Mix and match


Work on the barn conversion is progressing well but will Louise Wilkinson and husband Andy find a decent supply of plaster?

Not yet familiar with French wiring or plumbing regulations, we needed to outsource the electrics and central heating system. Our local landlady assured us she could help and sent her electrician cousin round to meet us. He seemed excellent, with fairly good English and a good understanding of what we were trying to achieve. Surprisingly efficient too.

The devis (quote) arrived a week or so later. We had budgeted around €8,000 for the electrical installation, and Andy nearly had a heart attack when the quote came out at €18,000. So I placed an advert on our local expat website and was inundated with emails from British electricians and plumbers. Great.

Chemical reaction

The first plumber arrived in an ex-post office van and chain smoked while listening to our requirements. We explained to him that the main gas and water feeds needed to be laid in the new floor. Flicking the cigarette butt out, he said: “No problem mate, I’ll lay me pipes in those trenches and you can just concrete over them.” “What?” said Andy, “No conduit?” “Nah, mate,” he said. “Don’t need it. It’ll be all right in there.” Trying to keep calm, Andy explained the chemical reaction between copper and concrete, and our man started to look a little uncomfortable: “Well, it’s that special copper innit.” I could see Andy starting to boil so ushered the bloke back to his van before steam started coming out of Andy’s ears.

In total, we must have seen nearly 10 tradesmen, and good lord what a bunch. No wonder you hear so many horror stories. Eventually we found a very decent electrician, and a good plumber.

I was soon ordering palettes of plasterboard. Oh I hate plasterboard. It’s that nails-on-a-blackboard, biting-towels sort of feeling. We fitted 650 sheets of 2.5mx1.2m. To make it even more difficult, Andy insisted on double-boarding the entire upstairs (for better phonic insulation). The barn began to feel more like a house. Our aim was to complete the apartment or g�te’ in time for our ejection from the rented cottage, then finish the rest of the house. We had added incentive, and pressure, as our wedding date coincided with our planned move.

So we concentrated our efforts on the 75m� g�te and, following heavy negotiation on price, bought 350m� of limestone slabs, and tonnes of sand and cement. We had decided to get some help laying slabs as I wasn’t even nearly strong enough. I called up a few numbers from our trusty expat website and found someone to help. He arrived, as planned, and while I mixed and barrowed, he started to lay.

Andy spent the morning setting out and came to check on him before lunch. “What?” screamed Andy. “What on earth are you doing?” Oh dear. It turned out he had never laid a slab in his life. Not good. Needless to say he didn’t stay long. So we called my brother who flew over for a couple of weeks to lend a hand. I got the glorious task of grouting. Thank the lord for knee pads is all I will say on that.

Search for plaster

The plans for the build included the details of a septic tank (fosse septique). Having never installed one, we were keen to involve an expert. We have since fitted dozens and would probably have managed. I sourced a local French artisan, who was also able to do the liaison with the local authorities, ensuring it was correctly installed and that a certificate of conformity’ was granted.

The following week, we went out together to source plaster. My telephone calls on the subject had proved fruitless. No matter how hard I tried to explain, our supplier could not understand why on earth we wanted to cover plasterboard in plaster (the French just tape the joints and paint over it). So we sourced three different brands and had a go. The first dried in the bucket immediately after being mixed. We rejected it. The second wasn’t much easier. But the third, a nice, white plaster, seemed workable, and we soon had a good rhythm: me mixing (as usual) and Andy plastering.

Climbing ladders

It was so hard. Mixing in itself isn’t that difficult but it is crucial to maintain a consistent consistency, with absolutely no lumps. The challenges were not only the weight of the raw materials, and the quantity required, but that only a small proportion of the mixture was required at waist height or lower. Much of the upstairs studwork is between three and five metres high. Lifting this stuff up on to scaffolding and climbing ladders with it is really not that easy. Just as soon as I had negotiated wobbly scaffold boards and near vertical ladders, with a tub full of 35kg of plaster, Andy would pour it all out onto a huge board and shout, “next mix please, not so runny this time. Oh and Lou, NO LUMPS!”

Waste water

A fosse septique is required where no mains drainage is accessible to connect to. It is essentially a huge sewage tank and filter bed, which filters all waste water from the house.

Laws regarding sewage have changed recently in France, and SPANC (Site de Promotion de l’Assainissement Non Collectif) are carrying out inspections on every relevant property. Some older houses have a fosse, which is basically a tank and drain-off pipe. In this case SPANC will issue a report recommending alterations and you will have four years to make the changes.

When purchasing a property with no mains drainage, it is important to ensure that the fosse septique has been granted a certificate of conformity. If not, a cost for the installation of a new system needs to be considered.

The system that must be installed can vary. It is dependent on the soil type, available space, gradient and proximity to wells, trees and neighbouring properties. Because of this, it is difficult to give a budget cost, but a rough guide for a four-bedroom property would be between €5,000 and €7,000.

Louise and Andy run France-based building company Wilkinson-Pell

Tel: 0033 (0)6 28 80 48 22


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