A sprint for the finish

There have been setbacks and hurdles to overcome but Paul and Jill Foulkes are within sight of realising their dream, says Mark Sampson

We’ve reached the penultimate part of our mini-series with our heroes, Paul and Jill Foulkes, ever closer to throwing open the doors of their low-cost low-energy show home to admit the multitudes, queuing up to commission an Echo House 104 of their very own.

Early in February, Paul showed me round. It was a bitterly cold day, shrouded by cloud the colour of porridge. Yet the sun forced its way through. A symbolic gesture, perhaps, from above?

Space, the final frontier…

The first thing that strikes you is the front door. Visitors have described it as not very French’. The polished oak is covered on the exterior face by a protective sheet of textured aluminium. It could have been grim, but things have moved on since the aluminium sidings’ peddled by the tin men’ of Barry Levinson’s hilarious film. The door and matching windows are stylish and solid, and the aluminium fa�ades will require no maintenance.

Inside, the late afternoon sun poured through the full-length sliding doors, which will open out onto the south-facing decking, whence you can admire the Zen garden that Jill plans to create. Last time I was here, there was no roof in place and I was concerned that the concrete pad didn’t seem that big. Yet, with roof in place and internal walls all half-built (like a set for a puppet film), it all seems quite spacious. The 104m� appears ample for a small family or a retired couple.

Paul explains why the internal walls are unfinished. “I had to create all the zones for the underfloor heating, but leaving them half-built means that I can hang all the railings and the boards for the ceiling without having to cut around them.”

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Electro-magnetic smog

The truncated interior walls are built with terracotta, but with simple large-format briques, rather than the special capillary monomurs. They have gone up very quickly, even allowing for the double skin around the utilities room that will help muffle the sound of the heat pump, ventilation system and other mod cons.

He has also started to lay the thick plaques of polyurethane insulation over which will run the serpentine plastic tubes for the underfloor heating. Once they’re in place, the anhydrite screed can be poured before finally the flooring itself is laid. However, he hasn’t started to lay the insulation in the bedrooms for a reason. Quel surprise, another delay in materials.

“It’s a four-week delay on the bio-electrical cabling. Supplier problems,” Paul sighs wearily. “It’s specially sheathed against radiation. We’re doing what we can to cut out some of the electro-magnetic smog of modern life. I don’t see it as a very big deal, but if you can avoid it – why not? I’m going to have to run most of it underneath the insulation, so I’m stymied until it gets here.”

Bring me sunshine

A sudden snap of wind on plastic drew my gaze up through the trusses to the king-size tarp rippling in the breeze. Ah yes, the hole in the roof. The week before Paul was on the verge of despair. He told me that, if it weren’t for the weather, he’d go back to the UK the next day. Since he hasn’t been back for almost a decade, I knew that something was seriously wrong.

The solar panels should be sitting in the vacant space. All over the recent holiday, the suppliers fobbed them off with this or that delay. Perfectly normal, in other words. Then Jill managed to speak directly to the manufacturers.

Back at Nuthatch Cottage, the current family home, she fills me in with the sordid details. “The suppliers told me that the manufacturers had had our money. This turned out to be a bare-faced lie. In fact, the rep told me that the company won’t deal with the suppliers any more, because they owe them a lot of money.” Jill pointed out that these suppliers had been recommended on the company’s website. “He said he was sorry – no, of course he didn’t because this is France and cultural differences don’t allow apologies! He said, we’ll take their name off the website. It sickens me to think what they’ve done.”

When she spoke to the manufacturer’s company director a fortnight later, he told her: “There’s nothing we can do; we’re talking them to court.” Meanwhile Jill says: “The suppliers contacted us to ask if we would mind if they supplied panels made by another manufacturer. Of course, we knew the reason why.”

After some heated conversations, Paul received an email purporting to offer proof that they, the suppliers, had paid a deposit on the Foulkes’ panels to the alternative manufacturers.

It’s a tangled web of deceit. The thing is – and the reason for Paul’s recent despair – they have paid €12,000 up front for these panels. Lest anyone throw up their arms in horror, Paul points out that this is actually quite normal here. “The mark-up on the panels is only about 10%, so it’s normal that suppliers ask for 100% up front on the first order. Once they have established a relationship with a customer based on trust – ha! – it’s then often a standard 30% down with the remainder on delivery.”

A matter of principle

Ironically, if Paul and Jill hadn’t been so faithful to one of their abiding principles – that they would source their materials as locally as possible – they would have gone to their usual German supplier, who would have charged less money and delivered their panels on time.

Jill is the very model of a modern positive thinker. She believes that everything happens for a reason and points out that something good has already come of this: the manufacturers will deal with them direct from now on (which is normally unheard of).

Paul, however, blames himself for making the wrong decision and frets about the money and deadline-slips. I point out that they started only last summer. It’s not yet nine months. Paul is “99.9% certain that it’ll be finished within 12 months”. Which is not bad by anyone’s reckoning.

If it weren’t for the accursed but indispensable panels, they would be settled soon in their luminous new home. As it is, they hope to have the first open day in May. More good news is that they already have potential customers for future Echo Houses. Signs and feedback suggest that what they are doing will plug a gap in the market.

Future builds and lessons learned

Despite it all, Paul and Jill are already looking ahead to the next build, on the plot at Prayssac. “The next one will be a lot easier,” Paul claims. “If we sell Nuthatch, I’ll have the financial cushion to work on it full-time – and with assistance. Site access is easier. I’ve now got somewhere safe to store materials, so I can pre-order. I’ve got suppliers lined up within a few kilometres of the site. And I’ve got a huge amount of learning to apply.”

Such as? “Well, principally, I’ve learned that you must get your trades involved as early as possible and, if you can store them safely, order your materials well in advance. Remember that this is a multi-artisan project. We’re not going to just one company, we’re reliant on people and materials all slotting in like pieces of a jigsaw. There was always an element of risk. It was bound to be a difficult project to manage.”

The BBC label

What of the longer-term future? “After 1 January 2013,” Paul reveals, “all houses will have to be built like this in order to earn a BBC label: b�timents basse consommation. Ironically, we’ll have real trouble gaining one because we’ve used materials supplied by smaller companies that can’t afford to get their products certificated – unlike all the multi-nationals’ products. The hemp and lime plaster that we’ll be using for example. Brilliant insulating properties and used for centuries. But it hasn’t been certificated. So it will be judged as minimum standard.”

Which, like so many facets of European legislation, is palpably insane. “But we’ll be there in two years’ time – and we can show them the bills,” Paul says defiantly.

I for one will drink to that.

You can read more about the concept and progress at www.echohouse.eu

For more about the BBC label: www.effinergie.org/site/Effinergie/BBC-Effinergie

For details about the bio-electrical cabling visit:

www.flex-a-ray.com/flexaray/?page_id=88