building dreams in france
By Katharine Lawley
Adrian Barrett is a man who can help make dreams come true. He probably wouldn't put it quite like that but his clients might.
They are people who have bought run-down properties in France and want them turned into their ideal retirement homes, or places where they can make a new start in life.
His clients employ Adrian, a building consultant and interior designer, to do structural surveys, draw up plans, engage tradesmen and oversee a project to its conclusion.
It helps that he has been in the construction industry for 40 years and speaks fluent French.
But, as importantly, he has a passion for the country and relishes the opportunity to bring a derelict cottage or a neglected chateau back to life.
"I love France," he says, "and I definitely see myself continuing in this role."
Derelict properties can be turned into dream homes with a little help from Adrian Barrett. Katharine Lawley meets the building consultant with plenty of je ne sais quoi.
His work in France began in the mid '80s but his track record in the building industry stretches back to when he left school.
He studied decoration for four years before joining the family business in Salisbury.
Further study led to fellowships of the Chartered Institute of Building and the Chartered Society of Designers.
Later, he gained an MSc in construction management from the University of Bath. He has worked on house, school and hotel projects and has been responsible for the interior design of a number of hotels, bars and restaurants.
But his love of France led him to take the plunge into what many reckon is a minefield of red tape, slow progress and insurmountable cultural differences.
He doesn't see it that way, saying planning permission takes no longer in France than it does in the UK, quality of workmanship is excellent and any cultural differences can be overcome by embracing the French way of life and learning the language.
"I had done various courses in French language but nothing serious," he says, sitting in his office in Lower Road, Churchfields, in Salisbury.
"Then a part-time teacher, who is French, taught me each week for three years on a one-to-one basis, and toward the end of that I went to France and advertised myself for doing structural surveys - and it all went from there.
"In the past 14 years, I have never been without work in France and it has now got to the point where much of my work is in France - I am there every two weeks, for several days at a time."
Since 1988, he has overseen 130 projects, covering most areas of the country, and now works on 20 to 25 projects a year. He has ten on the go at the moment.
He always uses French contractors, and all drawings and specifications are in French. Some of his clients live locally, but most are spread throughout the country.
"They are people looking to retire early," he says. "Some are younger people wanting a complete change of lifestyle and some want to run bed and breakfast establishments."
The great advantage for them all is that property in France is not increasing in price at the rate it is in the UK.
"Because there is so much land, it is cheaper," he says. "And the properties themselves are cheaper - you can buy a chateau with outbuildings for about £250,000.
"Of course, you may have to spend as much again on renovation, so you need to be careful. "But a similar property in the UK might cost £1,250,000.
One of his current projects is a farm worker's cottage in the Dordogne, which has been bought by a Hampshire couple. "It had been empty for 30 years," he says. "The two abandoned Renaults in the garden went with it.
"There are more derelict properties in France - people seem happier to move into town than renovate.
"You can still find properties at very cheap prices, as long as you don't choose the expensive areas - Paris and the Cote d'Azur in the south, for example, or anywhere within five miles of the beach."
Another of his current projects involves designing a house in Cevennes, and yet another renovating a chateau in Richelieu. He receives about 15 enquiries a week.
"Usually, I come in when the clients have purchased and want to improve or enlarge the property. I visit the site, measure the property and then draw the plans for the work they want done."
The plans will include elevations of the building as existing and proposed, layout plans of each floor and details of the work to be done. The specification provides geographical references and photographs required for planning submission. Then the process of getting permission begins.
There is les Batiments de France, similar to our English Heritage, which gets involved, and a regional architect, who can insist on the way a property is renovated.
Then there's an application to be made to le maire - a much more powerful figure than an English mayor.
"The first thing I do is go to see the mayor," says Adrian.
"At a property near Dijon, I had to get the key from the mayor, who was in his agricultural overalls and wellies when I called at his house."
Sometimes, when the clients are confronted with the cost of renovations, they decide not to proceed. But for those who go ahead with purchase, the plans are produced, submitted to the mayor and passed to the equivalent of our planning department for a permis de construire. Then tenders for the work are invited.
An average of six trades will be used on a project - bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, electricians, plumbers and roofers. Adrian's job is to bring them all together, like a clerk of works.
"Sometimes you can write to 30-35 contractors to get the six you need - maybe 15 to 18 will come to the site and you may get 12 quotes.
"I arrange appointments every half-hour, but I don't forget that the French take lunch between 12pm and 2pm."
However, he says, French tradesmen do not disappoint. They are well respected and their craftsmanship is excellent. He is naturally delighted when clients, having weighed up all the pros and cons, decide to go ahead.
"Between 30 to 40 per cent do decide it's not for them. It's often when they get to the stage of parting with money. "However, it's not always about money - sometimes it's getting cold feet about going.
"Some decide they will not fit into the lifestyle - when you go to France for the first time you do not know things that locals take for granted.
"And to some, we shall always be foreigners in France.
"For those people who decide to stay in England, I can assure them that my work in the UK, particularly around Salisbury, continues to be very important to me."