Special Nonexistent Furniture
28 October, 2013

Kevin McCloud talks to Karen McCartney at Grand Designs Live Melbourne

Karen McCartney spoke to Kevin McCloud at Grand Designs Live in Melbourne.

Meeting someone from television is a very interesting process. They have a regular presence in your living room and often, over a period of years, you grow familiar with them and form your own opinion of their personality. So what if, when you meet them, they are not as you imagined and, disappointed, you can never watch them in the same (pre-meeting) light again? These thoughts flitted through my mind as I waited in the VIP room at Grand Designs Live in Melbourne to interview Kevin McCloud. With over 130 episodes of Grand Designs UK under his belt as well as magazines, numerous books and an increasingly popular event in Grand Designs Live, it is a modern, multi-faceted, brand, held together by a very genuine philosophy, which emanates from the top. Here is what Kevin McCloud told me about the show, the home owners, Australian architecture and his judicious use of the word 'sustainable". And will I continue to watch the show post-meeting? Without a doubt.

What do you think accounts for the ongoing popularity of Grand Designs?
"The show's ongoing popularity is always about the same thing - the appeal of storytelling - with my job to hold the hand of the audience and help them understand the process. Every story is different, every circumstance is different and this powerful connection to the home strikes right into the heart of the target audience.  The series has a 50/50 male/female split which is broadly spread across the age ranges.  7 year olds and 80 year olds watch, as building your own home is one of the last big adventures we can all go on and the approach of old-fashioned story telling is like watching a Disney movie."

How has the experience of following the journey of countless home renovators informed your own understanding of the process?
"I have done it myself, albeit not on television, and I have done it on TV with my own housing schemes and hence have a new found respect for all my contributors. We like to revisit homes years later as architecture is not just a process of building, it is an ongoing experience and the human story continues. After 15 years of doing the show the producers understand the resonance and value of these revisits and let us get on with it."

With such a longstanding series, how to you keep up the energy for new ideas?
"A new series is airing in the UK and the new series producer, John Lonsdale, has galvanized the production team to create the strongest series we have ever produced. The viewing figures are strong and aggregate to 4 million people. We never tire of making it and really enjoy evolving the process  - even changing the visual language. We are experimenting with a  fantastic new 35mm camera with a short field of focus which we use for interviews, but also for shooting buildings, and we now use mini helicopters, called 'octocopters' for aerial perspectives which communicate the visual context quickly. If we say it is a house in a forest we can show the whole forest, not just a tree. The viewer can understand the positioning of the hill, the river and understand the demands of the site."

Do you think there is a personality type, a common trait, amongst people who undertake these ambitious projects?
"Not really, if anything they are defined by their ordinariness. Sometimes people write in because they have a design business to promote, or want to sell the house and treat us as some television estate agent or they are a celebrity that has found fame in a new medium and they are keen to bolster their new found position. We have very nearly gone down this road twice but decided it was not a healthy direction. We have developed an acute instinct for people coming to us for the wrong reasons."

Lifeboat house in Tenby by Argent Architects, as featured on Grand Designs.

As the years go by do you and your researchers find it easier to find suitable subjects?
"Finding houses requires quite a lot of negotiation with RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), RISC (Royal Institition of Chartered Surveyors), local planning authorities and architects themselves, some of which I have been wooing for 10 years. You need the confluence of the right timing and the right project for the series. For example, sometimes someone comes up with, let's say, a black rubber house and we are already doing one in the series. The cooperation of the architect and the client are essential because we discuss finance and reveal the pain and the intimate experience of trying to get it right. From some people we get the sales patter or rehearsed response and then there are surprises. For example, we were filming a lifeboat station, which was a second home for an Irish couple - he was entertaining and she was quite shy. At one point, off camera, she turned to me and told me how she grew up in a lifeboat village on the west coast of Ireland and their hearts were in their mouth every time the siren went off. She lost a family member and so the connection to this building all made complete sense. We coaxed her to say it on camera, which was the result of developing a relationship and building her trust. This is something we do over the 6 or 7 site visits we do for each episode."

The relationship between the homebuilders themselves is crucial to the dynamic of the show. Does this ever surprise you?
"Relationships are indeed revealed in the process. Sometimes you think you have them tapped and then realise, through the process of building, that they have a dynamic that they both enjoy - one that works for them – which might involve them goading each other. It is often fascinating to see. We have had a very low divorce rate which is a credit to the process and shows that it can be an affirming, cementing process. Building is a tangible expression of peoples' ideas - of who they are and what they are."

Do you ever get attached to particular projects/people?
"I am often asked about my favourite projects and usually it comes down to favourite people. In one of my slide shows I show a building, not because it is a favourite, but because it is a good urban solution, and another just because I love the girls."

Grand Designs provokes thought about different ways of living.  What is important to you in this sense?
"I do a lot of work for WWF and a couple of other charities and own a business looking at social housing so sustainability is not a difficult position to adopt. In the early days I was very anxious to push that agenda but now I perhaps have a reputation as more of a gentle eco-warrior. I find the gentle push combined with show and tell is more persuasive than finger wagging. What is important when it comes to the built environment is human energy, efficiency, durability and resilience. These are more fascinating areas and I can see the word 'sustainability' getting dropped in the next few years."

You are always honest, yet find something positive to say at the final stage, but has it ever been a struggle to find those positive words?
"We would never take on a project without merit so the struggle comes when the finished project is not as glorious as the ambition. Looking back over 20 odd years in television it is easy to be strident and show off. The more interesting thing is to screw up or fail. My favourite example is when I was on a roof in Normandy learning to cut slate tiles. I do it very badly, which illustrates how hard it is, but the director starts to laugh and puts the whole conversation in the show. We don't rehearse anything and for the pieces to camera I don't write anything down. Of course we discuss it – it is a very collaborative process."

Do you have a team of people you like to work with?
"I have worked with the same director of photography, Tony Etwell for 17 years and one of the directors Ned Williams started as a junior researcher and now I couldn't imagine working without him. These people are really important - you need your touchstones.  And also they are friends that you can go to the pub with and concoct some stupid thing and think 'could this really work on TV?'"

Croft House in Victoria by James Stockwell.

Have you had a chance to see much Australian architecture?
"It is hard because I fly in to a fairly tight agenda but Peter (Maddison) is great for taking me on architecture tours in his car and I've seen some houses and amazing buildings. I had a tour of RMIT in Swanson Street by one of the clients and that was fascinating. Peter is lucky because he is picking great projects like James Stockwell's house which is low on budget but high on ambition."

What building do you find most inspiring and why?
"Oh there are far too many to mention but one building I visited 7 or 8 years ago and would like to go back to, and I do keep referencing in slideshows, is Casa De Musica (pictured above), a concert hall by Rem Koolhaas in Porto, Portugal. It is a cube with bits sliced off in a completely brutal way and looks as thought it was dropped form 10 thousand feet, landing at an odd angle. It defies fashion and wilfully defies flow. Some of the performing spaces are lined with traditional blue and white Portuguese tiles. It has an equally fantastic respect for context and has had huge urban regenerative effect. The experience is at once futuristic, historical, out of time, of its place but also ethereal."

And with that evocative explanation I can see why he never has to rehearse his pieces to camera – it is all there  - ready to be delivered in the authentic, intelligent, knowledgeable manner we have all come to trust.

Thank you Kevin McCloud.

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