Guest Blog: Building New in Old Provence, Part One

Friday, September 4, 2015

“Last month I visited Provence with Jemima and the children. While there, my good friend Tony Esslinger invited us to his stunning contemporary home surrounded by postcard perfect landscapes and rustic stone houses. I was so inspired by his home, I asked him to share how it came to life on our blog.” – John Dyer-Grimes

Though I consider myself a Cape Town guy to the core, I inherited an attachment to Europe from my French/German parents. I used to live in England with my wife and children but my work as an advertising director took me all over the world, giving us the freedom to choose where to settle down. We chose Provence, along with its dramatic landscape, blue-sky climate and abundant food.

Our first house was a conversion of a run down farmhouse that we chipped away at over four years while living in England. Progress was measured in bursts of work when we had the time and money to spare. This slow, considered labour created a house full of charm and quirks, a classic Provence atmosphere with solid stone walls and small windows. We lived in and loved that house for ten years and within its walls our children grew into adults.

In 2008 we bought a site by the village of Merindol les Oliviers, amongst the Cote du Rhones winelands and olive groves. With the children grown and more time on my hands, the desire to build my own home – a goal of mine since my teens – reached boiling point.

The first step was finding the right architect. A few years ago I viewed a home designed by Drescher Kraemer Architectes, a Parisian husband and wife team who had a talent for clean, contemporary design and rich materiality. Their work stuck in my head and once we were ready to make the move I gave them a call.

Isabelle Kraemer was a pleasure to work with. She was open to my ideas as well as telling me when they wouldn’t work. The key features I wanted to achieve were a large, open plan living area, a variety of proportions to differentiate spaces and plenty of glass to take advantage of Provence’s brilliant light and spectacular views.

We began with a metal and glass frame but I didn’t want to risk our home ending up aquarium-like and cold. I realised organic materials – primarily timber – were the key to adding warmth without sacrificing the minimalist structure I wanted.
We ended up somewhere between the modern Australian architecture and Scandinavian, featuring the seasonal adaptability of the former and the textural richness of the latter.

Much like parts of Australia, Provence’s climate stresses materials to their limits, with highs of 40 degrees in summer and -10 in winter. Isabelle and I had to work closely with structural engineers to ensure the design allowed the timber to healthily expand and contract and to prevent the floor to ceiling glass walls from cooking us.

France’s sustainability laws made cooling far more of a challenge than heating. Walls packed with insulation and triple glazing would easily keep the design within regulations but risked creating an oven in the summer. The L-shaped design we settled on shielded us from the neighbours and revealed spectacular views but also exposed the entire south face of the house to the sun.

Deep eaves, timber blinds, floating terraces and removable canvas sails would be crucial in providing shade from the sun and shelter from the violent storms that roll through Provence’s valleys.

But these steps still wouldn’t have been enough to keep the house a comfortable temperature in summer and air conditioning didn’t fit in my plans to create an energy efficient home. Luckily, Isabelle had an ingenious and simple solution: by building the concrete foundations and slabs directly into the well-drained sandstone the cool temperatures of the earth below could seep up through the structure, passively dispersing heat without any extra equipment.

With the design finalised, the next step was to have it approved by the Marie (village mayor) and the local council, who would be deciding the fate of a home unlike anything ever seen in Merindol les Oliviers.

By Tony Esslinger