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Renovating a Breton home old-style

Connexion edition: July 2007

France is full of ancient buildings ripe for renovation but such projects are often complicated and daunting. A Breton association is helping an army of, mostly British, house renovators get it right. Tiez Breiz, which literally means Breton Home, teaches people who buy old properties to renovate with respect for the region’s architectural heritage which means shunning modern methods and materials.

The non-profit making association is helping British buyers learn traditional techniques. The results are better renovations - and a significant increase in the value of the properties.

It does mean being patient, re-learning skills lost over centuries and spending a bit of extra cash on the project.

The homeowners - some of whom confess they are “lunatics” to embark on their projects - say the results are priceless. There are financial benefits to such renovations. Properly renovated homes fetch far higher prices on the market.

Tiez Breiz focuses on teaching traditional skills such as plastering and masonry. They do this as a collective effort, doing building work on people’s homes and inviting renovators with their own projects to come along, help out and learn how it is done on the job.

The effect is remarkable. Homeowners doing up their properties learn invaluable skills and also meet people in the same situation, swap notes and form friendships.
They are rebuilding the architectural culture and heritage of the region and establishing firm social roots at the same time.

Most important for Tiez Breiz is the use of lime plastering and hemp for insulating and jointing around woodwork. Lime plastering takes time but unlike modern concrete it allows the buildings to “breathe,” prevents damp and adds years, if not centuries, to the shelf lives of buildings that are already hundreds of years old.

Hervé Even has been running courses for renovators for 25 years. He said: “Our ancestors were eco-builders because they had to be. They could only use local materials. But now people are actively asking for these kinds of techniques. I know builders around here who do about 90% of their business using traditional methods.”

Brittany has emerged in recent years as a favourite area for overseas buyers to buy a second home or take the plunge and move to France permanently.

Britons top the list of overseas investors. A 2005 study in the area revealed that of 3,000 Breton buildings bought by overseas house-hunters, 2,186 of them were bought by Brits. Mr Hervé said: “They are renovating houses that would otherwise have fallen into ruin. We have quite a few British members and have published leaflets in both English and German.”

British homeowners who have participated in a Tiez Breiz course have high praise for the organisation. Briton Geoffrey Williams, a university lecturer who has lived in France for 25 years, bought 14th century manor house Manoir de Kerfloc’h with wife Dominique and decided to use Tiez Breiz in the renovation project.

He said he had a hornets’ nest at a previous property and had to remove the plaster work to reach it. This was replaced by a modern concrete-based mix. He said: “The immediate effect was that we got damp problems. We also put down a concrete floor that made the house feel cold and clammy. This is not the way to treat an old building.”

So with his new project he and Dominique decided to renovate using traditional methods with advice from Tiez Breiz. The effect, he insists, has been incalculable.
“All the re-rendering has been done with hemp and lime and we used hemp to insulate the roof. The house can breathe. It feels warm. It was the right thing to do.”

Mr Williams praised the work of Tiez Breiz. He says he has met new people, learned forgotten skills and stamped his mark on Brittany. “Tiez Breiz’s style of teaching is self help and networking, which is enormously refreshing. We use the traditional techniques that belong to Breton architecture of our region of Brittany - which is a form of respect for the building. Treating a house as if it was in the UK is a heresy. We recently came across ‘Rose Cottage’ and the ‘Old Rectory’. This is an insult to the locals. It means that the owners are simply colonists trying to impose a British sweety cottage style. Their only interest in the building is that it is cheaper than in the UK.
Doing things properly respects the environment, the architecture, the traditions, and is a good investment - a well renovated house will sell better than a cement massacred property.”

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