October - Attic Conversion near Sarlat and refurbishment in the Médocheader FPN

October 2012 | Attic conversion near Sarlat and refurbishment in the Médoc


MONDAY L’Automne. The flood tide of clients en vacances has turned to the ebb, and now it's time to start dismantling their homes and putting them back together, better. So, it's off to Harry and Deidre's smart village house near Sarlat where the contractors are preparing the attic for conversion to a couple of en-suite chambres d’hôtes  B&B rooms.

loft conversion after - resized

Converting your loft can be a very cost-effective way of creating extra space, but you do need to be careful if you're buying and the loft conversion is an integral part of your plans. Headroom and access are usually the critical questions: insulating and lining the underside of the roof can reduce headroom by 30cm, and a soundproof floor over the existing can be up to 15cm thick. You also need headroom over the stairs, so in a smaller attic the top step needs to be near the ridge, cutting the available space in two. Sometimes you can get over this by adding a dormer or lucarne over the stairs, but it's all added expense. Having said all that, attic rooms can be really attractive as traditional French roof timbering is as good as the UK, and sometimes spectacularly good even in the most modest buildings.


It's something I've noticed over the past year, that more and more people wanting to move to France are intending to start up businesses here. Today I'm meeting Shelagh and Marcus, who are looking to buy a rather nice farmyard complex to create an art and crafts centre.

We meet on site and the first thing I notice is that the location is excellent, close to a main road but not too close, and when we start looking round the barns their ideas come to life. "We're looking to rent out small studios to both established and up-and-coming creative workers," says Shelagh "and combining that with a salon de thé and restaurant to create a day out for families, not just tourists." It's an ambitious project and will not be cheap: they're selling their Country House Hotel in the UK to fund it. Other clients' projects are more modest: a fishing-based campsite and a motorbike-friendly holiday centre.

In the afternoon I pop in to see the Peters' just outside town. I'm designing a new house for them on the edge of the hamlet where they currently live and want to show them the pencil sketch I've done. Retired now, they want a house that they can eventually occupy only the ground floor as Mrs P has incipient arthritis. Their current cottage is beautiful but there are steps everywhere, so they have chosen to build something more appropriate to their needs next door. That way they won't need to lose their neighbours.

The entire hamlet is designated as terrain constructible, building land, in the Commune's local plan, so we could have put in a full Planning application straight away but, being belt-and-braces people, we first submitted an outline application, a Certificat d'Urbanisme or CU. This has now been granted so the Peters give me the green light for the main Planning submission.peters house sketch

The real reason for going round (don't tell anyone) is that Mrs P is a demon pastrycook and there's invariably something delicious cooling on the kitchen window cill when I arrive.

WEDNESDAY I love the exhausting, energising summer months socialising with happy, tanned and often slightly tipsy clients. The night markets, the wine tastings, the occasional Michelin-starred meal and the much more frequent not-Michelin-starred-but-still-quite-amazing-value lunches in the most unexpected locations. Today is one example: after a heavy morning's snagging at their Cognac manor house renovation, my clients take me to lunch in the local village, just half a dozen tables in what appears to be someone's sitting room, and treat me to possibly the best lamb chops I've ever eaten, cooked in the fireplace. There's an atmosphere of respect for food amongst the diners in the room, almost a reverence which holds up a mirror to the old cliché about a really good meal being a religious experience, and finds it wanting.

mdoc contemporary inside - resizedTHURSDAY Back in the Médoc north of Bordeaux today as we're approaching completion on Chris and Charlie Stone's refurbishment among the vineyards. They're modern art lovers and loft-dwellers in the UK and have asked for an iconoclastic contemporary interior to their traditional stone cottage amongst the vineyards. We've exposed and repointed the stone on the outside and refurbished the timber windows and shutters, but as soon as you go inside it's all polished concrete, minimalist white walls, discreet illumination, and light and air.

I know it's silly, but I'm particularly proud of the recessed joint between the new cheminée and the edge of the mezzanine. It's only a detail but a crack is bound to develop between the two differnet constructions, and this way the crack is hidden and there's a certain crispness to the design which was lacking before. All these little details add up.

FRIDAY I've spent nearly twelve hours in the car over the past two days and am feeling a little jaded. I have to see our Dutch web designer Joop about the new website which is going on line any day now, and decide to pedal over on my bike to his office at Monpazier.

It's only a 15-km jaunt along flat roads until the end where there's a spiteful little climb that seems to take for ever and leaves me gasping like a beetroot-coloured eighty-a-day asbestos miner. Wiggins & Co would probably have done it in about thirty seconds.mdoc traditional outside - resized

Charlotte, who does our marketing as well as being office manager, has cheated. She arrives fresh as a daisy by car, and so makes much more of an impact than I can while trying to get my heartrate down to sustainable levels. "How's about having the website available in Russian as well as English and French?" she asks to our shared bemusement. "Think about it. There's loads of super-rich Russians buying up all the posh places around Biarritz, we could open a branch office down there."

Joop, foolish young thing that he is, says entirely the wrong thing. "I hear the shopping's pretty good there too, isn't there a Galeries Lafayette near the casino?"

There is a short but very meaningful pause before Charlotte replies with an icicle-sharp politeness. "Joop. If you think I am suggesting expanding the practice's client base merely to satisfy my own, entirely reasonable, shopping preferences," she begins, and then continues for quite some time. He visibly shrinks, and by the time we leave I am pleased to notice his embarrassed face is redder than mine was when I arrived. I suspect he may have a point though...

Neil Vesma’s architect’s practice is at Villeréal near Bergerac.  www.neilvesma.com

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