The real deal

If you’re renovating, it’s nice to keep some of your property’s original character. Catharine Higginson offers some useful advice

Buying an old French property or restoration project is often a bit like falling in love. People initially decide to consider certain types of properties, only to go on and fall for something quite different. Very often buyers are seduced by the original features in the property and retaining these elements where possible is the key to a sympathetic renovation. French properties vary enormously both according to region and age of construction, but almost all older properties will contain some attractive features that are worth conserving. Evaluating what should stay and what should go is a process that will depend on a number of factors. You will need to think about the renovation of the property as a whole and consider how individual rooms are going to be used. You also need to consider your lifestyle. For example, if you go out to work every day, then however much you like the idea of heating the house with open fires, this is not going to be practical. So you’ll need to consider a central heating system. This will mean radiators or perhaps underfloor heating. Now if you have beautiful tiled floors, maybe you can’t or don’t want to remove the tiles to install the heating element. And if the walls are covered in attractive panelling, maybe hanging a radiator on top of that is not such a good idea. In other words, renovation invariably involves compromise and nowhere is this truer than when it comes to retaining original features.

The heat is onThe heating system is key and this should be your starting point. The system needs to be capable of heating your home to a comfortable temperature, cost a reasonable amount of money to run and ideally, be based on renewable energies. If the property is a maison secondaire, you may have a little more flexibility as you may not need to heat the property at certain times of year. However, should you come to sell in the future, if the property doesn’t have adequate heating, this will be reflected in the selling price. Once you’ve decided on the type of heating, you can then work out what impact this will have on the renovation plans. It may be that the timber floors need to be removed in any case. Older properties are unlikely to have any underfloor insulation and adequate insulation levels have a big effect on the thermal efficiency of a house. The floorboards may be warped or rotten or they may have been replaced with a mismatch of boards over the years. In any of these scenarios, replacing the boards makes sense. However, there is nothing to stop you replacing the floors with reclaimed timber and this is a great way to retain character. If the timbers are in reasonable condition, you could opt to sand and reseal them. This is a messy but simple task and as the equipment can be hired quite cheaply, it’s a cost-effective and fast way to renovate floors. Tiled or flagstone floors are more problematic. The floors can be removed and relaid but this is a much bigger job. Tiles may break and it may be difficult to find matching replacements. Flagstones are heavy and will need to be carefully numbered so that they can be replaced in the right order. Although taking up and relaying solid floors like these is time consuming, the level of skill required means that it can be tackled by most keen DIY enthusiasts and it will give a great result. Any timbers that are being retained will need to be treated for fungal or insect infestations. This applies not just to floorboards but joists, beams and all internal woodwork. It makes sense to salvage wood wherever possible. Beams and joists can be gently sandblasted and pressure-washed then sanded and oiled back to their former glory. It is also well worth renovating the staircase if possible. Staircases are expensive items so installing even a basic model will add to the renovation costs and anything that is made to measure will cost a significant amount of money. If parts of the staircase, such as the treads, have been damaged, you could ask a carpenter – un menuisier – to give you an estimate to repair the damage. Sometimes restoration is the better option.If the property has original fireplaces, it generally makes sense to keep them. They will also often need repairing; you may be able to tackle this yourself or you may prefer to ask the local stonemason – le ma�on. If the fireplaces have been removed, replacing them with a reclaimed fireplace will often significantly improve the feel of the property. Look in local reclamation yards for similar units or try online sources. If you are planning to use the fireplaces, whether as a primary or secondary heating source, it makes sense to replace open fires with wood-burning stoves. This is a much more efficient way of heating and cuts down on mess.If you’ve been lucky enough to find a property with interesting internal features, try to keep them and incorporate them into the renovations wherever possible. Many older houses have traditional stone sinks under the kitchen window and these look great. They can be used as oversized window sills and are an ideal place to stand plants. The sinks were designed to drain straight outside into the garden and this drain will act as a cold bridge. An incredible draught can come up via the plug hole so you will need to blank this off.Other properties may have little stone recesses in the walls, leading to small gaps in the stone. Again, although you will need to tackle the draught-proofing element, these recesses can look stunning when the stone has been cleaned and pointed. Adding lighting or using them as a display shelf is a much better option than plasterboarding over them and will make the property far more interesting.

Keeping up appearancesOver the last few years there has been a huge move to change old exterior doors and windows for modern double or triple glazed units. If the old joinery is rotten or has been damaged beyond repair, then replacement is the only option and at this point, it makes sense to upgrade the units to ones which are more thermally efficient. However, if they can be repaired, then keeping original windows will often add to the character of the property. As well as repairing the window frames, you will need to tackle draughts and installing secondary glazing is a good idea. Old doors are likely to be draughty and ill-fitting. They may also be unique, handcrafted and quite stunning; in other words, they could be a feature that will add to the property if you can work round the drawbacks. Depending on the layout of the house, one good solution is to install a secondary door unit. If you have the space inside, you may be able to fit a new door directly behind the existing one. You could opt for a double-glazed, French window-type door. This allows you to leave the old’ door open some of the time, increasing light into the property and means the existing front door has effectively become a shutter. Equally, you could add an exterior entrance porch complete with a new and thermally efficient front’ door. Either of these is a good solution that will allow you to retain the old door in the exterior fa�ade while increasing the comfort within the house.Internal doors can often be salvaged and a restored door will invariably look better than a modern replacement. If you do need to change doors or add missing doors, try to find old ones. Local papers and second-hand stores such as d�p�ts-ventes and trocs are a good place to hunt. The charity Emmaus has regional depots and is a great place to find incredibly cheap second-hand doors and windows. It is equally easy to salvage door and window furniture. Old locks and handles look beautiful when they are stripped of paint and restored. Again, it’s easy to find a selection of old ironmongery at second-hand stores and even vide-greniers – the French equivalent of car boot sales.Externally, it is often well worth spending some time and effort in restoring the shutters. Older shutters would often have been handcrafted to order for a particular house or family and frequently contain intricate detailing. As the shutter is basically a piece of wood designed to cut off the worst of the weather, it’s often quite easy to restore them to solid working order and they will look much better than an off-the-shelf modern equivalent. If the shutters are beyond repair, it is easy to find second-hand replacements as many homeowners have upgraded to electric shutters; again d�p�ts-ventes and Emmaus are a good source.As with every other aspect of renovation, retaining original features invariably involves a degree of flexibility. It may not be possible or even practical to keep all the elements of a building while simultaneously modernising it but taking the time to consider all the options will result in a sympathetically renovated property.

Useful vocabulary

d�p�t d’anciens mat�riaux de construction – reclamation yardles poutres – beamsles poutres en ch�ne – oak beamsles pierres d’angles – corner stonesles linteaux – lintelsles fen�tres – windowsles volets – shuttersles portes – doorsla porte d’entr�e – front door