French lessons in building & renovation

Having managed the renovation of several houses in the UK we were now looking forward to and prepared for some French building and renovation lessons too.

Three months into our renovation of an old French barn in the Portes du Soleil and our weeks have already been filled with, emotional and financial ups and downs, and many lessons in French building.

French building lesson 1 – trust the local systems
With our planning permission, to transform the barn into a chalet, approved prior to our taking ownership in December the first French building lesson was an easy and enjoyable one, though the ‘Compromis de Vente’ certainly tested our French language skills.

The building team were ready to go in January, come rain, shine and hopefully (with our snowboards at the ready) lots of snow!  The old barn is on the ‘grid’ but had not been lived in for several years; a few pipes draped from the walls where the long gone sink, toilet and bath had sat, bare wires poked from the ceilings and lifeless sockets hung from the walls.

So experience tells us that our first job was to ensure there would be water and electric or we would risk mutiny without the facility for cups of tea and coffee and power for tools too of course.

Our planning approval dossier from the Montriond Marie included a form for us to request the water to be reconnected as well as information required to have electricity switched back on.

Water reconnection form completed and French cheque written (there is another lesson!) we visited the Montriond Mairie mid December with the hope of having water switched on before January and enjoyed our most surprising French lesson so far.  Bernadette made a phone call whilst we waited and a few minutes later said that ‘the water would be switched on but not until around 3pm that afternoon, was that ok?’  Amazing not just ok!

French building lesson 2 – have courage
Since the water had been so easy we asked advice on how we might have the electricity switched on, the answer was not so encouraging ‘it is not so easy, I am not sure exactly how you do it I only know that you need courage and time’.

A few days and several phone calls later we did find the right person to speak to at ERDF and they booked an engineer to visit just a few days later.  He looked rather perplexed as he got out of his van clearly expecting to see a habitable dwelling not a tumble down building but still within twenty minutes he had re-established power to the house and reset the meter. We have light! and under floor heating too which seemed a little bizarre when insulation material exposed through holes in the wood clad walls was moss!

French building lessons 3 – let the building show you the way
The builders started the renovation first by emptying out all of the dusty old wood, taking down the wobbly looking hay loft and stripping out the interior to its basic frame.

For the first few weeks each morning our visits to site were rewarded with more of the stunning original framework of the barn and the majority in good condition.  We and the whole team were like excited children in a sweet shop and we all quickly agreed that our current layout would hide or remove too much of the wonderful materials and craftsmanship that was now apparent.

The demolition and clearing work continued as we scratched our heads, shuffled walls, beds and bathrooms within the restrictions of the revealed structure finally to confirm a new chalet interior layout that preserves and exposes as much as the framework as possible and allows great views of the mountains from the main rooms.

French building lesson 4 – prioritise local life
The next French building lesson followed quickly; we needed a new water pipe into the house and the only way in was into the kitchen underneath what would be the garage back to the mains connection at our boundary edge not a big deal at all however since the gentleman booked with his digger to do the work also operates one the local snow ploughs each fresh fall of snow, though eagerly anticipated and welcomed by the majority including us, meant a frustrating delay as Jerome had to prioritise ensuring roads to Morzine and Montriond were clear of snow.  A nice lesson on French local life and priorities.

On a rainy day we were all smiles as Jerome and his digger made fast progress. That afternoon the digger was still going, deeper & towards the road, and all faces and bodies looked tired.  With a quickly sought permission from the mairie, the road was cordoned off and the digger pierced the tarmac, finally finding the connection point to the main pipe in the centre of the road.

Leaning on the safety rails across our unplanned trench next to grass verges churned by cars forced around and off the roadway not the ideal time of place to meet our nearest neighbours but that are friendly and understanding and we think have already forgiven the disruption.

Lessons in French bureaucracy and diplomacy that the team took in their stride.

French building lesson 5 – go with the flow but be persistent and follow your heart
The last, for now, and the hardest, the funniest and most eye-opening so far…

Though it feels alien we are hoping each snow fall is the last of the season as unless the roofer has a dry spell in which to open and re-close the lid of the building the work inside will grind to a halt.

In a few glorious, sunny days several tons of slate are removed from the roof to reveal very old, grey roof boards; beautiful warm brown underneath where they will be exposed but dappled with rot above and treacherously thin.  The roofer estimates new tiles were laid around 60-70 years ago but were laid on top of already damp boards.

Debate ensues as to how much of the beautiful, original roof boards can be saved but the roofer must build a roof that complies with the rules, will cope with the possible burden of 40tons of snow and with a 10year guarantee therefore unfortunately the final decision is driven by him.

