Last night's TV: Kevin's Grand Design
Can Kevin McCloud do for housing estates what Jamie did for school dinners?
"I love pebbledash” is not a sentence I expected to hear from Kevin McCloud. But, in Kevin’s Grand Design on Channel 4 – a bid to do for British housing what Jamie Oliver’s been doing for the British diet – we saw the presenter prowling around Swindon, soaking up the local architectural flavours to ensure that his new low-cost, low-carbon 42-home property development would blend into its commuter belt context. Acknowledging that his passion for the “sandcastle” qualities of pebbledash was unlikely to be shared by househunters, he took more design notes from a row of nearby railway workers’ terraces.
McCloud’s own Grand Design may have been more ordinary-looking than most of the high-concept projects he’s followed since the programme began back in 1999, but it was arguably more ambitious and certainly far more relevant to the average viewer. For while the (mostly wealthy) folk who slog and spend their way through the conversion of their fantasy ruined castle/beached oil tanker/acre of scenic bogland have only to please themselves and the planning authorities, McCloud was aiming to “put the happiness back into housing” for an integrated mix of private homeowners and social housing tenants. He was at pains to point out it was his own money he was risking and that, despite a decade of critiquing other people’s development dreams, he had never built anything himself.
The first episode of this two-part series took us back to the economic buoyancy of 2006, with an idealistic McCloud railing against Britain’s sprawl of identikit homes, which are the smallest in Europe, leak heat, lack a sense of place and force us to lead “very insular lives”. These homes are McCloud’s Turkey Twizzlers and he wants people to rise up against them. He planned to offer his own alternatives in three-bedroom, £160,000 eco-home portions.
Then came the recession: property prices went into meltdown and mortgages slipped beyond the reach of McCloud’s target market. Like so many of the Grand Designers over whom he’s furrowed his brow, he began to lose control of his vision. Having preached that “design is a process of resisting compromise”, he was forced to change sites, scale down, change architects, give the whole project over to social housing and aim to break even. At the end of episode one his utopian development had a slick of mud for a village green, builders shaking their heads over the “hempcrete” walls and neighbours who thought the place “looked like a barracks”. Those who follow property news will know that “The Triangle” has been finished, and to the satisfaction of at least some of those involved. But part one left McCloud looking as grey – and as full of hot air, cooled – as hempcrete.