March 31, 2021

Cuckoo

Yes, I heard my first one of this year this morning. Really. But what about this story for why we foreigners, and especially elderly British ex-pats like me, have such problems understanding French bureaucracy.

I am now close to being able to file my own Demande de Permit de Construire for my new house, almost finished actually. I’m just waiting on the ‘Controle Thermique’ to show that the house will meet current requirements relating to energy efficiency and insulation and then I’ll be able to file it.

One of the ‘challenging’ areas is that of the materials and colours that will be used in the building’s construction. All French regions and départements have a ‘colour palette’ that relates to the available local materials and their colours together with the colours that have traditionally been used in the area for items such as window frames and shutters (‘menuiseries’). The ‘rules’ have become more relaxed in recent years in some places – like Rouffignac locally, for example – but they are still applied pretty stringently in places like Fleurac. This is because Fleurac is in an ABF (Architectes des Bâtiments de France) area and they (ABF) have a brief to safeguard French heritage and tradition in areas which are regarded as worthy of special attention.

ABF are very powerful and can reject a Demande de Permit de Construire without right to appeal, so it’s always a good idea to stick as closely to their guidelines as you can. Having had a bit of a bumpy ride to date with my new house build project (see previous posts) I naturally want to have colours which are as close to my personal choice as possible whilst sticking to the local colour palette in order to optimise the chances of my Demande de Permis de Construire being approved. I therefore went to an authoritative source, which I won’t name, to see what choices were available.

And I was incredibly disappointed. I was handed a colour chart (see below) and told that I must only choose colours from category ‘C’, which was marked on the chart by a ballpoint line.

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The reason why I was so disappointed was that the available colour range was not only extremely limited but was also very dark and unattractive, indeed totally unsuitable for the contemporary design that I want to build. I’ll go on but first I’ll explain what the chart is all about.

The chart contains three rows and four columns. Down the left-hand side are the row names starting with ‘Façades’ (the colours for stonework, mortars and joints and renderings), ‘Menuiseries’ (the colours for woodwork, doors, windows and shutters) and ‘Ferroneries’ (the colours for ironwork, gates and fences). The columns show the colours in each tone range ranging from ‘Clair’ (light) on the left to ‘Foncé (dark) on the right and the reason for my disappointment was that all of the colours apparently available in Fleurac are at the dark end of the range.

This surprised me for two reasons. Firstly, the house builder had told me otherwise. My contact had specifically said that I could have cream woodwork (not white mind), dark red-brown shutters and a rendering (‘crepi’) with a pinkish hue to complement them, whereas this ‘authoritative source’ was seemingly telling me otherwise. Secondly, when I did my ‘survey’ of contemporary houses around the land where I intend to build my house, almost all of them had white (or cream) woodwork.

So this presented me with yet another dilemma – did I take the latest advice as gospel (even though I hated it) or did a dig deeper. I decided to do the latter, in the form of the ex-ABF gent at Rouffignac who had thrown cold water on my house design just a week or so ago. I thought that with his background he must surely be able to give me an authoritative answer, and so I popped in to see him yesterday.

And at the end of the day, lucky I did. This is how the conversation went.

Me: I have this colour chart and have been told that in Fleurac I am limited to the colours in column C

ex-ABF man: Yes

Me: So I have to choose from just these colours for my ‘enduit’ (external wall rendering) and my ‘menuiseries’?

ex-ABF man: Yes

Me: So would this also include the ‘bardage’ (the boards on which the gutter is mounted)?

ex-ABF man: Yes

Me: OK, I want to have dark red-brown shutters but what if I want to have cream painted ‘bardage’ – could I?

ex-ABF man: Yes

Me: Doh! OK, and what if I wanted my PVC double-glazed doors and windows to also be cream – could they be?

ex-ABF man: Yes

Me: Doh again! OK, I see that on the colour chart there is no pinkish colour available for my crepi ‘enduit’ – is there one?

ex-ABF man: Yes

By this time my brain was reeling somewhat as it seemed that everything that I wanted and had been told was forbidden I could actually have. At this point ex-ABF man whipped out a colour reference swatch and also a folder of ‘enduit’ colour samples labelled ‘St Astier’. I said that I thought they were very nice and asked if I could choose from them. He said that I could and in a few seconds I’d chosen colours from the swatch for my shutters (‘volets’), my gutter fascia boards (‘bardage’), and my windows and doors (‘menuiseries’), the latter three all being the same.

