end of Ramadan. Also when Ramadan ends there are 3-4 days of l’aide, a time for family and eating! All work will stop during this time.
Building Permits: Before work can start on a house/riad/dar in the medina it is compulsory to get a building permit. In Morocco this is called a Roxa. Before one starts work one must have a Roxa. The results of being caught working without a building permit is very serious. They could involve fines and or even having your builders imprisoned. The Roxa is gained from your local balladeers. It can be a painfully slow process but you must just be patient. For more information about getting a roxa look here.
The restoration begins!: Once we had our building permit work could begin on our small but beautiful dar/house. We started the builders on relatively simple jobs, in order to test of the building team's competence before they started more complex work.
Our main aim whilst doing the restoration and renovation was to preserve the beautiful craftsmanship in the house, whilst also modernising it to western standards. The Moroccan dar had amazingly ornate and intact zelij from top to bottom. It would have been a travesty if damage occurred that could have been avoided. To avoid problems we laid down protective sheet and plaster on the floor where appropriate before beginning any work to avoid problems.
Our Moroccan dar/house was in an extremely good structural state. There were however small areas of the house which did have to be fixed. For example there was an almost vertical crack up the wall in one of the bathrooms. To restore this part of the zelij was carefully removed. Then the mortar and bricks were replaced. The builders completed every task at a good speed, with a lot of skill and they kept us updated on all the developments. We were then and continue to be more than happy to work with them.
The first job we set about was to build kitchen units in one of our smaller rooms. The work surfaces are made from cement, gravel and sand supported by being mounted with the help of steel 10cm inside the walls. Design was important as we had to fit a practical and comfortable kitchen in a very small place. This would help to make peoples stay in Fes a bit more relaxing should they wish to dine by themselves rather than going out to one of the Medina's many restaurants or street cafes. The finish would be a Moroccan marble work surface and plenty of storage space and light.
We also started one of the bathrooms. Upon arrival this room was used by the previous occupants as a kitchen. The zelij was in terrible condition. The previous owners had used cement to form a water protective layer over the zelij. Unfortunately this had not worked and there was extensive water damage to the wooden floor boards. We therefore had to remove the zelij floor to replace the wood. The main cost of this was replacing the zelij and wood. The more intricate the design of the zelij the more one pays.
Plumbing: We were now ready to install the plumbing. We met a number of plumbers and spent many hours researching materials. It is vital that plumbing is done well as bad workmanship can result in major problems. We chose a material that was low cost, very easy to work with, yet extremely durable. The pipes if installed well are just as good as copper yet do not corrode like steel.
Once we had prepared the walls and floors we were ready to lay the pipes. The bathroom was to have a modern toilet, spacious shower and a grand wash basin. The bathroom and the toilet are in adjacent rooms. Above the toilet room is a light shaft to the roof. We hoped to make this a feature of the bathroom as well as a convenient hideaway for the gas boiler, gas bottles and exhaust pipe.
November and December 2005
Waterproofing the roof: With the rainy season beginning things started to get surprisingly cold and wet in Morocco. Especially in Fes! Despite the weather, Fez remained a beautifully enchanting place.
With the first rains we discovered that parts of our roof were far from waterproof. With flat terrace roofs waterproofing is essential. We began by creating a temporary wood and plastic sheet structure over our roof to keep away the majority of the rain. This killed two birds with one stone as it prevented damage to our roof and kept the builders warm and dry whilst they removed the old surface and laid down a traditional waterproof layer.
The whole roof was covered in horrible tiles, under which was a thick layer of cement. If you were to explore further you would find as much as 40cm of dirt (soon we hope to write about the wonderful thermal characteristics of the design of the medina) between the surface of the terrace and the wooden boards of the ceiling below. The builders set to work by chipping away all of the old tiles and removing the layer of cement. This was a long and hard task. In some places the cement was very thick and it took several hours to remove a few square metres.
The process took even longer due to the way in which building waste has to be removed in the Fez medina. All of the rubble is put into small bags which are taken away by donkeys. Each donkey can carry three bags at a time. The removal process requires men to handle the donkeys, fill the bags and work the pulley to get the bags from the roof of the house to the street. When you imagine that over 1000 bags had to be taken away you get an idea of the time it takes. This is why already time consuming tasks take a lot longer in the Moroccan medina houses.
Once the surface was removed we used a traditional Moroccan waterproofing method called Adfera. This consists of a mortar mix of Moroccan lime and Fez sand. This is laid on the floor to create a slope and fragments of bricks are pushed into the mixture. It looks like crazy paving until it dries and all the cracks seal up as the mortar expands over the bricks. Whilst we had the floor up we installed a cold water tap for the roof, hot and cold water for our mensah (room on roof) and new wide diameter drainage to help protect the roof further. Since the roof has been finished it has intermittently rained hard, and believe us when we say the method works!
