Combe Mousse

This example shows how complicated restorations can become and the amount of thought & detail necessary. Although more complicated than most, it does show a pretty full range of the skills I bring to bear on a project.

Combe Mousse was bought as a project for future holiday leasing, but also to be designed as a family home.

The farmstead consisted of a long structure built on a slope, an upstairs barn accessed from a large opening large enough for a wagon to pass through, below this was found the old cow byre. The rest of the structure below the barn was made up of three one room houses all of which had been
constructed during various periods.

This of course, is typical of how houses in this part of France evolved. The families became wealthier and or increased in size, therefore they needed more accommodation.

To continue, at the lower end of the courtyard was a stunning old two story barn and on the third side of the courtyard was a small structure which still contained its beautiful old bread oven. This as seen on the photo, was opened up on the valley side to create a beautiful terrace which offers the morning sun. It is also the perfect spot to have the barbecue!

There was an option while still at the planning stage to link the two main buildings with a little bridge, therefore using two rooms in the main structure on the first floor as the kitchen and dining room, and then a little romance, traverse the bridge and step into the salon, this room which is now a stunning bedroom enjoys the most beautiful views of the valley.

This, however, is not what happened, the kitchen was created in the old byre giving access at ground level to the courtyard and also to the rear of the house, the upper barn with the huge doorway was transformed into the salon.
Elsewhere, five bedrooms with bathrooms attached, a study, a large hall, utility rooms etc were built into the design. The idea of the kitchen at ground level was to be able to access the gardens on either side of the house and to have an easy passage to the pool. The pool itself was so positioned that at no time did it suffer from the shadow of the house and also enjoyed the sunsets.

Great care must be taken in the position of the pool as this can enhance the pleasure of its use and warmth.

The renovation that was required involved a new roof throughout for all three structures, 24 oak beams had to be replaced and all the exterior walls required being re-pointed. One problem that was evident was that part of the main structure had slipped and therefore there was a large crack between the lower section and the rest of the house. This had been caused due to the fact that when houses were enlarged it was common just to build the new part butting on rather than tied in. Also, in this part of Tarn et Garonne most houses were built on rock, but if part of the walls spanned a base of clay this over the centuries could cause problems of movement.

The answer to the above structural headache was to dig a large trench down to the base rock the width of the house at the lower gable end. This then was filled in with reinforced concrete on which a stone buttress was built giving the strength required to resolve any future movement. I would defy anyone to think that this
buttress as such, had not always been part of the structure.

This is how I feel a successful renovation should be portrayed, that at the end of the day the exterior looks as if that is how the house has always been. To create this illusion, I always search out and stipulate which quarries should be used for the new window and doorway openings so that the newly cut stone will match the existing color and type used in the original sections. The pointing if required can also be matched to blend in, and then of course the roof tiles can be cleaned, checked and re-laid, any shortfall can be bought in. The end result is then pleasing to the eye and helps retain
the heritage of the area.

Most roofs if older than one hundred years will need to be renewed due to the structure suffering from water and insect damage. In this case for Combe Mousse all the tiles were removed, cleaned and checked and the entire roof structure except for the A frames was scrapped due to worm damage. As the roof now required to be reconstructed this allowed the use of structural insulated panels with plasterboard on the inside to be used. On top of these panels I had specified a waterproof membrane, (in effect the plastic membrane waterproofs the house, the tiles in theory are there purely for decoration or as a secondary barrier) then battens for the tiles. One of the main benefits of the panels is that as soon as they are in place the house is watertight, which then allows work to progress with the other trades inside. Other plus points are, speed, insulation specifications and also that the ceiling inside is already 98% finished. Cost wise there is very little difference between this method and the other option of creating the ceilings at a later date.

It was decided to install under floor heating throughout the ground floor, this included the bottom barn in which had been designed to offer two very large bedrooms and their ensuite bathrooms. To allow enough height in the finished rooms, certain areas had to be dug out to increase the depth to accommodate the sub structure, insulation and the thickness of the flag-stones.

This digging out of the interior is quite straight forward, care of course needs to be taken
that there is no damage to the walls and that the existing foundations are respected. As in all areas of a major renovation it comes down to management, specifications, supervision and the choice of the tradesman and the tools that they use.

In this area of France heating is required, we enjoy here seasons which give us warmth in the summer but also winters during which we can have and do have extended periods of cold, – 5 to – 15° at times.

The choice of heating of course also depends on the intended use of the house; if it is envisaged to basically use the house during spring and summer, then it makes sense to install electric radiators. Here one has a wide choice of styles and forms of heat, radiant or convector. This type of heating is by far the cheapest to install and depending on usage perhaps also the most cost effective during use.

Then, depending on the size of the house and one’s own preference it is possible to install a wood stove that with its own interior water jacket will provide hot water, room heat but also power radiators throughout the house.

I have also installed geothermic heating, this uses the earth to warm the water which is pumped through plastic pipes laid at a proscribed depth, the heat is then extracted by the heat exchanger in the house, boosted by electricity and then pumped through the interior network to warm the house, in summer this can be reversed to create clima. Heating which uses a water to water heat exchanger, (excellent if you have water nearby) and also air to water, both of these systems working on the same principle as the geothermic.

These three are very cost effective to use and if the house is one’s principle residence there are offered in France strong financial grants to consider one of these options. In most cases these three work more efficiently with under floor heating, one can also at very little extra expense enjoy the option of clima which at times in hot summers can be exceedingly refreshing.

For under floor heating it is best to consider tiles or stone floors as this offer the best in heat transfer either for winter or during the summer.

However, at Combe Mousse an oil boiler was installed, gas can also be used but this at present is the least cost effective manner of heating a house in rural France. The joy of renovating a house in its entirety is that features close to your heart and living requirements can be specified and built in at very little extra cost. This includes of course the wiring, for instance, cables installed to carry music to various parts of the house, ground lighting rather than over head lights, outside lighting control from various points and also phone points.

At all times one must be aware that large sums of money can be saved at the planning stage if the specifications are correctly prepared. This allows the trades to accurately prepare their quotes which when signed by both parties are binding.

At Combe Mousse lime stone was laid throughout the ground floors which with the under floor heating gives a very high heat transfer medium. The above floors, French oak was used, in these spaces radiators were installed, the whole presentation giving a beautiful mix and flow.

For interior walls I always feel that a mix can be used to great effect. For instance, on exterior weather walls, mainly the west and north facing sides it makes sense to use plasterboard with insulation. On all other walls and especially interior walls one can either point the stone if attractive, and or face the walls with crepi. Crepi is a mix of colored sand with white lime or natural lime, finished smooth, grated or with movement created with the aid of a special trowel. These finishes are crucial to the beauty and interest of the house
and require a much greater explanation.

The above short history is purely added as a demonstration as to what can be done. In most cases a house to be renovated is like a blank sheet, it is just waiting for your ideas, requirements and passions to be penciled in and then acted upon.