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August 2012 | Grumpy trousers and green oak roof trusses.


Vesma has his grumpy trousers on this morning. My weekend has been interrupted by the weather (sudden downpours) and a shower of contractors. Sylvain the metalworker who is building Jack & Serena's staircase has been on the phone three times, and Francis the roofer on Bob and Caroline's new house has been pleading with me to let him get the trusses in place and I've had to say no.

"Hold on!" I hear you cry out, "aren't you supposed to, you know, encourage builders to do their work, instead of stopping them?" Well, yes, but not at the risk of ruining the finished building. The roof trusses in question are in green oak, unsealed and vulnerable to water staining. Oak contains tannins which, if they wash out in rain, leave a permanent brown stain that won't go away and leaches through any seal or paint you might try to conceal it with. 

So I've said to Francis "Si tu poses les fermes et puis il pleut avant qu'elles se protègent, je te tue" which translates as "If you fit the trusses and it rains before you can protect them, I shall kill you", but in the nicest possible way.

The sky is black in the direction of the site again so I head out just to double-check. As I get there, Francis is already in the process of wrapping the trusses in their tarpaulins again. We discuss the forecast and agree it sounds OK for the rest of the week. "Bien donc je ressaye demain" I'll try again tomorrow, he says. I really must try to trust him more, but old UK habits die hard.

TUESDAYgreen-oak-roof-4 108x81

Back out this afternoon to see how Francis is getting on with the roof. He's what some snobs might call a rough diamond, but is rapidly proving to be more diamond than rough. The sun is shining, the roof structure is growing before our eyes and Bob the client is here with his camera and a big smile.

Francis has a point of detail to discuss about the oak-framed terrace roof he will be putting up next month. He wants to use pine eaves beams instead of the oak which, while stronger, is more likely to warp or split. I suggest getting the sawmill to cut these three beams from the centre of the trunk as this is less likely to deform, Francis says he would insist on that in any event. Bob takes the decision to stay with oak for aesthetic reasons, and is happy to live with a terrace roof that might end up slightly bowed. He says it would add character anyway.


Off up to the Charente and Cognac today to our second manor house refurbishment, where the geothermal heating is going in. I spent a distinctly uncomfortable night here last summer to experience at first hand the overheating attic bedrooms, and managed to convince my clients to forgo the eco-unfriendly option of air conditioning in favour of good insulation and a reversible ground source heat pump. I had been a little scared to propose it, as the underground pipes that collect the heat for this large range of buildings would need to be about the size of a 5-a-side football pitch. "Oh that's OK," my clients had said "we want one of those as well."geothermal-field

Geothermy works like a massive underground solar panel, extracting the warmth from the soil and then (don't ask me how) using it to heat up water in a standard central heating system. You can use it with radiators or in underfloor heating, and you can also reverse it to cool the house in summer and lose the heat under the lawn. The heat pump only uses a quarter of the energy it gathers for free, so it’s cheap as well as ecologically sound. Helps the grass grow too.

Anyway, I arrive to find the grid of pipework laid out on its sand bed ready for pressure-testing before the topsoil goes back over, and find myself impressed at the sheer scale and technical complexity of it. The system will be tested to ten times its working pressure so there will be no question of it leaking. I imagine it might be quite expensive to dig it all up again to find a split pipe.


A two-hour session of Formation Continue, Continuing Professional Development, at Bordeaux today so I let the train take the strain. It's only an hour and a half to Bordeaux St Jean, and then a 5-minute glide on the very swish tram to the venue on the historic Quays. Least said, soonest mended as far as the training session is concerned, but on the way back I take the time to get out the HB pencil and sketch out Pete and Maya's house, which is now in for its Permis de Construire, its Planning application. I wrote about our creatively hectic meeting in May when we agreed the design in principle, but they have asked me to give them an idea of the overall scale of their double-height living space. The train is so smooth the sketch is finished by the time I get back, and doesn't look like it's been drawn by a 4-year old in a tumble dryer.


Back again from Bob's house, where Francis has finished the roof timbering and fitted the pre-insulated panels over it, so the oak is safe. He has also constructed the steep pyramid roof for the pigeonnier on the ground and covered it over, ready for the crane which will lift it bodily into place. It's been an anxious week but the grumpy trousers can come off now, to be replaced by cycling shorts. I haven't fallen off for weeks now and am in serious training for a week in the saddle later this autumn. Last year I made the mistake of trying to go up the Pyrenees, this year I'm being less dim and just riding alongside them from Biarritz on the Atlantic coast to Beziers on the Mediterranean. Now where's my helmet?

Neil Vesma Architecte www.neilvesma.com +33 6 75 84 71 76