Link to Our Place in France Part 1
Link to Our Place in France Part 2
Link to Our Place in France - Part 3
So here we are in the fall of 2010. The beautiful apartment that we'd built from scratch (literally bare rock and cement) has huge moguls in the exotic hardwood floor that make the apartment almost unlivable. One night, walking in socks, Karen forgot about one of the giant bumps, slipped on the beautifully polished floor and fell. She already had problems with her deteriorating hip (see the story of her recovery in My Miraculous Wife) and the fall didn't help. A few days later I slipped and fell in the same place. These moguls really were dangerous, especially with granite counter tops, our cracked glass table with its square sharp edges, and modern kitchen furniture nearby.
The daughter of the Basque original proprietor recommended a Basque attorney in nearby Bayonne. He was also an ultra-marathoner. He explained the process to us: In France, it was the court who assigned responsibility for the problem, not insurance companies. The court would designate an expert who would do an unbiased evaluation and would report back to the court. The court would then hear arguments from experts from the insurance companies, experts from the contractors, and an expert that we should hire. After all the hearings were complete, the court would assign responsibility proportionally. Then they would hear arguments from each party as to why the proportional distribution should be different. Ultimately, once the court ordered the 'guilty' parties to pay, we would receive monies within thirty days - unless someone decided to appeal. Optimistically, we were looking at 2-3 years to get a settlement and 5 years or more if someone filed an appeal.
We could go ahead and pay for the work ourselves, and wait for the settlement later, but that would open the door for appeals - the evidence of the problem would be gone during the later stages of the hearings. Our attorney recommended leaving things as they were until we had a check in hand.
So, for the next two plus years, that's what we did.
I mentioned the advisor who helped coordinate the building of the apartment. About this time he created his own business which he now operates as a designer, advisor, and general contractor. It's called CoDesign Home and his name is Alexandre Cristina.
Getting the apartment done in the first place would have been difficult without a local person to help coordinate and to keep me in the loop. Alexandre is Swiss. As you might imagine, the Swiss are a bit OCD (like my wife and any good accountant should be), so he was on top of the contractors throughout the process and earned my respect as well as that of the contractors and of the original proprietor of the property. Upon my urging, he agreed to act as liaison for the court process as well. As payment, we agreed that he would be the general contractor for the redo of the apartment.
Did I say redo? That's exactly what I meant. I mentioned that the first thing we did in the apartment's construction was to choose the flooring. And, the first thing installed was the flooring. So, if you need to replace the flooring - you got it, EVERYTHING needed to come out. The kitchen was installed on top of the flooring. The closets were installed on top of the flooring. The interior paneled beveled glass doors were installed on top of the flooring. Even the sheetrock on the walls was installed on top of the flooring. So apart from the ceiling, to redo the floors, we had to rip everything out and rebuild from scratch. Alexandre provided the estimates including moving and storing furniture and fixtures, and he submitted that to the court.
Almost a year into the process, the court-appointed expert contacted me. He wanted to meet at the apartment with all the contractors, their insurance companies, the insurance company experts, and all the attorneys. Fortunately, two of the primary contractors were represented by the same insurance company. Unfortunately, the general contractor was represented by Lloyd's of London and the general contractor had disappeared.
I flew to France on short notice in January of 2012. With her hip problems and tax season imminent, Karen stayed in Santa Cruz. On the appointed day with heavy rains drenching the Pays Basque, I hosted 16 people in our little apartment. Everyone ooh'ed and ah'ed at the size of the moguls. They all had horror stories to tell but said that this was by far the worst anyone had ever seen.
The experts from the wood supplier's insurance company used a small device to test the humidity in the wood itself by punching several holes into our beautiful (if raised) hardwood floor. They immediately claimed victory stating that the humidity was too high and that this wood should never be installed in the Pays Basque. The court-appointed expert asked them to test in various places and discovered that there was no difference in the humidity even where the floor was flat. He also noted that the width of the boards seemed to have expanded by 20% or more where the floor was elevated. He then asked why, if they thought the region was too humid to install this product, they sold the product to us in the first place. He ordered them to trace the lots of flooring and to show the court where it had been manufactured and stored. Clearly he wasn't going to let them off the hook easily.
He questioned the carpenter and was reassured that the wood had been stored in the apartment for seasoning and that it had been laid with more than a centimeter of play next to the walls.