As I seemed to be on a winning streak, I decided to go for broke and ask about roof tile colours. ex-ABF man then whipped out another materials sheet and after sternly confirming that I did want flat tiles, didn’t I, wrote down the ‘approved’ maker’s name and product code. So I then had all of the information that I needed to complete my Demande de Permit de Construire and I was delighted, if somewhat bemused by the whole experience.

I told my French neighbour, Chantal, about it when I got back and she was as confused as I was, so it seems that it’s not just we foreigners who have problems understanding French bureaucracy – the French themselves do too. Now is that cuckoo or what… 🙂

March 27, 2021

Still trying!

Yes, my patience (and indeed my sanity…) are still being tried and this post is not just about my efforts to get things done in a timely manner but just getting things done at all, a perennial problem here in France. In my last post I mentioned the problems that I was encountering getting my new house build together and now I’ll go on to elaborate.

I found a buyer for my present house at the back-end of last year and also identified a parcel of land at Fleurac for a new-build. I quickly found a house design being offered by a large, established builder that would be a perfect fit for the land I’d found and I had my first meeting with the builder in the first week of January during which we agreed an outline budget and building programme.

The builder said that although I would be responsible for preparing and levelling the land to meet their requirements (‘terrassement’), laying on water and electricity on site and the installation of a waste water treatment system (‘assainissement’) they would deal with everything else, including obtaining a building permit (‘permis de construire’). The latter can be quite a complex process here in France due to local planning restrictions and the information that has to be provided, including plans and images of the house, specifications of materials with specific colour references etc and detailed thermal efficiency data. This is not easy for a private individual but is much more so for a builder with their own house design who can merely cut-and-paste the required information into the ‘Demande de Permis de Construire’.

I was told that the project would take about a year from that date, which I had no alternative other than to accept, but saying that if it was at all possible to bring things forward it would be a great help as I was already pretty committed to moving out of my present house within the coming three months. So it looked as though things were about to take off – except that they didn’t. My next two meetings with the builder were cancelled and in the meantime I was sent the wrong house plan and layout and also the wrong siting (‘implantation’) of the house on the land to approve, both of which I had to amend myself and return.

It wasn’t until early in March, two months later without meeting again in the meantime, that we met up on site with the builder’s surveyor to check the ‘implantation’ taking properly into account the land’s slope, soil type and other environmental factors (eg location of trees, roots etc) and it was on this occasion I was shocked to be told that the project’s completion date would now be summer 2022. This somewhat alarmed me to say the least as it meant that if I moved out of my present house in May this year as I’d originally planned to do, I’d be living in ’emergency’ accommodation for possibly up to 18 months. This presented me with a serious dilemma. Where I currently live I have no mortgage or living expenses other than the ‘taxe foncière’ and the ‘taxe d’habitation’ that all householders have to pay. If I have to rent alternative accommodation for just 12 months, even a very modest house or apartment would cost from 500€ a month and possibly more, giving a total ‘excess’ outgoings figure of at least 6000€.

I don’t find that prospect very attractive – not because I’m mean or a penny-pincher but because if I’m dishing out that sort of figure, I’d rather spend it on fixtures, fittings and furniture in the new house (eg a heat pump floor heating system would cost around that figure) and in any case, now I’m retired, money doesn’t come that easily. I started out with the idea that I’d acquire a second-hand mobile home and site it on the land until the house was complete, as many others do, and this is still my preferred option. They can be found for 2000€ or less on Le Bon Coin and can be sold on at the end of the project for about the same amount leaving just transport and siting, around 1000-1500€ as the sunk cost. I don’t much fancy spending the winter in one but needs must and I’m sure I’d get through it.

Nevertheless, I was disappointed to learn how the builder had apparently done very little in the meantime, despite having told me that they’d received outline planning approval for the house, and how the lead time had been extended by so much as a result. My main concern was that the builder had done little (nothing really) to advance the project in an administrative sense. Under French law, I’m unable to finalise the purchase of the land until I have been granted a ‘Permit de Construire’ and I can’t touch the land, let alone site a mobile home on it, until I’m the legal owner.

