It’s safe to say that almost everyone has had fantastic visions of living their lives in a magical castle nestled in an idyllic setting.
If we are to have any chance of realizing that dream, the rest of us must buy our castles.
YouTube features a multitude of channels showcasing young people, seduced by the lofty life of restoring one of a seemingly never-ending supply of majestic, affordable but derelict châteaux in France.
One of these would-be dauphins is Billy Petherick who left Great Britain in 2009 to marry his dauphine, the beautiful Gwendoline Mouchelet.
Together with Billy’s brother Michael, the young couple bought the French Château de la Baismagnée, in Pays de La Loire, and undertook a decade-long restoration and renovation of the early 18th Century estate that includes several outbuildings.
Soon after the daunting project began, Mom and Dad Petherick joined them (Gwen’s parents are both deceased) and despite being in their 70’s, continue to be a vital part of the family’s construction crew.
Over the following months and years, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends were seduced by life in some of France’s most beautiful countryside, enjoying a far more temperate climate than urban Greenwich.
Although we had heard her name mentioned, conspicuously absent from the clan of émigrés was sister Sadie, who eventually joined her family after meeting her new boyfriend, Mo from Anger.
Hell hath no fury like a convent dilapidated.
Not content with completing one mammoth renovation project, earlier this year, Billy and Gwen, now with babies Ernest and Andrew in tow, bought the sprawling former convent at Ernée des Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph.
An interesting local connection is, a group of nuns from that Order were among the first to emigrate to Lower Canada (Quebec) where they established hospitals and homes for the elderly.
In an episode of the new Sadie in France channel entitled “Our New House” we watch the couple enter their future home full of piss-and-vinegar and with each exploratory step, we see their faces slowly contort into a “what-have-we-done” state.
Before Sadie and Mo could become fully engulfed in buyer’s remorse, I decided to reach out and offered to help them create their dream kitchen.
Making something great out of this tricky layout is not easy, but with 40 years of experience designing the interiors of many historic homes (including three of my own). and as the recipient of the prestigious Ontario Heritage Foundation award for achievement in building restoration, I felt confident with offering them, free of charge, help with their kitchen design.
It is completely understandable why inexperienced renovators can become overwhelmed and compromise (or worse, give up) on spaces like this one.
At first glance, it seems impossible to create a modern, functional kitchen where there are few expanses of walls, low windows, a plethora of doors leading to everywhere else in the apartment and an endless number of other historic architectural limitations.
I sent Sadie an email giving my credentials and explaining that I had been following her family’s adventures in France almost since the beginning.
I quipped how, had it not been for Covid, I would be out there by now!
All I needed to get the ball rolling was the dimensions of the entire floor space and directed her to my blogpost that gives pointers on how to correctly measure out a space.
Anticipating their enthusiasm, I suggested that I would quickly turn-around a couple of options (including illustrations in 3D) from which they could cherry-pick or they could choose one option they like!
I was getting excited about being a part of the Convent project in my own small way.
In typical David fashion, I went into overdrive when Sadie enthusiastically accepted my offer: “Hi David!” “Wow, thank you very much for such a generous offer” “I’d absolutely love to have your input for the kitchen layout!”.
She continued: “I think, at the moment, the idea is to have an L- shape kitchen running along the left side of the kitchen adjacent to the shower room, and along the wall that will be out in (?).” “There should be enough space for a sink and some cupboards with a kitchen island in the centre of the room, but I’m sure you will have better ideas!”
“In tonight’s video we did measure the kitchen space, as suggested, and drew a very rough plan but we will get it a more detailed one drawn up and send it to you!”
“Thank you again!, Sadie”
Feeling as though she didn’t quite understand my offer, I quickly shot back another email:
“Sadie: I was thinking perhaps that my previous mail, with its extensive list of requests, may have seemed daunting, so after carefully reviewing your latest video, I was able to produce the attached floor plan. I hope it makes the whole process easier for you.”
Using only a rudimentary sketch in a blurry photograph, and visual clues in the video, I managed to create an accurate floor plan for which I only needed confirmation of a few details.
Some of the dimensions, like the ceiling height, door/window dimensions, and a few items like radiators etc. would still be necessary.
While waiting, the next day I began to explore different possibilities for the kitchen.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that a trained designer has over an amateur or novice is an ability to see beyond the limitations and challenges that are presented.
Ironically, that is often the same reason that most people won’t hire a designer to help them achieve the best interior design. If they can’t see it, it mustn’t be there.
Yet, the most interesting thing about this kitchen’s perceived layout dilemma is how common it is.
Simply put, the issues have mostly to do with trying to adapt our 21st century lifestyle within an 18th century building.
To co-exist, we must:
- Figure-out how to comfortably adapt the home (a space that was never intended to accommodate those things that we find essential and,
- Adapt standardized cabinets and appliances to work successfully in a non-standard space.
Interestingly, the square footage that is available for Sadie’s kitchen (a space she repeatedly referred to as “tiny”) would be the envy of many homeowners. With only a few alterations I discovered that it is possible to achieve an uninterrupted work area of approximately 10’-0” by 16’-0”.
That is 160 square feet, and the average North American apartment kitchen enjoys about 100 square feet. As well, the kitchen space would potentially be only 20 square feet less than the average size of the kitchen in a UK house! Ever enthusiastic, I began to develop two strong options.
The first would reduce the number of transitional spaces. To access the bathroom and new utility room, I saw an opportunity to clear a wide swath by accessing the two troublesome spaces via the staircase hallway instead of through the kitchen.
By using a portion of the new kitchen for dining (a small table or an “eat-at” peninsula), and by leaving that space wide open to the lounge, an uninterrupted “U” shaped kitchen with ample space for counters and upper cabinets could be achieved.
Unfortunately, it was later discovered that the space between the staircase hall and the bathroom utility room was blocked by a brick chimney stack.
Undaunted, I am waiting for their reply on whether there is an alternative entrance --- perhaps under the stairs and around?
A second option is more non-traditional (a softer way of describing something “experimental”, a term that always scares clients). He we would use tall, wall to wall cabinets to concentrate the storage in one space), and to “float” base cabinets in the room so that they don’t touch the wall.
In less than 30 hours from my initial offer, I had two preliminary but completely workable floor plans.
That should give anyone an idea of how quickly a designer’s brain wraps around a project, shouldn’t it?
All I needed was the confirmation of a few details before I could finalize a couple of potential layout options, as promised.
So, imagine my surprise when I received Sadie’s response:
“Hi David: Thank you so much for the floor plan. After much thought regarding the layout, we decided that, actually, to put a wall up for the kitchen and to take down the wall behind the kitchenette would still leave us with a space that was difficult to work with.”
“So in tonight’s video we explain that what works best for the room is to have it all open plan. That way we can have a better kitchen area.”
My advice to Sadie: Never say never until all options are exhausted. I will try every possible arrangement -- from lets and right; over and under -- before I conclude that it can't be done
My objective would certainly never be to design an unusable and impractical space merely to prove a point, especially one that is, ostensibly, a home’s most important and most expensive to build.
I am now doubly anxious to get started after confirmation that Sadie is sending the dimensions "soon".
My greatest challenge will be to hone my skills in the rarely-used metric system. I am so much more at ease with 2'-0" rather than 609.6 millimetres.
I continue to watch the inexperienced renovators argue over the best way to lay out the kitchen in a new “open plan” concept that features more walls and more doors than in the original concept, but I am more determined than ever to prove that we can indeed live with all the luxuries and amenities of the 21st Century within the beautiful walls of an 18th Century convent in rural France. @sadieinfrance