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Building diary – 2008


First there was a scary and expensive unscheduled prelude: an entirely new septic tank system. We had to move the épandage (the dictionary says this is a ‘manure spreader’) the system of drains from the septic tank, and discovered that the rules had changed since our original system in 2003. We had to buy a huge new septic tank, pay 1000 euros to en ‘expert’ to get a report saying we only needed 45 not 75 metres of drains, and then turn a whole terrace into a vast drainage system, with 23 lorryloads of special gravel.


The foundations


Then work on the foundations, which took a week of preparation before the immense machinery arrived on Friday (15 February) to pump cement from the road outside our property, over the house to the foundations.

There has been a frustrating two weeks, waiting for the foundations to harden. Work was supposed to have resumed this week – but the heat-wave has gone, and today (4 March) we have snow…

High winds and rain have further hampered progress and daily we look up hoping to see some sight of building work. The walls of the foundations are rising with frustrating slowness.


Now the walls


A week waiting for the cement to dry, a week while the builders – irritatingly – finished another job, and now (early April) they have reappeared and the walls of the house are rising visibly each day.

I went to England for ten days and, despite a lot of rain in my absence, the progress made was dramatic. By the end of April the walls are more or less up and the team is preparing for the next stage: the roof.


The roof – or rather roofs


The tiles have been taken off the existing roof, both to protect them and because the new roof has to be joined to the existing one).

The insulation will be totally placed: apart from it being apparently too thin, Lionel says that it has been destroyed by ants. We are going to have to keep a close eye on ant trails each summer to stop this happening again.

The team have just had two difficult days putting the giant chestnut beams – the main supports for the roof – into place. Lionel’s crane could not reach far enough over the roof to put them into place, and so the beams were suspended as far as possible, and then the last few metres required hours of difficult manoevring ‘à l’ancienne’ (complicated by the fact that Lionel was out of view, handling the crane the other side) and the rest of the team had frequent energetic debates about how to move these heavy beams.

15 May. The weather continues to be most inclement – another day of intermittent showers as the team are all on the roof, hammering and sawing away.


I think we are heading for a record breaking wet May – une catastrophe for our building timetable – we have probably lost two valuable weeks, with later stages risking running into the summer holiday period. The wretched builders are forever pulling covers on and off the roof, which should have been completed this month. Now it looks as if it will be mid-June before it is finished.

30 May. The solar panels were installed and they have started putting on the roof tiles.

June. The wet weather continued. But the final tiles were put in place on 12th June. We celebrated with a glass of champagne with the builders – well, at least those who not Moslem. I think everybody is very relieved that at last there are no more risks of leaks and no more need of covers on the roof.


Windows and doors


Of course, as soon as the roof was finished, the weather improved. All the doors and windows were (more or less) installed by the end of the month. The bedroom and studies have dark brown (marron) windows and doors. We decided against white as this is the colour used here by modern villas rather than the more traditional buildings. It would have been nice to find a supplier of grey aluminium, imitating the colour of old wooden windows, but on the whole we are pleased with them, and the views through all these doors are magnificent. The sliding doors in the bedroom were particularly difficult for Lionel and his men as they were so heavy. The entrance door is wood and will look better when it is painted – still haven’t decided on a colour.

The only design detail which we find extremely irritating is that the ‘garage’ door is lower than the entrance one. Apart from looking a bit odd, this means there will need to be a step up into the house and that the slope down to the garage will be unnecessarily steep. We didnt spot this in the design spec, but Léon (the architect) should have.


Three weeks when nothing much happened
(other than my camera disaster)


The bulk of Lionel’s work is now finished and it is time for the plasterer, electrician and plumber to work on the interior. I went off to England for ten days and Chris found it difficult to get anyone to reply.

Some signs of small details when I returned: the builders had built the stone pillar beside the garage and started work on rebuilding the wall behind the house.

camera lens


My main camera lens (17-85mm) has suddenly packed up.
I’m now using a secondhand 50mm lens.
It is therefore virtually impossible to take photos close up or wide-angle (ie pretty useless for architecture).


Internal walls


On my return the plasterer, Guy Perrière, came to review the work to be done, accompanied by two of his sons. (Yes, as our friend, Arnard, suggested, when one hires M Perrière one hires the Perrière family.) Two ‘mauvaises surprises’: the doors specified are not apparently appropriate for the plaster walls we are having – their frames are not deep enough. More serious, Léon had undercalculated the amount of plasterboard needed by 30%; we reckon that he forgot that we have sloping ceilings, rather than false ceilings at 2.5m throughout. M Perrière was reassuringly philosophic: we reckon that it is going to cost us a little more, but not more, and the door problem is one of aesthetics rather than structurally problematic. We just have to live with this.

