Ar­chi­tect’s diary

It’s all in a week’s work for France-based Neil Vesma

French Property News - - Contents -

De­sign­ing new homes and im­prov­ing old


I’m typ­ing this left-handed as I have a slight sprain to my right wrist. I’ve been per­form­ing my favourite re­peated hand move­ment too of­ten, and all that oys­ter shuck­ing has given me RSI. It’s nearly the end of the sea­son now so hope­fully it will go away soon, but I shall miss their briny taste and rock­pool scent that evokes sunny mem­o­ries of child­hood hol­i­days on the beach. I’ll also miss the glass of cold, crisp Sancerre that goes with it.

I check out the grapevine I planted be­hind the of­fice three years ago. France has around five bil­lion pieds de vignes and the buds on the 5,000,000,001st are just start­ing to move. I sup­pose I should get back in­side and do some work, but the sun is warm on my back and it’s 11.30am, very nearly lunchtime.


Two vis­its to­day, the first to meet an An­glo-dan­ish cou­ple who have told me they want to con­vert a small barn on their prop­erty in the Dor­dogne val­ley. We meet and it’s a very cute lit­tle stone-and-tile af­fair set into the wooded hill­side along­side their drive. It’s only 5x7m in­side, with just enough height for a mez­za­nine, but they only want it as a mai­son d’amis for friends and fam­ily, so a bed on the mez­za­nine and a liv­ing room, kitchen and a bath­room down­stairs will do.

The meet­ing is very friendly and re­laxed – there should be ab­so­lutely no prob­lem get­ting per­mis­sion for the change of use – un­til we start talk­ing about con­ver­sion costs. What­ever size the house, you need to fit out a bath­room and a kitchen, and you need to have a sep­tic tank sys­tem if you’re not on the mains drainage, which they’re not. And with a mez­za­nine, you need a stair­case. These items alone will set them back €25,00030,000 be­fore we’ve even looked at any build­ing work, so the over­all cost is go­ing to end up be­tween €60,000 and €80,000.

On the up­side, once com­pleted it will be ab­so­lutely charm­ing, and the own­ers ul­ti­mately say that, though the cost is more than they’d hoped, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily out of the question. I’m re­lieved. I don’t like dis­ap­point­ing peo­ple but they ask for my pro­fes­sional guid­ance and I have a duty to be hon­est, even if it means I don’t nec­es­sar­ily get the work.


My sec­ond meet­ing yes­ter­day, also a barn con­ver­sion, was a much more dis­tress­ing af­fair which I need to start sort­ing out straight away. The Cor­nish own­ers had bought an enor­mous 400m2 barn for a song, in a nice vil­lage-edge po­si­tion but very di­lap­i­dated. I won’t say who they asked in good faith to con­vert it for them, but work started with­out a per­mis de con­stru­ire, the roof par­tially col­lapsed push­ing the walls out of plumb, and the builder is now un­con­tactable. The mayor is ap­par­ently fu­ri­ous and the own­ers shaken, won­der­ing how they’re go­ing to af­ford to re­in­state the build­ing and com­plete the con­ver­sion.

The first thing I’ve done is arrange a meet­ing be­tween the own­ers and the mayor. Ev­ery­one is on time and I make the for­mal in­tro­duc­tions with the oblig­a­tory hand­shakes and bon­jours. I ex­plain how the own­ers wrongly as­sumed the ad­vice they had been given was cor­rect, and how they had in­tended no dis­re­spect to the mayor or the com­mune but had been led up the gar­den path. They now want to en­sure ev­ery­thing is done cor­rectly.

The mayor’s look of anger turns by de­grees to one of sym­pa­thy, and then of sup­port. He as­sures the own­ers he will do his best to en­sure their per­mis ap­pli­ca­tion goes smoothly, and of­fers to rec­om­mend re­li­able, non-dis­ap­pear­ing lo­cal ar­ti­sans for the con­ver­sion. We come out of the meet­ing with the own­ers vis­i­bly re­lieved but still fac­ing an up­hill strug­gle to fund their dream home. We arrange to meet on Fri­day to talk through their op­tions, and they leave me their graph-paper lay­out sketches to pe­ruse in the mean­time.


My third and fi­nal visit this week is to Domme, the choco­late-box clifftop bastide town over­look­ing a bend in the Dor­dogne river, to see a French cou­ple con­sid­er­ing the pur­chase of a run­down vil­lage house. I park near the Pizze­ria des Tem­pli­ers with its wel­com­ing ar­mour-clad man­nequin out­side, and imagine Pythonesque blood­stained mer­ce­nar­ies at a ta­ble on the but­toned leatherette ban­quettes won­der­ing whether to have a qu­a­tre saisons or a mar­guerita af­ter a busy day slaugh­ter­ing.

The house is un­pre­pos­sess­ing on the out­side, mould-stained ren­der and rot­ten shut­ters, but it’s set in a ter­race of well-main­tained stone cot­tages with all the trim­mings, even roses round the door in one case, so it’s clearly ca­pa­ble of be­ing pret­tied up. It’s amaz­ing what a makeover can do.

In­side it’s a sim­i­lar story, dark fur­ni­ture set against dark floors and walls, so any light that does ac­ci­den­tally get through the tiny win­dows is im­me­di­ately lost. But what a view at the back, across the river val­ley to the hills be­yond. This place has po­ten­tial in spades.


My Cor­nish cou­ple ar­rive on time, still anx­ious, and I waste no time get­ting down to busi­ness. For I have, you see, had an idea. And I’ve been wield­ing the HB pen­cil to prove it.

The barn is big; 400m2 is about the size of two good-sized, four-bed houses. Do they re­ally need all that space? What if? What if we for­get the part where the roof col­lapsed, and lower those wob­bly walls to cre­ate a walled gar­den? We save on re­build­ing costs and a smaller barn is cheaper to con­vert. The rooms are still a gen­er­ous size, so no prob­lem there.

They hadn’t re­alised this was an op­tion, and be­come en­thu­si­as­tic as the lay­out de­vel­ops. It be­comes clear that the rooms are go­ing to be eas­ier to light as well; the orig­i­nal barn was so big, the mid­dle of the in­te­rior would al­ways have been dark.

As they leave, they very kindly ask if they can get me a thank you gift, but I de­cline say­ing it’s all part of the ser­vice. It’s very re­ward­ing in it­self to come up with a real so­lu­tion to a big prob­lem, so I pri­vately prom­ise my­self a present of a visit to the oys­ter stall at the mar­ket to­mor­row. I won­der if I can open them left­handed?

Neil Vesma’s ar­chi­tect’s prac­tice is at Villeréal near Berg­erac Tel: 0033 (0)5 53 01 74 20 neil­

Right: It’s amaz­ing what a makeover can do

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