Portes du Soleil chalet in the French Alps



Responsible tourism

Responsible tourism: Portes du Soleil chalet in the French Alps

We work mostly as a couple, our family thankfully lending a hand on busiest weeks. We sometimes have temporary part time help from people in our village with lawn mowing, weeding and clearing the snow in the winter and cleaning. Ski and mountain guides are mostly local and very knowledgeable and one in particular is an expert in flora and fauna of the region. An Olympic medallist (local hero!) owns the local ski hire shop and he gives excellent advice to our guests about individual choice of equipment. When building our chalet we were careful to choose local contractors and artisans. We now promote an artist in the valley who paints mountain scenes, animals and flowers on wood and a potter who makes traditional hand-thrown pottery, for example, a Savoyard shepherd’s bowl. We have examples of their work in the chalet and are happy to take our guests to their workshops.

We specifically do our food shopping as close to our home as possible, from the point of view of freshness of food and transport costs in general, and we especially support local producers in the markets and shops owned or run by local families. The person who started the organic shops in Haute Savoie previously had a stall in the market where he sold his own produce and that of his friends; his philosophy is that fresh and natural products are the basis of good health, both physical and mental. Our thoughts exactly! We have ourselves participated in local markets selling paintings at art markets and introducing the French to the wonders of British Christmas cuisine, such as Christmas cake and chutney at the Abondance Christmas fair, which was very successful especially with the proprietors of our local shop who keep asking for more. We are increasingly involved in local activities and certainly intend to try and use our property to benefit the local community, perhaps for art activities. We always support village events, the ‘belote’ card competition, celebrations, dances, ski club events etc. We go to the theatre nearby, even when it is in the local dialect and neither of us understands a thing - but it is great fun!

La Pension de Savoie café historique in Abondance is one of the oldest in France and organises evenings with singers of traditional French folksongs, which we support and encourage our guests to attend. On the day in the week when we do not cook an evening meal, we recommend one of the local restaurants and provide transport. We go to the meetings about the future of the community, and about tourism and of course, the competition, celebrations, dances, ski club events etc. We go to the theatre nearby, even when it is in the local dialect and neither of us understands a thing – but it is great fun! La Pension de Savoie café historique in Abondance is one of the oldest in France and organises evenings with singers of traditional French folksongs, which we support and encourage our guests to attend. On the day in the week when we do not cook an evening meal, we recommend one of the local restaurants and provide transport. We go to the meetings about the future of the community, and about tourism and of course, the environment and climatic change. Pascal intends to continue his course in local art and history organized by the Guides du Patrimoine.

Being a French/English couple, we have organized several evenings of “table d’hôtes” for French people who work in the mountains in the ski season and want to learn or perfect their English. Environment: Concerning the chalet itself, it is made from high quality natural materials; stone-clad honeycomb brick on the ground floor and whole logs on the first and second floors, with an old-fashioned wooden shingle roof. After we had bought the land, first we considered the basic design and how best to integrate it into the local architectural style. We then thought about orientation, to gain the best views while maximising benefits of solar energy. Before starting to build we consulted a Swiss geo-biologist who placed copper wires in the ground to earth the electricity contained within the iron of the reinforced concrete base, essential for the construction. He measured amongst other things, the high energy level of the land and located underground water sources to aid implantation. Our stonemason, who normally works on churches and historic buildings, engraved a symbolic sign above our main entrance, which, he told us was very powerful and needed to be counterbalanced by a particular stone that he supplied for our doorstep. The sign was to bring positive energy into the house and all those who entered by the front door. All these measures certainly seem to have an impact on the inhabitants and guests!

Regarding the construction of the chalet, the walls of the ground floor are constructed from 300 mm thick bricks with their built-in honeycomb insulation. This structure is clad with 15+cms of local stone set in lime. The wooden part of the chalet is 20-30 cm whole logs, which is both the structure and very efficient insulation. The logs of the chalet were hand-chiselled to fit on to one another and each one packed with lamb’s wool insulation. The roof and external walls of the top floor are insulated with cork, hemp and wood-fibre, the mixture of which makes the most of the thermal and acoustic qualities of each product and provides fantastic insulation against the cold winter nights and hot summer days.

As a wind turbine would be impossible in our geographical situation, we opted for solar energy, which compliments the wood burning stoves that are the main source of heating. The solar specialist, with over 25 years experience in this field, installed both types of solar panel, which are unobtrusively places on the barn roof. 19m2 of photovoltaic panels produce electricity, the surplus of which is sold back to the electricity company EDF. 17m2 of thermal panels give under-floor heating on the ground floor and hot water and they are extremely effective even in mid-winter when there is a limited number of hours of sun. We find that the snow soon slips off the panels, which seem to function even through the snow! When we put in our solar panels, we had many sceptical questions from the inhabitants about their efficiency in the mountains, but since then, there have been several installations in the village, proving that you have to have the courage of your convictions and people take far more notice of example rather than just words.

