Property renovation in France: advice from an Architect
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We often get asked by clients for help and assistance in finding suitable renovation properties in Southern France. I recently met with two award-winning Architects, François Brunner and Olga Sanina, so I took the opportunity to ask them some of the typical questions about house renovation in France and the pitfalls to avoid when renovating property. I found their perspective fascinating and a number of the issues they cited brought back memories from our own construction project. When we came to France in 2006, we had no idea that 3 years later we would start building our own house. And we certainly had no idea that the construction project would run into planning problems, a change of building contractor mid-way through the project and a protracted 10 year legal battle (which we eventually won in January 2020!). Some of the advice that Olga & Francoise have given to people embarking on a house renovation project in France, has rung so many bells in my own head and I just wish we had been able to use their experience back in the day.
François and Olga run renovation projects across Southern France, from their Architecture Design agency, Brunner & Sanina Architects, based in Carcassonne. Their professional insight into why some renovation projects run into trouble, was very interesting.
If you are thinking of embarking on a renovation project in France, you will find their advice invaluable.
What to check when buying renovation properties in France?
I have seen a couple of houses for sale in France that I am interested in. I only have a small budget for renovation. What are some of the issues that I should be checking on the houses?
François: The most important thing when you buy an old house is to make sure the structure and the infrastructure are fine. Look under the roof to see if there is any halo of humidity, ask when the roof was last renovated last (they can usually last 2 or 3 decades when they are carefully built, but represent a heavy cost in case you have to renovate them).
Check the walls, inside and outside to see if there are any deep cracks.
Check the ceilings and the ground floor, looking for any halo of humidity. However don’t be afraid of cracked paint or dirty floors, these can easily be dealt with.
Olga: Also, if the house is really old and doesn't have any services to it (power, water internet, sewage), then check where the nearest supply is located. An Architect will be able to provide you with an estimate for supplying the services to the house. But if you buy a really remote property, the cost of supplying the services could be 30-40% of the purchase price and this could blow a huge hole in your renovation budget.
What is the cost of renovating a French property?
I have seen a house I want to buy (Maison de Maitre), but it needs some work updating the bathrooms, removing a dividing wall between kitchen and dining room, etc. What will be the costs of the renovation work?
Olga: Talking about general average costs, you may consider that a renovation can be divided in 3 different types :
- Small renovation : New finishings (paintings, cleaning the floors, the ceilings) : 500€/m2
- Medium renovation : New kitchen, bathrooms, windows, partition walls, electricity, plumbing : 1000€/m2
- Big renovation : Full renovation, structural modification, deep infrastructures renovation : 1300€/m2
François: The best way to get a closer idea of the cost is to talk to an Architect at the very early stages of the project. The most important role of an architect is to achieve the best results possible with the budget and resources available. But a secondary role is anticipating project risk - identifying any issues that could impact the budget or timescale. I think you have to see the role of an Architect as not just producing beautiful drawings, but making the plans a reality and delivering a successful end result.
How has the recent conflict in Ukraine affected house building costs in France?
François: That is a very good question. Certainly with the squeeze on energy in Europe, we are already seeing the prices of building materials increasing. But perhaps the biggest difference we are seeing is the price of steel. We just didn't realise how dependant the European market was on steel production from Ukraine. Sometimes we have created a specification for a certain type of steel beam, but now we cannot even get accurate costings because the prices of steel are changing daily if not hourly. It can also affect building progress, in terms of waiting for steel products (which are usually integral to the building work).
As an Architect, what this is forcing us to do is to look at alternative products, such as the use of composite beams, composite pre-fabricated panels, etc., which now are becoming more equivalent in price. So yes, unfortunately, this conflict in Ukraine is effecting everything we do.
I have a small budget, what should I renovate first in my Property ?
Olga: That is a very interesting question. Sometimes, it is the house itself that will give you this answer, a specific atmosphere of a special room, a particular view of the garden, a unique light in the house... all of this might be the reason for you to start here before anywhere else. But generally, I would advise people to spend the most money and attention on the areas of the house where they will be spending most of their time. Some people may prefer a cosy living-room with a beautiful fireplace. Some people may feel that the kitchen is the most important space because they will spend all their family time around the table cooking and talking. You have to listen deeply to what you and your family feel within its walls.
François: However, here in the South of France people spend their time living outside of the house, enjoying the beautiful weather we have. So it is also important to invest in a beautiful terrace and garden, because this is where you will spend a lot of your time. So, I would also make sure that you have a specific budget for the exterior. Investing in architectural plants and trees can really improve the aesthetics of the house. I see it almost as a professional failing when I see renovation projects where the house is finished, but the garden still looks like a building site. That should never happen if you have really controlled the project. The dressing of the garden is the finishing touch and if you don't invest in this area, the project is not completed.
