Tony Dowse is a busy man. With over 30 years of residential property development, he has been at the forefront of innovative housing and community design. The work that he has done with his company, Environ Communities, has led to many successful developments, including Lacuna at Kings Hill, Kent and Stonegate Place in Wye near Ashford, both multi award winning schemes.
Tony’s new project has seen Environ turn their attention to a different country: France. A first for the Environ team, the project includes the sensitive redevelopment of a chateau, a series of new properties, the creation of country club, spa and bar and bistrot. The master planning took a full year, whilst development is due to commence at the end of 2013, with the first homes to be delivered in December 2014.
Here Tony sits down and explains some of the challenges of such a project, the attractions of France for expats, and offers some top tips for those thinking of making the jump abroad.
How did you discover La Durantie and what inspired you to take on a chateau development?
My business partner, David Boden, lives in the nearby village of Castelnau de Montmiral, and he originally identified the site at La Durantie.
When I visited the site I realized exactly how special it was and began considering what we could offer that was different from other chateau developments scattered along the Languedoc coastline or in the Dordogne.
After extensive research on the area I realized many British ex-pats lived in this hidden gem which sits with the Dordogne to the north-west and the Languedoc to the east, fulfilling their dream of a better quality of life for their family.
What attracted you to the Tarn?
The warm climate was a key factor, as well as the location – you’re positioned roughly midway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean Coasts, plus you can reach the Pyrenees in a few hours for skiing during the winter. The fact you can be in France’s fourth largest city, Toulouse, in less than an hour, is equally appealing.
The landscape is beautiful here; the Tarn is often compared to The Cotswolds and to Tuscany due to its rolling hills and charming local villages, and some of the bastide hilltop villages are architecturally magnificent. Nearby Gaillac is producing exceptionally good quality wine, and is also one of the oldest wine growing areas of France, then there are the local delicacies such as Foie-gras, truffles, nuts, duck, wild boar…
Transport-wise Toulouse airport is well serviced by the budget airlines as well as British Airways, and the train service to and from the city is excellent.
What inspired your designs/ideas for La Durantie?
We looked at the way local French villages have evolved and decided to cluster our new homes around typically French courtyards with winding passageways. The architecture importantly integrates the local vernacular, but the houses are light and airy.
I was most interested in the concept of a Country Club, but wanted to integrate French locals with La Durantie residents/guests. I didn’t want it to become a UK clique- it is very important that La Durantie is integrated with the local community.
We also incorporated village squares with plane trees and water fountains, plus adapted the chateau and barns into a country club and state of the art spa, offering a bistro, library, 20 metre indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a natural swimming lake, tennis courts, croquet lawn, pitch & putt golf, outdoor dining terraces and a barbeque area.
What is the most exciting feature of the La Durantie development in your eyes?
I’m hugely excited about the country club. The country club concept is rare in France, and something I’m really delighted that we’re incorporating. The pool is designed with an infinity edge and housed in a huge expanse of glass, meaning guests see views of the landscape at all times of the year. The views down across the meadow towards the woodland and countryside beyond will be stunning and alter with the seasons. It also means that everyone will use and enjoy the chateau building rather than limit this privilege to a handful of owners. We did not want to merely chop the chateau into apartments, but to open it up for all to appreciate.
What have been the most difficult challenges you have faced so far?
The biggest challenge has been ensuring that we build something that is French and not British in style. This even incorporates the landscaping. It is vitally important that guests feel they are in France! Having an Anglo-French team behind the development has helped to ensure this.
How have you liaised with the French authorities?
My business partner’s wife is on the local council, which has been a great help in liaising with the local community and authorities. She has lived in the Tarn for many years, so although she is British she really understands the local bureaucracy. She has helped to highlight differences between the UK and French regulations and the various requirements. We have also employed the services of a fluent business interpreter. This was imperative to ensure we and the authorities understood each other. We have also used a UK concept architect, but he liaises with a local French architect to make sure the designs were consistent with the regulatory requirements.
How can potential home owners at La Durantie be assured that they are buying into a quality development?
In October La Durantie fought-off stiff competition to win the coveted accolades of ‘Best Leisure Development France’ and ‘Best Leisure Development Europe’, at the International Property Awards 2013-2014. The International Property Awards is deemed as one of the top awards in the industry and such accolades are recognised as a symbol of excellence throughout the global industry, and we are proud to be able to say that La Durantie is ‘Europe’s Best’.
Do you have any advice/top tips for foreigners looking to move to France and become expats?
My biggest tip is definitely to learn the language as quickly as possible to fully experience life in France and to integrate with the local society. Visiting and getting to know the local Mayor (Marie) is also a good way of familiarising yourself to the area. If you’ll be using a car then you usually have about 6 months to re-register your car and driving licence in your local prefecture. If moving with young children then the local town hall will have up to date information on local primary schools and are an excellent port of call for information. They also often have access to other important information you will need and if you don’t speak good French (yet!) you can ask if they have someone on the local council who might be able to help out. I’d also encourage people to look for local expat communities, who will be able to provide lots of info on the local area, as well as becoming great new friends.
There are some helpful websites which provide lots of information too, such as www.connexionfrance.com, www.france.angloinfo.com, www.expatica.com, www.frenchentree.com and www.expatforum.com amongst many others.