He then cut a hole in the top of one of the largest moguls. I think we all expected that the flooring would have lifted above the Fermacel insulation/subflooring but no, the Fermacel had come up with it - both layers, each of which was almost an inch thick. Add the 3/4" thick hardwood to that, and it was quite a sight to see.
Over the course of the next few months, I had several email exchanges with the court-appointed expert. We discussed theories. In his career, he'd never seen anything like this, and while at first glance, he and I thought there must have been a problem with the manufacturing of the flooring, something didn't seem right. He ordered more tests.
Karen and I made another trip to France in the spring for the next meeting. This time it was just the experts and the lawyers. They brought in a specialist who could check the humidity in the stone and cement below the flooring, and ripped out baseboards to look at the edges - thinking that perhaps the carpenter had lied about leaving the space at the edges, but even then, the height of the moguls was far greater than the sum of the play that should have been left - even if it had been placed properly with half an inch of play, the moguls were several inches high.
And, after removing the baseboards, indeed, it was clear that there was still more than half an inch of play between the flooring and the wall, except on one short wall where it was less.
Everyone was at a loss. The tests of the cement humidity came back as normal with no signs of previous leaks. The flooring manufacturer had shown proper manufacture, storage and delivery. And now, it looked like the carpenter was off the hook. We all scratched our heads.
Then the expert pulled some sheetrock off one of the walls and noticed something. The Fermacel butted up against a stone wall. Looking more closely, he saw that the person who laid the Fermacel had actually used sealant to fill the gaps between the wall and the edges of the Fermacel.
The expert borrowed my computer and went online to the Fermacel manufacturer's site where he found the specs for installation. He then called the company to be sure. Fermacel needs a gap just like the flooring does. This allows moisture to escape.
So, the answer appeared to be that the Fermacel was installed during the cold, wet time of the year before any insulation was installed. The installer didn't leave any play, and sealed all the cold moist air below the Fermacel. During the warm summer, the air and moisture needed to escape and expanded in the sealed floor enough to create these giant moguls, lifting and stretching the hardwood. Of course no one asked why the tiled portion of the floor in the entry and bathroom had no problems. Then again, everyone was tired of this long drawn-out mystery.
The expert made his recommendation to the court that blame be assigned equally to the general contractor who chose a new untried material and didn't supervise its installation, and the company that installed the Fermacel. He also assigned a small part of the blame to the carpenter for the one wall where he hadn't left enough play.
Two months later, the court proposed its allocation of responsibility. Within days, the major French insurance company that covered the two subcontractors agreed to the allocation and proposed a settlement. We were excited. Of course, Lloyd's of London balked. They claimed that their client had disappeared without making his final payments for his insurance. Our attorney quickly determined that the general contractor had quit paying long after the problem was reported and certainly after the construction of the apartment. Lloyd's said that since he had disappeared, they couldn't pay. Our attorney threatened additional damages if they refused.
More months passed and the court was ready to make a final determination, including the additional damages that our attorney claimed. Lloyd's blinked and two weeks later, we had settlement checks in hand.
Karen and I returned to Guethary in April of 2013 and packed up the apartment. We watched as the moving company took all our furniture and as the Italian kitchen company uninstalled the kitchen and took it away as well. Alexandre introduced us to the subcontractors who would be rebuilding our apartment, including a master carpenter who had installed most of the floors in the major hotels and commercial buildings in the area. He assured us that he would install a floor and no moguls would arise. We left excited but very nervous. It was hard to believe that our beautiful apartment could be returned to its original pristine state.
I suppose I could create a part 5 of this story, but I've gone on long enough. Karen and I returned in September on the day that our furniture was to be delivered. We wanted to sleep in our new apartment on our first night in France. It was pouring rain when we flew into San Sebastian, about 20 minutes away. We drove to the apartment and as hard as it was to believe, it was gorgeous. The master carpenter had decided to go with Jojoba, our original choice for flooring since he was wary of the Kampas. Aside from that and a couple of minor clean up issues, it was perfect.
Seven months later, we're back. The floor is as beautiful as it was when we first saw it. The apartment is exactly as we designed it. Even better, Karen can walk and hike. We climbed the peak at Iramendy last weekend - 9 miles with 2400' of vertical gain. We've been walking or hiking almost every day, finally able to fully enjoy life in the Basque country without worrying about our apartment.