Will this chalet restoration be a grand design or a grand désastre? Catharine Hunt speaks to owner Vicky Jarman

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The Jarmans recently purchased what can only be described as a very large wooden pergola in the French Alps. It dates back to the mid-1800s, steeped in history and character; once a farmhouse and fully fledged home. For the Jarmans it was love at first sight.

Even though the farmhouse was not on the market for sale as a whole, it was their destiny to have it. The universe conspired, the owner agreed, and last year they signed the acte de vente and finally called it home, or at least a second-home. And so begins our tale as the Jarmans restore this building – brick by brick, stone by stone, plank by plank – to its former glory and beyond. But first the most important question to ask: why?

The white stuff

Vicky Jarman takes up the story: “As a family we love the mountains in winter. We decided that now was the moment for us to buy. We wanted to be able to spend time both together and with our friends enjoying all the Alps has to offer. But if we were going to buy in France, we also needed to make sure our property could ‘wash its face’ and pay for itself.

“We looked in lots of areas, and at new-builds, older properties, restored chalets and projects. We had no preference or preconception. But as the search continued and we spoke to Alpine Angels, our property agents, we kept ending up in a resort called Les Gets. It ticked all our boxes.

“It was part of the massive Portes du Soleil ski area. It was very family-friendly. It had a great infrastructure. It felt French and had retained so much of what it is to live in France, while still being tourist-friendly. Importantly, it was a very simple one-hour drive to Geneva international airport. We were sold.

“By this point in our search, our agents knew exactly what we were looking for. They would call us in England when things came on the market. They would call us about properties that weren’t on the market! Finally, we were getting close to finding something we wanted to buy. It was actually during one of our visits to view chalets that we first fell in love with the mountains in summertime.

“We had no idea the Alps offered so much during the summer months. It made us even more certain we were doing the right thing.

“One afternoon I was standing in the garden of a chalet we were viewing and I could see an old farmhouse a few hundred metres away. I’d actually noticed it a few times before. This time, I casually mentioned to our agents that if they ever had anything like that farmhouse, I’d take it. Next thing I know, they had called the owner of the farmhouse, a property developer, and he agreed to sell to us.”

Have there been any problems so far?

“We are based in the UK so we are totally reliant on the team we have out in France working for us, and on our agents. One of the first problems we came across was structural. A huge piece of timber that ran through the building needed replacing. We had not expected it and that was most of our contingency fund gone. Our agents were 100% hands-on throughout that process, speaking to contractors, translating, obtaining quotes, advising us if the cost and work was necessary and priced correctly. So yes, we were immediately faced with a challenge!”

Design for life

You are at the earliest stages of the project but are there already some top tips that you could pass on to other people thinking of doing the same?

“I have hundreds of top tips: Don’t underestimate the importance of the architect. I assumed that the builder we hired would be my most vital contact but the architect is pivotal in achieving what you want from your property. And we had an architect who didn’t speak a word of English!

“It can be hard enough to express yourself and your ideas and visions in your mother tongue but to do so in another language, and to then be sure that they have really understood what you are saying is a challenge. So if you don’t speak French it’s important that you have someone on your team over there who does and have weekly calls with the English-speaking project manager.

“I get visual images of everything I am trying to achieve, almost like creating a mood board. I have done that for every single space in the chalet so that everyone can see all the different features, finishes, textures, and are clear on what I want to achieve with the space as a whole.

“When I buy new pieces of furniture I also send photos. And I ask them to send me photographs as the project progresses. It is totally collaborative and the contact is almost constant.

“As for site visits, I fly out there at least once a month to see the work myself, speak to the contractors, and check up on everything. This has been invaluable. On one visit I arrived to find that the roof joists that had to be replaced had been done with brand new wood when we had specifically asked for aged wood. It was almost like the veins running through the building and we couldn’t compromise on that. So we had to ask that it be changed. A huge job! It wasn’t an easy conversation to have!”

Do you have a clear vision for the building?

“I have found that what I want to achieve in the building has changed as we have progressed. What started as an authentic restoration has changed into something more modern, comprising old and new; cutting-edge design with period features. I want to bring something new to the building, restoring and honouring the old structures while representing and adding something from our era.”

Building team

How have the builders and contractors responded to your demands and design choices?

“Things were initially a bit of a battle in terms of expressing myself and getting them to work outside the ‘norm’. But now it is very much a joint venture. Initially, I felt like I was being very demanding and instructive, but now I have got over my English embarrassment and have found that the building team involved are enjoying the challenge.

“I can show them amazing lighting installations, or pieces of furniture, or new floor finishes or even ancient fireplaces that I want to use, and they have become more and more passionate about the project. I am so thankful for that. This is especially the case with the lighting as I had some very specific ideas. I think it’s vitally important in a space and I would not settle for the standard ‘one plug socket and one ceiling fixture’. But now I have shown our electrician examples of what we want and they are really quite excited about creating that.”

You seem very relaxed about the whole process?

“One of the reasons I can be more relaxed is because this is not our primary residence. We are not dependent on the work being completed by a certain date. We have our home in England. We can wait relatively stress-free until the work is finished. I also have the added comfort of working on the restoration with an agent. They have been on hand to translate, to negotiate with contractors. They have trusted contacts out there, they send me photos of the work every week. They are intrinsically linked to the progress that we are making out there.”

So what does your husband think of all this? Is he as hands-on as you?

“Well that’s an interesting question. After the purchase was complete, everything was handed over to me. My husband, Matthew, works incredibly hard. One of the only times I get to see him truly relaxed and at ease is in the mountains.

“And so we have a deal. I am going to organise every aspect of this project alone, every choice, feature, every negotiation with the contractors, every problem, every monthly site visit. And when it is complete, when it is ready to walk into and enjoy then he is going to come out and see it. That is my gift to him.”

Well, what a story. A shell of a home, restored, rebuilt, recreated ready for the ultimate Alpine surprise, the unveiling of a new home in 2012. We will be revisiting the Jarmans in a few months to see how the work is progressing.

Catharine Hunt is the director of Alpine Angels

www.alpineangels.net

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