Maison or Museum? Save or Skip? #1

DSC02770Forget OCD. Those embarking on the giddy path of French House Rescue; and who have any sensitivity to the building they buy will have to wrestle with  a seemingly endless list of  OHD’s

Old House Dilemmas

Though, thinking about that for a moment, there are many parallels with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Which I’m not poking fun at, by the way.  IMG_20160410_182252


Unless you have a grand house, or live in the middle of nowhere, or even if both the above apply, surely your renovations must follow the vernacular style?

If we define the vernacular, which as far as I read it is the prevailing local  architecture; concerned with the domestic and the functional rather than with public or grand architectural buildings; then if your house sits in a little street like the one above, you must follow it or frighten the neighbours.

Top left- is our street in Campagne, and a very good example.Our house is the three storey bit front right,  stopping where the neighbour’s place drops to two storeys.

Every house on our street is rendered (as are most of the village houses) with the exception of JR’s beautiful stone fronted house opposite (nothing like having a hovel of a house right over the street from the prettiest village house in the village! so no pressure there…….)

Why are they rendered? because none are exactly in their original format or footprint. Each house has add-ons, with maybe the barn or the cave and other bits tacked on as and when it suited the family’s needs and budget.

With these buildings, stripping the outside walls would reveal an incoherent mix of finishes. So most of the houses are rendered for a more uniform look.

.Our place is more of a patchwork than most as it started off as animal shelters etc.

We have pretty old stone and river pebbles. We also have patches of assorted rubble and breeze blocks from 20thc works.

sept13 152(2)IMG_20160410_182733








That’s not as tragic as it might sound to those fortunate enough to have an original pretty, consistent and decorative exposed stone frontage because, whatever shade you finish your render in, the sun takes the down the colour in wonderfully uneven, cloudy pigment patches over time.

A few of the village houses here have areas of stone exposed, like the above examples.

If we go back to JR’s house, top left , his stone  is wonderfully weathered from centuries of exposure and protects what is now a completely gutted and rebuilt interior in a more contemporary style , with nods to the old.

Some houses were built to display their stone, some simply weren’t.

OK. Opinion Alert-If you opt to knock off render and reveal old stone that was once exposed to the elements, it is very, very hard to do so without damaging the hardened and weathered outer stone.

If you knock off render and expose stone that was never intended to be left bare, this can be counter-productive. You risk introducing  spalling or even damp into what was a sound building.

I had a mid 18thc cottage in England. I pouted, whinged and browbeat(?)  my ex husband into removing the cement render. He was really careful, starting with the large areas that were already coming away anyway ; it still messed up the bricks  and we had to treat the exposed wall with a waterproof finish.

I have seen real harm done to the integrity of stone walls this way. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying be careful. It’s not a DIY job.

There are suitable sympathetic renders around now  that will let your house flex and breathe but stay watertight.


About coteetcampagne

Artist, period home maker, renovator, restorer, Francophile. My mission is to save the old stuff, one beautiful piece at a time
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33 Responses to Maison or Museum? Save or Skip? #1

  1. Osyth says:

    I am OCD as well as having an OHD which you know all about! We are fortunate that the stone-work (much of it from 1203 and some from 1824) is intact externally. We are working on revealing what we can of the stone on the ground floor, have come up against hard (cement) on the back quarter and after discussion with amongst others my guru (you) will simply plaster over that portion rather than risk damage. I think you have really struck the right balance between restore and renovate in your project and you continue to be my go-to for advice. Book?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ellen A. says:

    Great post. So true about OHDs! We recently had to decide whether to spend more money to have our old wood windows and door restored, rather than replaced with new. We are doing the restoration, but will also have to have one door remade, as it was too far damaged for restoration. One walks a constant economic tightrope, and then there are considerations of comfort vs. authenticity as well sometimes. Old stone walls are beautiful, but can be cold, especially if they face out. I’m trying to read and understand the “fiches conseils” at They seem to offer some good advice about insulation, breathability and the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All true. and as for advice, everyone will give you different guidance, but the whims of fashion also apply to house restoration and the default choice these days -out and in- is lime (see my response to Chad’s comment).
      I’m not knocking it, just saying that new alternatives picked for performance and with common sense as the watchwords are not necessarily the devil.
      This coming from the QUEEN of saving the old! which I will en France , but even I can’t save everything.
      Yes, you are right about old stone interior walls too. Plaster is warmer!
      We are lucky to have some areas of old lime plaster which we will keep where we can to aid the breathability factor.
      Basically we have insulated in some areas where it was needed ( like the roof) but it has been loose laid rather than packed tight to avoid moisture and condensation issues. I want watertight but I don’t want rot!


