Expats running an eco-friendly B&B in Picardy
Franco-British couple Vincent Caplier and Peter Clark run an eco-friendly B&B in Picardy. We find out how they made their home environmentally responsible
When British expat Peter Clark and his French partner Vincent Caplier first began looking for properties to start a B&B in Picardy back in 2007, they came up against a problem: none of them were suitable. “We viewed 25-30 properties and it was impossible to find the right one,” says Vincent, who grew up in the area. Many of the rural houses in this northern corner of France are built in the longère, or ‘long house’ style – one-storey farmhouses with rooms running in a line. In Picardy, long houses tend to be fairly small, compared to those in neighbouring Normandy. “There are all the problems with volume and how to fit in bathrooms. Sometimes there wasn’t even a bathroom,” adds Peter.
So the couple decided to try a different tack. “We had a thought that maybe we could build a house,” explains Vincent. “First of all we looked for a piece of land, found it, and bought it without knowing exactly what we would build on top of it.”
They were keen to take on a new challenge; Peter had been working in London for 25 years as an engineer and project manager primarily for the BBC, and was looking for a change of direction. They got together after meeting in 1999, but after years of commuting back and forth on Eurostar, Peter decided to embrace a new life in France.
The land that caught the couple’s imagination was a 7,000m²plot sandwiched between two villages in the rural department of Somme in Picardy. Despite not initially having a plan for their construction, the couple took the project in their stride. “We both have an interest in architecture. I was a web designer and I have a way of thinking in terms of design,” says Vincent, “so I started to make a plan of what the house should be. We wanted to continue the tradition of the long house, so we found a solution, which is very close to the traditional buildings of the area, but also very modern.”
Having bought the plot in July 2007, the couple’s first job was to find an architect, and it was important for them to find one that shared their vision. “I went online and only selected the architects that were young,” says Vincent. “We shortlisted about six, met two and selected one,” says Peter. “The architect we chose is from Amiens and he studied in Belgium, which was significant because his ideas and his ways of building are somewhat less rigid than is often the case here.”
In September 2007, Peter and Vincent had their first meeting with their architect and by the end of the year, they had their design for Les Mazures – a modern take on the traditional Picardy long house with three en-suite guest rooms, as well as their own living accommodation.
Being eco-responsible was important to them both from the outset. “We always had a green idea and wanted to be efficient. I always had that innate desire to do something for the environment,” says Peter. “We wanted to make an energy-efficient house. The first aim was to make efficient use of resources,” adds Vincent.
A key milestone came when the couple attended a presentation by the Clef Verte, or ‘Green Key’, an international environmental label for tourist accommodation, organised by Somme Tourism and Gîtes de France. “We hadn’t started building, but the house was designed, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that we met almost all of the criteria for the Green Key already. At that point, we decided to go forward with our eco-responsible approach,” explains Peter.
Construction started on the house on 1 September 2008 and was finished by the end of April 2009. “The form of construction is extremely rapid because the building has a steel frame, which went up in two days, so it was very fast to build,” says Peter.
Work on the interior was carried out by Peter, together with Vincent’s father. “We moved in ourselves in October 2009, but we still had all three guest rooms to fit out – the first one was finished in Christmas 2009 and we opened the following spring, so it took three years from start to finish,” says Peter.
The contemporary long house runs east to west, allowing the structure to have maximum benefit from the sun’s rays, as Peter explains: “At the front of the house, which is due south, we have a big bay windows which catch the sun and even in winter, as soon as the sun comes out, we gain two or three degrees by the early evening. The north side is almost completely closed – there are just three small windows and the back door. The roof tiles continue on the back wall, and nearly reach the ground. That was done partly for cost and partly to have that dark closed surface that will benefit any solar gain from any bit of sun that catches it morning and evening.”
Room numbers have been kept to a minimum in order to increase insulation and trap the warmth of the house. The three, east-facing guest bedrooms are situated on ground level, each with access to the beautiful gardens that surround the house. The guest rooms benefit from the sun in the morning but stay cool in the day.