But even to apply for a Permit de Construire, I have to have a waste water system that’s been officially approved for the building and the land with a declaration as such from the local authority that has to be attached to the Demande de Permit de Construire. The catch was, as I’d found out but not the builder (due to my recent contact with SPANC, the authority in question who have an office in Montignac), that there is currently a high level of demand for their services and their usual 1 month turnround had become extended to 2 months or more.

So allowing a further month (assuming my Demand de Permis de Construire gets a fair wind, which usually they don’t) I surmised that I likely wouldn’t be in a position to seal the land purchase until June or July at the current rate of progress, and with a planned removal date from my present house of end May, I’d end up facing major accommodation problems. In a nutshell, I’d end up homeless with nowhere to live and with my land purchase still hanging in limbo.

I therefore decided that I needed a Plan B, which I saw as being a house design of my own with the same essential characteristics of the original design that I could show to other builders in the hope of securing a shorter lead-time and also deal with personally for administrative purposes ie the demands for the waste water system and the building permit. So this is what I started to devote my time to all the while leaving the original house project in the hands of the original builder but so I’d have an alternative to fall back on if things eventually went pear-shaped.

And this is when the ordure hit the fan in a big way. My design was similar to but different from the original builder’s design (for legal reasons if nothing else) but retained certain essential characteristics, which I won’t go into for now to save time. However, whereas the original design had apparently been given outline planning approval by a government organisation called Les Architectes des Bâtiments de France, who brood over proposed house designs and jealously guard building form, house types, materials and colours to preserve local and regional traditions, a second builder who I discussed my new design with reported back that it had been turned down and would not be permitted to be built on my particular parcel of land.

The reasons given would also have excluded the original design, so this was something of a mystery to me. Fleurac is in a semi-protected area, what the builders call an ABF area (see paragraph above) and they are used to being knocked back in such an arbitrary way, just shrug their shoulders and either get the client to build a house that they didn’t ask for and don’t want (like me) or walk away to look for another client.

I don’t want to make a big thing about it, but deference comes more easily to the French who are used to being controlled by the ‘authorities, but it’s not something that we Brits subscribe to, especially ex-pats of my generation. So while recognising that I might well have to pull the shutters down on my project, I decided to put the effort into a counter-attack action.

The respondent at Bâtiments de France wanted me to totally abandon my plan for a modern single storey house with a low-pitched roof for a design that looks just like what I’m now trying to get out of, of a simple rectangular design with a high-pitched Périgordian roof. I know that the land in question has houses on all sides of the type that I want to build so over a week-end I did my own survey using Google Earth, one of my drones and a camera.

The results were stunning. Of 16 houses built in recent years, 12 are ‘non-traditional’ in terms of design, roof style and colour ie are similar to what I want to build and of the 4 remaining ones, one was a rebuild of a ruin so can’t really be counted as a new-build. The respondent also said that my proposed design, which is in the form of a 45 degree ‘V’ was ‘too complicated’ and that I should look at either a rectangle or an ‘L’ (damn cheek – neither shape is suitable for the land in question for technical reasons) and I had great pleasure in providing pictures taken at ground level and from overhead using my drone showing a ‘traditional’ style house (an utter monstrosity we all think actually) that is currently under construction just down the road and is in the shape of a ‘V’.

I pointed all of this out when I sent my evidence to the gentleman saying at the same time that if he was intent on creating a museum of traditional house designs in Fleurac, that horse had already fled the stable. However, when presented with evidence based on facts and common-sense, French bureaucrats just dig in (it’s a face thing I think) so I knew that I had to look for another angle of attack. This was in the person of the Mayor of Fleurac who I know and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so I took the correspondence and my papers along to the Mairie to show him.

Partially as a result of our meeting, the approval for my proposed waste water system came through in a week (compared to the originally stated 2 months), although I know the SPANC people pretty well and they had already indicated that they were dealing favourably with my request. The Maire also showed from the official papers that he is bound by in respect of planning approvals that there would be no problem obtaining a building permit for my proposed house and that I should continue with my project as it would be with his support.

When I started typing this post I had in mind a final paragraph along the lines of ‘so now the tide is turning and the waters are beginning to flow my way’, and that was indeed the case up until yesterday when I had a follow-up meeting with the (original) builder to progress the project from their side. They’ve tried to get me to sign a contract on several occasions and I’ve always demurred and will continue doing so until I have a firm budget that’s acceptable to me, an agreed timing plan and evidence that they are progressing the project in a serious way, especially in respect of the building permissions that are required.

