Friday, 30 April 2010


Gaz de France has just realised it has been sending estimated bills for the last three years and have read the meter at last. Not a difficult operation, given it is outside the house. I am studying a nicely detailed bill for some 3000€!
Will write later when the shock has worn off.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Problems with floors.

Can there be a more gloomy sight than to look around a lovely old farm house in France that has been ‘restored’ in the 60’s and be faced with the round floor covered wall to wall with muddy brown glazed tiles ?

I suppose in their day they were considered to be the height of modernity to people who replaced the original unglazed tiles with them, not realising what long term problems would result from their use

It is not unusual that these tiles will have lines of cracks across some rooms and probably, less obvious, rising moisture in the walls. The two problems are usually related to the tiling and the cement screed it has been laid on. The effect of completely sealing the internal floor is to force ground humidity outwards until it reaches the walls, where it rises within the structure and causes damage. Ground humidity is also not always uniform and being unable to dissipate by natural evaporation upwards can cause distortion in levels that eventually result in fissures in the rigid cement.

Floors and ceilings play a big part in the environment of an old building, they regulate not only the heating but also the breath-ability of the construction.

Restoring the ground floor using natural materials traditionally employed can exploit their exceptional qualities. This is fine if you find the building with its original compacted soil floor but presents problems if you are faced with an existing cement based floor and there are signs of movement or wall damp.

I have to be honest I have never heard of a simple solution, the easiest if there is no obvious upheavals in levels and big cracks opening up, is to leave the problem and hope it doesn’t get bad. Even if it does , in several years time, you can rectify the causes then.

To restore the equilibrium of the building there is one solution, but it is drastic. Dig up the offending floor and its concrete base. Fine if you are completely re-modelling the building and don’t have to live in it during the work, but a very difficult job of persuasion if life has to go on in the interim.

A new floor based on compressed soil with gravel/clay cover and lime cement screed will provide an excellent sub-structure for unglazed tiles.
This will enable the building to breath and will be an excellent insulation.
The health of the house and its occupants are improved but until it is finished it will resemble downtown Baghdad on a bad day. I am writing a webpage with more detailed explications of what can be done and will put in a link when it is operational.

But for now I am writing this in Paris because dear old SNCF are on strike again and so I had to drive Claire up and will be returning tomorrow morning to work on the kitchen, which is operational at last, and very effectively I am glad to say. The only problem is it is not completely finished which is causing a degree of stress.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Marriage at le Troisième âge.

Marriage at le Troisième âge.

You are never too old to do crazy things.
Believe me.

We got married in Key West.
Just seemed like a very good thing to do and it has turned out to be just that.
It started with another building I found that needed saving, in the market square of the small medieval town of Saint Aignan sur Cher, in central France.

I am going to search for a photo of the building as it was when I found it ( because of recent upheavals in life things have got a bit scattered ) it was a complete ruin and had been boarded up for twenty odd years and was covered with fly posters several layers thick. The great sadness was that it filled one side of the lovely old Place de la Paix of Saint Aignan, which is the market square.

It had belonged to an old lady who had several of the buildings in the centre of the town and as far as I can work out she had never maintained any of them and as they fell into disrepair she had just abandoned them. It was considered un-saleable when I saw it. What a challenge! When I find the files of my photos I will be able to give you a better idea of the ambiance of the town, in the interim I suggest you look at the blog of a local friend who is far more eloquent than I. ( One day I will tell the tale of its restoration, at present it would be too much to tell.
Suffice it to say after a year or so the square had what I hope people think is an attractive building gracing the south side of the square. Until I find my photos you can see it on the site of the people who bought it off me later that year. (
Because of events, I say no more, it also had me as it’s occupant in a very sad state. I was enjoying drinking myself to death, spending all hours living like those times I can no longer remember in the 60’s with people far too young for my health. I had passed the winter in Panama and bought a caravan with the intention of traversing northern Africa and then heading north to the black sea.
I was single after 45 years of marriage and just a tiny bit lost, but I had a game plan.
What I had not included in my master plan was a sweet little French lady who had bought one of the oldest bars in town as a weekend house on the opposite side of the square.
In my foggy state I also had not realised that my friends in the town had some degree of concern that I was possibly heading in the wrong direction and was therefore completely oblivious of their contrived Sunday lunch in the gardens of the island on the river. I found myself sitting next to my present wife unaware they had told her that as I was English I knew all about gardening and as she was finding her new garden too much to handle I must have appeared a gift.
The truth is I have not a clue about gardening, but that didn’t see too much of a problem because we had decided to get married about two weeks later. I sold the caravan.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Piles of rocks - materials for nothing

