Where it began.
By Dick Strawbridge
I’ve dreamt for years about living a simple life with good food and wine, fresh air and two-hour lunches every day. So when my partner Angela and I decided to start our French adventure, I could almost smell the roses.
Our search took some years, four to be precise – and once we realised what we could get for our money, the size of what we were after grew and grew and grew. Smelling the roses also started to grow further away, as we found our dream home.
Priced at £350,000 post tax Chateau-de-la-Motte Husson was an incredible bargain, and to be honest everything we’d dreamt of, except for the fact it had no sewerage, no electricity, and no heating.
Having found the chateau, the purchase documentation (which was around two hundred pages of why not to buy the chateau) provided us with the most amazing list of jobs to be done. We convinced ourselves that the feeling of being overwhelmed was perfectly normal. The big question was, what really had to be done before we could move in and where did we start?
A couple of points:
- The documentation was hard copy and in French – a major pain in the ass. There are translation apps that use your camera to point at the French and give you an immediate translation. They sort of work, but when I typed up the more important paragraphs and fed them into Google translate, the answers were not always comprehensible. Vendors have to provide the documentation as a matter of law, but many of our priority tasks were not included in the hundreds of issues we had been provided with.
- You need time to see how your budget and schedule align. Beware of a ‘conspiracy of optimism’: the system in France will slow you down.
Moving my family in
Quite simply, the work we had to do before we could move in came down to safety, followed by the minimum needed to live with just enough comfort to be a step above camping. After that we could see about a cunning plan to have enough space restored to get married and have a party – all in ten months. Yes, easy.
After the purchase and move, we were left with £20k. We always knew this was not going to be enough to see us through to the wedding so I ended up taking a job with National Geographic to provide a much-needed cash injection. The flip side was I was away for most of March until July. It was very hard on Angela, but necessary, and as the old saying goes ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. She may disagree.
My objective was to provide, sewerage, electricity, heat and hot water asap after 12th January 2015 – the date on which we became the new owners – without redundant work being done. As far as possible, the work would be part of the final solution, and we needed to be flexible and allow for growth as more bedrooms and bathrooms were commissioned. Eventually we would be using the basement kitchen for all the food preparation for functions so we knew it had to be right and we – sort of – had a plan to try and make a daytime television series on French cuisine and ingredients based on our ‘Potagerie’; the walled garden and kitchen. That said, our priorities meant no work could be done in the gardens, and all we could do was look at our beautiful surroundings being slowly reclaimed by nature – the chateau had to come first.
My plans are attached, and bathrooms and probable routes for water and waste are marked. Some points:
- Work on ceilings being 2.3m except for ground floor (RdC) which is 4.2m, that and 600-1000mm walls made working slower than we had hoped
- Thermal store in Attic 2 is on top of a wall, to support the weight – we discovered we needed an accumulator to maintain the water flow when there was more than one demand for water (eg a toilet flushing when someone was having a shower)
- When we have the funds, solar panels will go on the roof over Attic 1 which is slightly east of South facing, but the only option
- There are service routes marked for utilities. False walls/ducting will hide H&C water, waste, sewerage, and electrics.
- Gas is expensive in France but we need it for the kitchens and Rayburn. We know we need a biomass boiler for cheaper more sustainable heating – Jacques, our neighbour, planted several hectares of Miscanthus or Elephant Grass, so we now have a local supply of fuel
Phase 1 work
Initial rooms to be occupied were:
- Dining room, with random bathroom in tower. Our sitting room and dining room
- Service kitchen – our cooking capability
- Grand Salon which is doubling up as Steve and Jenny’s (my parents-in-law’s) bedroom.
- Chambre above dining room and bathroom and rear chambre on the North West side of the chateau; our family suite.
Require the following solutions to be sorted to make the chateau ‘liveable’
Rayburn 480 functioning in basement. (First and only part of dream kitchen for several months….)