Olga: In a similar vein, you should also pay very close attention to the selection of furniture. There is nothing worse than seeing people with a beautifully renovated structure, but they then install furniture which doesn't match the fabric of the building. It is like seeing a mature woman in a mini-skirt or a middle age man in tight jeans and trainers. It just doesn't look right. You don't need to be an Architect to see that. I just don't understand why you would invest so much time and energy into plaster, piping, electric cables and tiling; but not spend an equal amount of time in selecting how to dress the house properly.
François: Here in France there is an institution called EMMAUS, where you can buy second hand furniture for unbelievable prices and all the proceeds go to the homeless. You can get some amazing pieces of furniture. But equally, you can always spot a house that has been totally dressed in EMMAUS furniture. You need to mix and match. Equally, it is not often that you will hear an Architect praising IKEA, but you can buy some really good pieces in IKEA for a very good price. But equally, you can always tell when you walk into an IKEA house.
Olga: So if your budget is really small, you can still do a lot with it if you are careful. But always mix and match what you buy. Also avoid the temptation to 'fill up' the space. If you don't have the budget at the moment, it doesn't matter. But the worse thing to do is sometimes to waste money buying furniture and ornaments because a room looks bare. There was a very famous British designer called William Morris and he once gave some brilliant advice -
"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful".
That sums up my thoughts exactly.
Do I need to get a building permit to Renovate a property in France ?
François: Not necessarily. Depending on the complexity of your renovation you might not need it. In France, every city has a "Plan Local d’Urbanisme", usually called PLU. This document contains all the rules about property construction in that particular area. So you will see details about the height of properties, the type of building, what the building can be used for, the materials that can be used, the distances between buildings, the surfaces that are allowed and forbidden are all outlined in clear detail.
François: According to the PLU of your area, interior renovation may not need any kind of declaration. As soon as it has an impact on the façades, the roof, the surface of the house, you will have to declare it to the local city hall. However, you may only need a "Déclaration Préalable" that is adapted for smaller projects. Only if you add an extension, you may have to apply for a "Permis de Construire". Be careful also that some old house belongs to the French Patrimony and are protected by many restrictions such as specific companies in order to use some specific techniques of renovation...
Olga: The best way to find the exact answers for your case are :
- Meet an Architect who can advise you on the rules that apply to your house. The end result would be an application for a "Certificat d’Urbanisme" - which describes in detail what can be built on the specific piece of land and any restrictions that apply. This forms the basis of your project feasibility.
- Alternatively, you could meet with the "Service Urbanisme" yourself at the local city hall or even read through the PLU document. The local planning staff are usually very helpful, but one of the secrets of renovating a house in France lies in the interpretation of the planning regulations. It is not something I would advise you do by yourself unless you have an advanced level of French. Also, the profession of Architecture is not just about measurements and technical calculations. It is the experience you gain from asking the right questions at the right time.
François: According to the classification of the local commune - is it an historical site or is it an area looking to encourage inward investment - will determine what permission you need for your renovations. So for example, I live in Carcassonne, which has a beautiful medieval castle which is the second most-visited historical monument in France. So quite naturally, the local Urbanisme is very keen to ensure that the surrounding area is kept beautiful and authentic. So in Carcassonne, if you want to change the shutters or even repaint the inside of your apartment, you have to obtain clearance from the local Urbanisme that the colour is authentic and the style is kept in keeping with the local neighbourhood. Now, if you go ahead and make the changes first without consulting the local Urbanisme, then this could be a costly error. However, if you work with the Urbanisme from the start and they can explain to you what they are trying to achieve, you can then work with them to come up with a good solution that works for both of you. So that is something important to remember if you are renovating a character property. In reality, you are not the Owner of the house, just the custodian for future generations.
Are there any financial grants available for restoring an historic building in France?
François: Depending on the House, depending on the area, depending on the renovation, yes. For instance, you want to increase the thermal impact of your house, your local Region or the French State may provide certain grants (usually in the form of a tax rebate). Also, if you buy a designated Patrimone House - a house with significant historical importance, you may receive financial assistance from the French State or from Europe. Get in touch with your local city hall in order to learn more about the help they can provide.
What are the best sources or websites for finding renovation projects in France?
