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April 2011 | Big heads and barn-storming ideas



I wake at 7am as usual, but without remembering where. Looking around me, I see my room has a TV, a wardrobe, a chair and a desk and, behind a curtain, a shower, a washbasin and a bidet. But no toilet.

No toilet. Ah yes, I am in a hotel at the foot of the Pyrenees. I have an early-morning site meeting and booked the room over the phone, first checking it had a shower but, like a fool, assuming if it had a shower it would have a toilet. This is apparently a hotel of the old school. No toilet. Pas de toilettes.

My meeting is to talk through my initial proposals for converting a barn into guest accommodation for a young skiing-mad couple. The barn sits beside a shallow, fast-running, ice-clear and ice-cold river fed by meltwater from the crags above. Its walls are built from rounded boulders and pebbles taken directly from the river bed, laid in courses interlaced with thin red brick to stabilise them. The whole thing has the texture, warmth and welcome of a hand-knitted jumper and I love it.

My sketch proposals try to accentuate the existing character and space of the barn while creating bedrooms and bathrooms in a sympathetic manner, using untreated timber boarding for the partitions rather than plasterboard. I explain how these are made soundproof and snug, and my clients warm to the idea.

Introducing light into the building is crucial to making the internal spaces welcoming. The main barn door opening is under a brick arch, and its entire area is to be glazed. We will, however, keep the barn doors as shutters so the building can be secured when the owners are away. Inside these doors we are keeping the space open to the roof timbers as far as the back wall, but the light will not reach the full depth of the space so I have introduced a couple of rooflights at the back. These are set right above the boulders and brick of the back wall so, as well as lighting the rear of the space, the light on the masonry draws the eye to its beauty.

We spend the morning discussing design details, drainage and other technicalities and I head off at midday. Where to lunch? I remember last night's solid but uninspiring dinner at the hotel and decide that maybe I'll drive on to somewhere else. 


The restoration of the manor house which started last month is continuing apace. Pierre my project manager and I are on site two or three times a week, mostly because so much is going on, but partly because of the fantastic toys the contractors have brought with them. The best of these is a real crane with enormous concrete counterbalance blocks, operated by remote control with a little joystick. The operator sends 200kg oak beams flying up over the roof with a mere flick of his thumb, while the masons open up huge holes in the thick stone walls, propping the weight above with a forest of slender steel struts.

Our clients are currently in New Zealand, the husband desperately frustrated that he can't even see, let alone play with, these big yellow machines. Pierre and I are sending him lots of photos to keep him informed, and in no way to wind him up.


The French artisans chosen for the job have worked with each other and with me for several years on many different projects, but this is the biggest and most exciting. Adrien the roofer and carpenter is especially skittish as he is enjoying the challenge of rebuilding the conical tower roof, combining traditional spiral boarding with ultra-high-tech insulation. His system of temporary beams and ties to hold in place the attic stairs while entirely removing the floor beneath is an engineering wonder. And next month he will bring over the first of the carved boars' heads which will adorn the supporting brackets of the new 9m (30ft) long oak beams supporting the limed oak acoustic floor he is putting in.

All of the artisans seem to have caught the atmosphere, the buzz, and site meetings are full of well-motivated workmen making helpful suggestions to get the work done better and quicker. Even the normally reserved and independent Frédéric, who originally measured and surveyed the house for me, asks if he might be allowed to go back for a look. 


Another e-mail in my inbox this morning being very complimentary about the Diary. The writer uses the French equivalent of 'I take my hat off to you' which, for once, is shorter than the English version: just the one word 'chapeau'. I like flattery (who doesn't?) and accidentally-on-purpose slip the e-mail into the conversation over morning coffee. Charlotte gets up, picks up a steel tape measure and wordlessly measures my head to see how big it's grown. I start to justify myself and she gives me a look that no mere office manager should ever give her boss. I then do what any real man would do, and slink away with my tail between my legs. 


No more nice e-mails dammit. Shall have to fake a few. 



Back on site at the manor restoration again. I had intended to take Frédéric down to show him the work while I spent ten minutes taking arty photos for the Diary, but we end up there for the best part of the morning as the artisans ask for guidance on points of detail.

The low point, figuratively and literally, comes when the mason shows me an old clay drain running across the kitchen floor where the boards have been taken up. With hindsight, I probably should not have done what I do next. I take a hammer to tap the pipe to see if it has been backfilled or is still hollow. The hammer, my fist and forearm go straight through the brittle old clay into rank, foul-smelling slime that splashes up onto my clothes and face. I think if Charlotte were to re-measure my head today, she would find it has returned to its original size.

 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