This was supposed to be a ‘turn-key’ project but already I’ve had to move things along by securing the declaration of conformity of my planned waste water system myself. When I sent that over to them I emphasised that it was essential for them to contact and speak with the Mayor of Fleurac who was waiting for their call, so I was somewhat miffed to hear that the lady to whom I was speaking hadn’t done so.

I was also annoyed that she should then start wittering on about colour schemes and the like, which are trivial and easily decided upon once the crucial matters that I mentioned above have been resolved. But then came the bombshell that I was somehow expecting from her body language. Following our previous conversations she was proposing that the cost of the house was increasing by a massive 20,000€ due, she said, to the state of the terrain which would require an enormous amount of groundwork due to it being in a ‘red zone’ for clay.

I regard this as nonsense as their ‘surveyor’ did not carry out a detailed analysis of the terrain when he came to examine the planned ‘implantation’ of the new house. All they were using was the mandatory ‘controle’ that I had given them a copy of that was carried out by a surveyor on behalf of the seller which shows the whole of Fleurac and a huge part of the surrounding area being in a ‘red zone’ on a national chart produced by the government. It says nothing about individual parcels of land within the zone and in fact the ‘controle’ merely advised footings 1.2-1.5m in depth with other precautionary measures and nothing that would cost 18,000€ more than the figure originally estimated.

So that was when I called a halt to the meeting. This leaves me in a difficult position due to my potential ‘accommodation vulnerabilty’ which perhaps she was playing on and I think that this will be the end of the road for that builder. Luckily some others who I contacted sensing that things would go adrift have taken my putting them off very kindly and doors have been left open for me to remake contact with them. I have a fully finalised alternative design of my own to discuss with them and I have a couple of knowledgeable local contacts to call next week, one of whom is the very experienced company who took my enormous tree out and ‘terrassed’ my garden for me, who know the local land and soil intimately and will be able to tell me what to do next. They might also be available to do the groundwork for me, who knows.

I’ve now got to press on with finalising and submitting my own Demande de Permis de Construire which under the circumstances, I’d like to have in my hands before I finalise the land purchase. When I did the Demande for my planned extension, which isn’t now going ahead of course, there was a government web site available that allowed anyone to generate a thermal efficiency study free of charge. It seems that that’s now been withdrawn and you have to use the services of ‘a professional’. That’s annoying but at around 100€, it’s not too onerous. Just another aspect of the ‘closed shops’ that exist in France keeping people employed.

But at the end of it all, here I am over 2½ months down the road and with practically no progress made. And what progress there has been, I’ve achieved myself. My French neighbour, Chantal, screwed up her nose at the beginning when I originally told her about the builder and how they were behaving and it looks as though she was right. As I said right at the start of this post, just getting anything done here is incredibly difficult and getting anything done to an agreed deadline is almost impossible. Unless you do it yourself, so that’s what I’ve now got to buckle down and do – while at the same time having to do the work on my house that I said I would do (eg replacement windows, making good etc) before I hand it over at the end of June. This is like being back working full-time – and not being retired at all 😕

This is the latest, and hopefully final, version of my own house design. All of the previous versions, including the builder’s own original version, had an attached garage. However, hardly anyone down here has a garage and I’ve managed without one for 9 years. I was thinking about enlarging it so I could use it as a workshop, but what the heck, why not save the outlay, do away with it and build a separate garage/workshop if I need it? Makes more sense to me.

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March 9, 2021

Trying times

Very trying to say the least. First, the new replacement windows that were delivered pre-Christmas but which I’ve not had the time to put in myself, mainly due to problems to do with my new house build that I’ll go on to talk about later. I eventually decided that much as I like to do things myself (because then I get the kind of job that I want), I’d have to get an ‘expert’ handyman in to do the job in order to ease the pressure on me.

Now, anyone who has fitted replacement windows knows that to do a proper job you need to take the measurements of the old windows very accurately so when the old frames have been removed, a gap of 1 cm is left all around the frames of the replacements, which are then carefully wedged in place and secured. Then the gap is filled with mastic or silicone sealant which then cures, so at the end of the day the job looks as perfect as possible with the minimum of making good to be done.