The two sons have started work, building the metal framework on the walls, and inserting fibreglass insulation on the external walls. They are a cheerful pair, who converse pretty well non-stop in loud voices (like their father), and meanwhile work with rapid and authoritative efficiency.

14 juillet. A day’s holiday, of course. But we are hoping that the electrician will come this week, as the Perrières can’t go much further before the cables are in place.

By the end of July most of the internal walls were completed and the framework for the wardrobes (in my study) in place. There remains some skimming of joints to be done.

This was done swiftly and competently, albeit not quietly, in August




The second half of July has proved a nightmare, a very noisy nightmare. Lionel’s men suddenly turned up to do some site tidying (much needed), ditch digging for utility cables and pipes, hole drilling (to get the cables through the thick wall under the garage) and general landscaping of he entrance. This involved loud drilling and several days of a bulldozer going back and forth – just as our neighbours and their friends arrived for a peaceful holiday beside their swimming pool (just next to our extended house). Relations beween the two households were understandably fraught.




As soon as the bulldozer had departed, a team arrived to instal the scaffolding to render the outside of the house. This had been scheduled for September, but a sudden ‘trou dans le planning’ meant it could be fitted in before the famous August holidays.

None of us realised that this meant that a generator was running all day – if anything worse than the bulldozer and drills. Like the guys doing the plastering, the team of four men worked – in increasingly scorching temperatures – through the lunch period. So there was no noise relief. All I could say to the neighbours was that this was bound to come to an end on 1 August!

The first coat of the render (enduit) was a bit startling. We had agreed on a white limewash with a touch of yellow. I looked up at breakfast to see a yellow more akin to mustard appearing on the east facade. I hastened up to the site and asked for the patron, who climbed down from the scaffolding in some amusement. He had been expecting my visit, he said, he was simply using up some render from another job on the first coat and it would be covered up next time round.

Again, a cheerful, hardworking team, apparently rougher in appearance than the others, but very friendly and polite whenever I visited the site. Sure enough the work was finished on 31 July, and the scaffolding cleared away the next day.

While they had been there the temperature in the house was clearly hellish and the plasterers disappeared – but now (August) they are back to finish off their work.


Electrician in July
Now you see him, now you don’t


Perhaps the most frustrating experience so far has been trying to pin down the (very nice) electrician, M. Baich. Chris has started while I was in Brighton, I continued in early July. He appeared just long enough to get the wall cables in place, so the plasterboard walls could be put in place – and then disappeared again.

His next job is to lay the cables along the floors. Once he has done that, a layer of cement (une chappe liquide) will cover the cables and the plumber will be able to lay the underfloor heating, which in turn will be covered by a second chappe liquide and then the tiles.

His non-appearance in July means that the chappe liquide guy is now away for a month and the first cement floor will not be laid before September and any hopes of finishing before October have completely disappeared (amongst other things, adding to our furniture storage costs).

M Baich suggested that there was now no hurry to lay the cables in August, I prevaricated, and now he is supposed to be coming on 8 August.

What we did have in July was some useful discussions about exactly where the switches and sockets should go – and discovered amongst other things that Léon had not included in the specification the electrics for all the shutters and any form of Vent-Axia ventilation of the internal bathroom……


New camera lens
so photo records resumed


Despite our financial situation, I splashed out on a replacement camera lens . For those interested, a Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens.


Underfloor heating cables laid

And as soon as the cement was dried, Guy Vayssettes laid the underfloor heating. These are fairly fragile pipes carrying water, resting on sheets of polystyrene – rather like giant egg boxes.

Days later the second layer of cement was laid – or rather poured on. The ‘chape liquide’ now has to be left to dry for three weeks before the tiles can be laid. (Annoying, as this was originally scheduled to coincide with the August holidays.)


Work starts in main room

Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre turned up as promised to start making good the main room. First he laid our remaining stock of floor tiles in the gaps left by the dismantling of the bedroom walls. He did a beautiful job and it requires close inspection to see the careful changes in sizes needed to fit in the gaps.

He has also started reconstructing the kitchen area. This involves removing the lavatory, walling up the former lavatory door, and making good the remaining walls between the kitchen and the main area. He will return to this work after the wedding. At least now we can get the room cleared and cleaned in case it is needed over the wedding weekend.


The final months


My diary ended here: Jude and Ed’s wedding, Chris’ illness and then death, and the aftermath dominated by life.  The building continued as a background blur.

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