French farmhouse renovation - April 2019

Nick Inman charts the ups and downs of doing it himself in our regular column... here, he explains the trick to understanding how an old house was built

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To restore an old house – to recapture its charm – it is vital to know the recipe used to build it, the materials used and why they were chosen.

You can research in a library but it is better to open your eyes and look: the secrets of its construction are written in its walls.

An old house is an assembly of simple materials put together in an ingenious way.

To understand the rationale behind it, you must slip out of our contemporary “fast food” mindset to comprehend what life was like before modernity.

Today, we take our credit cards to the local DIY superstore and buy everything off the peg. In the 18th century that was not an option.

Every building site in rural France before the 20th century was subject to one main constraint: cost. Only the rich could afford to build exactly what they wanted, where they wanted. Everyone else had to keep the budget to a minimum.

The biggest cost – and physical constraint – on a building project before the invention of the internal combustion engine was the transport of materials.

To keep prices down, all but the wealthiest house builders used materials that were most easily available to them, say within a 5km or 10km radius.

It is this fact which accounts for the extraordinary variety of vernacular architecture of France and which partly defines the fundamental French concept of pays – a locality with its own harmonious sense of identity.

Besides, why source materials from afar even if you could afford them?

Before the industrial revolution there was little choice, and certainly no elaborately manufactured materials. Every item used in the house was the result of immense effort. You only have to look at a roof made of traditional clay tiles to appreciate this: no two tiles are identical. Every one has been shaped by hand.

Today most houses are assembled from prefabricated components... back then, all materials arrived on site in raw form and everything had to be created from scratch.

Things changed in the 19th century, with innovations such as the invention of cement as a replacement for lime mortar.

After World War One, motorisation allowed heavy goods to be moved long distances. Traditional craft industries declined in favour of mass production and specialisation.

The lesson to be drawn from all this is that an old house can and should be restored using simple, inexpensive, locally- available materials – but you have to be willing to put in the effort. Each time you prefer tradition over technology, you are taking a step towards recapturing the skill of the builders of the original house.

They had to master many techniques to turn their raw materials into the finished product – and we can do the same today.

All the savoir-faire used in the house was present on the construction site, whereas now we expect a technician in some distant factory to do half the job for us.

To buy an old house in need of restoration is already a way of taking control – literally, to do it yourself.

There is nothing more empowering than standing in front of piles of sand, stone and timber that you have lugged to the site yourself, knowing that using them you can make almost any bit of vernacular architecture you desire.