Designing new homes and improving old
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