Ar­chi­tect’s di­ary

De­sign­ing new homes and im­prov­ing old

French Property News - - Contents - Neil Vesma’s ar­chi­tect’s prac­tice is at Villeréal near Berg­erac Tel: 0033 553 01 74 20 neil­


Af­ter an­other shock elec­tion re­sult last month, when Claude the tabby cat was sum­mar­ily re­placed by Al­fie the minia­ture Schnau­zer puppy as Of­fi­cial Of­fice Pet and Cute Mas­cot, things have re­turned to nor­mal. Or at least, what passes for nor­mal here. There’s a steady flow of new clients, and a steady flow of lunches to get to know them bet­ter. Win­ter’s over and the longer, warmer days make things eas­ier for the ar­ti­sans on site to make good progress. It’s the good life. What can pos­si­bly go wrong?

TUES­DAY Still good...

WED­NES­DAY Aaaaargh!!!! That’s not sup­posed to hap­pen! Rewind...


Matt and Sandi Slater have flown over to dis­cuss the ten­ders we’ve re­ceived for their cham­bres d’hôte and gîtes con­ver­sion in the Pyrénées. As it’s four hours from here, it’s too far for me to man­age the works on site, so we’re work­ing with Guil­laume Soltan, a lo­cal project man­ager, or maître d’oeu­vre, to act as in­ter­me­di­ary with the con­trac­tors. He’s also driv­ing up for the meet­ing.

It’s been a tor­tu­ous process get­ting this far. We’ve asked two gen­eral con­trac­tors from Bag­nères-de-lu­chon, just down the road from the site, to price the work. Us­ing a gen­eral con­trac­tor rather than in­di­vid­ual trades­men means Guil­laume has less day-to-day chas­ing of progress on site, but the con­trac­tor charges for co­or­di­nat­ing his own men so his rates are higher than those of in­di­vid­ual ar­ti­sans.

Usu­ally con­trac­tors only take two to three weeks to price a job, but this one is com­plex: there’s a house to re­fur­bish and ex­tend, two barns to con­vert and all the as­so­ci­ated drainage, park­ing and swim­ming pool to cost out. It’s now two months since I is­sued the 86-page set of draw­ings, spec­i­fi­ca­tions and con­tract con­di­tions, and we’ve only had a par­tial re­sponse from one of the builders. Guil­laume has rung the oth­ers and they say they can’t fin­ish their pric­ing as there’s 60cm of snow up there and they can’t get in. OK, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. In any event, Matt and Sandi in­tend to spread the work out over five years and we agree that the prices we’ve re­ceived are suf­fi­cient to work out how to pri­ori­tise their spend­ing.

I’ve been telling them since the start that the job is go­ing to be mega-ex­pen­sive, and the fig­ures bear me out. Sandi looks par­tic­u­larly sub­dued but Matt is keen to find the best way for­ward. It takes time but we even­tu­ally agree that we need to fo­cus their ini­tial spend on cre­at­ing a hab­it­able zone in the main house and re­do­ing its roof to stop any fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Guil­laume for his part says he will find in­di­vid­ual trades­men for this re­duced scope. This, he is con­fi­dent, will be sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than the prices cur­rently on of­fer. We agree to this plan, say our au revoirs and head off in our dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions.


An email from Guil­laume. On re­flec­tion he feels the project is too de­mand­ing of his time and he must with­draw.

Aaaaargh! That’s not sup­posed to hap­pen! I ring him to see if his de­ci­sion is fi­nal and re­gret­fully, he says, it is. I ask him to send me the de­tails of other lo­cal project man­agers to con­tact, and then I call Matt and Sandi, who have been leav­ing pan­icky mes­sages.

There’s also a pan­icky mes­sage from a client whose out­line plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tion has not been de­cided in­side the statu­tory two months, and whose prop­erty pur­chase de­pends on its ap­proval. I ring the mairie who say they will ring the plan­ners and get back to me, which they do, say­ing the plan­ners are wait­ing for their consultation to come back from the wa­ter board, but it shouldn’t be long.

My email to up­date the client pro­vokes an even pan­ick­ier (is that a word?) re­ply say­ing they’ve booked the fur­ni­ture vans and his wife’s about to give birth so they can’t be de­layed. I re­ply re­as­sur­ing him that as a last re­sort a timed-out ap­pli­ca­tion is deemed ap­proved un­der French law and will speak to the mairie again, but by this time it’s too late; the mairie is shut and doesn’t re­open till Fri­day af­ter­noon.

Our lo­cal lime­stone is a thing of beauty. Born in primeval seas, wrought and laid by skilled hands, and pati­nated over the cen­turies

Pierre, my Gauloise-chain-smok­ing project man­ager, texts me a photo of a fork­lift truck parked in a client’s kitchen and asks if I can get it moved.

A posh lunch to­day with some Amer­i­can prospec­tive clients who have in­vited me to a Miche­lin-starred restau­rant in a château south of Berg­erac. I’ve heard about this place but never been so I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to it.

I ap­proach slowly down the long sweep­ing drive and then as I see the château it­self I slam on the brakes. What have they done? This graceful old stone build­ing, de­signed, de­tailed and crafted with exquisite care, has been painted in pri­mary colours like a baby’s Fisher-price toy. I am lit­er­ally speech­less, and left wish­ing I could un­see what I’ve just seen. The meal, how­ever, is gor­geous.

Our lo­cal lime­stone is a thing of beauty, even with a fork­lift parked in front of it. Born in primeval seas, wrought and laid by skilled hands, and pati­nated over the cen­turies by wind and weather. But the paint will never come off. The way back takes me through 13th-cen­tury bastide towns built en­tirely of stone, great arches, pil­lars and colon­nades glow­ing in the warm af­ter­noon sun. And I can’t un­der­stand for the life of me why any­one would want to slap a coat of royal blue or pink cerise over it.


Pierre calls in to the of­fice to say the fork­lift’s gone, so that’s one good thing. I’m busy on the phone to Pyrenean project man­agers, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess. Just one says she might be in­ter­ested so I email her the ten­der doc­u­ments, and silently cross my fin­gers as I press ‘send’.

More good news af­ter lunch when the over­due out­line per­mis­sion comes through, con­ve­niently back­dated to the last day of the two-month de­ci­sion­mak­ing pe­riod. An­other phone call to the mairie to thank them for their help. An­other email to the client with the good news.

And, cherry on the cake, Al­fie and Claude are cud­dled up asleep to­gether. It’s a good life.

Neil can’t help but won­der why any­one would want to paint the beau­ti­ful lo­cal stone bright pink

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