DIY tips for French farmhouse renovation: Where to get help?

Nick Inman charts the ups and downs of renovating an old French farmhouse. Here he talks about where to find DIY advice

14 December 2020
By Nick Inman

When you need reliable DIY advice and books, websites and YouTube tutorials do not provide what you want, there is no option but to ask. It does not matter how bad your French is.

I find people are willing to talk about what they know.

There are people in my village who know a lot about restoring old houses: what does and does not work – and ways to save money. They seem to learn this stuff by osmosis.

If they don’t know the answer to a question, they usually know someone who will

The staff of DIY shops, builders’ merchants, saw mills and the like are often very knowledgeable – at least about the items they sell – but they may talk themselves out of a sale.

I learned a valuable lesson when I went to my local DIY store to ask for a snazzy silicone spreader that I had seen recommended on the internet.

“Forget that,” said the man on the till, who I had never seen before. “Use a quarter of an apple.” It worked just as well.

I am involved in my local heritage preservation association and this has proved an invaluable source of contacts.

CAUE, a national federation of architectural advisory bureaux, has a branch in every department

Through the association I have got to know Claudine, who has opened my eyes to the amount of free advice out there if only you know about it.

She works for the CAUE (Conseils d’Architecture, d’Urbanisme et de l’Environnement), a national federation of architectural advisory bureaux with a branch in every department.

This organisation exists to advise home-owners and local government officials on the best way to improve the building stock while protecting the environment.

Architecture and culture go together in the CAUE universe and an informed home-owner will build better aesthetically, with respect to traditional methods and materials and in terms of durability. Consultations are free.

The CAUE is particularly good for finding out about unconventional building.

For instance, our departmental CAUE is running a series of events about building with mud and clay.

Most of the information is in French, such as the handy “homeowners’ ABC”, but there is a webpage and leaflet in English.

Another useful organisation is the Anil (Agence nationale pour l’information sur le logement) which is also organised by department and complements the work of the CAUE. It gives advice about the financial and legal technicalities of buying or doing up a house.

More generally, you might also want to consult the Anah (Agence Nationale de l’Habitat) and, if you are particularly interested in environmental issues, the Ademe (Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie). They know about grants that are available for particular projects and will check your eligibility and even, if you are lucky, help fill out the relevant forms.

It is also worth hunting around your area for groups of enthusiast-run associations to protect old buildings and keep alive knowledge about traditional building techniques.

You might want to keep an eye out for a property trade fair, called something like Salon de l’Habitat, where there are always stands of interest to DIYers.

The more you look, the more you ask, the more you find out and you will undoubtedly pick up a lot of good ideas.

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