Boudicca Fox-Leonard talks with presenter Kevin McCloud on the 20th anniversary of Grand Designs.
Kevin McCloud is delivering one of his typically measured meditations on architecture and design. The kind viewers bask in every time they tune into Grand Designs - the baritone drawl, the wry observations. The problem is that between the zoosh of trains 5m to the side of us and the thrum of building work behind us, I can barely hear him. We are discussing the 20th anniversary of Grand Designs and we've met at Stock Orchard St in north London, an experimental building project on a strip of land near King's Cross Station that featured in the first series, back in 1999. Fittingly, the property is enjoying its own 20-year facelift and the place is a building site.
During the two decades since Grand Designs first aired, it has promoted a lust among the general populace for poured concrete floors, double-height ceilings, straw-bale walls and wet rooms, along with encouraging profound conversations about the sort of spaces we want to live in today as well as making modern architecture seem accessible to all. And while there have been plenty of Mies van der Rohe copycats on the show, there have also been the more offbeat, eccentric projects, like Monty Ravenscourt's Peckham house with glass sliding roof ("that was strange and hybrid and glued together by bits"), Ben Law's low-impact woodland house in Sussex, from an episode that viewers once voted their favourite, or the doughnut house built in Milton Keynes by Peter Berkin, a retired GP and builder.
And thank goodness, he says, for that disparate collection.
First and foremost a building historian, the 60-year-old has built a reputation as a presenter who neither dumbs down his subject nor minces his words. He has seen it as his mission to open viewers' eyes to buildings in a way that isn't simply about "dull blobs of fake historical architecture".
Stock Orchard, the home and practice of architect Sarah Wigglesworth, is in many ways a typical Grand Designs property. With its stone gabions and sandbag walls, it's uncompromising, singular, high-tech and very green, designed precisely to fit its surroundings and its occupants' needs. Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that, 20 years later, it hasn't inspired architecture like it on a mass scale.
Having said that, the programme is now so much part of our television culture that not a week goes by when McCloud isn't approached by a member of the public to say how it kick-started their own grand design. Largely thanks to McCloud, your home can now literally be your castle (or converted water tower, eco-friendly cob dwelling or Jenga-style shipping container sculpture) but it's McCloud's dedication to dissecting the integrity of each building that has elevated Grand Designs from just another property programme into something unique.
Wigglesworth is away, but younger members of her practice come out to greet McCloud. They stand in a row, clutching mugs and looking at him as though he might break into song at any moment (he did study opera in Italy in his 20s, after all). In person he's as personable and watchable – serious one moment, impish another – as on screen, and they hang on his every word.
McCloud is clearly used to such youthful crushes (when I tell him that a Telegraph colleague has a man-crush on him, he flits back: "Oh, tell him I'm too old") and after some genial chat, he politely sends the young 'uns on their way. It must be strange being held in such reverence?
"The most glorious thing is when people say: 'I started watching Grand Designs when I was 8 and I'm now fully qualified and working in practice.' And you go: 'Wow. That's lovely.'"
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His own son is an architect, roughly the same age as the fans at Stock Orchard. "I can't believe that was anything to do with me, though, that's the funny thing," says McCloud. "I'm very admiring of him. He's a very good architect."
So what does he think is good architecture? His own taste isn't something he's easily drawn on. McCloud prizes his objectivity ("It's almost like my job is to just provide voice-over and my second job is to be there and interpret events for the viewer") but for the 20th-anniversary programme, he was pressed to choose his favourite projects. It's his least favourite question. Asked by his producers for an initial list of 20, he gave them 60 (roughly a third that have featured on the show). It's been whittled down to five, which will be shown on air in the UK later this month.
What he will say is that his choices tended to be deeply personal, because he liked the people or because the project was representative of a raft of themes, such as eco-living or a sense of community. "Or maybe I just really got on with the director on that one," says McCloud. "It does colour your choice."
