Real Life: A New-Build With Old Charm in Gers

Real Life: A New-Build With Old Charm in Gers

How to have your cake and eat it well into the future – Julie Hart tells the story of her house-build in Gers…

Some 15 years ago, we were looking for a beautiful peaceful location in semi-rural France. We wanted to create a bright, airy living space with a view that never loses its drama. We also wanted to golf, garden, walk, ski, and have access to healthcare facilities, theatre and travel hubs. We were determined to live with the best eco-energy systems available. It was quite a wish list and little did we know what we had undertaken.

Eventually, we found the perfect spot on the edge of the village of Castelnau-d’Anglès in Gers, which felt private but not isolated, with amazing views to the mountains, the countryside, modern facilities, and international events – but there was a dilemma. The spacious elegance we had seen in older houses was attractive, but we wanted light and energy-efficiency in our home. Many old properties here were built to protect the occupants from the winter cold and summer heat, so have tiny windows facing away from the views and prevailing winter winds. To achieve the best of both worlds, we decided to build our own home, although all our visitors think we have renovated an old property, and we still have a huge modern open fire for gloomy days.


We were enthusiastic to begin with then, as we explored the options, we became slightly daunted. Our French was not what it is now, but fortunately we found an English-speaking, reassuringly experienced architect in Toulouse, who was open to energy-efficient solutions. He understood and sympathised with our aim of capturing French style in a modern construction.

He engaged a heating engineer who created a plan to serve all our needs – it was money well spent. Taking the most energy-efficient route was the more expensive option, but has repaid the installation costs in terms of energy-efficiency and lower energy bills than you might expect for a large house, easily withstanding the price rises we’ve all been facing in recent times.

Initially, we hadn’t fully appreciated the impact that the energy solution would have on the overall design. The house is very well insulated. This, combined with the efficiency of the heating systems, meant the architect could include a lot of glass in the design, allowing easy access to the commanding views and giving lots of light. There are also skylights above the stairs and the shower in the master suite. Showering under the morning light is bliss.

As a bonus, our energy solution means the house is cool in summer and warm in winter, driven by sunlight and the air around us, with no need to resort to fossil fuels. It has also had an impact on the day-to-day practicalities of living in our home. We laid tiles over the underfloor heating throughout the entire house. These are comfortably warm in winter and cool under the feet in summer. Most importantly, with lots of dogs around, they are easy to keep clean. It’s an investment that we appreciate every day.


The views from the energy-efficient heated pool are stunning, © JULIE HART

We were concerned that being in a rural location we might not find the artisans we needed, but fortunately our architect was born in the area and tracked down the best people through his network. Our artisans all lived not far from the village; in fact, our electrician is the current mayor. This enabled a timely and quality build as they were all on hand when needed and took a lot of pride in the construction, which will be in their midst for many years to come.

Along with the lighting, the electrician installed the solar panels for our hot water and fortunately our plumber was well up to date with the latest technology and installed the best available underfloor heating and external heat pumps for both the house and pool. He was also able to advise us about the government grants that were available for modern heating installation.

The benefit of using local artisans also became apparent, when they put us in touch with a stonemason in a village less than 5km away. We were able to use Gersoise stone, cut to order to fit the door and window frames. This feature of the build gives the house a sense of historic connection and it sits very much at ease among the neighbouring properties.


We also included a double row of brick detailing below the eaves; it seemed like an unnecessary expense but it really adds a local French charm. We would have regretted not adding it. It took a lot of groundwork before we could see the intended design coming to life and there was a lot of nail biting as the budget teetered in the face of tempting new additions to the plan. While the house was being constructed, we had time to visit friends and admire their gardens. Listening to their experiences, we decided to build a walled garden with an integral watering system.

It is a simple construction containing five raised beds, which we filled with huge amounts of donated horse manure, mixed with local soil and shop-bought compost. The outcome has been a complete success in more ways than I had envisaged. Much of our favourite English produce does not do well in the hard clay soil and hot sun here, but the raised beds and shady areas inside the protective walls have enabled us to grow both local and English produce.

The surrounding land is largely grass, but the area was suffering from the impact of the build; we needed to regenerate the poor dry soil before sowing grass seeds. We needed more manure! The fun of obtaining this came when I flagged down a passing tractor and asked if we might buy some of his load. With no hesitation and a big grin, the farmer drove onto our field and deposited what we later learned was the whole two-ton load. It took many hours of shovelling to disperse this rich manure, but it paid off. The driver would only take a bottle of whisky for his load.


Next to the pool is an interior terrace from which to enjoy the views, © JULIE HART

We decided to create the pool close to the house. By doing this we were able to include all the safety features required and to ensure the outside fridge is only a moment away!

Despite feeling like we might have bitten off more than we could chew at first, it proved to be a journey of discovery and a complete joy. Working with people in the locality also gave us a very speedy and warm sense of inclusion. After we moved in, we had a drinks party for the locals, who generously gave us a voucher for the local garden centre.

Now we’re enjoying the space and dimensions of a period house with the comfort and efficiency of modernity in a beautiful setting. Our next adventure will be to build a smaller version for our later years, using the knowledge we’ve gained about building and life here in this ageless, elegant part of France.


  • Be around during the build as often as possible, it prevents any confusion about what you want or where you want it. Getting it right in the first place saves money.
  • Do employ a maître d’oeuvre (project manager), it’s well worth the money, unless your command of French and your building knowledge is sound.
  • Engage a heating engineer to find the right solution for your build. We have saved thousands of euros over the past 15 years.

The unique mix of legal, financial and tax advice along with in-depth location guides, inspiring real life stories, the best properties on the market, entertaining regular pages and the latest property news and market reports makes French Property News magazine a must-buy publication for anyone serious about buying and owning a property in France.

Lead photo credit : Julie's new-build looks like a period property; (inset) during the build, © JULIE HART

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