Seeking permission to build

Stormy weather hit us in December. Although the worst of it was on the west coast, we were still badly hit in Dordogne, with 70 mile an hour winds and lashing rainstorms. Memories of the storm that devastated France in 1999 are still fresh around here, so anything out of the ordinary is nerve-wracking for those who remember it. People still talk about ‘La Tempête’ as though it happened last year.

After surviving for several hundred years, the roof structure in The Barn shifted in 1999 and a number of the wooden trusses pulled apart. This resulted in half of the roof being stretched and the other half compressed. Although this is not a big problem, the side of the roof that got stretched was leaking over our bedroom and badly in need of repair.

barn conversion, timber frame, oak frame, carpentry, carpenterLuckily we managed to get that half of the roof done in October. Many of the original rafters had to be replaced with Douglas fir as they were simply too bowed to hold the tiles flat, but we plan to use them to build interior ‘colombage’ (half-timbered) walls.

While mending the roof we put in several Velux windows, which meant handing in a ‘déclaration préalable de travaux’ (a declaration of works) at the Mairie. In principle, anything that will change the external appearance of a property requires a ‘déclaration’.

We had to do this because our ‘permis de construire’ (planning permission), which the previous owner obtained for The Barn, had run out. The ‘permis’ is handed out to proprietors rather than properties in France and runs out if work is not started within two years. We also wanted to change the plans from the previous designs. With just one of these changes, we might have got away with a ‘modification’, but not with all three.

barn conversion, timber frame, oak frame, carpenter, carpentryAt 340 square metres, The Barn is double the maximum size you can submit for planning without using an architect, by law. The many small new houses you see in France are designed at just under 170 square metres in order to save on the cost of an architect.

After waiting months to hear from a local architect (who did the original plans), he sent us a very expensive quote. So we were back to the drawing board, literally. Eventually, by word of mouth (‘de bouche à oreille’), we found a fantastic architect called Olivier Brunner. He did our drawings and permis application for less than half the earlier quote. If you are planning a similar project, we would recommend shopping around before committing to an architect. Here you can see the architect’s drawing of the rear of the barn, including the large oak framed terrace that will overlook the view.

barn conversion, timber frame, oak frame, carpenter, carpentryAlthough there are hoops to jump through, both buying land to build on and getting planning permission are still much easier than in the UK. Even with the relatively low value of the pound, building plots in France still represent very good value for money and are readily available.

However, the situation is gradually changing as land is needed for agriculture and development of rural areas cannot continue forever. Already, before any land is sold, the ‘SAFER’ (rural and land development societies) can decide it should be agricultural land and offer local farmers the chance to buy it first. This happened in the case of The Barn and it took a couple of months before the all clear came through.

When looking for land or a renovation project, you also need to watch out for ‘monuments historiques’. If your plot or building is within 500 metres of one, any works will have to be passed by the ‘Bâtiments de France’ – the guardians of France’s architectural heritage – as well as the DDE (planning authorities).

At La Rambaudie we are not worried about this as our neighbour lives in a hybrid construction of part mobile home and part breeze-block, all sheltered under a big Dutch barn. So we are optimistic that the large oak framed terrace on the back of The Barn will be passed by the DDE.

On the Saturday before Christmas, we finally took our ‘demande de permis de construire’ to the Mairie in Cercles. It felt like a huge achievement, but of course it is only really the beginning, as we still have a huge conversion project to do.


About louismawgreenoak

I started timber framing fifteen years ago in the South West of England, working mostly for the Timber Framing Company. For the past fourteen years I have worked as a sole trader in the UK and France. Most of the projects you see on this website are in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset, with a growing number in the Dordogne. In October 2011, I set up Charpentes Louis Maw, a French-registered business in the Dordogne. We design and build green oak and Douglas fir timber frames in the Charente, Lot-et-Garonne, Gironde, Dordogne and surrounding areas of South-West France.
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