Grand Designs 20 years anniversary - Kevin McCloud reflects

Kevin McCloud discusses 20 years of Grand Designs

Insights into the 2019 series and what to expect from Kevin's Grandest Design

By Jenny Mcfarlane |

Kevin McCloud talks through Grand Designs 20th anniversary, how the series has evolved and the scoop on the special anniversary show, where he reveals the grandest designs of the last 20 years.

How does it feel to have reached such an impressive milestone?

Anniversaries are funny things because on the one hand they don’t mean anything, you just carry on doing what you do, and on the other they’re a great excuse to celebrate. We celebrated this year at Grand Designs Live at ExCel in the spring, we’re celebrating again at Grand Designs Live in Birmingham in October and we’re celebrating on screen by kicking off the new series with a special that looks back on the past 20 years, where I’ve selected a clutch of my favourite projects, so that’s quite a personal film.

How do you feel the series has evolved in the last 20 years?

It’s funny, it’s probably evolved very little. We’ve worked on nearly 200 episodes – that’s a lot of television. In those 20 years technology has changed a lot, so the big advances have been in the quality of the visual imagery and in the editing.

If you look back now at the stuff from 20 years ago, everything looks grey – the only thing that looks grey now is my hair! My hairline would probably be the biggest change you’d see between the first and latest episodes.

In 2012 we went back to re-visit the Hedgehog Housing Co-Op in Brighton and kids who were seven or eight when we made the first film were suddenly graduating from University and going off for their gap years.

It was fantastic because it was a programme about a social housing project, and what you saw was kids coming out of this who were incredibly empowered – it was a real testament to the power of architecture. So the change has been marked by children growing up, it has been marked by my hairline and it has also been marked by this amazing proof of how great architecture can change people’s lives.

Kevin McCloud filming Grand Designs behind the scenes shot with crew in 2015

Photo: Lee Beard

What would you say to anyone thinking about starting a Grand Designs project?

Work with great people! Don’t imagine for a moment that you can do everything, most of us can’t. Find an architect who views the world as you do and find a builder who you love working with and with whom you feel you can have a good relationship. Work on recommendations from friends, by all means, and do get projects costed.

How do you think architecture itself has changed in the past two decades?

It’s a slow game, architecture. Most people think it’s about style but it’s really about substance, it’s about things like walls and doors and where they go, it’s about circulation, the use of rooms, making a building fit where it is so that it gets the best views and maximising the light. A lot of it’s very pragmatic and that means some of the ground rules don’t change.

When it comes to things like the tech and the cladding, of course there are advances, and you get these little blips of fashion where architecture gets a bit self-conscious and goes all trendy. That’s where you get things like cladding with oak, which was a bit of a trademark 20 years ago.

Glass is always there, bi-fold doors won’t go away – I’ve stopped calling them bi-fold doors now, I just call them French Windows, which was a 1960s word for them.

What can we expect to see coming up in the new series?

You can expect to see the usual diversity, the amazing richness of projects that we’ve got. There’s an extraordinary house built into a cliff, covered in earth, like some kind of bunker, on the coast of Scotland. There’s one inland which is sort of the reverse of that, it’s actually converted from an existing concrete, earth-sheltered water-tank.

We’ve got healthy housing which is designed to look after its occupants who have suffered critical illness.  

The anniversary special will see you return to your top 5 builds from the show so far. How did it feel to revisit some of your favourites?

It was great. I worked very long and hard on this because people have always asked me, “What’s your favourite Grand Designs house?” I don’t have one! If I was to choose my favourites there might be 20 or 30 or 40! I actually started by producing this enormous spreadsheet of things that I’ve liked to try and make sense of it all. Inevitably there are projects that we haven’t put in that I really love.

It was great going back! These visits were lovely because we kind of just sat and talked about the experience, about friendship – one or two of the people I’ve now known for around 10 years and have been back to see and meet regularly. It was a lovely thing to film.

The human drama has always been front and centre in Grand Designs. Do you have any particular favourite stories?

There was an amazing story down in Hampshire of a couple whose thatched house burnt to the ground, and rather than give up they decided to rebuild their house. It was a really difficult story of pain and regeneration, where they bounced back, which was amazing.

What we’re doing here is that we are making homes for ourselves, but these people are also sometimes making monuments to themselves, testaments to their own extraordinary energy.

The contributors we’ve followed over the series have come from all walks of life. Are there any common traits in a Grand Designer?

There’s a sort of glint in the eye, a sort of self-righteousness that means whatever I tell them they’re going to ignore. The fact that I’ve seen hundreds of projects and have made observations about all of them is of no relevance to most of the self-builders I meet, who are just absolutely convinced that their project is going to be the one that goes right. But where this springs from is hope – the wonderful, human fallibility that we all have, which is hope.

Your presenting style on the show always seems tread the line of not imposing on the builders and their plans, but do you ever feel like you just want to jump in and intervene?

My job is to hold the viewer’s hand, to say to the viewer, “It’s ok, they’re the ones doing this, you’re safe at home on the sofa.”

How does it feel to have developed something of a celebrity fan-base?

People tell me this stuff but I have no idea. I know Richard Ayoade is quite keen on it and I know one or two other people are but it’s not as though we’re best friends as a result. I once wrote to Meryl Streep offering her tickets to something and she never replied. The only time I get excited is when a cabbie says he enjoys the programme, or when a 30-year-old architect comes up to me and says, “I started watching the programme when I was 10”.

When each project is first pitched to you, are you able to tell which ones will a success?

We’re all able to judge a good design, from how intelligent it is and how considered, and we’re all able to judge the quality of a well-made building, and the craftsmanship that goes into it. There’s are many projects that I don’t particularly like, but that I can still admire. I think it’s very important not to restrict the projects that we film to the limitations of my own taste.

Can you predict any innovations that you think will play a big part in the future of housebuilding?

The increased electrification of the home is the first thing. The tech is already there and is beginning to be used – we will see it on Grand Designs soon without a doubt in my view. Electric cars are going to mean the relationship between the car and the home will be redefined. The car’s going to become a much more integrated tool with the house. In terms of tech, I think that’s where we’re heading.

The show has charted 20 years of your life, just as it has 20 years of the viewers’ lives. What has it meant to you personally?

It’s given me a job! It’s made the world of a difference to me, it’s been fantastic. It’s a huge privilege to go and meet people and to talk to them and I get to know them through their projects, through the architecture. So for me, it’s been extraordinary. As each programme is for them, so the 20 years for me has been a huge adventure.