Piles of rocks.
Looking back I am amazed at how little I knew about French building when I arrived twenty odd years ago. One of my neighbours in a farm close by was a crusty characters, who never appeared outside without a chainsaw or shotgun. He was from a long line of farmers on the land surrounding his collection of ancient barns, which contained machinery dating back to the invention of the wheel. He had innumerable grandchildren which probably explains why he was so tolerant of my endless naive questions.
He paused from ploughing nearby and strolled over to pass the time of day and place a rock he had just turned up with the plough. He carefully arranged it on a pile of similar stones at the side of the field. What I asked was the purpose of keeping the stones. He gave me one of those grandfatherly knowing smiles and explained that in the country they were kept for building. All his farm buildings and house had been constructed from materials gleaned from the land.
In our region houses are frequently built as ‘une longère’ over a period of many years. The dimensions are fairly universal, being about 6 metres front to back, that seems to be the limit of span for the oak beams used in the area. They are single story with a loft accessed by ladder from a dormer window for storage of hay, grain etc. Often they were just one or two rooms on the ground floor and served as the living space for one family unit. Additional parts were added by the side, over the years, for more family or animals or storage. They were constructed from collected materials which were saved as they became available. The stones from the fields had the advantage of being already weathered against the frost and the timber was often well seasoned naturally and had little movement left in them. Material was often scavenged from other sources, for example my first farmhouse had the roof timbers constructed from the acacia framework of an old freight sail boat that probably plied the river Cher from the coast to the Berry, using the west winds to go up stream and the current to return.
So it was that the habit of collecting the rocks from the fields persisted, although I have to say I see less of it now. . All the other materials came from the surrounding land, lime for render, mortar and paint was hewn direct from the river valley sides and fired in ovens in the rock face. Clay came from the fields to cement the wall stones together and with straw for constructing the internal walls and ceilings using willow sticks as support.
I can show you longères build like this by local people that, well maintained, are in first class condition after centuries of use.
I am writing this in Paris, where I have just seen my wife off on the train, for a day away working, from Gare D’Austerlitz. It is going through a huge redevelopment and it cannot be a greater contrast to the longéres of Touraine. The beautiful iron and glass station from the industrial revolution being integrated, sympathetically I hope as some Paris modernisation can be, into gardens, parkland and modern glass buildings.
More later, à plus.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Stop and look.

If there is one thing important I have learned since I restored my first house in France, it is to spend a lot of time looking at it before doing anything to it.
Most of the old buildings in rural France were built by local people who used local produce and made use of the local conditions. The shape and orientation usually are an adaptation to the weather and lie of the land. They were usually built on very shallow foundations which were sufficient to ensure the walls were stable and effectivly built on top of the ground they occupied, without any provison to prevent rising damp. They relied on the natural drying effect of the wind and sunlight on the walls, which were designed to breath through the materials of construction and finish. To retain the building in good condition the walls, soil around the house and inside the house must not seal in the humidity, otherise the structure will deteriate and dampness will progressivly engulf the walls and rapidly become an insoluble problem.
If you see some obvious problems with the fabric of the building, it is imperrative that you find out the reason before you try and deal with the problem. I have found that virtually all the problems I have found in old stuctures have been cause by someone doing something ill advised to the origonal structure.
I will dig out some examples for the next posting.
The clocks changed today and so the bar is open an hour early and I am going to take a glass.
à plus

Friday, 26 March 2010


Le torchis
Where do I begin? Well perhaps the one thing I remember being baffled by when I bought my first ruin in France was what was the rough infilling between the beams and wall timbers. The temptation was to rip it out and replace it with something more approximating the plaster finishes I had been used to in England. Luckily I had an endless supply of locals to advise me.
They introduced me to the wonders of 'torchis'.
Torchis is what we call Cob in English and is a mix of clay, sand and vegetable fibre. You find it used all over the place in old French buildings, filling of half-timbered walls on colombage houses , for the interior walls and the insulation of the ceilings. 
 Torchis is a great material and has many advantages for building. 

Beside being natural and ecological, it lets the house breath and controls moisture levels to create a healthy atmosphere. Finishes that seals the surface form condensation on the face, supporting the growth of moulds which are just ideal for respiratory disorders.
When I start to renovate a building where torchis has been use in its construction I am always amazed how well it has stood up to the years of use. It isn’t untill you try and remove some of what is essentially mud pie and straw mix ,finished with a daube of lime paint, that you find how strong it is.
 Sometimes bugs have eaten away the supporting wood laths and you have to replace it, but usually you find it has done a good job of conservation the main timbers, being souple it moves with the carrying structure without fissuring, unlike in filling using brick or cement. 

As you probably can guess I love the stuff and could bore you silly with it’s virtues, like It is an excellent sound and thermal insulation, 10cm of torchis insulates as much as 23cm of solid brick or 50cm of stone. 
 On a technical note I will add it has a good thermal inertia, that is it is slow to take up heat and slow to cool down, so it it keeps the house cool in summer and warm in winter. 

Later I will try and explain the 'art' of applying torchis.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

It is over twenty years since I first bought a house in France. I thought that after so many years and buildings I would jot down some note that might be of interest and perhaps use to other infected with the renovation bug.
I have the good fortune to live in a small town on the river Cher. We (Claire and I) have a house, which used to be one of the oldest bars, in the old market square. It has a long history, but more of that later. We divide our time between St Aignan and Paris, where I am at present trying to get this blog on the road.
Please excuse my hesitant start, I will get going as soon as possible.
Try "Living the life in Saint-Aignan" a blog from a neighbour who lives down the road and has a wonderful way with the pen.
More later.
living in France