Barn and raised

Con­vert­ing this ru­ral barn in Nou­velle-aquitaine re­quired team­work and creative think­ing. Nick Adams gives his in­sight into es­tab­lish­ing a suc­cess­ful ar­chi­tec­tural brief

French Property News - - Contents - Nick Adams, Adams De­sign Tel: 0033 (0)6 78 05 48 90 adams­de­sign.org

An am­bi­tious project to in­stall a glazed fa­cade on a barn in Deux-sèvres

Ibe­gan work at the age of 15 as an ‘of­fice boy’ in my fa­ther’s prac­tice in York 40 years ago. I was in­volved in all the usual mun­dane tasks but also got to visit some amaz­ing hid­den sites in that beau­ti­ful, his­toric city, from sub­ter­ranean sur­veys to bird’s eye views from rooftops. It was a ground­ing which equipped me with es­sen­tial skills and ex­pe­ri­ence when I set up of­fices, first in Prague and later in mid-west France.

My fa­ther was fa­nat­i­cal about record­keep­ing and at­ten­tion to de­tail but never lost his en­thu­si­asm for ar­chi­tec­ture. For my part, I spent a lot of time ob­serv­ing and as­sess­ing ef­fi­cient ways of work­ing within his prac­tice and en­joyed be­ing part of a team. Ini­tially, I didn’t want to be­come an ar­chi­tect but the re­al­i­sa­tion that my two favourite things were art and work­ing out how to build/make things pro­pelled me into the pro­fes­sion.

Af­ter train­ing as an ar­chi­tect in the UK, I qual­i­fied just in time to be made re­dun­dant dur­ing the re­ces­sion of the late 1980s, which prompted my trav­els. Our son was six weeks old when my wife and I moved to Prague – hav­ing never vis­ited be­fore and speak­ing no Czech. I had been asked to run the ren­o­va­tion of a Baroque palace in tem­per­a­tures of mostly –15°C. I set up an of­fice and brought in more his­tor­i­cal work, in­clud­ing win­ning a com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign the Sue Ry­der HQ for cen­tral Europe in­te­grat­ing a care home and com­mu­nity cen­tre.

Af­ter four years we moved back to the UK but af­ter two un­happy years work­ing for a large com­mer­cial prac­tice at se­nior level, we hatched a plot to leave again. Along with my par­ents-in­law, we joined a night school to learn Ital­ian and pre­pared to set off for Um­bria. Six months later, we ar­rived in Deux-sèvres in France, with some Czech and Ital­ian but prac­ti­cally no French!

I spent the fol­low­ing three years not hav­ing to use a phone or com­puter or or­gan­ise peo­ple at work. We sur­vived with no in­come for 12 months. Dur­ing those stress­ful months we ren­o­vated a wa­ter­mill and cre­ated a hol­i­day home com­plex to run as a fam­ily busi­ness. Thank­fully, we con­tin­ued with night school, but this time in French. That was nearly 19 years ago and since then, we have ren­o­vated 19 projects with me do­ing the ma­jor­ity of the work.

In year three, I set up an ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice spe­cial­is­ing in high-end ren­o­va­tions, many in con­ser­va­tion ar­eas. For­tu­nately, the con­struc­tion in­dus­try in France re­lies more on pro­fes­sion­als and less on lo­cal pol­i­tics. We are given a set of rules for each dis­trict which evolve as they are pe­ri­od­i­cally up­dated. There ap­pears to be a lot of joined-up think­ing, tak­ing into ac­count gov­ern­ment fis­cal ob­jec­tives as well as ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage and, most im­por­tantly, peo­ple.

It took me a while to un­der­stand the logic but, in sev­eral ways, it is suc­cess­ful and has re­sulted in us be­ing able to cham­pion ex­cel­lent ar­chi­tec­ture. The barn shown here is one such project, set within a con­ser­va­tion area near the me­dieval sil­ver mine town of Melle, Deux-sèvres, whose as­so­ci­a­tion with the Catholic church and the Com­postella pil­grim­age route still have an im­por­tant in­flu­ence to­day. The barn is sit­u­ated in a small ham­let of two-storey stone build­ings, amidst a mainly ru­ral land­scape with views to fields as well as farm build­ings.

Stop/go Our brief was to come up with an un­com­pro­mis­ing de­sign which re­spected the orig­i­nal barn but would cre­ate mod­ern, open spa­ces with a time­less at­mos­phere. One of the things I al­ways em­pha­sise is the value of giv­ing the prac­ti­cal brief as much thought as pos­si­ble be­fore be­gin­ning the de­sign work.

To have a suc­cess­ful project you need a good team and an equally good client. In this case my client, Fern Day­bell, was very clear about what she and her hus­band, Charles, wanted to achieve. They have both con­trib­uted in dif­fer­ent ways to the project and, as a team, we clar­i­fied the gen­eral lay­out rel­a­tively quickly.

By the time I meet a client they will al­ready have plenty of ideas about what they want to do with the build­ing, but I be­gin by say­ing: “Stop. Rewind and clear your heads.” We go on to cre­ate a wish list and at the same time I com­pile all the rel­e­vant fac­tual in­for­ma­tion. Then, and only then, the in­ter­est­ing part can start. A lot of hard work fol­lows to re­duce the com­plex needs, wants and prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions into a sim­ple, el­e­gant so­lu­tion.

With this par­tic­u­lar project, the barn’s new façade, with its im­pos­ing glazed, south-fac­ing screen, is the re­sult of hours of de­tail­ing. The planes, struc­tural wall, cladding, slid­ing shut­ters, oak posts and new con­crete-bat­tered key blocks, eaves and stone re­turns all had to be care­fully de­signed and built.

