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
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