François: In France, people usually look for land on renovation properties on websites such as Le Bon Coin or Green-Acres. But you should also get in touch with the local Mayor of the area you plan to live in. In France, when you are looking to sell a property, you have to give the local town hall the first option on buying the property. The local Mayor rarely takes up this option - but what they do have is a clear view on what property is 'on the market'. They will also know the local inhabitants and who might consider selling their property if it is becoming too expensive for them to maintain.
Olga: Another good tip is to also contact local French Architects. We often work with local real estate agents to draw up plans for 'difficult' property to sell. We help buyers to see the real potential in a property. In our own office, we have projects ongoing that includes the division of lands and buildings for construction, therefore, I would also advise people to get in touch with the local architects. Also, the more you stay around the area and talk to neighbours, the more you get a chance to find your future house.
Olga: If you are thinking of renovating a house in France, I cannot stress how important it is to engage with an Architect early on in the project. This can include helping you find a property to renovate or assistance in deciding between which renovation property to buy, based on the likely renovation costs. Architects can do some truly amazing things when they are involved very early on in the project (prior to the actual purchase). If we are involved too late in the project, it is like a chef trying to improve a cake which has already been mixed together.
Do I need an architect in France?
Can't I just do all this myself? Is it possible to do a self-build in France? How do I find someone to manage the project for me in France?
François: In terms of the Law in France, any construction bigger than 150m2 has to be lead by an architect. But even if you are renovating a house smaller than this limit, it is always a good idea to have an architect on board with the project to make sure your house respects the local PLU and to ensure you won’t get any nasty surprises with your budget or the timescale or the end product. I think that people sometimes misunderstand the role of an architect. We are not just about producing beautiful drawings or an amazing interior. Our role is to ensure the successful execution of the whole project: on time, on budget, on spec.
François: You can of course try and do all of this yourself. When I meet people who insist on managing the project to save money, I always send them a template of our project plan. This contains over 1,000 line items. This shows you the level of detail that you need to consider when managing a project. I think that there was a US Presidential advisor who once said :
We have known unknowns and unknown unknowns
I think most people were pretty bemused by what he said. But every Architect in the World knew exactly what he was talking about. When you have a client led project, they will be faced with issues that they don't even know that will be problems for them. They are just not even aware of the issue. It comes to them as a surprise mid-way through the project.
Olga: If I just give you a quick example. When I am working on a project, I download the technical specifications for all the toilets that the Client has chosen. I check that flushing mechanisms of the toilet correspond with both the local water pressure and the internal and external pipe dimensions. The reason why I do this is to ensure when the builder and plumber install the toilets, everything fits correctly. I try to eliminate any need for reworking because this is a 'dead cost'. So this shows you the level of detail I get involved with to prevent any additional costs or time delays or things not looking right because they have been 'made to fit'.
François: Another example I can give of the benefit of working with an Architect is a project I am working on know. A client bought an apartment building in Carcassonne and he wanted me just to oversee the construction phase. He specifically told me, he didn't want any changes to the project plan, just to supervise the builder. After a couple of days, I went back to him and just made a couple of suggestions. To me it was nothing, it was just practical suggestions. I am talking about making some small changes within a living space of 50m2. It didn't even increase the cost of the project. The client's response really took me back. He said "I just didn't see this, it is so much better, I didn't think this was possible with such a small space". Through our training and experience, we can sometimes see the possibilities of a building. Architects are human beings, we need to eat. But if you speak to any Architect, what they crave the most is the client walking into a building and saying "Wow!".
How do we make sure the renovation costs don't go over budget ?
Olga: The only way to be sure that your project won’t cost you more than expected is to spend the good amount of time on the preparation phase. As architects, in our office we draw, work and study every detail of the project, exactly in order to avoid the bad surprises on the construction. In my experience, the only reason for Extra-Costs is the lack of "Etudes" before. To avoid any budget overruns, you have to carefully plan and cost every small detail of the project.
François: The other thing to remember is that old stones have history. Things can happen when you work with old stones. Over time the stones can move. Walls which were originally built as partition walls, can end up becoming part of the structure - supporting ceilings or doorways. Also humidity can have a dramatic impact, especially on wooden structures or iron work. This can result in additional cost. But an Architect, through his or her experience can help to anticipate these problems from the outset.. We know where to look for the problems, rather than just crossing our fingers.
What advice would you give to someone contemplating a renovation project in France?
François: Well there are many pieces of advice I could give them. But I think the most important comment I can make is about the timescale. Good things take time to come together. Clients often have a natural urge to move into their new home as soon as possible. This is perfectly understandable. But when you put artificial constraints onto the project, then bad things happen.