Thermal Store in and connected
|· Require liner in chimney
Gas piping (including gas cooker at later stage
Water connection to/from Store
|Liner – five floors so expert required!!
Buried LPG tank to follow
With length of flue, will it draw?
Pump man enough?
Wood burning boiler in Dining room
|· Require liner in chimney
Water connection to/from Store
Paralleled thermal stores can be added to be added
Radiators in our bedroom suite and possibly other occupied rooms
|Routes to be determined
Style is an issue
|Pump & piping Radiators thermal control?
|Possibly only equivalent of ten to begin with. (Could be five large ones?)|
Second wood burner in Grand Salon
|Require liner in chimney
Water connection to/from Store
|As per 2 cost dependent||Makes sense to be another with back boiler. In theory these pipes and connection to the thermal store could be taken over by a biomass solution downstream|
Gas supply for hob, washing machine, H&C water and waste in Service kitchen
|Use what existing plumbing we can
Hot water from electric water heater to begin with
|Piping, hob, surfaces||Cooking was on a stand-alone cooker with bottled gas. It cost just over a €100 and was used continuously!|
Bathroom in tower functioning
|Water to flush the loo
Check safety of water heater, electricity supply and plumbing
Bathroom in family suite. H&C water, sewerage and waste
|Walls are not necessary!
Sewerage to moat was satisfactory in the short term
|8||Luxuries||Basic electricity in rooms and workshop|
|9||Paint||There was lead paint to be stripped from a number of rooms||Paint stripper|
The Rayburn 480 provided an ‘A’ rated gas boiler and a sizeable cooker as being the focal point for the kitchen.
When first installed we had to use standard 13kg gas bottles. A monumental pain as when the boiler was going full blast they only lasted four to six hours. We had an automatic switch-over between two bottles but they needed constant attention until the large tank was installed. To supplement the gas boiler the two wood burners have back boilers. We have lots of wood and inherited a partly full wood store, though the wood there was past its best. Heating a chateau using wood burners is a lot of work! We tried buying and using coal but apart from the fact it is expensive in France, the workload was still painful.
After research, the best providers of thermal stores and the expertise to design the correct solution for our system was Thermal Integration Limited. We had excellent service from Richard Hanson-Graville, the Technical Manager and his team. http://www.heatweb.co.uk/ The installed system looks positively complicated, but it is logical and with a little thought, it all makes sense. When you understand what you need and it’s all agreed, the team send you a schematic for your final sign off before you pay, and they then build it. When you get your schematic, I think it’s perfectly normal for there to be a sudden intake of air as you say ‘Oh sh*t’.
With hundreds of metres of piping required for the heating and water distribution system, we decided to use a quality multicore system, and elected to go with www.herzvalves.com Connections were simple, robust and up to the task. Lee and Kyle, our plumbing mates from Hackney were not experienced in using the system, but it’s a testament that they finished as converts.
After a number of unsuccessful calls, we tracked down a French electrician who arrived with an assistant to confirm how much of our installed wiring was safe to use. Despite the fact that he knew the chateau, a day’s work only resulted in the cable to a single ‘modern’ water heater, and one socket being confirmed as operational. With such limited productivity we resorted to doing the preparation work ourselves for all electrical installation, and then employed a certified, ex-pat, electrician to do the connections. It took EDF the best part of three weeks to connect us to the mains. It surprised us that the total amount of electricity available for such a large property was so limited – much less than available to a small home in the UK – but we didn’t complain as the chateau finally got power!
Surprisingly, it was more cost effective to buy and ship cast iron radiators from the UK than to buy them in France.
We inherited a significant amount of lead paint. The most effective but benign way to remove it came from Ecosolutions www.ecosolutions.co.uk It was messy and hard work but keeping the stripped paint in solution was safer.