Roof: The mensah roof was in very poor condition. It had been poorly constructed using steel, cement and gravel. This construction was a dangerously sagging in the middle. For safety of those working on the roof we removed the mensah roof. The builders made light work of it and it was gone in a day and a half. We intend to replace this roof with traditional wooden beams. We will start this work upon completion of the rest of the house. We plan to make the roof as high as possible, add a fireplace and enlarge the window facing the beautiful view overlooking the Fes medina and the surrounding mountains. Once finished this will be a lovely area, no matter what the weather you will be able to sit, relax and feast your eyes on the beautiful Fes medina.
From many of the houses/dars/riads you can admire the whole of the picturesque Fes medina. Our view is in amongst the best I have seen with a beautiful panoramic vista. Among the sights from the roof you can see the Kairaoine mosque, Moulay Idriss Mausoleum and the Merinid tombs along with the wonderful backdrop of mountains.
We wanted to make the most of this superb roof area. We plan to make a viewing chair so a guest can sit comfortably in the sun. So you can sit it peaceful quiet and feel as if the medina is under your feet.
We travelled back to England in time for Christmas. We enjoyed the much needed break by spending the Christmas period and a few weeks after with friends and family. We had forgotten how cold and wet England can be but we were grateful for a few weeks of log fires, Christmas spirit and the company of those we had missed. (and fish and chips)
After a month in England we returned to the medina rested and ready to begin the restoration where we left off. We applied for a new building permit, and waited patiently for the application to process.
Trip to Marrakech: We made the most of the wait for our Roxa to take a short break to Marrakech. Until this point we had not seen Marrakech and were interested to see how the many years of tourist development had left the city. We tried to see as much of it as possible in three short days. It is a beautiful city, with many lovely sites to see, and is close to the Atlas mountains. Although we have to admit the high level of tourism has taken its toll on the atmosphere of the town, including the pollution! One of the plus sides of the tourism is that Marrakech boasts many cosmopolitan restaurants with extremely good food and many stylish, chic maison d'hotes.
Sites we saw included the place Jamai Fna, fascinating in the evening. The Medersa Ben Youssef is extremely interesting and has been beautifully restored. And of course the stunning Atlas mountains which range from Fez past Marrakech to the south of Morocco.
The riads of Marrakech differ greatly from those of Fes. Marrakech riads are only allowed to build up to the height palm trees, meaning they tend to be limited to two levels. Also as Marrakech is a city built on flat land views from the terraces don't compare to those of Fes. We only had time to see a small number of riads and masion d'hotes. The examples we saw had been designed with a beautiful, elegant and chic take on traditional Moroccan decorating methods. However, there seemed to be very little of the original architecture left. We much prefer the traditional houses in Fes.
After three days of enjoying a more hectic and cosmopolitan life style we were definitely ready to return to the comparatively peaceful Fes. On return from Marrakech we had our Roxa in hand, builders on site and the restoration continued.
Electricians: With the builders working away happily on the roof finishing off bits and pieces, we decided to make a start on rewiring the electrics for the entire house (the wires looked as old as the house!). We had already designed the layout for most of the rooms and done most of the tunnelling to speed up the process. We spoke to a few electricians, found someone we were happy with and two days later he began.
We had already wired our own living area and were more than aware of how it can be fiddly and time consuming wiring old medina houses. Our knowledge of wiring meant we were easily able to keep a watchful eye over work done. Although within a couple of days it was clear that this wasn't necessary. We were more than happy with their dedicated, thorough work ethic, and flexibility to allow us to um and ah about certain lighting layouts.
Zelij craftsmen: We were coming to the end of the building work. We had to prepare ourselves to start the next stage of the restoration.
We began by speaking to several zeliji's, discussing prices and looking at their work. We found a zeliji that we liked and had him do a simple repair job as a test. We had decided that for such a vital part of the restoration we had better be 100% sure that we had found the right man.
The work of our first zeliji was excellent. He replaced a some damaged zelij in our small toilet. Even though he was using the old pieces (which we try to do where possible, they have a nicer colour) which are harder to re-lay the standard of work was very impressive. Unfortunately his work was very slow and expensive, partly due to him disappearing for a few days to work in other riads. As well as quality, the price, speed of work and flexibility of the worker are important to us. We have set ourselves a deadline to have the house ready for the sacred music festival of Fez. We had to find a more flexible worker.
