Kevin McCloud’s designs on NZ
Grand Designs UK guru Kevin McCloud is heading Down Under on a speaking tour next month. He talks to Colleen Hawkes about special projects, risk, Thunderbirds and middle-aged women.
I‘‘I am drawn to the pioneering spirit of [New Zealand], and the architecture reflects that.’’ Kevin McCloud
t’s 7.30am in London when Kevin McCloud calls for a chat. He’s perky and approachable, but you get the feeling he’s always like this, whatever the hour. The time of day is a pleasant change from the last time we talked, when he apologised because it was a cold, wintry dawn in Auckland and he was lounging in the sun after a day filming in Cornwall. Today, he’s off again, to film a bloke in Kent, who is building his house out of chalk. ‘‘He is digging it out from under his feet and mixing it with a bit of lime, but no cement. It’s quite adventurous.’’ Of course. This is Grand Designs UK, after all. There’s a big vision behind every project he films, but that’s where any project similarity ends. And it’s that diversity that makes the show work, unlike other reality TV shows. ‘‘If you take three people and box them into a [reality show] format, you will get the same behaviour,’’ McCloud says. ‘‘That’s ‘constructed reality’, where the outcome is always known. We never know what the outcome will be on Grand Designs. ‘‘A build can take three years, and no one knows if they will even finish. There is always this inherent risk. If Grand Designs was to be commissioned today, it wouldn’t happen.’’ But McCloud – who has been doing this for 20 years – says watching people take risks plays into the vicarious nature of the dream we all harbour – having a special place of our own. And that dream shouldn’t be a tiny house. McCloud doesn’t mind ‘‘small’’, when it’s cleverly designed and inventive, but he’s not so sure about the driver behind the tiny house movement. ‘‘What I am concerned about most of all is that by doing more and more such projects, we’re legitimising these small, cramped spaces. Rather, we should establish minimum space requirements. All of us need a minimum amount of space to move around in, plus views, natural light and large windows.’’ Grand Designs UK has shown its share of modest builds, but McCloud says he has to fight off his producer who wants bigger projects. ‘‘There’s no risk when you have an unlimited budget. That’s just chequebook architecture. If you have to fight your way out of a corner, be resourceful and make it work, then the build is a lot more exciting.’’ And this is why the designer loves Kiwi projects. ‘‘I am drawn to the pioneering spirit of the country, and the architecture reflects that,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s an adventurous current running through it, and a lightness in the way the houses sit in the landscape. Houses are often in timber and modest in scale and ambition, and I love that.’’ Is there anything Kiwis can learn from the Brits’ experience? ‘‘Not very much, is the answer. We have a pretty dysfunctional planning system and delivery modes. I would love to see a little bit more craftsmanship in [the UK], but we have a massive skills shortage, and antiquated procurement and construction methods.’’ McCloud himself is juggling a lot. ‘‘It’s all bonkers,’’ he says. While filming two other series alongside Grand Designs UK (Grand Designs UK House of the Year and a community self-build series), he has other business interests, including a housing company, HAB, as well as speaking commitments. He is also working his way through the backlog of Grand Designs NZ programmes. He wants to ensure he is fully informed when he arrives Down Under for his talks in Auckland and Christchurch. McCloud is a long-standing friend of Grand Designs NZ host, architect Chris Moller – they text each other ‘‘a lot’’. Moller says McCloud came out to New Zealand a few times around the time of the earthquakes in Christchurch because of his commitment and concern. ‘‘I met him for the first time in Auckland, and when he came up to say hello, I thought it was a great privilege to meet him – as does everyone meeting Kevin McCloud. It was really nice just to say hello, but the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve been waiting for ages to meet you, Chris’.’’ McCloud was in awe of Moller after studying a groundbreaking project the Kiwi architect had done in The Netherlands. And the two have been friends since. Moller puts McCloud’s popularity down to the fact that ‘‘he’s very genuine and committed to what he’s doing. That’s it. That’s the bottom line’’. But there is more to it than that. ‘‘He’s obviously very busy, but he always makes time to sit down and think about what a person is actually asking and to respond. He’s a natural communicator, and very much in the tradition of great British communicators, such as David Attenborough.’’ McCloud had advice for Moller when he set out to do Grand Designs New Zealand. ‘‘Chris, be warned, he said. You’ll probably be swamped by middle-aged women. ‘‘But it’s just the opposite. My biggest fans, by far, are tradies. I’ve been at conferences and it’s the sparkies and builders who want to come up and shake my hand.’’ While questions about his private life are off limits, we do know McCloud and wife Susanna have four adult children, and his (winning) battle with asthma has been documented. Speaking to Britain’s Express newspaper last year, he said he is never without a perfectly pressed handkerchief ‘‘for cleaning up spillages and rescuing damsels in distress’’. Many will remember his ‘‘enthusiasm’’ in the series, Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour of Europe based on the trip young Englishmen took in the 1700s and 1800s. He was just as much in his element visiting the brothels of Genoa as he was describing how a house in Venice stands up in the mud. What’s McCloud going to talk about on this tour? ‘‘Thunderbirds and drains’’. Yes, a true child of the 60s, he’s right into Thunderbirds. ‘‘I just love the Thunderbirds, Tracy Island, the whole thing. So yes, I am going to talk about that.’’ He doesn’t elaborate on the drains, but there’s bound to be some sustainability in there, because he’s also a huge advocate for self-sufficiency and zero-energy houses. And McCloud is walking the talk. HAB (Happiness, Architecture, Beauty) – he is a brand, after all – is building 600 ‘‘beautiful and sustainable’’ homes in England, which will be far removed from the characterless, closed-in architecture that has defined so many UK homes. For starters, they won’t be a maze of separate rooms. Open-plan living has taken a long time to infiltrate the English psyche, but it’s another change for the better he is pushing. ‘‘My brother recently built a house. On the outside, it’s very traditional; on the inside it’s very Grand Designs, with a big patio and barbecue area out the back. But that’s a very British thing [the traditional exterior] – you don’t ‘show off’.’’
McCloud has plans for a new build of his own. When he finds himself a bit of land – ‘‘Who knows, I might look in New Zealand; there’s not much left in the UK’’ – he will hire his architect son. He hasn’t had time to imagine what the house might look like, but clearly it will be solarpowered to the extent he can export energy. ‘‘It’s an unspoken thing, but having helped my son through seven years of study, I’m sort of obliged to commission a building from him. To have a child who follows your passion and can do this – well, I can think of nothing more beautiful.’’ But don’t expect Grand Designs to film that one, more’s the pity. McCloud says it’s not about him. Last time we spoke he said he values his privacy, and he is not the subject of the show. ‘‘It’s better for me to remain the questioner and interpreter. [To show my home] would be a reference point that people would judge me on.’’ There is a serious side to McCloud, of course. He is an Honorary Fellow of Riba (Royal Institute of British Architects) and the Society of Light and Lighting and, in 2014, he received an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list for services to sustainable design and energy-saving property refurbishment. But if we really want an insight into his character, his huge enthusiasm for a very special Grand Designs project he is filming says it all: ‘‘It’s a wild and wonderful healthy house in London, for a family with two children who are extremely allergic. Their illness is so severe the family has had to move next to the hospital. ‘‘They are building a healthy home with its own ventilation system and no volatile organic compounds. York and Cambridge universities are both involved. It’s a really radical and exciting project.’’ It doesn’t get better than that.
This week, Grand Designs NZ is telling a story that will tick all Kevin McCloud’s boxes: it’s exactly the ‘‘house of the future’’ he envisages. Young couple, Karl – a sustainable building consultant – and Amelie want an eco-friendly lifestyle but are struggling to afford a home. So they decide they need to do it themselves. Grand Designs NZ’s Moller describes it as a ‘‘true, roll-your-sleeves-up Grand Design’’. ‘‘It has all the enthusiasm and big ideals of a young family. In particular, it’s a right of passage for Karl to build their family home, and a chance to do it together with his builder dad.’’ Moller says the story is not unlike a traditional ‘‘barn raising’’, with friends and family all pitching in to help. ‘‘To add to the complexity, the site is on the steep, earthquake-prone slopes of windy Wellington, and site access is dreadful, which was why it was affordable.’’ The couple hopes to achieve a high Homestar rating, but blow the budget and fuel calculations by hiring a helicopter to bring in a digger. So every decision Karl makes after that has to be carefully measured according to waste and sustainability. In true pioneering spirit, there’s more emphasis on ‘‘getting the house right’’ than getting it done.
Grand Designs NZ, Three, Wednesday 7.30pm.
Kevin McCloud speaks in Auckland on Saturday, November 24, and Christchurch, Monday, November 26.
Homeowners Karl and Amelie, seen here with architect Chris Moller of Grand Designs NZ, build an affordable house with all hands on deck in this week’s programme.
Kevin McCloud loves an adventurous, experimental Grand Designs build that celebrates self-sufficiency.