Building a house for €3,000 in France

(all materials included)!

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“There’s not much in the way of comfort,” confesses Chloé Dequeker of her home in Ars, a small village in the Creuse, south-east of Guéret. However, costing just €3,000 and built almost single-handedly within a year, it hardly seems the point.

Measuring 80m², the eco-house is Ms Dequeker’s third construction project, and was completed in 2003 when she was age 30. Before that she had renovated one wooden and one stone building, so already had a fair idea of the work that a sustainable self-build entails.

“I’d done my fair share of stone arches,” she quips, “so in comparison a permaculture house seemed relatively easy!”

She employed a natural building technique called cordwood for the walls, which sees short pieces of debarked trees laid crosswise and fixed in place with a mortar of lime and sawdust. Cement, she explains, would be too unforgiving against wood that swells with humidity. Wood shavings in the middle act as insulation.

The entire house is partially-buried on the grounds of her three-hectare fruit tree nursery, with a central oak pillar supporting 14 beams, atop which sits a green roof of wood, vines, straw insulation and a watertight plastic lining.

The latter used up half of her €3,000 budget (this membrane was also the only part of the house which has needed repair work in the intervening years), with the remaining €1,500 spent on floor tiles, electrics and other fittings and fixtures.

By choosing to build in timber, Ms Dequeker effectively benefited from free material – all the wood was recycled from trees that had fallen down in storms, on or around her land.

Labour costs were also zero as she did the project, including ground preparation and digging, under her own steam, with occasional input from volunteers in the latter stages.

She said: “One day I invited all the people from the LETS group [Local Exchange Trading System – a community-based mutual aid network whereby people can exchange goods and services without the need for money] and 34 showed up – a combination of adults and children. They helped strip bark off the wood – a long job that I was happy to have a hand with.

“The kids were thrilled to be able to dig their hands into the wood shavings and carry things around.”

The house was completed within 12 months, including a burner Ms Dequeker created herself to heat the building, using wood shavings collected from her local carpenter.

She credits her unorthodox upbringing with giving her the gumption to see the project through. One of six children born to an English mother and half-Polish/half-Flemish father, both potters, Ms Dequeker spent her primary years travelling the world before the family settled in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

She says: “This alternative lifestyle meant I was independent from a very young age.

“We could never afford to hire professionals to do construction, mechanical or electrical jobs for us. We had to figure it all out ourselves. I left my family when I was 13, so my skills since then have been learned the hard way.”

This tenacity came in handy four years after the house was finished, when the village maire declared it contravened planning laws and would have to be pulled down.

Ms Dequeker explains: “I was in an interesting situation.

“A woman who worked for the local building inspector had given me the go-ahead originally. She was a family friend and had advised that although I shouldn’t really be building on this plot, as long as nobody could see it she thought it might be okay.

“She was nice – but naive too. I built the house assuming she knew what she was talking about. When the mairie got involved I spent two years trying to fight for the house to remain, and won in the end.

“However, it was a worrying time and the compromise we reached was quite delicate.”

Ms Dequeker has little patience with French planning laws – indeed, planning of any sort. “I live in a seven-sided house by happy accident rather than design. I would never have planned it like this – it would have been too complicated.

“However, when I was digging I hit granite and it was that which ultimately determined the shape of the house.

“In my experience, if you can build ecologically without being confined to a plan, then the finished building will likely make much more sense. It’s near impossible to predict all the obstacles that might come your way on a building project, so giving yourself the flexibility to adapt and modify ideas makes life much easier.”

Not that Ms Dequeker has ever been one for an easy life. She split her time on the build with developing her real “passion” – a nursery now numbering almost a thousand different types of fruit trees.

Alongside the common apples, pears, peaches etc, she is intent on reviving ancient and nurturing wild varieties, including from such far-flung places as the forests of Kazakhstan.

The physical toil is rewarded by a genuine excitement for the science and sustainability of it all. “It’s amazing,” she enthuses, “that we’re discovering only now in the planet’s evolution how plants and trees communicate with (and help) each other.”

She plans to spend more time with her trees thanks to her latest self-build idea – a hut in the heart of the nursery in order to free up the cordwood building for workshops and grafting.

You can visit Chloe’s flourishing nursery at open days throughout the year. The next one takes place on August 5.