Designing new homes and improving old
I like my clients to attend at least once so they experience for themselves how committed and motivated the artisans are
Alfie’s ill and he’s not come in to work today. His job description is to wag his tail on demand and bark at the postman, but last week it became clear this was beyond him. I’m worried and am having trouble settling down to work. I find myself peering over the edge of the desk at his basket and being surprised by his absence. Maybe it’s all a dream and I’ll wake up and see his daft face, staring me out for his walk. But no, he’s been in doggy hospital at Bordeaux since Wednesday (I’ll spare you the details) and it’s not only me who’s missing him. Charlotte, my glamorous and efficient practice manager, is uncharacteristically distracted and is now losing a fight with a recalcitrant stapler, along with her temper. It appears Alfie is the balm that soothes us both and he’d better hurry up and get well soon.
To avoid thinking about Alfie, I head off to do an unnecessary site visit to one of the new houses we’re building overlooking the Dordogne valley. It’s an exciting time for me, as the walls are rising and my two-dimensional designs are starting, literally, to take shape. How will the spaces feel? Will the views out of the windows work? How will the building sit in the landscape?
Disappointingly there’s nobody on site when I get there. I ring the maçon and he tells me he’ll be back this afternoon as the brick delivery has been delayed a couple of hours, and he’ll also definitely be there tomorrow for the site meeting. I take advantage of the silence to imagine the completed house from various viewpoints and my sense of anticipation strengthens. Can’t wait.
Site meetings. I love them. You have seven or eight artisans from the different trades, all more than willing to have an opinion on each other’s work, and equally willing to defend themselves at length, so what should probably take 30 minutes usually lasts two to three hours. It’s a great piece of theatre and I like my clients to attend at least once so they experience for themselves how committed and motivated the artisans are.
Pierre, my Gauloise-dependent project manager, leads the meeting, using the previous week’s site minutes as an agenda. I have a small bet with myself that he will be forced to abandon it within 15 minutes, which I win, and the meeting descends into the usual productive anarchy.
The only gap in the proceedings comes when I drop in the fact that I’ve noticed the maçon has forgotten the combustion air inlet pipe to one of the fireplaces. You could hear a pin drop: an architect has just made a sensible practical point... and then the cacophony kicks back in, all the artisans (no matter how unqualified) saying how essential these pipes are, with examples of previous disasters that happened to friends of friends of friends of theirs when the pipes were not fitted, and advising the maçon how best to put them in now the floor slab’s in the way.
Setting such interludes aside, we make good progress on the technical coordination of the buildings. For a house to look right and function smoothly, the detail must be well thought-out, well in advance. A sequence of trades also interlock and it’s these interactions that need most to be addressed: a lighting cable which will be installed in three months’ time needs a duct before the ceiling goes up. If not, we end up with a bodged surfacemounted duct that the client’s eye will be forever drawn to, reminding him of our mistake. Everything’s minuted and emailed to everyone involved, whether present or not, so nobody can plead ignorance as to what they have to do. My next task is to source period fire surrounds, which I shall do this evening so I can finish the day feeling smug.
Off to Bordeaux hopefully to pick the Alf up, and in my impatience I find I have an hour to kill when I get there. I take a tram out to the Cité du Vin, the new state-of-the-art visitor centre for the wine region, although I don’t have enough time to go indoors. The exterior is supposed to evoke a swirl of wine in a glass and is certainly eye-catching, though I’m sure it won’t be to everyone’s taste, unlike the wine.
Back in town I take a shortcut through the Galerie Bordelaise, Bordeaux’s first-ever shopping mall, dating from 1834, complete with glass roof ( verrière) and delightful decorative shopfronts, evidence of the re-emergence of the French middle class after the destruction and guillotinings of the Revolution. It’s also the only place in Bordeaux where you can take a photo without a tram getting in the way. What I had thought was my best photo of Place de la Bourse has two in the frame.
Then bad news: Alf has to stay in. I leave him there in his cone and bandaged foreleg, and set off home feeling glum with an empty passenger seat beside me.
To avoid thinking about Alfie, Charlotte is busying herself with our new window display, which focuses on fireplaces. She shows me the photos: the one we designed for the Blythe family’s kitchen, the one we discovered in the demon baker of Villeréal’s barn and rebuilt in their new house, the massive stone château fireplace we shoehorned out of a cottage, and the massive stone château fireplace that we left untouched in its château.
The right fireplace in the right room is the beating heart of a house, in the same way that a winding stone staircase sets the tone. After a few short moments I say they’re great photos, but there’s something missing. “What’s that?” she asks. “A dog asleep in front of them,” I reply, and she bursts into tears, and throws the stapler at my head.
Neil Vesma’s architect’s practice is at Villeréal near Bergerac Tel: 0033 (0)5 53 01 74 20 neilvesma.com
The right fireplace in the right room is the beating heart of a house, in the same way that a winding stone staircase sets the tone
Neil enjoys seeing his sketches come to life
Not one but two trams in Neil’s shot of the Place de la Bourse and Miroir d’eau
Neil and Charlotte pass the time going through the fireplaces they’ve designed, restored and moved
Bordeaux’ Cité du Vin is designed to resemble the swirl of wine in a glass