On the first floor, in the heart of the chalet, is a highly efficient Tulikivi stove with its bread oven. It uses double combustion, which means that after just 2-3 hours of fire, it will radiate gently from its ‘stone with soul’ creating a cosy ambience for 24 hours! The small amounts of cinders produced are emptied about once a week. We have another wood-burning stove in the kitchen/dining room on the ground floor, which has an associated oven that we use for cooking, especially in the winter months. When designing the chalet, we included entrance halls at all the three main doorways to act as temperature-maintaining chambers (essential when it is many degrees below freezing outside!) We also ensured that we put in very large double glazed windows on the south and west facades to trap passive solar.

Environmentally friendly paints were used for decorating and natural wood treatments were used for exterior and interior wood. Lime mortar was used for the stone and a lime render for the back porch and round the veranda. We did investigate reed bed drainage but discovered that we were not allowed to put one in for a new construction. We also used a composting toilet in our site caravan and plan to put one is as a garden toilet in the future.

As for rainwater harvesting, our plumber put a dual pipe network into the new construction with the ability to switch backwards and forwards from the main installation, so that we would be able to use rainwater for the toilets and washing machine as well as the garden. This will be completed with outside storage tanks as soon as funds allow. We find that most of our guests generally agree with us about our environmental issues and social responsibilities and support us extremely conscientiously regarding water and electricity consumption - needless to say, all the toilets have a half-flush system and all light bulbs are energy efficient. Our village is on a private source of fresh mountain water and we impart to our guests that we consider this a tremendous privilege as it is delicious to drink and we are extremely careful about wastage. In fact because of the way we built our eco-friendly chalet, we usually have very interesting conversations with guests, who have often chosen to come to us specifically being interested in the environmentally friendly way we built the chalet and because of our way of life.

We do all the catering but nevertheless there are recycling bins for guests to use in the kitchen where they are able to make drinks and keep their own snacks. We collect waste paper and newspapers to start our wood stoves in winter. The excess paper goes with all packaging and glass into recycling. The ‘green’ waste provides fantastic compost for our vegetable garden in the summer (you should see the size of the pumpkins!) We do regular runs to the local recycling centre that takes crockery, old electrical items, metal, tyres, batteries, oil etc. We reclaim and recycle materials where possible, especially old furniture to which we have given a new lease of life. We like to reutilize furniture, which no longer has a use in today’s world. For instance, we bought an old oak ‘petrin’ (previously used in the bread-making process) from a second-hand furniture shop and converted it into the base for our kitchen sink. As we replace our towels and linen, we buy organic textiles and normally change linen once a week for our weekly ski breaks unless we are specifically asked to do an extra change by the guests. We use natural cleaning products and eco balls for all laundry.

Bathroom toiletries supplied to guests are natural or organic and French. We have private drainage and are very careful about what we use in our water and we add products to aid natural breakdown in the system. Any toxic waste, such as brush cleaners and thinners for art materials, are disposed of very carefully. thinners for art materials, are disposed of very carefully. Most of our winter guests, who come in groups for up to ten days, arrive by plane or train and use our transport service so that we can offset our carbon emissions. We do encourage people to use the local buses although they are not very frequent, especially out of season, which is why we have our own transport system. We certainly aim to offset carbon emissions generated both personally and by the business in the future and continue to search for alternative ways of doing this.

We have investigated tree-planting schemes and also intend to plant more trees on our land in Cornwall! In our home environment we have planted our 3800m2 garden with an orchard of fruit trees, which has the added advantage that the birds enjoy it very much. We have a marshy area in front of the chalet, which attracts wildlife and we are doing our best to ensure that it remains there. As far as the protection of wildlife goes, we are avid believers. We did inadvertently provided the local wild boar population with a beautiful crop of new potatoes one year - they certainly know no boundaries!

We feel very privileged to live in such a fantastic region and are passionate about protecting it, including the clearing of garbage from the winter ski season, which is a big problem for all the inhabitants of the mountains. Also, being firmly anti-GM, we never hesitate to petition for this cause as we feel that this could have a devastating effect on all life worldwide. We have both been committed to sustainability as long as we can remember and our chalet is in many ways the materialisation of our philosophy, fulfilling our wish to build an earth-loving family home for our guests to share.

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