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July 2011 | Topped-out towers and long, long legs



Just back from our big manor house refurbishment, where we had a topping-out ceremony to mark the completion of the roof repairs. Adrien the roofer had wanted to give the owners a little something extra in return for engaging him to do the work, and he had chosen a weathervane for their tower in the form of the French rooster, symbol of strength and independence.

All the artisans were there, the sky cloudless, and the beer bottles cold. We watched from the ground as Adrien took the Blythes fifty feet up on his mobile platform so Mr B could place the shining zinc rooster on its pin. Cameras clicked and there was a goosebumps moment as the English client and the French craftsman shook hands, genuine respect on both sides openly shared. Spontaneous applause from us groundlings. A topping topping-out. 



Blimey it's hot. I am at the other manor house up in Cognac which I am refurbishing for Alan and Simone, where inevitably the question of air conditioning has come up. Here in southern France keeping a house cool in summer is even more important than warmth in winter. I may be no eco-warrior but on the other hand aircon seems so, well, 20th-century to me.

The traditional way of keeping your home cool here is to keep the shutters and windows shut during the day to keep out the sun and hot air. Any heat that does sneak in is sucked up by the cool stone walls. At night-time the shutters stay shut but we open the windows to let in fresh air to cool the stonework ready for the morning, when we shut the windows again.

It works perfectly well, though it does give (to Anglo-Saxon eyes) a gloomy interior, and sometimes an unintentionally unwelcoming feeling to village streets. The internal gloom is not helped by the world-famous burnt-toffee wall tiling and similarly-toned 60's wallpaper you so often find, though I should point out these are entirely traditional Gallic decor choices and in no way add to the house feeling cool, either temperature-wise or in terms of style.

Anyway my clients have invited me to stay over so I can experience the heat for myself. Time for lights out. 



I awake in a pool of what I hope is sweat. Blimey it's hot.

Many, many years of experience as an architect have led me to the dramatic discovery that bedrooms are most often found upstairs. You may have noticed this yourself, and this is where the problem at the manor house lies. The roof turns out to be very poorly insulated, allowing heat in as well as out. The entire ceiling acts as a massive radiator. Rather than treating the symptom by air-conditioning the building, we can cure the problem by insulating the roof as we redo it. I recommend a pre-finished insulation panel which is very quick to install (and so reduces the risk of rain damage while the roof is open) and leaves the roof timbers exposed internally. Result: a sympathetic refurbishment of the upper floor, a client who won't be throwing money away on electricity bills, and a very slightly cooler planet. 



A couple of years ago the government tried to streamline the planning process, placing strict limits on the time taken to decide applications and what information the planners are allowed to ask for. The planning fonctionnaires, those dedicated and skilled public servants who are supposed to carry out their duties in this new rationalised fashion have, with their legendary diligence and creativity, managed entirely to negate the changes and remain completely in charge of their own decision-making. One of their favourite weapons is the Demande de Pièces Manquantes, and that's what I'm fighting today.

All normal planning applications have to be decided within three months unless, UNLESS (concentrate please) the applicant has missed something out. The planners have four weeks to advise you, so three weeks and six days after submission you get a letter from them entitled Demande de Pièces Manquantes asking you to complete your submission before the clock starts ticking for their three months. In nearly half the cases it's something they already have, and in most of the rest it’s because they want something in colour rather than black and white, or black and white rather than colour, but still the clock doesn't start until you've resubmitted what you’ve already done in a slightly different manner, to allow them to save face in case of too-blatant error on their part.

Today's pièce is special. It's for a house/gîte/workshop I'm doing for the green oak carpenters I work with. The buildings have been designed to nestle in between the mature oaks on site and to be barely visible. The application included a sketch of the proposals in the landscape as required, but the planners are complaining that my sketch is inadmissible because they can't see what the place looks like. I have explained in words of one syllable (yes my French is that good) that invisibility is the whole point, but to no avail.

I do another sketch from the point of view of a passing buzzard and send it off. As Pierre quite rightly says, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. 



Another end-of-the-month office review today, for which everyone shows up for once, and on time. As the last item, I mention an old university friend who has offered to help out with the excess workload. Charlotte the office manager objects. "You can't take him on just because he's an old friend," she insists. "I used to work in Human Resources, you should be objectively reviewing their skill sets and expectations. It's not healthy to take someone on just because they've got the old school tie or a good pair of legs".

There is a long, long silence as she realises what she's just said and folds her long, long legs demurely beneath her seat.

"Any other business?" I venture.

 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