Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud: 'Self-builders often ignore my advice'

Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud: 'Self-builders often ignore my advice'

By Matilda Battersby

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Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud talks about his favourite builds from the series and the home improvement he made in lockdown that's changed his life.

Grand Designs, the television show following self-builders as they construct their dream homes, has been on our screens for more than twenty years.

Filming of the show had to adapt during Covid-19. In fact, presenter Kevin McCloud had to construct his very own mini “Grand Design” at home during lockdown.

He talks to Zoopla about his experiences presenting the Channel 4 programme.

What’s the best or grandest Grand Design you’ve seen?

This is a difficult question for me to answer, and I tend to make a guttural noise whenever anyone asks it. 

We’ve filmed more than two hundred projects. Some of them have been amazing buildings, but perhaps the owners have been a bit impenetrable. 

I’m often filming up to 25 projects at any one time, so I have a different answer depending on when you ask me.

In fact, I have three answers: I have a favourite house, a favourite film and a grandest house:

Favourite Grand Design house

Grand Designs house in the woods built by Ben Law

For years, my favourite Grand Design was the house in the woods built by Ben Law, which was broadcast in 2002. 

It was a remarkable home built out of hay bales, with curving walls and deep window recesses that he shaped with a chainsaw. It was the viewers’ favourite, too. 

Grand Designs House in the Woods by Ben Law

Apparently every man wanted to be Ben Law in the woods, chopping down trees, and every woman wanted to marry him. (That was a joke!) 

It was a very elegant, eloquent film about truly low carbon building, but it only mentioned the word “sustainability” once.

The house in the woods, by Ben Law

Best Grand Design episode

The Hedgehog Self Build, Brighton, Grand Designs

My favourite Grand Design episode is from series one, the Hedgehog Collective.

The programme followed a group of 10 families and single parents who helped each other self-build an eco-community in Brighton in 1999. 

The Hedgehog Self Build, Brighton, Grand Designs - interior

It was about the power of architecture to change peoples’ lives; people who are on the breadline, people in difficult housing situations, or social housing tenants. 

It taught me a big lesson. And it was lovely to go and revisit the project in 2013.

The Hedgehog Self Build, Brighton

Grandest Grand Design ever

The grandest Grand Design has to be the Hux Shard, an enormous house built in Exeter, Devon, by property developer, Joe Priday. 

The building itself looked like a herd of rhino charging across the top of the hill. It had a garage full of very fast cars.

It was astonishing. I really quite liked it. It was more like a French art gallery than a house.

The Hux Shard, Exeter

Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs, wearing a suit and standing in front of some art

Do you intervene when a Grand Design is going wrong?

The official line is that I give our contributors my advice on camera. Inevitably, most people ignore it.

We go to great lengths to present the illusion that we are passive observers. But, of course, when you’re filming you’re standing around in a field with these people all day.

We end up chatting about the project, about materials and approaches to money. Off-camera I’m much more involved with them than I appear to be in the programme.

As a presenter, it’s my job to be on the side of the viewer, not on the side of the self-builders. 

But in reality, I do give them advice, although they don’t always want it.

For example, I shared a spreadsheet for managing a project with one contributor. That was about four months ago and I’ve heard nothing back so far!

But I’ve got to be careful. And I’m very mindful that we can only make Grand Designs but for the good graces of these people who have invited us into their lives.

I like to remember that. So even if we’re being critical, we’re still polite.

Have you built your own house from scratch yourself?

I may have done, but I must remain obscure. 

Not least, to preserve the myth that I know what I’m talking about.

What’s the best room in your house?

It’s really boring. But actually my favourite room is a cupboard on the top floor of my house.

Inside this cupboard is a recording studio. And it’s been a complete godsend.

During the first lockdown I had no work at all. So I took this job doing a voiceover, which is great fun. But I had nowhere to do it.

They told me to drape some curtains in a cupboard. We’ve got an unused bathroom with a shower in it so I hung some blankets up in there, and put some cardboard on the floor. 

The shower was okay, but it was a bit echoey and the blankets kept falling down. I also got quite warm standing there in the shower.

So, I thought, I’m going to do this properly. I bought all the materials I needed online and I did all the work myself to make the upstairs cupboard into a recording studio.

It’s got a stand up desk, lots of proper sound insulation, proper lighting and a blue screen. I got a really high spec microphone, too. Everything I need! 

It’s changed my life because now I do all my voiceovers for Grand Designs and other radio, comedy or narration jobs from home. 

It means I don’t have to leave my house and travel three hours to London. Miraculous!

How was filming Grand Designs affected by the pandemic?

Lockdown and restrictions might be over, but our Covid-19 protocols are still in place.

I’m an old asthmatic and it’s very important that we don’t turn up and transmit infections to our participants.

So, for the last couple of years we’ve been driving around in a campervan. This means that as a crew and production team we can minimise our contact with people.

When we’re filming we still have social distancing. We wear masks. We’re highly protective of our contributors and of each other.

Half the time I spend working is spent travelling. But, it’s worth it because I get to see the most amazing places and film inspiring people in those remarkable places.

This month, Grand Designs Live returns for the first time in two years. It’ll be wonderful to be back seeing crowds. And it’s going to be bigger and better than ever.

Grand Designs Live will take place at ExCeL London from 30 April – 8 May 2022. The event will be hosted by Kevin McCloud. For tickets please visit www.granddesignslive.com