Our hearts sink the following morning; the roof is stripped bear of all but a few planks and the site deserted. We search the messy pile of discarded timber in the vain hope of finding salvageable bits of wood but the roofing team have carefully put aside the few planks that are not too ravaged by time and damp to be used again.

We gaze up unbelieving at the blue sky through what remains of the roof structure, a sad but stunning sight all at once.  We fight back tears and anger, take a deep breathe and go to find the team and a solution.

Over coffee we review the options to replace the 250m2 of roof boards, all additions to the budget; new pine – no way!; old wood maybe but at 65€ per metre square too much; new ‘dead-standing’ wood, being the direct translation from French, but even the character of the knots and fissures cannot obscure the pale shine of new pine.  We leave with the only  agreement that we need to figure out how to replace our rotten old wood with good, reclaimed, old wood.

The hillsides in the French alps are scattered with seemingly forgotten old wooden buildings and piles of old wood, put aside for a future use and not for sale it seems but the local grape-vine suggested there may be ‘vieux bois’ for sale at a few wood yards.  Adam and I headed down the mountain with, Simon, one of the building team along for expert advise and French translation as needed in search of 250m2 (~6m3) of reclaimed timber but specifically in lengths of 3-4m long and a consistent thickness between 21-27mm, ideally tongue and groove too.

The first broccante was fascinating with rows of old gondola cabins alongside an array of ancient doors but distinctly lacking old wood.

As we pressed our noses against the tall metal fence of the next wood yard trying to see if the piles of wood we could see were worth trying to contact the owner and gain access.  We decided it wasn’t worth it and turned away when a car pulled up and an old gentleman curled himself slowly out.  He greeted us with hand-shakes for everyone, as is customary, and his round, smiling face, framed with swept back grey hair above and a hastily tied cravat below, told us he was very pleased to see us.   We politely explained what we needed and he was sure he had what we were looking for.  He led us through grass corridors lined with higgledy-piggledy piles all shapes and sizes of old wood that beautifully framed the snow topped mountains in the distance.

Our first conclusion had been correct and the old gentleman didn’t have anything that we could use for the roof but he was insistent he could provide what we needed and very persistent.  Not enough?  he would find more.  Not brushed or processed enough? not a problem he had a friend that could do that.  Too thin for the roof? his own roof was made with wood like this.  Simon bravely left his mobile number and promised to call him if we didn’t find anything better.

The next wood yard was our last hope and as soon as we drove into the yard we could see that here we could find what we wanted.  With the owner, Frank, we found a few pallets of old wood that were the right specification and Frank announced that we should discuss a deal with a Grappa.

From an old wooden cabinet in the corner of his homely kitchen emerged a perfectly clear bottle.  After pouring 4 shots glasses he put the bottle on the rough wooden table to reveal a snake floating in the liquor! What snake is that? asked Simon.  Just an ordinary one was the answer.  OK then, Santé! we all chinked glasses, drank down the amazingly quaffable liquid and returned our glasses to the table with our thanks.  Price now agreed, Simon explained we would call Frank to confirm if we could take the wood once we had spoken to the roofer.

‘That’s fine, now try this one’ said Frank this time a yellow tinge and a pungent floral aroma to the liquid poured from a large round bottle into the 4 glasses despite our protests that one of us had to drive and we all had planned to work that afternoon.  He explained he made 1 litre from 40kg of the root of a mountain plant, I could imagine an evening around this table enjoying this gentle medicinal taste and aroma but too potent for another on a Monday afternoon.

Before we put our glasses on the table Frank pulled the stopper on a third bottle whose aroma reminded us all of local Caribbean bars, ‘this one I make from a plant my kids grow’ Frank winked and with a straight face looked to Adam and said ‘you will be fine to drive but promise me to pull over if you see Giraffes crossing!’  With laughs, smiles and hand-shakes we parted.

A few days later we waited in the sunshine with a couple of guys from the team eagerly awaiting Frank with the two piles of reclaimed boards.  As soon as we saw his trailer driving up the lane we knew that what was strapped to his trailer was not the wood we had identified and agreed to buy over ‘Grappa’ and what was there would not be suitable for the roof.

After quite a lengthy debate between the builders, the roofer and Frank who every few minutes left the discussion and started to unload the wood.  Each time our protests stopped him but looking more frustrated each time. Finally Frank quietly re-strapped his trailer, interrupted the ongoing discussion to shake hands with each of us and drove slowly away down the narrow lane pausing briefly to catapult a stone at the windscreen of the roofers’ van and then disappeared around the corner.

We were all astonished and flabbergasted.  I am not entirely sure what this particular French building lesson taught us but it certainly was an experience!

and the search for old wood, ‘vieux bois’, and a solution to finish our roof continued.

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