March 19, 2009

Arch building 101

This should have been a class in architecture school, it seems somehow that to call yourself an “Architect” you should have to build an arch, no? But then there are so many things we must master virtually in our lives, and now we have I-Beams, so why would one need ever to build an arch? Why indeed? I have just worded my way into a corner….hmmm? now I’m wondering why I am living the life of a 15th century mason, and blogging about it too?

We have started to work on our third French project, a very small house, again in the center of this tiny town of Martel that we call home. We have named this project “Maison Louise” and we laugh as we go about trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This house was probably built in the 15th century (still checking) and probably had a sow living on the ground floor. There was probably a single room on the next floor, and an attic for drying tobacco. It has a small garden with a larger public area surrounding it, and has some beautiful, but simple, stonework. There are windows on 3 sides, and it’s location is close to the town center, yet hidden on a dead end alley, the Impasse du Pourtanel.

We are planning to make the ground floor (pigs room) the kitchen and living room, and then a bedroom and bathroom on each of the next two floors. The top floor is currently an attic, but a spacious one which will have skylights on the North, East and South sides. The challenges of this project will be the efficiency of space, finding room for storage, coats, water heaters, and trash cans, this one may satisfy my constant desire to live on a boat.
This is a progression showing the evolution of the new doorway we have been working on. It was a small window when we started, we opened it roughly to have a way to get dit out of the inside where we lowered the floor by one step. Then I created the arch, then the sides and just yesterday installed the new doors. Today I put the shutters on.

You can click on these images to get a larger clearer version.

The first order of business is the “gros travaux”, the large works, demolishing the interior walls, removing plaster from a few stone walls, and creating whatever openings we want in the 70cm (2.5 ft) thick walls. We wanted to open an existing window on the East wall to access the garden and bring light into the home, but there were 3 tons of stone in the way. I scratched my head for weeks and lost enough sleep to trying to figure out the method for creating such an opening, until I asked for help. There is a deep wealth of knowledge around us in the traditions of the local craftspeople, as long as what you are looking for is a traditional solution. It seems that the same two roads have been taken for centuries, mostly one employs an expert, someone who does one thing well, and that’s all they do. The mason makes the arch, and the menusier makes the door, I suppose they argue over who is supposed to install the door… until it’s time to have an apero’. The other approach is what the English call DIY (do it yourself) and I’m not too certain if this happened too often in France. I wonder what the peasant farmer did in the 15th century when he needed an arch built? I think they probably did without, until the mason needed a pig??

My approach in our life here is to do it myself. I have always enjoyed working alone, the pursuit of the solution to something I didn’t understand and the particular thrill of mastering a new skill. In the beginning, it was easier to do it myself than to figure out how to ask for help, but it has evolved into a keen desire to find competency down new roads. SO, back to the local craftspeople. I was given the advice that the best way to create an opening in a “Pierre Seche” (dry stone) wall (no cement, just mud), was to allez delicatment (do it delicately). I created a

This is the interior half of the arch under construction, double click on the image to see it more clearly. You can see here the far left and right sides have been re-built, the horizontal stones in the center are still in place supporting the wall above and there is a void to the left of center waiting to be filled in with arching stones.

plywood template, with the form of the arch on it, and attached it to the inside of the wall in the location of the eventual opening. I then proceeded to remove the stones above the template creating a hole about 60 x 30cm (24” x 12”) and about 40cm (18”) deep, half the thickness of the wall. I then made an arching bed of sand and started to layout 5 or 6 of the stones in the arch. Once I had the stones selected, I removed them and then put them back in with a lime mortar. “Rinse and Repeat”. The next day I would do the same procedure until the entire arch was built on the inside half of the wall, some 25 or so stones. Then the same procedure on the exterior, lining the exterior arch up with the interior arch to create one single structure. I let this all dry for a week, then I removed the stones underneath. That was the fun part…..I had built an arch! Now I had to do what turned out to be the more exacting work of building the two sides of the arch. This part had to be cut stones, with a door frame and an angle cut into the stones, plumb, and level despite nothing else being plumb nor level. I learned this as I went, and if one looks closely, they’ll see the progression of my (lack of) skill.

I wore out a few tools, smashed a few fingers, but it’s done and looks great. The arch was inspiring enough to lead to creating a few elements inside in the thickness of the wall, a niche for keys and mail, another for firewood, and another closing the centuries, a niche planned for a book shelf (flat screen t.v.). It’s fun creating these elements and adding character to an otherwise simple building, but I need to stop and move on.

This is a niche we created in the corner to the left of the new door. It is intended for firewood storage for the small woodstove we are planning to install immediately to the right of this niche. I was so pleased with the big arch I decided to echo it here. This is about 30" tall, 24" wide and 16" deep.

Again, if you click on the image it will open in a new window and be easier to see.

Soon we’ll put some shutter’s on the new doors, close them and return to house number two to finish out the punch-list there.

It has been such a wonderful experience living in this amazing thousand year old home, the spaces are gracious, the in-floor heating incredibly comfortable, a fun kitchen and my best bathroom so far. I do wonder what the next chapter will be? We would all happily stay, but my feet are getting itchy, and Oscar needs a new pair of shoes!
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