An architect’s diary

The reroofed Périgourdine property

The reroofed Périgourdine property - Credit: Archant

Neil Vesma, our resident architect in France, shares the new-build designs and renovation projects he has worked on in the last week

The gas bottle set-up didn't exactly meet safety regulations

The gas bottle set-up didn't exactly meet safety regulations - Credit: Archant

MONDAY

Part of Neil's drawing of the roof

Part of Neil's drawing of the roof - Credit: Archant

Pierre my project manager and I are stood in a damp cellar near Cahors in Lot.

“C’est pas mal, non? C’est du jamais-vu.” I have to agree with him. This really is something you don’t see often.

In front of us, seated at a jaunty angle on the uneven dirt floor, is an old rusty fridge serving as a stand for a gas bottle with its rubber pipe disappearing through the ceiling to the kitchen above.

The pipe, not being quite long enough, pulls at the bottle, which is wedged up on its steel handle, for all the world looking like it’s going to kick the fridge over and end it all there and then.

“This doesn’t conform with regulations,” says Pierre, and he’s right again. It doesn’t.

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TUESDAY

This week is going to be mostly taken up with designs for new houses, of which we have one starting on-site and four in various stages of planning. However, I still need to check up on sites in progress so today I am popping over to Shane and Carmen’s Périgourdine house. Last month I was up on the scaffold as work was in progress insulating and retiling this lovely 14th-century stone building in the hills above Sarlat, and now it’s finished.

As the house comes into view it brings a smile to my face. The Feltre brothers, third-generation carpenters and roofers, have done a wonderful job and the roof looks as if it hasn’t been touched (but it has been, I’ve checked). They’ve reused all the original tiles that were in good condition on the two main pitches facing the garden, and conservation-grade new tiles on the third pitch which is least visible. I’m very proud for them, take some photos on my phone and email them straight to Carmen.

WEDNESDAY

New clients Neil and Kate have asked me to design a house for them just south of Bergerac. They had bought a tumbledown stone farmhouse and found it was just a little too tumbledown to renovate economically, so decided to rebuild instead.

The site is a delight, not unusual for this part of the world. Panoramic views over sunflower fields and oak woods, a church on the horizon, poplar trees, you know the place. They want the new house to look like the old one, but with a modern twist, so I’ve designed just that: a traditional long narrow stone house with a barn-like structure at the end, with a lot of glass to take full advantage of the views across the valley.

I sent them the layout last week with a pencil sketch and Neil is coming in today to give me their feedback.

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His arrival is a bit bizarre.

“Hi Neil.”

“Neil, hello! How you doing, Neil?”

“I’m fine, Neil, how about yourself?”

You get the picture. It turns out they love the layout, just a few minor tweaks, but the glazed barn area which will house their kitchen and main living space is not modern enough for them.

Blimey! That’s a first! I had put a tiled roof with traditional oak trusses over it, but they weren’t keen. Back to the drawing board.

THURSDAY

Back down to Capbreton today to see Gavin and June’s villa refurbishment and to meet the contractors. We’re creating an open-plan lounge-cum-kitchen out of four ground-floor rooms and the house is currently looking very open-plan indeed: the maçon has opened up the back wall and removed all the internal partitions so the space is enormous. It feels like the entire back garden is a part of it, which is exactly what they wanted.

Today, we are discussing ductwork routes for the air conditioning. Usually these run between the ceiling and the floor above, but headroom downstairs is very restricted and a large room with a low ceiling feels oppressive. We need to find another solution.

In any project, decisions taken for one element of the work impact on the others, like ripples spreading across a pond, so it’s nearly two hours before we reach a consensus between the heating engineer, plasterer, electrician, maçon and joiner.

The ductwork will be hidden behind a dropped ceiling over the circulation areas, with recessed lighting playing on the higher ceilings to draw the eye. Nice.

FRIDAY

Back in the office and revising Neil and Kate’s roof design. I amend the pencil sketch, taking the roof off and showing the room beneath.

I cogitate. Decades pass. Then I draw. A flat roof, seemingly supported by glass, floating above the walls. A glazed dome to drop light onto the kitchen units. A lawn outside the bedroom window. I note on the drawing that the lawn is a silly idea, so they can always say no thanks, but I’m intrigued to see how far they want to take the modern theme.

Later I gird my loins to deal with the new energy-saving regulations for new houses, which came into force in January. It’s a good thing for the planet and our clients’ energy bills, but we’re in France so of course it’s also hyper-bureaucratic.

Every planning application for a new house now has to be accompanied by an architect’s certificate stating the energy efficiency of the house, calculated in accordance with the new regs using government-approved software. The only glitch is that the government has not yet approved any such software and has given itself till July to get around to it.

I recall the gas bottle on the old fridge in the cellar and ask myself whether the new system is any less cobbled together than that. Answers on a postcard please. Anyway I need to make some phone calls to the planners to see how to deal with it. Deep breath…

Neil Vesma’s architect’s practice is at Villeréal near Bergerac

Tel: 0033 (0)6 75 84 71 76

www.neilvesma.com