An architect’s diary

It’s all in a week’s work for Neil Vesma


It’s Monday and there’s work to do. It’s a big-and-small week ahead with, among other projects, our manor house refurbishment near Cognac completing, and a permis application to submit for a new window in a Dordogne stone cottage.

You might think it tempting to put a minimum of care into a small job, but it’s never unimportant to the client, nor to the administration. Significant amounts of money are always at stake, and we’re always dealing with somebody’s dreams and aspirations. So I’m off to the Dordogne cottage tomorrow to see the sisters who own it with the final layout to make sure everything is just so.


The Wilson sisters’ stone cottage lies at the top of a steep valley just outside Beaumont-du-P�rigord in the southern Dordogne and I’m glad I didn’t cycle up to the house as I’d planned. The road is steep and long, and the views are delightful when you’re not gasping for breath and blinded by sweat.

The welcome I get from the sisters is warm. Their home is built in to the side of the hill, and they want to convert their cellar, which gives onto their lower terrace, into a guest bedroom. As it is a change of use from non-habitable to habitable space it has to be declared, if for no other reason than the local commune can then tax it.

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As I mentioned, the only external change is the insertion of a new window. Normally this would be quite straightforward, but here we are in the protected zone of a listed abbey and the planners will be asking the opinion of the conservation department before deciding. The sisters point out an old opening which has been blocked up, not in the perfect position but not far off, and we agree that we should reopen it to light and ventilate the room. It will be hard for the planners to argue against, provided we use a timber window and shutters and not white PVC.

It turns out the sisters are twins, which explains why I can never remember who is who. Hope they don’t find out. Hope they’re not reading this...


Sunning myself over coffee on the office balcony this morning, I notice the corner house on the market square has been cordoned off. I pretend to need a baguette so I can walk past and stick my nose in. The mayor of Viller�al is there on his mobile as well as one of the town councillors, who also happens to be the carpenter who’s been working on the old presbytery refurbishment I’ve just finished. I have a quiet word.

It’s a beautiful if somewhat run-down half-timbered colombage jewel, maybe 600 years old, two storeys high over an open arcade. Its exposed corner sits on a massive stone pillar with a staircase inside it, a favourite photo opportunity for architectural enthusiasts and holidaying families alike. It seems the timber frame has shifted and there is a chance of small pieces of our local heritage falling on people’s heads. Hence the barriers.

The owner, an ageing and visibly distressed gentleman arrives, and I take my nosiness off elsewhere. I find out later that the building has been on the market for some time and there is no money for repairs, either in the owner’s pocket or the mairie’s. It looks like the galvanised barriers are going to have to stay for a while and our snap-happy friends will have to find another beauty spot to immortalise.


Off to Cognac this morning for the completion meeting of the manor house conversion. Charlotte, who manages our website as well as organising the office, comes along to take photos. This turns out to be a cover story: in the car she admits she’s really just curious, never having been to see the manor.

The house comes into view across the fields, nestled in comfortably and substantially among the vines. The next thing to come into view is a mass of white vans and cars belonging to the artisans, parked on every spare square metre of road, verge, and neighbours’ lawns. Twenty-nine white vans and cars in fact. I suspect something’s not quite right.

When we meet the clients my suspicions are confirmed. Their first summer guests arrive tomorrow and they have no kitchen worktops, no bathroom fittings and no power. The painters are hard at it, the turf is being laid and the furnishers are glowering at anyone who so much as looks at their dust sheets.

I corner the site co-ordinator and, as politely as I can, ask him what’s happened to the completion programme that we established last week. He ums and ers for a while but ultimately convinces me that everything will be completed by tomorrow. So Charlotte and I go to reassure the owners, and to rearrange the handover for a later date.

While we are driving back to the office, Charlotte asks if there would have been the same level of panic had Pierre, our own site manager, been in charge of proceedings. “Probably,” I sigh, “but it would have been a higher quality of panic.”


I wrote last month about Bob and Caroline’s new roof going on in between rain showers. Today I’ve got some photos through of the pigeonnier roof timbering being hoisted into place. Francis the contractor built it in his workshop then assembled it on site on the ground. He tells me the oak structure weighs about three tons and he had it hanging off the front of his telescopic forklift, with his dumper truck acting as a counterweight off the back to stop the whole thing tipping over. Caroline is a health and safety consultant, so I shan’t be sending her that particular snap.

Later, I call the clients at the manor house and am delighted and relieved to hear that, contrary to expectations, everything is in fact finished. Near enough anyway till we do the snagging. I mention it to Charlotte and she gives me an arch look. “What?” I ask, pretending not to understand what she means, and then blurt out “OK, it was a close-run thing. But finishing just in time is finishing on time. And by the way, we’re invited for ap�ritifs next week.” n

Neil Vesma’s architect’s practice is at Viller�al, south of Bergerac.

Tel: 0033 (0)6 75 84 71 76