      • Ellen A. says:

        Very good points, Gill. Our builders are going to leave an air gap between our new interior metal frame walls (which will hold insulation and plasterboard to the inside) and the outside stone walls. This is the “box within a box” structure suggested at the bottom of page 4/4 here: We hope this will keep warmth inside, but avoid condensation against the stone exterior walls. Will do as you have with loose roof insulation once we get to that level. Only time will tell if we have made the right compromises, but we did not think we could live with lime only. It gets too cold in Normandy!

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s basically a version of what we are doing in the one area where the front wall is insulated & where we have plasterboard (and only a little in two rooms) it’s mounted on wood frames.
        It’s different down here in the South because we don’t often get long periods of real cold to contend with .
        It makes sense for you to do it that way, and I would argue that a local builder who understands local properties will generally know what to suggest .
        After all, if it’s not right you will be right round his house complaining!


  3. Speaking of (the opposite of) vernacular, here’s a Cotswold cottage in suburban Pennsylvania! My mom really wanted one of these. There are several at one end of this street. Then some time later my uncle saw one and said off the cuff how much he disliked the harsh contrast of the white and the darkish schist. He lives in Arizona where just about every house is beige stucco. (And there, I’ll be American and use yet another word)

    I feel like your house is analogous to Colonial era stone farmhouses near me, which were usually intended to be whitewashed or stuccoed smooth. Fancier ones would have had the stucco scored to look like dressed stone. I don’t think it makes sense to attempt anything violent to get your old stucco off, but if anything is loose and you can just point around the stones and let them show through (like the houses on Twyckenham Road or the house with purple shutters) that would look good. I’m much less a fan of the rectangular patch of exposed stone.

    And I have a self-made dilemma of my own now. The back of my house is about 1/8 inch thick plaster over brick that I assume is too soft to expose. But since I filled in around my patio door with wood, I’m stuck putting Portland cement based stucco up there even though I think (contrary to anyone who actually does stucco) that I should be using all or mostly lime everywhere else. And breathability is a bigger issue since I have foam insulation over all of it inside now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A few good questions there.

      You are right about our place, once it became a domestic house, it was never meant be unfinished stone.
      The lime argument? The purists would say touse lime and avoid cement or synthetic finishes like the plague because they will cause condensation/ humidity to build up in the walls; or it will crack if the house moves (?!).
      It’s the old argument that an old house was built that way for a reason and damp is caused because it can’t breathe.
      Bear in mind though that the house may have been built with those materials and in that way for a reason, BUT we use and heat our old homes in a very different ways to how it was before.
      Our house seems to go along just fine, inside the temperature does not vary overhot or overcold , summer or winter with a little back ground heat, It’s the thick walls I’m sure.
      I am not at all against lime finishes , outside or in- but inside it can rub off and needs redoing occasionally. Outside I believe it has a limited life also; it’s a commitment that you take on , like a thatched roof!
      But back to the insulation aspect. Why would anyone finish a house in natural, breathable materials then stop it breathing by super- insulating on the inside also? Might that not cause an issue in the walls eventually? because, whilst damp can evaporate outside, might it not buld up in the core of the wall right by the insulation ?? AAARRGGHH.
      Do what you think is right and what works for others in a similar scenario; but I would humbly suggest to folk that they don’t get too hung up on the all natural like it used to be line; I can see no reason for not using modern products if they are fit for purpose.
      I’m with you on leaving bits of random stone exposed too.unless it’s a particularly gorgeous feature!


      • I read that insulating from the inside will prevent the masonry from getting damp during the winter when the inside air is more humid than the outside, and that no matter what, one side or the other needs to be breathable. I took care to prevent there from being any air gaps between the walls and the insulation.

        Incidentally, I could have insulated the whole thing from the outside but I read that that can cause its own issues with moisture getting trapped behind it and you have to detail it to drain and stuff, and in the end I did what I did. And I’m not in a super harsh climate where hard freezes really wreck the masonry like New England.

        And right, if you uncover something interesting it would make perfect sense to leave it exposed.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I am, going for breathability factor too. We will see if our approach works, but we are bucking the trend and making sure the house isn’t blocked up and super-insulated to the point that it can’t breathe, as it has coped like that quite well so far to date.
        Will we have to put in double glazing? I don’t know. If we need to, it will be super thin panes dropped into the existing wooden windows. I don’t mind a few natural draughts myself, and where there are open fires or wood stoves I would aver that if you don’t have SOME ventilation you could be in real trouble.
        It’s not like we sit around an open fire with a hole in the roof for the smoke any more!


