Renovating a mountainside property in Spain

A derelict mountainside property is now our perfect home in Spain': Emma and Paul Rolf applied their professional creativity and imagination to a neglected Spanish finca, transforming it into a place for them to live and work

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Because most of their work as artists is commissioned by ex-pats living in Spain, it made sense for Emma – a fluent Spanish speaker – and Paul Rolf to emigrate themselves.

‘We had already considered moving here, as we felt it would be the only way we could ever afford to take on a whole-house renovation project,’ says Emma. ‘So when work opportunities in Spain came up, we felt even more that it would be the right move to make. Then, once we were working here, we discovered the village of Ronda and just fell in love with the area.’

The couple decided to look for a traditional Spanish finca – meaning a small property, such as a former farm house, in a rural area. Their plan initially was to limit their renovation ambitions to essentially cosmetic changes, rather than wanting to undertake anything too major, such as a full renovation.

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The owners: Professional artists Emma and Paul Rolf, who run their own design business, Rock’n’Rolf

After months of searching, they were shown a house nestled in the side of a mountain in the southern Spanish Province of Málaga. ‘It was only a couple of years old – which was totally at odds with what we had been looking for in any case, and above all, the house was a complete disaster area,’ says Emma, recalling the half-built property with rain pouring through the roof, moss crawling over the brickwork and birds nesting throughout.

She and Paul resumed their search but, a few months later, they found themselves back in Ronda at the rundown three-storey house. ‘This time, we approached it from a different direction,’ says Paul, ‘and, seeing the mountains stretching out before us, it suddenly seemed such a beautiful place that the decision was instant – this was the property for us after all.’

Moving quickly, they made an offer and were delighted when it was accepted. Relocating abroad is a major upheaval but, for Emma and Paul, the first step on the path to creating their new home and new life in Spain was compiling their design ideas and inspiration. This was followed, after the deal had gone through, by six months of swirling dust and debris as the building work got under way, using a local Spanish contractor who had been recommended to the couple.

The Rolfs knew that they were in safe hands and moved into rented accommodation nearby as their builder started with the required demolition of the badly leaking roof. With this replaced, some internal walls were also removed and others created, to make better use of space with a layout of their own design. ‘We spent hours at the house during the various stages, imagining we were already living there – so we could plan exactly what we wanted and how it would work,’ explains Emma. ‘We drew chalk outlines on the floor to show where we wanted walls and windows. Then, we worked with our builder to see how he thought things would work best.’

Paul agrees: ‘It was a very organic process. Rather than make all our decisions upfront in one go, we could look at what we had and adapt it. That way, we knew exactly what was being created in the property.’

One of the biggest issues to tackle was drainage; the area has two rainy seasons each year, so ensuring that the house wouldn’t be washed away by a deluge of water was a huge concern. ‘During rainy seasons, Ronda literally floods, so good water management is vital,’ continues Emma, ‘as our home is on a mountainside. Luckily, because we had an experienced local builder, he understood the environment and knew how to deal with it. It is so easy to consider taking out a tree here or digging a hole there, but everything on the mountain is literally holding the terrain together. So, you have to be careful what you change, otherwise incalculable damage could be caused.’

Terraces have been distributed around the property in such a way that rainwater flows away from its walls. The house has also been well-insulated to keep it cool inside in summer and warm in winter. The building is three storeys, so the Rolfs have chosen to live in the penthouse apartment at the top. There is a huge rainwater pipe running down from their roof terrace to the drains in the village.

When it came to planning the interior layout, the couple decided to keep their living area open-plan, with just an island unit separating it from the kitchen area. They installed French windows leading out onto the large roof terrace, so in the warm months the outside is part of their living space, too. Meanwhile, the master bedroom has a dressing area leading from it, which then connects to an en suite. There’s also a guest room and a separate bathroom, as well a small utility area.

With the building work finished, another six months of work loomed as the couple undertook the interior design themselves. With only a shoestring budget to work with, creating a stunning interior was, they now feel, their greatest achievement to date. ‘Most of our budget had been spent on the actual building work,’ says Emma. ‘We therefore decided to buy more inexpensive products where we could, which would allow us to invest elsewhere. The sanitaryware in the bathrooms, for example, is very simple, but those choices allowed us to buy some more expensive details that are likely to be noticed, such as the taps.’

Another essential part of the Rolfs’ design was their desire to include traditional features, but only those that would merge seamlessly with the new environs of their modern property. They scoured second-hand shops and clearout yards for furniture that could be renovated, adding their own design skills and individuality by giving their finds dramatic paint finishes. ‘We were very restricted by what was available and what we could afford, so we had to be creative,’ explains Emma. ‘We love rescuing bits and pieces that need renovating or giving a new purpose; it’s easy to go out and buy something, but this makes our home more personal, knowing we’ve created it all.’

The couple’s home is now complete and virtually every piece of furniture in their Spanish retreat has either been rescued or restored. All the curtains were handmade by Emma, too, using matador-outfit bobbles and flamencodress fringing to create unique designs with a Spanish flavour.

‘Creativity flows through their apartment, but the scheme is not final. In fact, the couple have created an environment that constantly changes and will continue to be reinvented with the flourish of a paintbrush. ‘The apartment is a journey of discovery for us,’ concludes Emma. ‘The more time we spend here, the more we learn to live in it in a different way. I think we’ve created a wonderful space.’


Building work & landscaping£63,000
Electrics, plumbing & central heating£10,222
Garden, inclu. all planting£711
Windows & French doors£3,022