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January 2011 | New Year, new resolutions



Hello. A new year with new resolutions, first among them being not to break any of them unless I absolutely choose to. Whoops, there goes another one.

Staff meeting this morning, with Charlotte pretending to be human resources manager and insisting it's not a staff meeting at all but in fact an informal team member skills recognition gathering and motivational-orientational-restructuring happening with a side order of morphological knowledge bank catalysis. By the time she's finished saying all this the rest of us (just Michaël and me, Pierre’s on site) have wandered off to the coffeemaker. "Only joking!" she yells, but without conviction. First item on the agenda: the office cat feeding rota. Michaël offers to draw it up but only to annoy Charlotte because she wants to do it so she can be down to feed Claude every day. I get called away so we’ll have to do the less important stuff later.



Lots of travelling this week, Carcassonne to Cognac, each 200km away from my office but in opposite directions, and for very different projects.

Today it's Carcassonne, in the foothills of the Pyrenees with my friend and Eco-consultant Serge. Regular readers will remember him for his hairyness and incomprehensible high-speed French. He's been quite ill the past few months so I'm driving to the site, a derelict farmhouse renovation with the most stunning views across pine forests and lakes to the shark-toothed mountains beyond. As we head uphill I mention it's quite chilly and Serge replies along the lines of "Ouiçafaitmalauxpoumonsj'auraibesoind'unedeuxièmeécharpe!", which I take to mean he's feeling it too.

We're here to talk about heating, appropriately enough, as my clients want to use renewable energy to heat their future home. I kick off by explaining that you can either draw warmth from the ground or the air, convert it into usable heat with a heat pump, and from then on it's a standard central heating system with radiators and/or a heated floor. Programming and zoning are as easy as a conventional boiler system.

Serge then launches himself into his usual over-technical over-paced delivery, and to my astonishment Paul and Jenny the clients actually understand him! It turns out later they are both French teachers, which is cheating I think. Anyway, Serge has his doubts about an air-source system as it gets very cold this high up and of course that's when you want the most warmth. They would need a massive intake unit, cancelling out the usual cost advantage. A ground-based system would however work. Their land is perfect for the heat capture piping: you need about twice the floor area of the house, flat and below floor level. If Paul and Jenny choose a heated floor, they can also have a reversible system to cool the floor in summer, delicious on the toes.

On the way back past Toulouse, I reflect on the benefits of a good grasp of the French language. The French themselves are a very welcoming people and any attempt, however stumbling, to speak their
tongue brings out a warm, enthusiastic response. And we English would do the same, wouldn't we, for a Frenchman struggling with the language of Shakespeare, Churchill and Bruce Forsyth.



And so to Cognac. Betwixt Bordeaux and Brittany, one of my favourite landscapes (but there again they're all my favourites), gently rolling vine-clad hills, voluptuous, smooth and inviting. Dawdling, I am passed by a gaggle of bikers revelling in the flowing road.

And am abruptly brought up short. Blimey! Is this the place? Surely not. It is! I drive under a broad stone archway into the courtyard, which rises gently before me. The far end is hidden behind mature oak trees, but I can make out a dressed stone facade two storeys high and nine windows wide. This isn't a house, it's a town square transplanted into the vineyards. All four sides of this enormous courtyard are made up of beautifully-detailed late-18th century coach houses, stables, grooms' cottages and, ah yes, a distillery. That's what paid for it all.

I could go on but I won't. I'm here for a Devonian couple who are looking to buy the property and want me to cast an architectural eye over it. We meet, introductions follow to the owners, the French estate agent, the English estate agent and a couple of others too. We are offered a large glass of Pineau des Charentes, the local fortified wine, which in my case proves to be a mistake as I've not eaten and develop a splitting headache.

While the others have a meeting about the detailed terms of the sale, I start off looking at the outbuildings. The whole property has a Napoleonic feel to it, trim, proper and substantial, but for the moment I need to concentrate on more practical matters. Roof tiling and timbers, damp and subsidence. I come across an enormous enamelled pot-still that would not look out of place in a 19th-century Tardis.

Later my clients and I walk round the house together to discuss how practical it would be to change the internal layout to suit them better. They want a pool in the large walled garden behind the house, and to create a grand bedroom suite. We find a secret door in the panelling of the dining room. While the house is habitable, it needs a heating system and a lot of TLC to bring it up to modern standards and, being large, this is not going to be cheap. I mention a rough figure to them and they don't faint.


After spending the night at Blaye on the Gironde estuary, I head into Bordeaux for meetings with accountants and lawyers. While it’s always a pleasure to take the necessary time for meetings in the French style (yes I do mean lunches), I’d really rather get back and do something productive. Between meetings I do another pencil sketch for a rather grand new house in the Dordogne that I hope will inspire my prospective clients to appoint me.


It does! Over the phone we discuss timescales and they confirm they are signing my fee proposal and will post it today. These things usually take weeks or months so I’m a little taken aback but very pleased. It’s not every day people are so quick and decisive.

We reconvene the staff meeting, without Pierre again. I ask where he is. "He's on site," says Charlotte "somebody has to do the work." "Quoi?" says Michaël. "Il est sur chantier," I translate, but not very well, "il travaille, il faut que quelqu'un le fasse." Michaël puts him down for extra cat feeding as he's not there to argue. Next item: allocating next week's tasks. "Don't bother, I know what I'm doing," pipes up Charlotte. "Moi aussi," chimes in Michaël.

"So why are we sat here?" I ask. "No idea darling." "Ni moi."

And so our working year begins.

 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