As Grand Designs celebrates 20 years on TV, our editor-at-large, Kevin McCloud talks proud moments and the show’s broad appeal
Image: Aaron Scott Richards
We sat down with our editor-at-large Kevin McCloud to chat about the last 20 years of Grand Designs on TV.
Twenty years of Grand Designs, can you believe it?
'Nope. I thought it would be a bit of an outcast when we started in the late 1990s. Instead, it’s become a family pet – the family being the team who have involved themselves with the series for so long. People like Tony Etwell, our director of photography, Guy on jib and Andrew Marchant, our sound recordist, who between them have clocked up 57 years of working on Grand Designs.
Or Amy Martin, our production co-ordinator – the fountain of all knowledge – and Helen Donovan, who holds the production together with rings of steel. But I can’t mention GD without thinking of Ned Williams, who has occupied almost every key collaborative role for me in my television career, from researcher to director. We’re writing a comedy series together. It’s going well. We haven’t started.'
Tell us how your passion for home building, architecture and design began.
'I put together a PowerPoint explaining just this in order to bore audiences around the country. Slides include pictures of a slim book on architecture I was given when I was eight; a second-hand Hornby locomotive I painted pink; Olivier Mourgue’s groovy furniture from 2001: A Space Odyssey; the Post Office Tower; my father – a rocket engineer; and the Thunderbirds wallpaper that adorned my bedroom till I was 14. In the 1960s, we all believed we’d be living in a Gerry Anderson world of flying cars and houses on Mars by now.'
Did you have a mentor or someone who inspired you?
'There are many people who’ve given me a leg up. From the first job, to the first book I wrote, to the first programme I made, every new venture came about because somebody took a bet. I’m still inspired by great architecture and their authors.
And if you ask me which presenter I most admire and want to emulate, that would be Keith Floyd, a radical who never wrote anything down, improvised and refused to work past 2pm.'
Did you take to the idea of Grand Designs from the outset?
'I’m not sure anyone fully did. The secret to its success was the open-ended way it was made over that first series. Daisy Goodwin, the producer, had sold the idea to Channel 4, who suggested it might be an hour long, not 30 minutes. At the time, in 1997, an hour-long programme of its kind was rare. John Silver, the series producer, and I were sent out to try stuff out.
We wrote words on pieces of paper and inserted little makeover sequences into the films but we quickly identified that the energy of the series would come from what was happening on whatever day we turned up. We learned that human stories would drive the films but that the process of building provided the frame on which to hang those narratives.
I stood up for the architecture, John obsessed over people’s ‘journeys’, Daisy fought for the quiet poetry that underscored all the films and which separates, I believe, Grand Designs from so many build, makeover or nerdy engineering programmes that are laced with fake jeopardy.'
What were your hopes for the series?
'We all just hoped the critics wouldn’t drub us, that people would watch and that we might, just might, get a repeat commission.'
What’s been Grand Designs’ greatest achievement so far?
'Hard to say. We might have been responsible for the popularity in underfloor heating or the tidal wave of bi-fold doors that has inundated the country. I’d like to think we have promoted quality and craftsmanship in building. I’d certainly like to think we’ve furthered the causes of sustainability and green construction.
And I still get such a kick when a 30-year-old stops me to tell me that they’re an architect and that watching the series aged 10 got them hooked.'
Is it about the buildings or the people?
'I used to say that it was about the architecture, but John would shout me down and say it was the people. Then we swapped. In truth, we all acknowledged that the films are a complex mix of people, process, building and architecture.'
How has the series changed through the years?
'It’s got a little pacier. It’s got more beautiful, thanks to high-definition cameras and editing, and the grading process which can transform a film so that it truly looks like film. And thanks to drones, we can grab amazing aerial shots of buildings and where they are in one literal fell swoop.
Having said all that, without the camera operator’s eye for beauty we would go home at the end of the day with dross.'
What’s been the biggest revelation for you over the past 20 years?
'That there is no such thing on this planet as a dull human being. Everyone has an interesting story or background.'
How do you respond to critics who say it’s elitist?
'Grand Designs’ audience is really broad and includes people from all walks of life. If we show them exemplary buildings and good ideas, that isn’t elitist, it’s inspirational. It asks people to expect better from their built environment and that includes social housing and our public realm.'
How relevant is the series to the UK’s housing situation?
'That’s complex. I won’t dodge the issue and I’ll be the first to admit that Grand Designs doesn’t deal with volume housing or the problems faced there. But the housing ‘crisis’ isn’t one problem. We have a crisis in planning, in construction quality, in a lack of construction skills, in the way we fail to design for the 21st century, climate change and the particularity of place. Grand Designs highlights some of those problems. I’d like us to do more. After the first series, I thought every year we’d find another self-build community like Brighton’s Hedgehog Housing Co-op.'
Which property would you love to own?
'There is in that question a terrible fallacy: the idea of ownership. I’m happy being a tourist, visiting houses, staying in them, trying to understand them. That gives me just as much pleasure.'
What would you be doing now if Grand Designs hadn't come along?
'Driving a taxi.'
Celebrate the Grand Designs TV series turning 20 at Grand Designs Live NEC Birmingham from 9-13 October 2019. Book your tickets here