We found another zeliji by asking our existing contacts. His previous work was renovating an old riad in Batha to be a maison d'hote and restaurant. He has many contacts and friends from this experience and his address book has been very useful!
The zelijis were very good. They fitted the floor of one of our small kitchens to a very good standard in one day. They have also repaired lots of areas that were showing their age badly. They are currently waiting for the last of the rain to stop before they start their biggest job in the house: Laying zelij on the terrace.
Second house: The work on Dar Settash was moving rapidly. We had noticed a rapid growth in foreign interest in houses, dars and riads in Fes medina. We had been looking at houses for sale in our spare time. We had foreseen for many months that the real estate market in Fez would really take off. After many months, and with over sixty houses seen we finally found a small house that really stood out.
Immediately we started the purchase process. We successfully negotiated a price that we were happy with for the dar and got our names put onto the deeds during the following week. We agreed a contract which allows the current owners three months to organise their new house before we get the keys. It is a lovely dar, much more humble in size than Dar Settash (the name we decided for our house, it literally translates to House 16) but with equal amounts of character. We are really looking forward to starting work.
Plaster craftsmen: The condition of the plaster in the house was a bit of a mixed bag. Some was in excellent condition and just needed a thin skim of fresh plaster to clean it up (The Moroccans call this piće as it involves picking small holes in the plaster to help the new layer stick to the old). Unfortunately a lot of the plaster was in very bad condition and needed to be replaced completely. You might often see craftsmen tapping the walls with their knuckles. If it sounds solid then the plaster is good, if there is a hollow noise the plaster could be poor.
As well as restoring the plaster on the walls there was a lot of carved plaster to be repaired. In some places the plaster just needed 'touching up'. However in some places the plaster was so badly damaged that it had to be taken off the wall and started from fresh. The method the craftsmen use is as follows: First the area is prepared by applying a large amount of new plaster to the area. Then a template is made of the original design (usually made with a piece of paper that had been salvaged from the building site, very little goes to waste in a restoration project). Once the template has been drawn and cut it is held against the area in question. Then the craftsmen use cement in a muslin bag and pat the template, leaving an outline of the design on the plaster. The design is then carved with a small chisel. Once the design has been carved it is usually painted black or grey in places.
Roof progress and halka repair: Progress so far had been to remove the old cement off the walls and floor and replace it with more traditional (and more attractive) materials. The halka (This is the skylight structure in most traditional courtyard houses) was in need of repair. There were cracks in the mortar and many of the tiles had been broken. Our builders set to work on restoring it to its former glory. Note the small pieces of wood and steel rings in the pictures, these were made by us. Later these can be used to tie down a waterproof sheet which will keep the courtyard dry during the winter months.
Carpenters: With the end of the restoration approaching we thought that it was a safe time to begin restoring some of the old wood in the house. We have been told it is wiser to do this toward the end of a restoration as wood is easy to damage. Good quality cedar is also very expensive.
We had had a problem with our large, carved wooden doors. Over the years the hinges had become damaged and rotten. This caused them drag along the ground when trying to open them. These were restored by removing the old rotten wood and replacing it with new, ideally the wood is replaced with old wood which has remained in good condition. (Your carpenter can find this for you or sometimes when bad beams in the ceiling are replaced some of the cedar is salvageable.)
As well as restoration your carpenter can also make you tailor made furniture, window frames and whatever else you desire.
Terrace Zelij: With the restoration of the roof terrace finally complete (except the Mensah) we decided to make a start on the terrace zelij. There are several types of tile and designs available to choose from. Most designs involve a simple terracotta square, octagon or rectangle (called Bejmat). These can be made more decorative by adding small coloured squares.
To match the green tiles surrounding our halka we opted to have square tiles but with decorative green tiles. All arranged in a diagonal pattern. Around the edge of the terrace we chose a simple square tile plintha (This is the name of the area where the wall meets the floor). This would be flush with the wall surface.
It is important when fixing zelij that there is a good slope on the roof to ensure run-off of water towards the drains. If water collects in puddles once the zelij is fixed you have to start again! Another good tip is to lay the zelij in fine weather. Zeliji's do not work in the rain! Due to the hot sun zelij tiles are more readily available than in the summer.
The zelij is laid by placing the pieces on about 5 cm of mortar. Once the design is in place the pieces are pressed into the mortar by laying wood on top and hitting it with a rubber mallet. Once all of the pieces are laid they craftsmen use a mixture of mortar, wood shavings and ceramic dust to seal the gaps. The Moroccans sometimes call this Harira. This gives the mixture a natural colour.