I have lived by JFDI – Just * Do It. Life is very short and it’s easy to be dissuaded by excessive advice or bureaucracy. In France, bureaucracy is an art form. Before we moved out here I listened to Cecil Jenkins’ A brief history of France on audio book, (sadly I have little time to read at the moment but audio books allow me to ‘read’ and work) and I loved the insight into why the French are so… French. We had been warned that everything takes longer than you think possible, and even though we heeded the advice when planning our schedule, we were shocked by about just how long things take!
As example, a delivery-man struck the gate pillar in August, we immediately informed our/his insurance and produced diagrams, statements and photographs. The incident was not contested, but even after I obtained and submitted two quotes, we had meetings with ‘experts’, meetings with insurance representatives, and numerous visits were made to look at the pillar. Decisions were reached in November and we hope to have the repair completed in March…. The actual work is about four man days
Thank goodness we arrived with a connected water supply and electricity that left us with the need to get a sewerage system. It was a bit gruesome, but our ‘waste’ and that of all those who have ever lived at the chateau, finds its way into the moat. We had a year to get this sorted so we started in February 2015. There were basically four steps:
- Find the right company to conduct a survey of what we needed
- Submit the survey to the authority to confirm they were happy (this is done by the surveyor)
- Pay to get our preferred solution installed
- Get the installation checked and signed off
In February we committed to the local sewerage surveyor. He managed to visit us in April and the reports were completed in June. About €500 and four months down, it proved surprisingly hard to get anyone to come and look at the installation, and take €12000 off us for four days’ work. We found a local company who were excellent once they actually started the work. They arrived with all their equipment mid- October and, even though they were surprised that if you dig a hole by a moat it fills with water (!), four days later we had flushing loos that didn’t contribute to the monster fish in the moat!
(As a slight aside – the vent pipe from the fosse septic has to be above the highest part to the roof, fair enough you may think, but it took about 60m of 100mm piping and a very inventive route through the cellars, as I had decided to send it up through a disused chimney rather than having a piece of plastic with a hat on, sticking up above the finials.)
As the chateau was built at a time when servants were plentiful, the kitchen and work areas were all in the Sous Sol (basement). Funnily enough, apart from events, Angel and I are a tad short on serving staff so we had to decide how to arrange our rooms to make them work for the family. The Sous Sol is so full of character, we wanted it to be part of our everyday lives, so the decision was made to keep our main kitchen there. The service kitchen on the ground floor would be used for breakfast and as the upstairs base for catering when we have events. We have a longer-term plan to join the main kitchen to the dining room by installing a spiral staircase in the tower in 2016/7.
Kitchens are expensive and we needed two. Our take on sustainability involves buying quality and keeping it so we had to be a bit canny with our expenditure. After much discussion (!) we finally agreed on the layouts and the work commenced with the water, waste and electricity. We had installed the Rayburn so gas was already in situ for the hobs. The carcasses came from a well known Swedish company and as our design was far from standard, I spent quite a long time sawing them to allow the depths to vary. Somehow they all seemed to fit and we had to commit to one of our biggest expenses: the work surfaces. We could have bought the standard compressed fibre surfaces, but we want the kitchen to be fully functional for when Arthur and Dorothy take it over, so we went in search of the best hard-wearing surfaces we could find. I wanted functionality and Angel wanted it to look perfect (we are very complementary!) so we decided against natural stone, and were delighted to find that Consentino make ‘Dekton’ which is exactly what we were both after! http://www.cosentino.com/en/brand/dekton
Decoration – Angel and Sam came up with the design of the tiles, and Angel spent hours up in the ‘wedding operations room’ printing and heat-sealing them all.
Time was against us as the wedding approached, and I had little time to refurbish the dumb waiter, but miraculously a spray of WD40, a rub with a rag, and it worked (and has continued to work ever since!)
In 2016, we decided that we needed a lift to open up the upper floors in the Chateau. Our first thoughts were to find a lovely vintage lift, however this was not feasible. After lots of research we opted for a thing of beauty which was also excitingly geeky. Our lift goes up through the first four floors of the Chateau and works by sucking you up a tube….