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Haute Savoie – a work in progress

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After ten years of running our practice, we have built up a comprehensive knowledge base with regards to designing, planning, detailing, project managing and procuring architectural projects. We have worked all over the UK but until recently, we have had limited international experience.

A magnificent project came into the studio in mid 2016, a complete restoration of a 17th century Alpine Townhouse and attached barn. With brief to convert the barn and restore the existing building to its former glory, the context was complex and our French at this point was limited. The building itself is listed and required a lengthy planning process where permission was sought from the regional equivalent of ‘English Heritage’.

Fortunately for the studio, we were able to rekindle a previous relationship with our first ever employee, Marie Blanchot and her partner Charles Motte, who now run their own studio mAAb based in Rennes. Working collaboratively, we secured planning in late 2016 and are now into month 11 of a 14 month build and contending with deep snow and freezing temperatures on site.

The building was originally constructed in the 1600’s with walls From stones collected from the Dranze ( the river over the road from the house) and a timber roof structure timber clad in local slates from the quarry 5km up the valley in Chatel. This is the ultimate in local sourcing with all the materials in the orginal house all from the valley itself. At some point in the mid-1700s a timber-framed barn and atelier in a stone plinth was added doubling the width of the house. The roof was extended by adding another gable end and pitched roof over the extension. When we took possession the building was in a sorry state of repair having sat empty for over a decade. The neglect was most evident in the roof space which had 42 different buckets to catch the water from the various holes. However the building had good bones which shone through in the quality of the stone and timber workmanship.

Working with Studio mAAb, the approved design split the property into two units, a 3 bed maisonette with a 7 bedroom house wrapped over and under it, providing living accommodation for an extended family. The external building fabric needed to be restored to match the existing, with a more contemporary approach to taken internally. The historic roof structure creates a stunning timber canopy above the living spaces, punctuated with feature chimney’s to provide fireplaces to the kitchen and dining spaces.

The prospect of finding a builder in the local valley that would take on a project of over 6000sqft with a very challenging programme of works was daunting. However we reconnected with a talented carpenter we had met in London 15 years ago and in the intervening period had moved to the Alps and recently completed a number of sensitive restoration projects. The build has therefore been a collaborative process between Fraher, Studio mAAb and the Contractor Andris Bikmanis. Project management comprises of video calling, Whatsapp and lots of Easyjet flights yin order to deliver a large scale project with a sizable contract value, 700 miles from our HQ in London.

The constraints of building in the mountains are fairly significant:

Weather – Snow in the winter, blistering sunshine in the summer.

Materials – Following Brexit the Euro has lost around 15% against the pound which coupled with high material cost in the valley resulted in significantly higher prices than we are used to in London. This made for serious budgetary challenges and demanded some creative solutions involving lots of Artic lorries.

Trades – Due to the limited number of trades and a short building season in the valley, we have had to work hard to find the best value skilled subcontractors.

Language – We have a Latvian build team, a French Architect, an English Architect and Subcontractors representing another 7 European Countries . On site communication is in English, all contract documentation including drawings plus communication with the subcontractors and authorities is in French. Negotiations are mostly in French with a bit of English building slang thrown in for good measure!

Despite the size and complexities of the build, we are weather tight and this week Joe is on site with a specialist polished concrete team from London laying 5500 SqFt of Ash White floor. We are excited about the potential of the new spaces that we have created within this historic shell. We can now shut the doors, keep out the snow, and prepare for the final stages of work in completing what has been an epic project and fantastic learning experience for the Studio.

Nous attendons avec impatience.