Firm foundations

Work has begun on the echo house but just as things start moving, the holiday season gets into full swing, writes Mark Sampson

In August, France closes down. Not surprisingly, the Echo House schedule has slipped this summer. “Theoretically,” Paul elaborates, “we’re about four weeks behind. But it’s my self-imposed schedule and I’m not losing any sleep over it.”

“No, he’s too knackered,” his wife, Jill, chips in with feeling.

In the first of these four articles, we left the family Foulkes poised to begin their project of a lifetime: constructing a low-cost, highly energy-efficient family home, the template of which can be replicated throughout the land.

Paul and Jill have now started gauging the width of the gap between theory and practice. Some 21 years after moving to France, they’re still learning new lessons about the way things are done here. Not least about the impact of holidays.

The digger-man cometh

The digger, we learned, was scheduled to break the ground at the beginning of June. The estimate arrived finally on the first Friday of the month. “I went to see Fabrice that afternoon to sweet-talk him into coming the following week as he had originally promised,” Jill explains. “In France it doesn’t do to be confrontational. You have to be very diplomatic. In the UK, everyone’s fighting for business. Here the attitude seems to be, Bof! I’ve got more than enough work’.”

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At 9am on the following Wednesday, he phoned to say he would be there at midday. The filthy June weather had worked in their favour. The digger-man’s other sites were waterlogged and the Echo House’s rocky terrain was a godsend.

“The quote was for €15,000: for all the groundwork plus fosse septique,” Paul reveals. “Seeing them unloading the 24-tonne digger just confirmed that you can’t take budgetary shortcuts at this point. It’s no good hiring a mini-digger. So when weighing up your quotes, don’t just go for the cheapest one. Ask the right questions and find out what’s included and what’s not included. You’ve got to have the right equipment for the job.”

Remarkably quickly, a 3,000-litre septic tank was laid in place. However, as the tank is made of plastic, Fabrice couldn’t back-fill the hole without first filling the tank with water. Only, the supply had not yet been laid on. Jill describes the irony of rushing around trying to locate water with rain falling in biblical torrents. She went first, as usual, to her friendly mayor’s secretary, who suggested a local farmer for whom Jill had once done a bit of translation, gratis. He turned up that afternoon with the requisite water in tow – for a very modest consideration.

Shifting the goalposts

With the groundwork done, the ma�on was able to start work, preparing to pour the slab. However, things might have ground swiftly to a halt.

“An official took one look at the garage outline and said, No you’ve got to move it. It’s too near the road’,” Paul says. “Even though the plans had all gone through. In theory, I could have stood my ground. But you can’t upset the apple cart.” Much to-ing and fro-ing to the mairie ensued. Paul is actually happier with the new site. The hedge they stipulated between garage and road has created an extra parking space.

It underlined the importance of being on site regularly. “Imagine if I’d been in the UK. Everything would have ground to a halt and the trade would have left and moved on to another site. If you’re not going to be there, you’ve got to get a project manager. Otherwise, it’s economic madness.”

Customarily up at 6.30am to answer emails and prepare for the day ahead, Paul has been on site most mornings. Afternoons are for customers and evenings for paperwork. “One morning, the local doctor drove by,” he recounts proudly. “He said it was good to see an ecolo getting his hands dirty rather than just idealising. I was chuffed. I really do want to see the whole thing in action: for future builds, I’ll know about potential problems and be able to troubleshoot.”

Good stress/bad stress

While Paul has found it difficult to turn down work in order to concentrate on the build – particularly when it’s the mayor asking him to wire up the new cr�che – Jill has grown accustomed to her summer-holiday’ role: making calls, tackling paperwork and generally supporting her industrious husband.

She takes up the story. “It’s been very, very hard work because of the hours. Stressful, yes. But not necessarily a bad stress, because you’re marking progress. Whats been frustrating is trying to get quotes from potential partners. We’ve lined up Mobalpa for the kitchens, Hager for the electrical fittings and Atlantic for the ventilation and heating, and we’ve had fantastic support from them. But getting anything done at this time of year...” She laughs the equivalent of the Gallic shrug.

“I’ve learned that you have to log every call.” She shows me a pro forma she has designed and they talk me through an especially trying saga. “We need exact measurements for the doors and windows,” Paul explains, “because that dictates the position for the blockwork.

It’s got to be a perfect fit from the point of view of the insulation and possible thermal bridges.”

Here is the silly season exemplified. On 6 May: Jill phones to explain concept and arrange meeting. 17 May: Jill and Paul present prospectus at meeting. Rep is keen and promises devis for following week. Nothing. 11 June: At last Jill gets through to rep, who promises to chase up suppliers and phone Paul on his mobile later that week. Doesn’t. 28 June: Paul sees rep again; tells him he really needs sizes and prices. Rep will do it for him. Doesn’t.

20 July: Jill calls company to learn that rep is now on holiday. Arranges meeting with another rep for following day. Rep no. 2 has no information and can’t go through rep no. 1’s dossier while he is on holiday. Paul prints another prospectus for meeting. Rep no. 2 is also keen and promises quote for next day, which arrives the following week, incomplete and based on boix exotique, not the specified French oak.

When rep no. 1 is back from his holiday a quote arrived by email on 10 August. This time it’s complete and competitive, and they are back in business.

Pouring the slab

Meanwhile, back on the site… Returning from a three-day R&R break in the Ard�che, Paul learned that the plumber would be on holiday when all the pipework was to go in place ready for the pouring of the concrete slab. So he spent a week on site and laid the pipes himself. But then the ma�on phoned to say that he was going on holiday next week “He couldn’t! We’d arranged Wednesday 4th for the pour for ages. What I hadn’t realised was: when someone French says I’m going on holiday next week, they mean Friday, not Monday! Friday 6th,” clarifies Jill. “Transfiguration Day!”

The day of the pour was a major milestone. “That’s the big one for me,” says Paul. “This is the real starting point. It’s given me the reassurance I need that the house will actually be big enough. It all looked so small before.”

What’s next?

Since then, they’ve been up to Echo House to mark out the rooms with spray paint and have even eaten a meal on’ the kitchen. Jill talks of now having to wean herself off their current abode and focus on a new life. “It’ll be fine – so long as whoever rents our house waters my kiwis,” she quips.

Despite the slippage, Paul still intends to start the blockwork in September and still targets 2 January 2011 for the move. For now, he’s looking forward to a swift completion of the garage, so he’ll have somewhere secure to leave all his equipment – which will mean that he can cycle over every day on his beloved road bike.

We’re all going on a summer holiday…

And everyone’s really looking forward to joining the French on holiday. Doing nothing on a four-star campsite near Perpignan. “Except I don’t believe that with Paul,” Jill bemoans. “He can’t do nothing.”

As if to prove the point, a call from the site comes through on Paul’s mobile. Someone has turned up to dig a trench for some telephone conduit a month too early. Paul rushes off to catch him before he disappears for lunch at midi.

Ah, such is the wonderful world of construction!

Don’t miss Part Three in the December issue

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