Telegraph_piece

25 November 2006: This piece was featured in The Telegraph and on Telegraph.co.uk.

Peak of his career

Jenny Knight talks to a ski enthusiast who restores homes in the French Alps

Chris Harrop's parents wanted him to work in a bank. Not a chance. He abandoned college and set off, aged 22, to be a ski-bum in the French Alps.

He supported himself washing dishes until he discovered a new passion: restoring decaying farmhouses. Twenty-six years later, he heads French Mountain Property, which turns out luxurious chalets in villages that are near some of the top ski-resorts but untouched by tourist mayhem.

"My grandfather was manager of the NatWest Bank in Bolton and my parents wanted me to follow him in to a job for life," he says. "I didn't speak French or German but you don't need languages to wash up. I got a bed and pocket money, skied all day and washed up all night." As his French improved he took jobs as a labourer on building sites and learnt traditional Alpine construction crafts.

"I discovered that chalet roofs have layers of different insulation and withstand a weight of 900 kilos per square metre of snow. The traditional ways are best, using large, thick slabs of irregular slate, which are known as lauzes, rather than the hideous steel roofs you see now.

"Peasants who developed a building style 300 years ago weren't bothered with aesthetics, just practicality. But they produced something beautiful as well as hard-wearing."

"Peasants who developed a building style 300 years ago weren't bothered with aesthetics, just practicality. But they produced something beautiful as well as hard-wearing."

Over the years he returned to England to do City & Guild courses in carpentry and building, and in 1996 he went from being an employee to finally tarting his own development company in the 25 kilometres bordered by Val d'Isère, La Plagne and Bourg St Maurice.

Paul McCulloch, a London fund-manager, found his own wreck while visiting Le Griotay, just down the valley from Bourg St Maurice. He employed Chris to restore it.

"The thing that tipped me into buying the rundown farmhouse was seeing Chris's work," says Paul. "Because we were in London we couldn't project manage and whenever we returned we found Chris had never done precisely what we'd asked." The end result was that Paul owns a five-bedroom chalet with three bathrooms which, with its magical views, would probably sell for about £1 million.

Chris is running out of wrecks and has started building from new using reclaimed materials, so that the chalets look as if they have been standing for centuries: each has a hand-carved balcony. He tackles only a few projects at a time. Currently there are six flats and five chalets for sale priced from £168,000 to £1.6m. Homes are not cheap but cost less than you would pay in a smart resort like Val d'Isere, where chalets sell at a 30 to 50 per cent premium.

A home in a tiny village offers an escape from shrieking teenagers and the squeal of the ski-lifts, and the chalets and flats can be let out during the season, through Merlo Management. A chalet in Planay Dessous, built by Chris in the village where he lives with his wife and two ski-mad children, rents from £1,800 a week, while a chalet sleeping 12 costs from £10,000 a week.