The ren­o­va­tion game

Brit­tany-based ren­o­va­tion ex­pert Matthew Chalk looks back on an am­bi­tious pro­ject to re­store a prom­i­nent vil­lage house

French Property News - - Contents - While dis­man­tling a cup­board, we came across two un­used sniper bul­lets from the Sec­ond World War; I made a men­tal note to go easy with the sledge ham­mer!

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.

Photo Fri­day

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

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