Our zeliji started with good pace but we did face quality problems which led to us getting new zelij's: We requested that the plintha was flush to the wall. This looks much nicer than having the plintha protruding from the wall (which is actually normal in Morocco). We were told that this would not be a problem and they would remember to do it. Needless to say that they forgot! Upon telling the craftsman that this is not what we wanted he got very angry. Once calmed down he said he would repair the problem free of charge (even though we offered to pay for his time to fix his own mistakes). The zeliji never returned. This is a good example of why it is much different doing restorations in Morocco than anywhere in Europe.
It took us over a week to find a new zeliji that we liked. He has now fixed the work of the the previous craftsman and the roof looks great.
Bathroom zelij: The new zeliji quickly finished the roof so we set him to work on one of our bathrooms. We opted for 3 cm squared blue tiles around the bath, sink and the area that would get wet during use. With all craftsmen every project manager will face the decision to pay by the day or by the metre. If you decide to pay day by day then you run the risk of the craftsman working slow to win money. If you pay by the metre there is a risk that the craftsman will rush the job.
Using a combination of both, the areas where you want the finish to be perfect can be paid by the day. The bits that require less concentration and skill pay by the metre.
For zelij we now buy the pieces ourselves and pay the zeliji day by day to fit them. This way we get the best pieces and the craftsman fits them with care.
Oiling the Halka: The sun in Morocco can be VERY hot in the summer. The wood that is exposed to the sun can dry out and look older than its age. Our halka was looking very tatty; the paint had faded and the wood looked very dry. It needed brightening up. We bought some scaffolding from some friends of ours, so we could begin. For long restoration projects buying your own scaffolding is often cheaper than renting.
Armed with several bottles of linseed oil and some paint brushes Rachid cleaned the decorated wood and then oiled it. The results are fantastic.
Mensah Roof: It was the seventh month of the restoration and the finishing line was near. We could almost touch it! The largest job we had left to do was the construction of a new roof for our mensah. The previous mensah had a poorly constructed concrete roof built on some very thin walls. We had to remove this for safety reasons.
With the help of a wonderful architect (Thank you Mr Rachid Haloui) we found a method to rebuild the roof safely. The original wall had to be strengthened using five pillars made from traditional bricks.
The pillars were made by 'sewing' together the wall which surrounded it. Once the pillars were made the carpenter and the builders place large beams over the pillars and walls to upon which the cross beams can sit on. We took this opportunity to install a new window in the mensah. This would allow lots of natural light to enter the room and enhance the view of the Fez medina.
Over thirty cedar beams and the floor boards were prepared by our carpenter in about ten days. The beams were laid in their positions and then cut to fit exactly. Once nailed in place small pieces of wood called mashita are used to fill in the spaces by the walls (this stops the earth falling through the gaps). Once the beams and the mashita were in their place our carpenter set to work on nailing the boards or werqa on top of the beams. Its a good idea to ask your carpenter to make the werqa in a tongue and groove fashion. This will help prevent earth from falling between the gaps. Once the werqa was completed several layers of earth, waterproofing and tiles are added.
We built a small wall around the edge of the new mensah to stop people falling off. To match the halka and the roof door we added green tiles (kamoud) to the front wall of the mensah. The finished result is incredible. On top of our mensah the views of the Fez medina and the mountains are amazing. It is now a perfect place to relax on a summer's evening with friends or a good book.
Carved Plaster: The courtyard was looking fantastic with a new skim of fresh plaster. Unfortunately some of the carved plaster had become damaged by what we assumed to be weather erosion. It is a decision based upon one's taste whether to repair the old or to leave it. We believed that the new plaster made the carved plaster look tatty and decided to repair the damaged areas. Most of the areas could just be 'touched up' by our carved plaster craftsman. Sadly two areas of about three metres each needed to be replaced entirely. To avoid repetition you can read about the method of restoring carved plaster in March. Using this method the new plaster only looks slightly different to the original. An alternative to avoid this difference in appearance would have been to paint all of the plaster the same colour. We decided against this because we believe that people should be able to compare the old to the new.
Stairs: When restoring Dar Settash we designed it so it could be used as a holiday home or a small guest house. The original layout of the house was actually very kind to us; it was very simple to make two out of our three planned suites have their own kitchen/kitchenette and bathroom. The suite next to the courtyard was more of a problem. To give the house the feel of a home we knew the main kitchen had to be on the ground floor, unfortunately this left no space for an en-suite bathroom. After discussing several options we came up with a fantastic solution. We decided to build a set of stairs from the salon to the floor above (this floor is often called a mezzanine in Morocco).
