Chalet styles inspired by life among animals

Regional architecture varies across France and in this, the first of a series, Jane Hanks looks at why Alpine ski chalets look the way they do

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Ski chalets as we know them today are a modern version of traditional farms in Haute-Savoie. The first was designed by the architect Henri-Jacques Le Même in 1926 for Baroness Noémie Rothschild, who wanted her home in the mountains to be “A chalet which is like a country farmhouse but with a comfortable interior.”

He created what we think of as a chalet today, with a steeply sloped inverted v-shape roof, and a structure built mostly in wood. It was a new concept for housing in the mountains. In the basement, there were servants’ rooms and an area to wax skis. The living rooms were on the ground floor with a stone fireplace and access to a balcony. The bedrooms were under the insulated roof on the first floor.

This style was reproduced by other architects and gradually became accessible to people other than the very rich.

Some original farmhouses, built from the 17th century, still exist in Haute-Savoie and Arnaud Dutheil, director of the dep­artment architecture heritage agency CAUE, said they were designed to protect the inhabitants from the harsh weather.

Haute-Savoie was the only department where farmhouses were mostly built in wood, because it was readily available. Beating the weather meant using snow on the roof as insulation, along with hay in the attic, and families lived with their livestock to keep warm. It also meant they did not have to go outside to look after them.

Mountain people spent summers with their livestock in small houses on the upper slopes, la ferme d’en haut but their main dwelling was down in the valleys where they spent winter, la ferme d’en bas.

“Each village and each valley had its own style. In general, the first layer was in stone and housed one or two sheep, a pig and tools”, Mr Dutheil said.

“On the next layer there was a single room called a ‘pelle’, built in wood where the people lived. There was a fireplace where they would smoke hams and sausages, and they slept, cooked and ate there. At the back, they kept their cows when they were not out to pasture.

“The houses were poorly constructed and though gaps in the wood were filled with moss, they were still draughty and cold in the winter.”

Roofs extended over the house to hold the snow. “They were designed with a gentle slope because the owners did not want the snow to fall off, but rather to keep it on as another layer of insulation.”

The chalets had carved wooden galleries and beams. Each family had their own design which could be a garland of flowers or a geometric design.

Mr Dutheil says there are very few original examples left of these buildings and that modern chalets have very little to do with the traditional model: “They were not a very comfortable way of living and so they have been transformed to include more rooms, for example.”

The Maison du Patrimoine Bornandin in Grand-Bornand is a traditional farmhouse which dates from 1830. It can be visited all year and Céline Missillier, from the association which looks after it, says such homes were designed for cold mountain winters.

“The house looks big from the outside but people only lived in a quarter of the available space. There may have been 12 people living inside, with their animals.

“In the ceiling there are numerous trap doors so the hay, stored above, could fall directly into different areas for the animals. The overhanging roof meant they could go round the house without getting their feet in the snow.”

Another typical example is La Ferme à Isidore at Combloux. It was built in 1832 and has hardly changed since.

Christine Burnier, who gives tours of the house, said: “Everything was designed so that in the harshest of weather everyone could stay inside.”

The design was, for the most part, practical as well as efficient. “This house had more than one room. In the centre there was a windowless kitchen with a huge, wooden fireplace measuring 8.5m high and 16m² at its base. At the top of the chimney were shutters, which were opened to let in light on sunny days.

“There were three bedrooms. The warmest to the south-west was for the grandparents. At the back the strongest children slept in the coldest bedroom. On the right, to the east was the winter living room where the parents and youngest children slept.

“The main door was on the south with a sunny space called the ‘cortonne’ where women could knit.

“There was an interior well for water, and the toilets, called ‘cacatires’ were on the side of the house, suitably placed over the manure pile below.”

Carved granite features are common on many of the buildings in the area as it is famous for its granite quarries.

In the mid-19th century specialist stone makers arrived from Italy to rebuild two towns which were devastated by fire, Sallanches and Cluses. They settled in the area and passed on their skills.

There is no need for snow as insulation today, so many chalets have a steep pitch but bigger buildings are less radical.

Photos: Mairie de Megève-Service Urbanisme