‘We built a €120,000 eco-house for a thrifty retirement in France’

The British couple self-built a kit home with the environment and lower cost of living in mind

Jeff Huntley, and wife Diana, managed the building project themselves in Locmalo in Morbihan
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A British couple are putting the finishing touches to a self-built home in Brittany, which has been specially designed to lower living costs now they are retired.

The ambitious project is the brainchild of Jeff and Diana Huntley, who moved to France 20 years ago.

“We are at an age where we are young enough to do it. I am 69 and Diana is 67, and I think we have enough experience in project management to see it all through,” said Jeff.

This is the second time the couple have self-built, having completed another, bigger house in Brittany in 2017.

“The idea was to sell the large house and to be very disciplined with the cash to build the best, most eco-friendly house we can afford, while still having enough capital to add to our modest pensions,” said Jeff.

Read more: Nine tips for managing a French home renovation project yourself

Shocked by price increases for materials

The project did not get off to an easy start when their main builder was delayed six weeks before putting up the wooden framework.

This was compensated by their roofer arriving quicker than forecast due to so many new-builds being cancelled because of raw material price rises.

“We were lucky because we bought most of the material and stored it in containers before the huge price rises, but where we have been a bit short, it has been a shock” said Jeff.

“Lengths of battening, which were €3.20 when we bought them, are now over €9. It’s a crazy situation.

“The pine forest they come from, 40 km away, is the same but sawmills say their expenses have rocketed.”

Physically harder than previous build

The couple finally moved into the house in early April and have a target to complete the work by May, when family are due to visit.

However, Jeff admitted that the project has been harder than anticipated – certainly compared with their previous build.

“I definitely have more aches and pains after a day’s work,” he explained, “and I don’t remember having such trouble lifting heavy plasterboard!”

Left ‘dream job’ at chateau before it was too late

The couple hail from Dorset, where they ran a plumbing equipment company until “being stuck in too many traffic jams on the M25” prompted their move to France.

They initially lived in their Breton holiday home and quickly found work as project managers for an architect who had a number of English-speaking customers.

This was followed by a “dream job” as salaried caretakers of a large chateau in Gers, owned by a millionaire who seldom visited.

After 10 years, however, they decided it was time to move on while they were still fit and healthy.

“The guardians before us were in their 70s and really did not want to leave, even though the job was getting too much for them,” said Jeff.

“From our point of view, they had left it too late and had nowhere to go.”

Built a five bedroom B&B

The house they subsequently built boasted 198m² of living space and five bedrooms – plenty of room to put their plan of running a B&B into action.

The wooden framework, comprising the roof and walls, was delivered to the site, but the couple did the rest of the work themselves.

“It was very comfortable and met all the standards of the time, but things have moved on with environmental standards and we wanted our new home to be even better.

“Apart from anything else, having the best technology built in means our living costs will be lower, which is important now that we are no longer earning.”

ART 2020 building regulations

After lots of searching, the couple decided to stay in Locmalo in Morbihan, where they were already living.

They bought a €20,000 plot of land measuring 900m² on a new housing estate being developed in the village.

One big advantage of doing so was that all utilities were already installed.

They used an expedited planning permission procedure so the size of their three-bed property (140m²) was decided by that.

From the start, they were determined that it would meet the ART 2020 regulations needed for professional houses.

“You do not need the certification for self-building, but if you want to sell the property on later, the buyers will obviously want to see a certificate,” explains Jeff.

Read more: Building a house in France solves wrong home, right location conundrum

Saved thousands on kit home transport costs

They initially budgeted €116,496 (excluding the land) for the project, and discovered that using local firms would save tens of thousands of euros.

“There are kit homes out there that look very good and which are put together in places like Estonia and Latvia,” says Jeff.

“But what is not on the sticker is the €10,000 transport costs from northern Europe, which we would have had to pay.

“From what we could make out, too, the quality was no better than the excellent work we have seen from local builders.”

Soaring cost of roof tiles

Foundations and the concrete slab for the floor were installed last summer and autumn.

Meanwhile, Jeff and Diana were forced to have “an extended holiday” in their caravan at a local park after their house sold within 10 days of going on the market.

They moved into a gite over winter while the wooden structure, which cost €27,300, was built.

Roofing set them back €17,250, including an increase on the original estimate to account for the soaring cost of tiles.

The roof was completed just before a spell of good weather, which helped the structure dry out enough for the couple to start insulating it.

The only real setback they have encountered during the build was in the planning stage.

Read more: Roof tile shortages delay building projects and repairs in France

‘You too can build an ecological, comfortable home’

The development in which their property is situated falls under protected environment rules, and initial plans, featuring lots of glass, were dismissed by a departmental architect.

He insisted on something more in keeping with traditional Breton houses and the couple redrew their plans before having them done professionally by a studio in Agen (found online) for €600.

The new plans were approved without any changes.

“In our time as project managers, we have seen a few disasters, like barn conversions where the money runs out, or people living in damp stone houses without insulation,” said Jeff.

“So we have tried to avoid the same pitfalls. At the same time, we want to convey the message that other people can do it too, and build smaller, ecological houses designed for comfort.”

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