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