The renovation game
Brittany-based renovation expert Matthew Chalk looks back on an ambitious project to restore a prominent village house
We go behind the scenes of an ambitious property makeover in central Brittany
As a builder specialising in rural renovations, I’m pretty good at looking beyond the debris in derelict old properties and recovering the charm.
But when I took on a project in central Brittany recently, I swiftly realised this was going to be a tall order.
At first glance, the house in the small village of St-gouéno, certainly had the wow factor. But on closer inspection, it was clearly just months away from collapse, due to rotten carpentry and decades of neglect. Every step you took had to be carefully considered, to avoid falling through the floor, and the scale of works needed was not for the faint-hearted.
The plucky purchasers Luckily, my client Vicky and her husband Kevin were up for the adventure.
They’d first travelled to Brittany for a friend’s wedding and had enjoyed the climate and convenience of the region. They chose the spot in St-gouéno mainly due to its proximity to the Channel – it’s just over an hour’s drive from St-malo – meaning they could easily come across by car, rather than having to fly with two young children and all their luggage.
The couple started by arranging to view a few houses while on holiday. They didn’t want anything too remote or rural, but neither did they want to be in a large touristy town, as they wanted to force themselves to socialise with French people and learn the language.
While on holiday, they saw a property in need of some TLC that seemed to tick all the boxes. But all thoughts of that project vanished into thin air the moment they drove through St-gouéno and pulled up outside this house. The village has a quaint picture postcard quality about it and the house is in the heart of the village. It just seemed perfect.
Vicky was sure that, with some work, the house could become a super family home so, before signing on the dotted line, she contacted me and we met to discuss the idea.
“We were happy to take on a bit of a project, although this house may have turned into a larger-scale project than we initially thought!” Vicky later said.
The work begins The aim of the project was two-fold. Firstly, we wanted to create a fantastic home within the historical layout of the original floor plan; secondly, we wanted to ensure that the 100m² loft could be converted in the near future for additional bedrooms.
The early stages of the renovation consisted of preventing the building from further movement prior to demolishing the interior. To achieve this, we strengthened the roof carpentry and used decorative tie bars made in Strasbourg. New granite lintels and joists were fitted to ensure we were safe to continue. The demolished old floors, internal walls and furniture filled a staggering 100 cubic metres of skip space! This is really the stage of the renovation where you will come across unexpected problems and will need to be prepared for extra unwanted financial costs. In reality, once you are past this point you are back in control and the only rise in costs should be the clients’ choice in upgrading finishes and so on. You are in effect back to a blank canvas.
Bullets, burials and burglars While dismantling a cupboard, we came across two unused sniper bullets from the Second World War concealed in the back. It was a reminder of how the past is not so distant after all and I made a mental note to go easy with the sledge hammer! Down in the cellar, we found the tombstone of someone called Julian. Luckily it ended there and no skeleton was found! A low point during this period was being burgled of tools; even sleepy villages have their moments. In total, three houses being renovated in the same village were broken into for tools and materials. The irony was that the burglars made off with a box of security fittings.
The first few weeks passed quickly and we reached that satisfying moment when you start to put materials back into the house instead of taking them out. New building work must comply with a complex set of energy efficiency regulations called the Réglementation Thermique 2012 (RT2012). We insulated the house above and beyond the required standards in anticipation of any future amendments to the rules. This will make it far more comfortable to live in and save on heating bills. Vapour membranes and sheer walls have also been used, as have reinforcing joists with steel plates.
The mairie and local people have been a delight and very interested in the build. Local people informed us that the house was once a shop in the 1970s but was historically the residence of an army major. Keeping the locals
happy is important as renovating a house can cause unwelcome noise and dust that affects your neighbours.
The great thing about mobile phones now is the ability to take a photo of progress and send it over to the client immediately. Each stage of the renovation is photographed, not just for the client to keep up to date but also as a record to look back on. Photo Friday is a popular event with my clients when they can see in detail the works completed.
One of the key features Vicky wanted to save was the staircase. Winding its way up to the attic, it is made from solid oak and has been beautifully plastered in a curve underneath by the original artisans. The good news was that the rot had not affected the stairs as much as was thought and the plaster work has been minimally repaired to leave it just needing a lick of paint. The staircase survived!
Happy ending At the time of writing this, we are still considering panelling the hallway to get that extra wow factor when you walk in but, other than that, the house is done.
“We have spent far more on the renovations that we initially anticipated, but it is totally worth it,” Vicky told me. “We love the place and have absolutely no regrets.”
Vicky chose to only tweak the original room layouts and went for a classic design within the bathrooms to achieve a really elegant finish throughout. It is so nicely laid out that you want to look into every room. Every space is in proportion; all the doors just beg to be opened. It is a gently flowing and warm house. This was achieved by doing what is hardest for some people – very little! By not going in gung ho and stamping your mark too forcefully, you can have a classic house that will better stand the test of time.
By the way, if you’re wondering what happened to Julian’s tombstone we found in the cellar, you may be interested to know that it has a new resting place – in a local bar sometimes frequented by members of his family. All’s well that ends well.
Wow factor restored Work begins, and it’s not for the fainthearted A polished finish