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Houses of Character
HOUSES OF CHARACTER - by Jeffrey Sciberras

The old Maltese town houses or what is today known as a house of character are a fundamental feature of a town like Zebbug. Most date back to the years when the Knights of St John ruled Malta and some are slightly older. Most houses built during the British period, although distinctly Maltese, contain a fundamental departure from what was until then the traditional way of building. For instance the presence of imported elements, such as metal or wooden beams, becomes evident as does the use of concrete and patterned tiles which are likewise foreign.

The old Maltese town house, which is usually composed of two stories, was often built round a courtyard. This idea dates back to the time when the Arabs were in Malta, (870-1090) and is a system meant to ensure that the house remains cool in summer. Another feature which existed to ensure this was the thickness of the walls and in some instances the high ceilings. All have either a well or a cellar and in most cases both. These, apart from their obvious uses are also a testimony of how economical our forefathers were. This is because in most cases stones for the house were quarried from the building plot itself, the resulting hole being converted into a cellar or a reservoir as need be. An admirable feature is what is today known as the mill room, which was a large room with a high ceiling supported by arches spanning the room from one end to the other. As their name implies, these served as mills, the grindstones being turned by a mule or a donkey.

But perhaps the most notable feature in these houses is the almost complete absence of foreign elements and this is perhaps a reflection of the economic and transport situation at the time. Everything used in the construction of the house can be found locally, the stone for the walls, the flagstones (ciangatura) for the tiling, and the slabs for the roofing. It is in fact only in the roofing process that one may see something that is not strictly Maltese, namely the wooden beams on which the slabs were then laid to form a ceiling. In a number of cases however these were not used either, and were substituted either by stone arches or by a system of a protruding line of stones at the top of one set of opposite walls, the resulting distance between the two being filled by long stone slabs. (xorok tal-qasba)

The houses which have survived in their original state show that the windows in the lower floor are few, rather small and located high in the wall. The opposite is found on the top floors however. A cause for this arrangement was to ensure security but the main reason was that in most cases the lower floor was used for the rearing of animals. It was only the first floor which was actually used for living in. That is the reason why access between the ground and first floors was though a staircase located in the courtyard, as a way to ensure that the smell of the animals was kept away from the living quarters as much as possible. The loggia, usually found on the first floor was meant to serve as a place where one could shelter form the sun while being outside.

Due to the rise in living conditions experienced in Malta after independence and the large A typical house of characterbuilding spree which followed, these houses came to be regarded with disdain and many of the inhabitants moved out to more comfortable quarters. A significant number suffered irreversible damage due to their being abandoned or where lost to development. For a long time their prices remained low. Indeed there was a time when it was considered that if one buys such a house, one would be doing a favour to its seller. All this began to change in the early nineties. High property prices of modern buildings had encouraged buyers to tap other markets. Also a number of foreigners, having seen the potential of the traditional Maltese house had bought one and renovated it in such a way that made it comfortable for today's needs as well as appealing to the eye.

The trend caught on very quickly and is still going strong such that prices has rocketed due to there being a high demand but a low supply. The notion of converting a house has entered the building industry. The general pattern of the houses survives therefore, but a number of features have to be sacrificed due to modern needs. For instance alterations have to be carried out to eliminate interconnecting rooms and to ensure internal access between the floors. Certain elements such as ferrobattuto and the scraping of the walls are being introduced. Although regarded as a way of turning the property to its original look, these are feature which were never to be found in these houses in olden days. Moreover the scraping of the walls particularly those exposed to the elements has been found to cause great damage to the stone within a number of years. One may argue therefore that although the houses themselves are being kept, their character is being altered. But at the same time the Maltese town house is currently continuing its process of evolving according to the needs of its occupants, something which it has been doing since time immemorial. It is due to this process of learning from experience that the Maltese house may boast of so many admirable features.

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