Olga: So I often hear clients saying "we want to be in by Christmas" or "this has to be finished by the summer". When you drill down into this, there is no real need for this to happen. When you put pressure on the timeline, it leads to shortcuts and can actually extend the project timeline. It is like the law of unintended consequences.
Olga: So for example, when you are renovating a house in France, there is a natural sequence of events. If you are putting time pressure on the builder, maybe he starts to fit in work on your project with other projects he has ongoing. But this breaks his concentration. Instead of focusing 100% on your build, he is thinking about all the other jobs he must finish. He is thinking, we will finish this today and then I can get back to the other project. A competent builder is always thinking 3 or 4 steps ahead, and following the natural sequence. He can therefore identify opportunities to optimize the build. So by carefully planning ahead, he can reduce the need for repeated concrete deliveries to site, by grouping together similar phases of work. The time pressure breaks his concentration to really think through all the processes ahead of him. So it is counter-productive.
François: So I would advise people not to box themselves in with the project. It will take as long as it needs. This takes a lot of stress and emotion out of it. It is much more important that the budget is being kept to and the vision for the project is achieved. If it takes one or two more months to achieve this, in the grand scheme of the life of the building, this is nothing.
When you are renovating a character property in France, what do you focus on?
François: Well, the obvious answer is that you concentrate on restoring the beautiful features of the house or even revealing the original features which have been hidden by previous renovations. This is the natural thing to do. But there is a less obvious feature of old stone buildings, that people sometimes forget about. For me, the beauty of an old building is in the shadows that the building forms. The patterns of light, little shards of sunlight peaking through the shutters, the dull sheen on worn wooden surfaces. We have a temptation nowadays to make everything too bright. We knock down walls to create open plan living. We flood rooms with sunlight through larger windows or velux windows. But this can sometimes be like over-developing a beautiful photograph.
Olga: I agree. I think that sometimes you can renovate too much and remove the 'character' from the house. Leaving a beam poking out of the wall, or exposing a small piece of stonework doesn't really compensate if you have covered up 99% of the original interior features. My approach is to ensure that first of all the house is safe and clean. So we focus on the structure of the building to ensure it will last another 50-70 years. We also look to eliminate any damp and upgrade the services to the house. But then we work with the house to see what we can create as a beautiful functional space.
François: If I use an American phrase, I think for property renovations you get most "bang for your buck" when you invest in a beautiful kitchen and in the bathrooms. This is because these are the places that you will spend time. But in most cases, you can work with the existing spaces for the bedrooms and living rooms. I try and avoid removing walls or re configuring rooms unless this is absolutely necessary for the interior flow of the house. The reason is that this is always expensive and can lead to unintended consequences with old stone buildings. Also, don't forget to save at least 20% of your budget on the exterior. It gives me a heavy heart when I see a renovated property but the facade is still crumbling and the outside looks like a building site. This shouldn't happen. I understand why it happens, but it goes against my professional code. A properly planned renovation project should focus on all the elements together. An interior renovation without and exterior renovation is not a completed project. If a budget is coming under pressure, it is sometimes the sensible decision to postpone some of the interior work until finances allow.
Olga Sanina - award winning Architect
Olga was born and raised in Lisbon and studied architecture at the University of Lisbon. Olga worked for 10 years as an Architect and Project Director at the international Design Agency, Aires Mateus in Lisbon. Olga's stunning design with Marcelo Dantas of a Pavillion building at Ayntamento de Madrid, won first prize in an International design competition.
During her career, Olga has undertaken projects to redesign the interior of an Hotel & Spa resort in Prague, the conversion of an historic building in Budapest Hungary into Apartments and an Hotel and designed numerous residential buildings and modern villas.
Olga's career highlight was her role as Project Director for the construction of the fabulous new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in her native Lisbon, Portugal.
François Brunner - French Architect
François was born and raised in the city of Toulouse in Southern France. His father was an Engineer and his mother was an Art Historian, so for him a future career as an Architect was almost programmed into him from birth. François obtained a joint degree in Architecture from Toulouse University and the University of Lisbon in Portugal. After completing his studies, François worked for several years in the award-winning international agency, Aires Mateus in Lisbon.
During his career, François has run projects ranging from renovating a Buddhist Monastery to designing tower blocks, renovating apartment buildings, designing modern houses and managing home renovations.
You can contact François Brunner and Olga Sanina, at:
1 boulevard de Varsovie, 11000 Carcassonne, France.
Tel: +33 6 95 00 79 86 | +33 7 69 71 54 23
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