Wall of glass One of the es­sen­tial parts was an­swer­ing the key ques­tion of how the weight of glass could be sus­pended us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods. I know peo­ple of­ten say ‘why use an ar­chi­tect?’ – and some­times I agree – but this hope­fully demon­strates why we can, as pro­fes­sion­als, add enor­mous value to a project.

We worked hard with our clients and the con­trac­tor (SSH Devel­opp­ments) to en­sure the best ma­te­ri­als were used: red cedar for the cladding and shut­ters, to avoid move­ment and al­low a nat­u­ral sil­ver fin­ish to de­velop; high

If you’re tak­ing on a project, learn as much French as pos­si­ble, look for a team who are used to work­ing to­gether and have a real con­tin­gency bud­get

qual­ity, sus­tain­able, lo­cal French oak for the doors and win­dows; and anti-so­lar glass, which has the ben­e­fit of avoid­ing glare and tak­ing the chill off the build­ing so the stoves are used only when it gets ‘UK cold’. High lev­els of in­su­la­tion have been used in the walls, roof and floors so the build­ing is very cheap to run and eco­log­i­cal in a pas­sive way – my much pre­ferred op­tion.

The dou­ble-height cen­tral space pro­vides a huge, lu­mi­nous vol­ume which fills the room with light. A be­spoke oak stair­case links the first floor with a glazed screen meet­ing or­ganic stone slabs – sourced lo­cally and pro­vid­ing a ge­o­log­i­cal time cap­sule with fos­sil pat­terns and com­pressed ocean bed shapes.

If you take on a glass screen like this, you need to un­der­stand the way the con­trac­tor will be able to build it, how many peo­ple will be re­quired to do so, the con­struc­tion of the oak sec­tion to sit spe­cial­ist glass in, weather is­sues, struc­tural forces and so on – not just grav­ity and how the to­tal screen will fit into the rest of the struc­ture. Then there’s the in­ter­nal de­tail­ing as well as ex­ter­nal; light­ing at night; what the French re­fer to as vis à vis (over­look­ing views); so­lar and ther­mal is­sues…

France has strict build­ing stan­dards re­ferred to as DTUS but I haven’t seen a build­ing in­spec­tor in 18 years. If there is a prob­lem, ex­perts are sent by in­surance com­pa­nies and they com­ment on the reg­u­la­tions – an­other rea­son French clients use pro­fes­sion­als.

The land­scap­ing was de­signed by Charles Day­bell with spe­cial at­ten­tion to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the build­ing, swim­ming pool and the en­vi­ron­ment. The use of olive

The chal­lenges Where to start? Not the de­sign or the per­mit. To take on a project like this, no com­pro­mises can be made. In France, things are done quite dif­fer­ently; there’s the usual frus­tra­tion of de­lays and cost, but also the con­trac­tual process and pro­tect­ing the client’s right to in­surance.

We don’t usu­ally have one main con­trac­tor – they do ex­ist but they’re rare. It is not just about dove­tail­ing ar­ti­sans as a se­quen­tial process but in­cludes set­tling ar­gu­ments about mess on build­ing sites or dam­age by lor­ries, for ex­am­ple. If there is a prob­lem, it’s not al­ways easy to sort it out, which can lead to de­lays and af­fects mo­ti­va­tion. Man­ag­ing the process re­quires good­will from ev­ery­one as op­posed to re­sort­ing to abrupt emails, and it can be (and af­ter many years of ex­pe­ri­ence I would say, of­ten is) an ex­tremely frus­trat­ing process. Each and ev­ery ren­o­va­tion project is a pro­to­type – unique, with its own prob­lems and so­lu­tions.

The key to avoid­ing frus­tra­tion is com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween ar­ti­sans and keep­ing the client in­formed. In this project there were plumbers/heat­ing en­gi­neers, zinc spe­cial­ists, gen­eral ma­sons, high-spec join­ers, plas­ter board­ers, swim­ming pool spe­cial­ists, stone spe­cial­ists, stove in­stall­ers, elec­tri­cians, land­scape con­trac­tors, tele­phone en­gi­neers, lo­cal wa­ter board staff, con­ser­va­tion­ists, a spe­cial­ist de­liv­ery firm and, to cap it all, there was lim­ited ac­cess to the site. Throw in two or three lan­guages and cul­tures and you can imag­ine the po­ten­tial tur­moil!

If you’re tak­ing on a project like this, my ad­vice would be to learn as much French as pos­si­ble. Look for a team which is used to work­ing to­gether. And have a real con­tin­gency sum. The build cost of ren­o­va­tion in France (ex­clud­ing fees, ex­penses, land­scap­ing, swim­ming pools etc) is prob­a­bly the same as the UK; €1,400-€2,400/m2 de­pend­ing on the level of spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Fin­ishes, se­cond-fix items and tech­nol­ogy can af­fect a third of the bud­get. The ob­jec­tive, af­ter feel­ing com­fort­able with the team, is to ob­tain a fair price for the work – too low and alarm bells ring, too ex­pen­sive and, well, ev­ery­one wants value for money.

Al­though the mar­ket for larger UK client­based projects is a lit­tle slow at the mo­ment due to Brexit, our French client base con­tin­ues to ex­pand. We are also con­tin­u­ing with chal­leng­ing ren­o­va­tion work on an his­toric mon­u­ment as res­i­dent ar­chi­tects. I am happy to give ad­vice to any­one want­ing to take on a project in France

One of the chal­lenges of this project was work­ing out how the weight of the glass screen could be sus­pended us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods trees and stone walling to cre­ate dif­fer­ent ex­ter­nal spa­ces has been very suc­cess­ful.

The brief for this barn con­ver­sion in Deux-sèvres was to cre­ate a hol­i­day home for Bri­tish clients

Ar­chi­tect Nick Adams

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