When it comes to energy, the couple believe in ‘Négawatt energy’, which sounds very technological, but Vincent says the idea is, in fact, very straightforward: “The main idea with Négawatt is that the best energy is the one you don’t use. First, you reduce your consumption to the minimum; second, you go for green energy; third, you produce your own energy or part of it.”
The couple achieve the first principle by reducing their energy use to a minimum by making sure that lighting and electrical appliances are on low consumption. Their hot water supply is adapted to the occupancy of the house and taps and showers are fitted with flow limiters. They also have a wood-burning stove, which means that electric radiators are only needed in the guest rooms. They aim to start producing energy by installing photovoltaic roof panels in the next three years, which will enable them to produce energy from sunlight.
Les Mazures was officially awarded Green Key accreditation in 2010, having achieved 94% of the criteria. Attaining this eco-label so early in their operation has been a highlight: “It validates our approach – we have an internationally recognised accreditation,” Peter says.
With regards to setting up the business, the couple found it a relatively simple process and Les Mazures opened for business in May 2010. “We wanted to be with Gîtes de France and they are very helpful,” says Peter. Les Mazures is also listed with holiday accommodation listings company Sawday’s, which is the source of the majority of their British guest bookings. Guests of other nationalities, including French, Belgium and Dutch, tend to book though Les Mazures’ website, or other guides in which the guesthouse is listed. Peter explains that word of mouth now plays an important role. “Now we’re in our fifth year, word of mouth means that we have repeat business,” he says.
The interior of the long house is contemporary: sleek and minimalistic, but carefully furnished to make guests feel relaxed and comfortable. When it came to sourcing furniture and furnishings, Peter and Vincent had one shop in mind. “Eighty percent of what’s in the house is from IKEA,” laughs Vincent, adding: “We took the time to be very selective and chose the best-quality items. People do recognise some of the stuff but they don’t think of it as an ‘IKEA house’. You could say we created a ‘home from home’ for guests. It is modern but with a homely atmosphere.”
On their 7,000m²plot, the couple have been committed to preserving and encouraging biodiversity. “When we bought the land we did our best to preserve the wildlife, and we improved it by planting more hedges so we have more birds, and we planted more flowers. The flowers are not only beautiful; the aim is to provide pollen and food for insects and butterflies,” says Vincent.
Their commitment to preserving and promoting biodiversity has enabled them to create several links with major associations in France. Their efforts have been officially recognized in the French National Strategy for Biodiversity, which has been a highlight for them both. “We are by far the smallest structure to be recognised,” says Peter. Les Mazures also has links with the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), a French partner of Birdlife International, who have designated the site an ‘LPO Refuge’.
Around 4,000m²of the plot is pasture, which is where Peter and Vincent keep their four sheep, two goats and around 30 chickens. This is also where they have an organic vegetable garden where they grow fruit and vegetables for their own meals and those of their guests. They currently produce 90% of the fruit and vegetables that they need. “We installed a polytunnel this year, to grow tomatoes for the first time. There is little that we have to buy. Most of what we buy externally is between seasons, but we’re try to make that time shorter and that’s the idea with the polytunnel,” says Peter.
In the tranquil gardens surrounding the house, plants have been carefully positioned so they do not require watering. “There is no regular watering here; only when we’ve just planted something. Everything is chosen to be in the right spot,” says Peter. When water is required, the couple use the rainwater that has collected in a pond.
Behind the house is a 300m²wild flower prairie, where birds and other pollinators flourish. “Our neighbours across the road have hives and so their bees come here, and we buy the honey from them afterwards,” laughs Peter. Les Mazures is a member of Les Jardins de Noé, an association of gardens committed to protecting garden wildlife and promoting biodiversity. As part of the association’s charter, pesticides and chemicals are banned at Les Mazures.
It’s difficult not to admire and be inspired by Peter and Vincent’s passion – their commitment to this project is a triumph of how human spirit and determination can positively benefit the environment which affects us all.
www.lesmazures.comAre you thinking of setting up your own B&B in France? Read our how-to guide first.
Read about another expat couple running a B&B in Ardèche
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