They say it has to get worse before it gets better. Of course, the floors were basically all rotten, with the exception of the hardwood beams. So now we don't have any more floors!
Our builders discovered that the midlevel floor had been built over - essentially a new floor had been put over the old one. They had to remove two levels of flooring to get to the original beams. Before this midlevel will be rebuilt, Jim will pass plasterboard up for the new walls in the bedroom and attic. Otherwise, it would be difficult to get the larger pieces up there, as the stairway is quite narrow and twisty, and the upstairs windows are high off the ground. Glad he is thinking ahead!
Above is the living room on the day I first saw it. Below is what it looks like now, denuded of its crumbling wooden floor and the joists that were laid under it. It was all in very poor condition and unsalvageable due mainly to moisture, which then made it attractive to certain wood-boring insects who had done damage as well. Part of the problem was those vinyl plastic tiles that had been laid over the old wood floors, probably in the 1960s or 1970s, and would have trapped moisture underneath. All the bad wood has been taken away and burned now, and the remaining wood upstairs has been treated to repel future hungry insects. An important issue now is how to rebuild the base of the ground floor.
There is not much depth below the hearth to the dirt floor. The floor is overlaid with broken slate and cement that originally had the joists crossing it, with the ends of the joists stuck into hollows of the granite walls. The trick now is to update the underfloor with materials that will allow for better insulation than the old ways, but at the same time allow gradual evaporation through the floor of water vapors from underneath, which can then dry out in the heated air of the main living quarters rather than deteriorate the floors and walls with damp.
So much of this is contrary to what we expect in modern buildings. In more modern construction (anytime post 1920 in the main), one wants to waterproof the underfloor completely with plastic and cement, and keep the interior completely insulated and heated. Old houses like this one however, with thick stone walls, need to be able to "breathe," letting water vapor escape through porous materials like lime in the bottom floor and walls. Otherwise, moisture will creep around the waterproofing and cement below and go up into the stone walls, where it will encourage fungus and other deterioration.
After several discussions with our builders about these issues and many hours spent studying UK and French websites about conservation and restoration methods for old stone houses, I finally found a website that seems to explain all of this fairly well (in French). "Maisons Paysannes de France" is a website dedicated to helping owners and builders understand how many of the older houses were built, and how they can be sympathetically updated to improve their functionality without jeopardizing the stone or columbage they were built with. http://www.maisons-paysannes.org/maisons-paysannes-de-france/bienvenue/ and http://www.maisons-paysannes.org/restaurer-et-construire/fiches-conseils/ (the latter providing specific advice about insulating an old structure for better heat retention without damaging it).
I highly recommend it to any of you who are thinking of renovating a place built before the early 20th century, or who just are interested in architecture and engineering. Those of you who are more clever with Google Translate than I am may even find a way to get most of it into English. I've tried, but the builders' terms don't translate very well. For example, the layer of stone that goes down first on the compacted earth is known as the "hérisson," a term of art. The literal meaning of hérisson is "hedgehog" though, so if you go by Google Translate, it will be telling you to lay down a layer of hedgehogs before you do anything else.
So far, we are talking about trying to build an underfloor like the one above (diagram from Maisons Paysannes). We are still looking into the best materials for each layer, all of which I would like to make as "green" as possible without sacrificing stability. Jim will advise us further in coming days, and I'll post some translations soon too, so we will all know our hedgehogs from our lambourdes!
Warning for the squeamish: lots of bugs about in this blog entry!
The deathwatch beetle is a fascinating insect whose larvae eat and bore through wood. The adults also live inside the wood for some time (often years!) and make a noise hitting their heads against the wood that sounds like a tapping noise. Those sitting vigil at a deathbed have heard these sounds in old buildings and considered them to be like the ticking away of the last minutes of the sick person's life. The deathwatch beetle's distinctive sound is said to have perhaps been the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" story, wherein a murderer thinks he hears the beating of his victim's heart under the floorboards. You can hear its distinctive sound here:
Before we bought our house in Lonlay l'Abbaye, it had been used only periodically as a secondary residence, was a bit neglected, and subject to some moisture problems. Unfortunately, these are ideal conditions for insects like the deathwatch beetle to attack the wood. Our timber surveyor found evidence of deathwatch beetle on the ground floor (circular exit holes), and common furniture beetle had attacked most of the timber walls and floors, which all needed to be replaced. The common furniture beetle is not nearly as entertaining as the deathwatch beetle, but it can be even more destructive. It is commonly referred to as "woodworm." Fortunately, our main beams were only lightly affected. They will be fine. But the wood floors were done for, and all had to be torn out and burned.
Like a condominium with different residents on each floor, we seemingly had had wood-eating insects of all stripes inside our small place: deathwatch beetles under the kitchen floor (tic-toc!), common furniture beetle in the living room and upstairs bedroom floors, and more exotically, capricorn beetles in the attic! The capricorns are famous in France for being destructive pests in old houses, but some variants of the species are protected creatures in parts of Europe.
We did not see any live capricorns, or deathwatch or furniture beetles, but we could see how ruined the woodwork was in November. Our wonderful builders have taken all of the bad wood away now, and treated the beams and remaining unaffected wood for good measure. When all of our renovation is done, we hope to keep the former "condo" residents away by keeping our place warm and dry. We are done with them, no matter how colorful their names or literary lineage!