Chris Moller cuts a less imposing figure than Kevin McCloud but Grand Designs New Zealand still gets the job done - and uncovers some interesting characters along the way.

Chris Moller is a maniac. You'd have to be, to agree to host Grand Designs New Zealand and subject yourself to the inevitable comparisons to Kevin McCloud, the peerless and near-universally beloved host of the original British version.

But, if there's one thing we've learned from the last decade and a half of McCloud's show, it's that seemingly maniacal ideas can often produce spectacular results.

So, while some Grand Designs fans may have approached last night's long-awaited premiere of our local version with the scepticism of McCloud pulling up to an unconventional build, they needn't have worried.

Moller is, to say the least, up to the job. The Wellington-based architect may not quite match McCloud's easy charm and assured confidence, but he came as close as any mortal could ever hope to in his first crack at it.


And in other ways, he might even come to offer some improvements on his British counterpart.

The star of last night's episode wasn't Moller, though, not by a long stretch. Last night was all about Catlins deer farmer Lachlan McDonald, building an ambitious concrete farmhouse on his ruggedly handsome 50 acres.

The "modernist masterpiece" was designed by Auckland architect Rich Naish (of Ironbank fame), and was to be built by Lachlan's mate Kevin De Groot, who has built more than 100 cow sheds. "I chose Kevin because he is a man of concrete," he explained.

It didn't take long to figure out we were in the company of a supremely good bastard, and quite possibly a genius. Moller wanted to know: why concrete? "I just have a dislike of wood - I don't know why."

Later, surveying the foundations of his new home, he predicted "this house will be here for bloody hundreds of years, not like some poxy old wood house." No arguments were entered into.

The majestic theme song and soothing pastoral folk guitar soundtrack may have been the same, but this was a uniquely New Zealand Grand Designs. Like most local adaptations of overseas TV formats, it was slightly gentler, less confrontational. There was none of McCloud's occasionally biting commentary, and it wasn't particularly missed. If anything, Moller's less imposing style allowed for a greater focus on the remarkable character that was Lachlan.

The man was a marvellous enigma. He gazed out of his soon-to-be bedroom window at the moody Southland vista and quoted Coco Chanel: "A poorly-dressed woman you notice the dress; a well-dressed woman you notice the woman." He poured city boy Moller a mug of plunger coffee and told him "here's your latte." He revealed his collection of contemporary art, and we went to see how the sculpture he had commissioned for the property was coming along. "It's come along bloody beauty! Shit yeah nah that's bloody good."

As is customary in Grand Designs, the build - which was meant to be completed in four months of downtime between dairy seasons - fell behind schedule. The challenging Catlins weather failed to come to the party.


"If it's not blowing it's pissing down; if it's not pissing down it's blowing AND pissing down," one of the roofers explained. Cracks appeared in the pre-cast concrete, but never in Lachlan's sanity. Moller's concerns about some late changes to the design specs were met with a shrug and told "I think you're getting a wee bit dramatic about it all."

The show's other constant is, of course, budget blowouts. What was Lachlan's budget? He wouldn't tell. "I might tell you at the end of it all. It's just the way I roll. I'll give you little clues," he promised. He's a private bloke. "In general people here in Owaka District would have no knowledge of what's happening in my house," he told Moller later on. "That's bloody good. They need not." He never did reveal his budget, even when asked again at the end. He just described it, cryptically, as "an anaconda eating an elephant."

Seven years after the first drafts were drawn, the project finally reached completion, or close enough. There was still another wing to come, but as it stood the house was a sight to behold. Huge windows, booming views, immaculate design. Everything we have come to expect from a good Grand Designs. Moller asked Lachlan if it lived up to his expectations. "I always knew it was going to be smokin'," he said.

One narrative which Moller persisted with throughout the episode was Lachlan's marital status. He's single, he's looking for love, he wants to start a family. "Have you...?" Moller would probe every time he went to visit, and every time the answer was a sheepish shrug and a slightly evasive "no". Possibly, he had been too busy building a house.

Last night's Grand Designs was a hell of a lonely hearts video, though. Beautifully shot, faithful to the original format in all the right places, but with a strong and unmistakably New Zealand heart, it was better than anyone had any reasonable right to expect.

Lachlan McDonald, with his extraordinary concrete home on a deer farm at the bottom of the world, must surely now be one of the country's most eligible bachelors.

* What did you think of Grand Designs New Zealand? Post your comments below.