In order to achieve the latter, your work has to be very careful and accurate and with this in mind I spent a considerable amount of time and effort measuring up my old windows before ordering the replacements to exactly the required dimensions in order to achieve as perfect a job as possible. In the long run, doing so saves time and effort, as my friend Wim and I proved when we fitted my new sliding patio door.

This was far more challenging than the window replacements as not only was there a lot of wall to be knocked out but the surface left into which the frame then had to be installed was also very rough and irregular making it difficult to achieve a good end result. But we managed to do so as the following three shots show – the first two showing the sealant gap on either side inside (before making the wall good, which will cover it) and the third a typical piece of the sealant outside.

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So fitting the replacement windows should have been something of a doddle for an ‘expert’, especially as I said to start on the three small ones in the bathroom which being smaller and lighter than those in the bedrooms should have been much less challenging.

I suppose I should have spotted the red flag when the ‘expert’ who had been recommended to me to do the job didn’t have a small electric angle grinder, essential for cutting away the masonry on each side of the three apertures after the old frames had been removed in order to get the replacements to sit deeper inside, and I had to lend him mine. However, I was astonished when I heard what sounded more like demolition coming from the bathroom and eventually I had to go and investigate what was going on.

I found that ‘demolition’ was actually very close to the mark. All my efforts in accurate measurement had been cast to the wind, but not only that, what I found was a disaster. The room looked like Raqqa after a Syrian airstrike with rubble all over the floor. The new windows had been fitted with a temporary plastic section on their bases to protect them during transportation and the ‘expert’ had used one as a pattern. However, he’d left the plastic section on when cutting the holes in the wall so he had unnecessarily removed a huge amount of masonry in order to accomodate it, in all three holes.

He’d also ripped out the window frames complete without cutting them before removing them, so as to do as little damage to the surrounding walls as possible, and the inevitable result was that not only were the holes grossly over-size for the new windows but there was also considerable damage to the surrounding plasterwork.

All in all the job was an abomination and it was no wonder that he complained about the difficulty of making secure fixings above, below and to the sides of the new windows. And not only that, he’d cut so much out of the top of the first hole that when secured, the top of the window was below the top of the aperture and special measures will eventually be needed to make the job good.

He had clearly never ever done such a job in his life before and in truth I don’t think that he was capable of doing so. Here’s what it looked like at the end of the day when he finally quit to go home. First, the two windows in the bathroom.

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Now the third window in the toilet – exactly the same as the other two with all the same problems.

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My original intention was to go ahead next week-end and install the replacements in the bedrooms, but I decided that there was no way that it would be possible for that to go ahead. In fact although I’ll have to pay him for what he’s done so far, the ‘expert’ has been informed that his further services will not be required.

When I think of what my plans were and how carefully I’d measured up and prepared for these replacement windows, I am actually furious. My neighbour Chantal said that I should have told him to make the work good but there was no way that I’d let him touch anything else. Making good will be down to me and in fact it’ll take me longer than if I’d done the whole job myself. If only I had done.

I detest the spray foam that incompetent handymen use to plug gaps and fill holes. When I was young I had the privilege to work during my school and university holidays with skilled tradesmen who were expert at their jobs and never had the need to ‘bodge’ anything as they always did things properly and ended up with perfect results.

I’ve never forgotten those lessons and it’s why I’m so demanding, not only of others who do things for me but also of myself, and I’ve even been known to trash what I’ve been working on and start over again. But today I had no choice and after filling the massive gaps around the windows with foam and cutting it back when it had cured sufficiently this evening, this is how things looked.

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The ‘expert’ seemed to think that all one has to do is ‘bodge’ the gaps with the foam and then plaster up to the new window frames. But you can’t. You must have a flexible joint (ie mastic or silicone sealant) between the frame and the plasterwork. The reason is that the frame and the wall expand and contract at different rates and without such a joint cracks will soon develop and the new windows will begin to look very shabby.

So although any idiot can blow spray foam around the frames, cutting it back so (a) you can get sufficient depth of plaster around them and (b) a gap to take the flexible joint, takes much more time and skill. And that’s why you take the trouble to work accurately and carefully in the first place so you don’t have such problems, the total opposite to what this bozo did.

I was going to go on to talk about the problems I’m facing with my new house build but it’s getting late so I’ll leave it to my next post, when I’ll go through things in detail.