To make the stairs look as traditional and unobtrusive as possible we had our carpenter make them out of cedar. We designed a very simple structure and decorated the bottom with mashrabiya (this is a detailed wooden screen made from several pieces of wood turned on a lathe. Traditional in Morocco and especially Fez).
The preservation of the original decoration of the house was also very important to us. The door to the bathroom had to be made quite small so we would not damage the beautiful carved plaster that encircled the top of the room. Tall people will have to duck to access the bathroom but that is a small sacrifice to pay in order to keep as much as possible of the original architecture in tact.
The carpenter took about twenty days to make the stairs (and our Mensah roof). The individual pieces were fitted together on site. Although not completely finished yet we are both really happy with the look of the the stairs and that the feel of the room has not been spoilt.
Medlouk: Traditionally in Fes all of the outside of most buildings were covered by a surface called medlouk. This is like a shiny plaster made from very fine sand and lime. It is made shiny by polishing it with traditional soap. Over time medlouk develops a beautiful marbled effect. Good examples of medlouk can be found at the Nejarine museum and the Bou Inania Medersa on Talaa Sghira.
It is possible to keep much of the original medlouk when restoring a house or riad in Fes. Whether you prefer the look of the old or the new is a matter of taste. We had little choice; previously our walls were covered in thick cement. Unfortunately in the past some Moroccans believed that this was a better method to protect their walls against water.
We believe that medlouk was traditionally made by a builder although now there are several malameen or craftsmen who specialise in this trade. It has become very fashionable in Fes and Marrakech to put medlouk or tadlakt in bathrooms and roof terraces. Tadlakt is Marrakech's version of the Medlouk of Fez. The only difference is that tadlakt is made without sand. Just lime (and some dye if you would like a coloured finish).
It turned out that our plasterer could do medlouk. We figured that the trades were very similar. Abdelkader (our plasterer) has been very friendly and useful to have about the house. We decided to give him a try (the poor chap always works inside and was in need of some sun).
After doing a small sample we were very impressed with the quality (and the speed) of his work. Making beautiful smooth surface is obviously something he has a talent for. We said that when he was not doing plaster in the house he could work on our roof. He has made some really good progress this month and our roof is looking very very beautiful.
Making medlouk is a very time consuming process and involves a lot of skill (and money). There are other cheaper alternatives. As well being traditional medlouk creates less dust and in our opinion is the nicest looking finish.
Everything in the house is winding down to a finish. With all of the construction finished, most of the plaster and zelij where it should be the rest of the work at Dar Settash involved the restoration of wood, cleaning and just adding the finishing touches. You can read a daily update of the restoration over the month of June on our new blog site Fez Restoration. Continue reading on this page for a summary of each month:
New Kitchen: The most dramatic change and interesting thing that happened to Dar Settash in June was the construction of our new master kitchen.
The zelij on the far wall was on it's last legs (well half of it). Probably due to an old damp problem the zelij was just falling off the wall. Damp can be quite a problem with old houses and riads in the Fes medina. Being built several years ago they were built without a damp course, and because all of the walls of a house are structural installing a damp course can be a problem and a LOT of complex work. We do not know the best solution. If you install a damp course can it negatively effect the foundations? If you trap the damp in the wall is that going to be detrimental to the lime and sand mortar that holds everything together? We will have to research safe and viable methods of preventing rising damp in the Fes medina.
Fortunately our damp was very minor so was easily fixed by a new skim of plaster.
We had our kitchen units built entirely from wood and the results are stunning. We are really happy with the mashrabiya cupboards and shelves. The kitchen is very unique.
It was built by our carpenter, Ahmed in his workshop and then carried (by donkey) to our house where it was fitted. To protect the wood against water it is a good idea to give it several coats of oil. For the surface we opted against cedar for the surface in favour of a very hard wood. This should protect the surfaces from water damage. Unfortunately I have forgotten the name.
Elsewhere in the house... The plaster has been finished in the entire house except for one bathroom and a small section of the stairs, the zelij has been completed except for a few small areas of restoration.
One of the main things we were happy to fix was the stairs. These had become damaged due to overuse from the workmen at the top of the house. The traditional wooden treads had come loose and broken. Once this breaks it is only a matter of time before the zelij wears away piece by piece.
We restored the stairs in a traditional manner using a wooden tread and traditional zelij tiles. The wooden tread is used to provide friction when using the stairs. Once this is fitted in place the zelij can be fitted and then a plinth or skirting board is fitted. This prevents the plaster from being damaged when the stairs are cleaned. Dirty water can make a real mess of the brand new plaster.
The rest of the work was mainly cleaning. There is also a lot of furniture to buy to fill our many rooms. Sounds like fun!