He has filmed more than 200 episodes and they have one thing in common, he tells me; every single home featured has been near a good pub. He won't film a project otherwise, he jokes. "When you're filming in the mud and rain you need somewhere you can go and warm up at lunchtime."
Such is the nature of the building process, filming days can be long and unpredictable. He and the crew criss-cross the country checking in on several projects multiple times, all at different stages of development.
Even though the show is as much about human beings as bricks and mortar ("the glorious thing about the series for me is getting to know people"), McCloud doesn't like to get too pally; it wouldn't be good for objectivity. Although, after some 30 site visits, he has come to see Ed and Rowena Waghorn, who built a hobbit-style dome house in Herefordshire, as friends.
"I may react negatively to a project to begin with but I can probably respect its qualities if it's something original and interesting," he says. "And in getting to know the people, I get to like the design, because I get to understand them."
There are, of course, episodes when the viewer can get a whiff of McCloud's distaste, from foundations to finish. Last year, he likened a concrete four-bedroom house in Lewes to a nuclear bunker and a multistorey car park, although he had warmed to it by the end.
Does he hate any of the homes he has featured? There's a diplomatic pause. A train rumbles past, ramping up the tension. "There were a couple I knew I wouldn't like and I didn't like them. I thought they were badly built and badly designed." But he quickly adds: "There aren't many like that."
Looking at earlier episodes, it's easy to see how the show has evolved – certain features that seemed ludicrously fancy back then now seem commonplace – but there remains a time-honoured and much-loved formula to the show.
Case in point, when McCloud suggests a project will never run on time, it definitely won't. And there are the inevitable probing questions at the end of each episode about cost (and how far over budget the owners went – one couple spent £1 million more than they planned to). Contrary to the determination with which he pursues the latter, he says he doesn't actually care. Rather, he feels the reticence of the owners underscores how obsessed we are as a nation with how much other people are spending.
He can tell though, from the size of a property, roughly how much a project has cost, even if doesn't always tally with the figures quoted by the owners. "I know viewers are often amazed that people can do it so cheaply – but I'll leave you to join the dots in that sentence …"
Ultimately, McCloud is more interested in whether the individuals involved have enough money to do their design justice. "What upsets me isn't the jeopardy in terms of the narrative, the 'will they or won't they finish?' All I care about is the bloody design. I just want it to be well executed."
There are groans around the production office, he says, when they find out that a project is in financial trouble, knowing that will now dominate the narrative. "It means we're just going to talk about money for the next 45 minutes," he sighs.
On that note, he doesn't like it when people just tune in for the last 15 minutes of Grand Designs to ooh and ahh over the finished, glossy article. And the show as a whole certainly seems more glossy today, compared with the grainy video footage of the early years.
I tell him that the episodes I've enjoyed the most are the ones where we are shown around a beautiful, luxurious new home, usually as the sun sets and golden light streams through the extremely large windows, only to see that the living room has the same tatty old sofa and dark brown sideboard from the owners' semi-detached days.
"I love that, too," says McCloud. "Fantasy architecture, great spaces … and s*** furniture. It's great, though. Because it demonstrates where they have decided to spend; it's all gone into the home.
"You know you're watching Grand Designs when you see really terrible furniture inside a really great building."
What makes a Grand Design grand?
"I don't know what a grand design is. I suspect it can be anything you want it to be, even an extension at the back of your house. We've filmed some really small, cheap projects and they are just as interesting as the huge ones. I think it's about the relationship between vision and risk. If somebody's got very little money but a fantastic idea, then that's what defines it. It's not to do with budgets or big sofas. It's about doing great things in the built world.
"Just occasionally, we film houses that have a rich contextual response. It's all about trying to make the building feel not only part of where it is but that it's from where it is.
"A building ought to be able to tell us to put our phones down, come and sit down and enjoy the view or a connection to your friends and family.
"I was in an amazing place recently where you just wanted to sit and gaze through the skylight at the clouds, rather than look at a picture of some clouds on Instagram."
All-new Grand Designs New Zealand premieres on Three, Wednesday, September 11 at 7.30pm