François believes the disadvantaged need the best living conditions to lift them out of poverty, and that ecological housing is the best way to do this. He has done research to design the best-suited houses to address the needs of the poor. Through consultations and focus groups, he has identified the key elements families want in their homes—for example, where to put the stairs and the bedrooms, how to insulate noise, where to put windows to see the neighbors, or enable the elderly to see through the doors. He then looked for traditional ecological materials and construction techniques to fulfill these demands. The result is very pleasant houses, incorporating all the elements clients’ wanted, combined with wooden floors, great insulation, clay walls, and lots of natural light, wood-stoves, and rainfall collection mechanisms to minimize energy bills. These houses have become a source of pride for the neighborhood.
After qualifying for a social housing operator status, François built the pilot projects in his community and has thus demonstrated to municipalities that it is possible to build ecologically for the poor. His success has enthused mayors who want to improve their image while fulfilling their legal obligations. If Chenelet construction costs are higher (€1,600 (US$2,100) per square meter versus an average €1,500 (US$1,985) for regular housing projects), the cost of living in a house is on average thirty percent lower than other low-income accommodation, and therefore guarantees more consistent rent repayments. This allows for social housing operators to recover their investment quickly, and make a profit, compared to the millions they lose in unpaid rent every year. François is shifting the perception of the value of a house, to be measured over time and not at construction, and works with banks to create new types of loans over longer periods of time to give low-income groups access to real estate.
With the demand to increase the impact of his work, François must increase the construction capacity of the housing sector. He has detailed Chenelet’s work processes and created a quality label for the dissemination of his work: 1) In his lumber factory in the north of France, François produces standard construction elements, with techniques that allow for employment and training of people who have long been excluded from the job market; 2) With each municipality, Chenelet handles the commercial deal and manages the relationship with local operators; 3) Through local consultation and research he works with local architects to design houses that respond to local needs and use local materials and expertise; 4) François identifies and trains local social construction firms, employing long-term unemployed, especially to participate on high-value, ecological elements of the construction value chain; 5) After a careful adhesion and labeling process, these companies can join the Chenelet Network and may independently develop their local market of low-income ecological houses, but always with a high level quality control.
Through this process, François is ensuring the creation and growth of in ecological social housing sector. He is also training thousands of the most marginalized to ecological construction techniques and bringing them back into the job market.
After building his pilot houses in 2001, François designed and improved his process to meet the growing number of orders. He is focusing his efforts on building the Chenelet brand, guaranteeing its quality, and developing the Chenelet Network to fulfill the thousands of demands he has received. To date, he has identified and is training eight social enterprises to form the seeds of the network, which should allow him to meet 300 orders in the coming year.