      • Do they require you to upgrade old windows just because you’re doing other work? Around here where there’s much more of a need, storm windows are common, and they’re supposed to do a better job than replacement windows anyway.

        My insulation people told me to only do the attic cavity (under my flat roof) and the wooden structure of the cantilevered bay on the back, but my solid masonry exterior walls were extremely cold my first winter there (when I didn’t have central heat) and I decided to glue on a thin layer of rigid foam.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well there is no rules like that in our village.All our windows and French doors have big thick wooden shutters anyway, when these are closed it protects the window and the surround & the pocket of air between shutter and glass acts as insulation too.
        Shutters are one of the best features of many European houses (apart from UK!) because of the weather and temperature control qualities.
        We leave our windows open but our shutters closed, or partly closed in hot weather and it keeps the place cool but the Giant Helicoper bugs out!


      • It’s funny, my parents have shutters that are on hinges and appear operable, but they’ve never been used. The house has had storm windows installed inside the jamb where the shutters would fit if you closed them since it was built. A co-worker of mine said he needs a permit for any window replacements so the township can verify that they meet efficiency standards, but that doesn’t apply to keeping old windows in place. And in Philadelphia (outside of historic districts) it’s legal to replace a window yourself without any permits at all if you’re putting it into an existing opening where there was a window before. And then people expand or shrink their windows without getting permits anyway. I can definitely appreciate outdoor shutters after staying in a house in Ardeche that had them. But one thing that I definitely don’t appreciate one bit is the yellow translucent corrugated fiberglass awnings on the front of my house.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I saw those but didn’t like to say anything in case you adored them!


      • I wrote out my plans for facade restoration in excruciating detail, and the demise of the awnings is in there. They stay for now though because they’re protecting an area of the brick that I’m worried about.

        Oh, off topic but here’s something strange that I’ve never seen anywhere else in my life. Glass shutters. (On a house for which I’d give up the Crooked House in about 5 seconds.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Nadia says:

    I too love stone walls. We have them in the lounge and dining room.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. francetaste says:

    In French, it’s called crépi or enduit. It’s supposed to keep the humidity out of the walls.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m familar with the terms, though our builder uses the term “crépi à l’ancienne” disparagingly to describe the roughly applied cement stuff that catches muck & water!
      Does it keep humidity out?
      I can only speak from experience. Our crepi/render (which is smoothish) has been up there at least a century.
      We have not replaced it yet & our ONLY damp/humidity problems were
      1) a tiny patch by the front door where the rain comes through a big gap!! and
      2) Some fluffy effluorescence in a corner of a back wall between the workshop and the cave which in my opinion was the early spore stage of dry rot! which I am familiar with.
      We killed that off partly by opening a new doorway and ventilating that area. If in doubt, get the chemicals out.
      Therefore, not caused by the crepi!!

      Folk have mixed opinions about render/crepi/enduit and it can be a hot topic with some saying it will make a place more damp, not less so.


      • francetaste says:

        Was giving the terms for the other commenter.
        I adore/prefer exposed stone walls. Our house has 2-foot-thick stone walls, and when I said it would be great to tear off the crépi and let them show, everybody was horrified. “Pas saine! Pas saine!”
        If folks have put crépi since forever, it’s probably for a reason.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. I love love love stone walls, but ours has been patched with too many other bits over the centuries. We have lovely exposed 600 year old stone in two rooms so will have to be satisfied with that!
        The question is what colour do we re-render in? We can’t leave it as electric feeds, pipes and other stuff has been moved!


      • francetaste says:

        Hmmm. I’m sure Bâtiments de France has an answer!


      • Fortunately we are not under the auspices of Bâtiments de France in the village.
        It’s a mixed blessing- on the one hand it means we have NO guidance other than our own research and sympathetic view of old houses, on the other it means we might be accused of “doing the wrong thing” .
        No idea why we aren’t BTF or similar as Campagne was a Knight’s Templar preceptory.
        So, we can have what we like.
        My builder thinks yellow, my French friend thinks cherry red, I have two colours jostling for favour right now. Neither involve yellow or cherry red…


  6. zipfslaw1 says:

    Does “rendered” mean plastered? Or maybe covered with any kind of material that gives the exterior a uniform appearance?


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