Renovation? Use a ‘construction master’ - maître d'œuvre

When you’re as much of a handyman as I am (rating one on a scale of ten) and you’ve been through several big and sometime nightmarish renovations, you know how difficult it is to get things done in France. I’m not going to go into a big humorous lament à la Peter Mayle. In stead I’ll tell you how I single-handedly made my last renovation into a big success. By picking the right maître d’œuvre.

The house that I live in now, we bought as a bramble infested ruin. The roof had been redone in 1991, but all the rest was ‘as is’ or ‘dans son jus’ as the French Agents Immobilier call it eufemistically. There were dirt floors, no plumbing, a soggy smelly pit where there used to be a pig stie, a huge empty attached barn and of course no electrical wiring. So basically it was an empty hull, and pretty hulky at that, measuring a good 300m2 (35x9,5) of built surface. This on one hectare (10.000m2) of land.

With my former sleep depriving building project experiences, I decided that this time, I would invest in a project manager. I happened to know one, Patrick, who was volunteer refferee at my volleyball club, president of the Judo Club and the book exchange of the Lycee, and communist councilman in his town. I mean... at least he wasn’t in it for the money! So what are the advantages of such a maître d’œuvre?

1. Market knowledge
Here is a guy who has been constructing houses and other buildings all over the region for 30 years. A former ‘charpentier’ who had studied, and worked himself down from the roof to the drawing room. He knows everybody in the business. All the craftsmen, plumbers, electricians, masons... And they all know him. When I asked some of the people I worked with earlier about him, they all said he was a pain in the ass, no added value and generally a stand-in-the-way. Since these were the people who had let me down on more than one occasion, I took this as high praise. And I was pretty certain that these ‘professionals’ had never been and would never be selected by Patrick.

2. Price wise
Another thing Patrick knew like no other, is the normal price level. He made very detailed specifications of the jobs to be done and send these out to the different craftsmen. Of course he sent several per ‘corps de bâtiment’, so as to be able to choose. This, in the end meant we hired a maçon from 100 kms away, but thousands of euros cheaper than the ones in the area. Also, this process showed the value of the maître d’œuvre. He immediately disqualified several tenders from companies that clearly were too busy to take on my job and pre-added overtime for their workmen in the tender. By the way, Patrick did not always go for the lowest price. He wanted the best guy for the job (not the most desperate one) for a reasonable price. I think the tender process in itself paid for more than Patrick's fee.

3. coordination
Every thursday, there would be a meeting of all companies active in and around the house. This way, they could coordinate their work to avoid being in eachothers way. The craftsmen grudgingly complied, but during the process discovered they were actually winning time for their crews by investing two hours in this réunion de chantier.

4. control
We were living 4km from the building site, and Patrick was at 15 kms. Every once in a while he would just pop up and walk around the premises, going through the waste bins, actually checking the thrown out wrappings to see if the right materials had been used. It wouldn’t be the first time, he said, that clients paid for 16cm rock wool but were delivered 8cm. Once hidden in the walls, only the energy bill might be an indication of any wrongdoing.

5. representation
Personally, I know just as much about construction as two guys that know nothing. So when I into conflict with a builder, it was nice to have Patrick to fall back on. For instance, our charpentier, responsible for the attic floors and (thus) the ground floor ceiling, was M. Rossignol. A lean little guy, climbing all over the house with his team. I asked him to raise the big oak beams in the living quarters by about 30 cm, so the ceiling would not be right over my head. Rossignol was not happy. He explained that in these old farms the ceilings were always low. That they were built like that traditionally. Logical, because in 1900 all people were shorter and a low room is easier to heat. But I’m 185 cm! And we were going to put in geothermics! I spoke to Patrick about it and he walked me over to the carpenter, pointed at me and said: “M. Rossignol, je vous présente: le client!”. Made it clear that if I wanted 30 extra headroom, I should just get it. And I did.

Thank you, Patrick!
In the end, I can conclude we have never had a construction move along so smoothly. Of course, we’ve had some setbacks due to plain stubbornness of workmen and one wintery weekend all our electrical wiring got ripped out, so it had te be redone. But all in all we lost little sleep and the quality of the renovation is outstanding. We paid our maître d’œuvre 10% of the total building cost, but I’m certain he earned us at least double that. And still does, because the low heating and maintenance costs (including 10 years guarantee on all work done.

By the way, our house is for sale. You can see the renovation process here. Start at the bottom and work your way up. The sales add is on ImmoA3. My maître d’œuvre in South-Burgundy was Patrick Souteyrand, 71500 Louhans.