Design for life


- Credit: Archant

Andrew Pell-Stevens looks at various ways in which you can work with an architect to create your dream home in France

Perhaps you have found a perfect tumbledown house that you can vividly see restored to its former glory. Or you’ve found that ideal plot of land on which to build your dream home.

What now? Whether you have experience of building projects or not, one possible avenue is to employ an architect or project manager. Although this could add at least a further 5% to your budget, it could save much more. Indeed, in some cases, the choice is taken out of your hands. If the proposed net habitable surface area, called SHON (surfaces hors oeuvre nette) of the new building is larger than 170m2, or where an extension to an existing property exceeds 170m2, it is necessary to use a qualified and French-registered architect (Ordre des Architectes) to prepare and submit a planning application. It is quite often complicated to work out the areas as deducting items like terraces, balconies, garages, etc (called SHOB – surfaces hors oeuvre brute) is necessary.

If your project is below 170m2, you do not necessarily need the services of an architect. You could try to sort out the application yourself, or use the services of a maître d’œuvre (contracts manager).

However, it is worth weighing up the advantages and possible disadvantages of using an architect. In France, for smaller projects you could also use the maître d’œuvre, but make sure that they can supply the necessary drawings and information. They can also cost around the same as an architect.

Once an architect (preferable bilingual) has been appointed, they can participate at each stage of a project, whether that be new-build or renovation, from design to construction of the works. Knowing where to start is always the hardest part when deciding on your project. For this reason, most architects will conduct a free initial visit to discuss your needs and aspirations for your proposed project, followed up by a detailed written description of works necessary, services and fees involved.

You will be able to instruct the architect to carry out and complete certain stages of your proposed project. The most important part of any project is the start, at the sketch design stage, where the client and architect must work closely together. In building terms, if you get the foundation right, the rest will follow well. Indeed, in the case of some buildings, it is advisable for a prospective buyer to consult an architect before the compromis de vente (the sales contract) is signed. Many buildings look beautiful, especially after lunch, but to renovate them can be too expensive and way over a budget. And after all, the ultimate benefit of an architect is help you build the finest house within budget.

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Various stages in the process can include a dimensional and photographic survey, feasibility study, drawing up client-approved plans for planning application, and submitting the application. Once the planning approval has been gained, you can move on to having detailed drawings prepared, and specifications and schedule of works completed to send to nominated contractors for tender. It is usually best to select a minimum of three contractors to tender. Normally, the architect will be able to recommend local contractors (artisans) to submit the tender documents to. After the contractor has been selected, the client can choose to project-manage themselves, use a project manager like the maître d’œuvre, or instruct the architect.

In the UK, a planning application is submitted by paper direct to the local authority but normally, nowadays, online via the government planning portal. In France, applications are submitted to the local mairie who sends them to the planning department, the DDE (Direction Departmentale de l’Equipement). Unlike in the UK, these are paper applications and four copies of the form and dossier are submitted to the mairie. A notice should be displayed outside the Office of the Mairie, who will also inform any neighbours. The application can only be viewed in the mairie’s office as there is no on-line facility with a local authority website. The usual process will take two months as in the UK, before a decision is given, but may take up to six months if the proposal is within a restricted area, ie village classée, and must be submitted to the Architectes de Bâtiments de France. This organisation is, in some way, similar to English Heritage. Its role is to offer expertise in relation to rebuilding and restoring historic buildings, encompassing advice, supervision and conservation.

There have been various changes in the planning laws over the years. As of January 2013, all permis de construire will have to meet the demands of the RT2012. The Règlementation Thermique 2012 (RT2012) sets the new minimum standard of thermal insulation of dwellings and other types of construction in France. Non-residential buildings have been under this new regulation since October 2011 but after January 2013, all new residential properties also have to submit their planning applications with RT2012. The regulations state that all new dwellings must have an energy rating level less than 50kWh/m2 per year, although this can vary by locality and altitude within a range of 40 to 65kWh/m2. This is really about heat loss through walls/roofs etc. In the UK, planning departments have become increasingly aware of the problem and have implemented their own sustainability checklist, while building control departments have always specified a ‘U’ value through materials to govern heat loss. In the UK we tend more to use a slab insulation like celotex or kingspan for their good insulation values, giving us the correct ‘U’ value required under Building Regulations, whereas in France more fibreglass (laine de verre) insulation is used, which takes up more room and does not have such good insulation qualities. After construction, the building will have to be tested for its thermal efficiency.

It is also wise to check out the various zones in habitable areas (PLU – plan local d’urbanisme) as in some cases it is now possible to submit a déclaration préalable for minor works/extensions up to 20m2 and even up to 40m2 in some zones. This replaces the permis de construire and is much easier to submit. However, any change of use or change of elevation will still require a full permis de construire to be submitted.

The architect will always advise on the type of application necessary, as trying to work out what needs to be submitted can be tricky. The main applications are:

Permis de démolir – Demolitions permit.

Certificat d’urbanisme (CU) – Outline Planning/Planning in principle.

Déclaration préalable – Minor works.

Permis de construire (PC) – Planning application for a building permit.

Permis de construire maison et/ou uses annexes – Planning application for house/extension only.

Permis d’aménager (PA) – Individual house on a housing estate.

Modification d’un permis délivrer en cours de validité – Modification to an application.

Déclaration d’ouverture de chantier – Commence work on site.

Déclaration attestant l’achèvement et la conformité des travaux – Completion of work in accordance with the permit.

To safeguard clients, architects registered in France must hold Professional Indemnity Insurance, as in the UK. Before you engage an architect, it is wise to ask to see their current insurance certificate. Architects in France are strongly regulated by the Ordre des Architectes ( in terms of qualifications and professional insurance that offers their clients high-level protection.

Andrew Pell-Stevens is director of English and French architectural practice,