Ar­chi­tect’s di­ary

De­sign­ing new homes and im­prov­ing old

French Property News - - Fpn Contents - Neil Vesma

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 neil­

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

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