It isn’t surprising that a building from the 1600s has seen its share of renovations through the centuries. Electricity and running water, for example. Central heat. Windows. A door would be better here. No, there.

A shocking discovery

The apartment was about 100 years old, when the owners decided to give it a massive upgrade. The Bâtiments de France architect who inspected our place told me the boiseries above the fireplaces came into style in the 18th century and probably were added to our place late in the century, considering we’re in the sticks vis-a-vis trend-setting Paris.

At some point, walls were added. You can tell, because the coffered ceilings extend to the next room, but the earlier renovators finished out the moldings in the main room to make it look like the wall had been there all along.

A little storage area for horse harnesses was added above an entry. What was shocking was to strip off the wallpaper and find a door. How did they get up there? Ladder? While carrying a harness? Or was it the harness room much later and this was for a maid or servant? Very mysterious.

Kitchen 1 hidden door above
See the door?!?!

My biggest surprise was discovering just what our place is made of. Clearly the two-foot-thick walls are stone—the place has an incredibly good energy rating, despite having leaky windows.

Thick wall kitchen
Those are solid walls (don’t worry, the wallpaper is gone already)

When the contractors were piercing these walls to run new wiring and exhaust vents, they couldn’t just buzz-cut through solid stone. They had to chip them out and fill in with concrete.

This is not stud-and-drywall construction


And then, while running wiring through one of the added-on walls, which are only about two inches thick, the plaster came off, revealing the inner wall.

Do you see the straw, sticking out?

It’s called torchis, made of straw and lime (chaux). According to, it’s lighter than concrete but just as strong. And it’s a great insulator.

In another spot, some contractor of long ago meticulously filled in the space between wood beams with small stones.


Luckily we have great contractors who seem utterly in love with old buildings. It was the artisan restoring our tomettes who excitedly explained to me about torchis walls. Our painter treats the entire place as if it were a canvas for a masterpiece. He has taken charge of making sure the plaster is in good shape for centuries to come, all while preserving the past.

New wiring in salon
Wiring that doesn’t run on the outside of the walls!

It would not surprise me at all to find out that what is now one apartment was once two, or at least half of it got added on later. There’s a difference in grade between the front and back. There are separate entrances for the two sides. The windows aren’t alike at all. It’s almost as if they’re two different buildings. Maybe they are. Some past renovation, where somebody added on.

We are splitting the halves again, making a single apartment that’s bigger than our house into two roomy apartments. Trying to get all the mod-cons while preserving the old charm.

21 thoughts on “Layers of renovation

    1. It’s insane. Considering how fancy the decorations are, it was clearly an upper-class residence. So they must have lived some where. We just discovered the attic, which in Paris would be a luxury apartment. I’ll post photos of it later. Right now, it looks more like a horror film set.


  1. Straw has come into vogue in some house building in recent years, with straw-bale. Fire-resistant, and very high R value. There is also some building with cob and other ancient techniques. What’s old is new again.
    How intriguing if you could get your straw, or wood pieces, carbon-dated. Living history, indeed.
    Please keep posting these tidbits; they’re fascinating. And cheers for good contractors.


    1. Are you and Simon in cahoots with this carbon-dating stuff? Actually I visited the apartment today and the straw had been covered. Not that it won’t reappear elsewhere….
      Actually, I have done quite a bit of work on renewable energy and such, and the biggest part of the carbon footprint of most Westerners is …. CONCRETE! It really is terrible for the planet when we tear down buildings to put up something new. Plus, really OLD buildings were built before heat and A/C and so are very efficient, like our apartment. Even our house, which was built after WWII as the village showers (!!!), has stone walls 3 feet thick. We have no A/C. Cement requires lots and lots of energy for the kilns to make it. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without plastic or cement/concrete, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we make and toss either of them willy-nilly because in the end we won’t be able to breathe.


      1. What you said. Also, the circular stairs in old houses, French and American, allow for air circulation both warm and cool. There’s so much that can be done to promote energy efficiency with some thought and planning.
        Not cahooting [waves at Simon] but, too, have done a lot with various efforts at energy sensibility and am painfully aware of some of the more egregious failures.


  2. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about France is how much ordinary local builders love working on old buildings. They like to engage their brains to solve the unique problems renovations always throw up. Then they can show off their talents and are always very pleased when I take an interest in what they are doing. We photographed them at work regularly, and sometimes sent them the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

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