Real life: building a straw house in France

Real life: building a straw house in France

Follow the story of three sisters who built a straw house as Samantha Bottomley looks into whether embarking on a self-build is the best way to achieve the dream

If money is tight or you have always dreamt of designing and building your own home then a self-build in France is potentially a great option.

Drive around France and you will see many new pavillons or bungalows springing up on the edges of towns and villages. This is because in France today the self-build is an increasingly popular way to get on the property ladder, as many young families prefer to build their own home rather than taking on a costly renovation project. Plus a new-build will be much more fuel-efficient, cheaper to run and have lower maintenance costs than an old house.

So how do you go about it? You have three options: employ an established company who will find the land and build the house, simply handing you the keys once it is completed; a partially assisted build; or a total self-build project.

If you choose the company option, make sure they come recommended and try to visit houses they have built. You are putting a huge amount of capital and trust in them to deliver a quality end product so you need to be sure before you sign.

If you’re doing either a partially assisted or totally self-build home, make sure you factor in the cost of the land as it varies hugely across the country. Be sure to do your homework before jumping in with both feet.

A few years ago, three Australian sisters undertook an ambitious self-build project in Charente after being inspired by the organic shapes of Gaudi’s Casa Batiló in Barcelona. Following their visit to Spain, they embarked on an extensive internet search looking at various countries before finally settling on France.

Tamara, the eldest sister, was very interested in the prospect of living mortgage-free and off-grid using natural building products. One of her sisters suffers from an autoimmune disease and this was another reason for them to look at alternative methods. Initially, she looked at cob houses but felt a straw house was easier to insulate and quicker to build.

At first, it was nothing more than a dream until Tamara was made redundant and had sufficient funds to buy a piece of land. For them, the geographical location was unimportant but their criteria was to find a plot with a natural water source, sufficient land for their three horses and with relatively easy access to an airport.

Following the land purchase, two of the sisters went on straw bale building courses and Tamara bought almost all the books available on the subject as she was aware that she really needed to do her homework before embarking on the project.

She worked closely with an architect who was a family friend and between them they came up with a design which was accepted by the mairie after certain aspects had been modified. Thankfully, the straw was never an issue and was readily accepted.

Tamara says her best and most memorable moment was when her architect constructed a 3D card miniature of the house.

Having purchased the land in 2009 with a view to building in 2010, Tamara admits to totally underestimating the build costs, meaning they had to proceed more cautiously than they hoped due to financial constraints.

With the three sisters based in London they would come to the site as often as possible to work on specific tasks. Sheridan moved to France full time at the end of June 2014 for the duration of the build, while the other two had to make do with spending their annual summer holiday building.

The girls have become well-known locally and have been visited regularly by neighbours looking at the creation of such an unusual house, and although they were sceptical they are now full of admiration. Sourcing straw bales in the correct shape has been quite challenging, as has storing building materials on site.

The first essential jobs done on site to make it workable were the installation of a driveway, electricity and a septic tank which was connected to their mobile home. The sisters decided to employ professionals to lay the foundations before using a number of volunteers to help them with the build.

To recruit, they used specialist volunteer sites and were lucky enough to find some people with significant experience in building straw houses which transformed their ability to push the build forward. Along with other enthusiastic volunteers their house took shape very quickly and it has now been topped off with a roof by professional builders.

Their family and friends are totally in awe of them and are quite astonished that they have kept up the required momentum. It was a very special moment when the roof went on and they could see their house take shape. They have proven everyone wrong as their pipe dream way back in 2009 is now a reality for everyone to see and they can certainly be proud of their achievement.

Their long-term plans are to build another larger house on the same plot of land for them all to live in together, and their dream is that one day their mother will come from Australia and live with them in the original straw cottage.

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