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April 2012 | Coming up against a jobsworth brick wall



Fell off my bike again. Failed again to get my feet out of the pedals before the bike stopped. Bruised my backside and cricked my neck. You're supposed to work through the pain these days but, frankly, thats not for me. My neck is stiff and hurting, so it’s Ibuprofen and rear-view mirrors so I can see my co-workers laughing behind my back. Ouch.

The day doesn't get any better when I run into the brick wall that is a French civil servant, a fonctionnaire, on a mission. Every once in a while you come across one for whom the description jobsworth does not even come close. It's not just us Anglos who they wind up, it's the French too. This particular one has control over the Zone Rouge, the flood plain of the River Dordogne around Bergerac. My clients want to convert a boathouse to a gîte, but it's in the Zone Rouge and Madame La Gardienne Des Débits et des Crues (I exaggerate) says Non. I say what's the harm. She says it would impede access for the rescue services. I say the building's already there. She says it's the rules. Things get increasingly petty until I realise that there is just no way through, so I back off. It’s such a shame as many fonctionnaires, especially in the Mairies where they are just ordinary people, are really helpful.



A long drive this morning (with rubber ring) up to the Corrèze near Limoges, to a watermill we are converting for Crawford Smythe, a cheerful consultant of military bearing from Ascot. I have great respect for Crawford, who saw the potential of the place when it was little more than an overgrown ruin in a wooded valley. The mill stream trips and gurgles past the building, which is now nearing completion. When we first started work last year it was difficult to see beyond the front wall, but what Crawford had worked out was that the acre of brambles and scrub trees outside the front door was the original mill pond. Once this is cleared and the pond refilled, it will open up the sky as well as the views, and reflect light into the first floor sitting kitchen. Now the place is habitable, Crawford will be able to get out there with his brushcutter and minidigger and complete his vision.

Internally on three floors plus a cellar, the mill was in a very poor state but has been completely refurbished. Only the four granite walls and the main roof timbers were in a good enough state to retain. Crawford’s budget was tight but not impossible, so we took time together to select the right contractors.

I always say the ideal contractor is inexpensive, good at his work, fast and reliable, but three out of four isn’t bad. And so it is with Bob the English (but French-registered) carpenter and joiner who has replaced the floors in oiled chestnut that glows golden in the morning sun. His pricing was right, he’s turned up and his finishing is exemplary, but it takes time to get it right. The job has overrun, but Crawford has swallowed his frustration as best he can, and the result looks terrific. The one outstanding problem was that some loirs, some dormice have got into the roofspace before Bob managed to fit the mesh screens in the roof vents, and are now merrily tap-dancing on the ceiling every night.



Charlotte my glamorous (and very professional) practice manager tells me we need to start marketing for 2013 now, and how she has booked lunch for us with someone I shall call Antoine Ducheval. "Antoine who?" I ask and am rewarded with a ten-minute harangue on how he has spent over thirty years schmoozing with the Parisian elite and how he can open more doors for us into the château refurbishment market.

When we get to the restaurant Antoine is there with a companion whom he refers to as 'his niece', and Charlotte looks decidedly put out. Certainly Minette seems to get on terribly well with her Uncle Antoine, and keeps straightening his cravat. The conversation is slightly stilted, but I take a shine to him and we agree to meet later in the week to talk business.

Back at the office Bob the builder (no, not that one) rings to ask how I want to get rid of the dormice in the mill roof. My facetious post-prandial suggestion of surrounding the building with warm teapots à la Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is met with an equally tepid response. I have no idea and ask an unusually subdued Charlotte to research it for me. I am, after all, no Bill Oddie. 



After yesterday's shenanigans I feel the need to settle everyone down with a Permis application. These are the backbone of our work and everybody knows the part they have to play. Almost all projects in France need a Permis de Construire, and we haven't had one refused yet, but the detail and format of the application is rigidly controlled and it will get returned if it's not right.

I check Frédo's drawings and ask him to fine-tune some points before he converts them to PDFs and prints them. I do a pencil sketch of the proposals so the Planners don't need to leave their desks to see what the house will look like, and then I do the floor area calculation for Charlotte who is filling out and copying the application forms. She collates the drawings and stamps every one with my tampon (translation: official rubber stamp, thank you) before I formally sign them. Whoever is least busy will take the envelope to La Poste, where it gets sent off to the Mairie by RAR, recorded delivery.

When it goes right, there's a sense of achievement, of a job put to bed, but when the printer chews up the plans or when the binding machine goes off-centre it's very very very frustrating. Today's a good day though, and I head home feeling settled but slightly apprehensive about tomorrow. 



It could have gone worse. Antoine, for instance, might have been wearing shorts. Charlotte might not have locked herself in the toilet for the entire duration of the meeting, and so might have had to be polite to him. As it is, despite his old school charm and impressive address book, Antoine won't be joining us. When you work in a small office you have to be able to get on with each other, and that clearly wasn't going to be the case with him. If you'll excuse the pun, I've already got a pain in the neck.

 Neil Vesma’s Architect’s practice is at Villeréal near Bergerac. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or tel 0033 675 847 176, or visit his website www.neilvesma.com