For years Kevin McCloud has watched, talked to and filmed people struggling with the harsh realities of building their “Grand Designs”, dreams that all too often turn to compromise and, on occasion, to nightmare.
Now, McCloud himself has become builder, dreamer and, above all, risk taker. Nothing, it seems, fires him up quite as much as the lack of ambition and vision of mass-market house-builders, so he’s set out to do something about it.
Investing in ideals
“I started out with a righteous anger,” he says. “I believed that in trying to demonstrate how it might be done, it might change the wider construction industry.”
Not only has he invested heavily in his ideals, but for someone who is the TV face of cutting-edge architecture he is, by his own admission, “staking my reputation on this”.
You could reasonably see McCloud as David, the house-builders as Goliath. He embarked with the object of lessening the environmental footprint of new housing, but by now it’s gone much further.
Telling me about it, he begins to speak very fast – it’s that righteous anger bubbling over – because he’s livid that people are being short-changed, driven by a market in which “homes are sold just like cars, then traded in. You can’t make a community just making people buy and sell, buy and sell. That’s churn.”
Everything around us (especially TV, he freely admits) makes us “treat our homes as properties, not places to relate to and live in”. What he’s now doing, McCloud says, getting faster and more furious by the second, “is meaningful. It gives a social purpose to what I’ve done. It makes up for a great deal of life, which can be very superficial.”
Building the Triangle
Over the years I’ve written about “model” housing, old and new, and was intrigued to talk to McCloud about his first completed project, the Triangle in Swindon, the subject of two Channel 4 programmes.
He calls it “Grand Designs for everybody” and it turns out to be only the first phase of a major campaign.
It was back in 2006 that McCloud decided to test his principles and philosophy and become an enlightened house-builder. Unfortunately, pre- credit crunch, the times were very different. McCloud set up a property company with a difference: Hab. He says it stands for “Happiness Architecture Beauty”, but it also hints at “habitat” – every creature’s natural setting.
After hunting for appropriate sites, and rejecting around 40, they chose one in Swindon. The Triangle was a former caravan parking lot (trian- gular, obviously) hidden behind an area of 1930s housing.
The good news is that the 42-home scheme is now complete, the residents are settling in and, better still, the contractors have moved out. But it’s been a five-year uphill slog – with battles fought on almost every front: funding, planning, construction, tenure and local opposition.
Add in a couple of the worst winters in living memory and, from Black Monday onwards, a severe, continuing recession, and it begins to sound as if McCloud’s dream was smitten by the Biblical seven plagues.
McCloud wanted to build houses that were sustainable, enjoyable, sociable and profitable. The architecture would be different from the identikit estates that have sprung up around the country in recent years. I ask which of these aims had survived best, which worst?
He tells me the notion of profit “was very quickly modified”. The original aim – to build a scheme combining housing for sale and to rent – had proved unfeasible in a moribund housing market. Hab then joined forces with housing association GreenSquare and became Hab Oakus.
So, he tells me with justifiable pride, “We delivered it, to budget, to target and the Swindon scheme has broken even. On one hand we had no more money, but on the other no more risk.”
The housing association nominated a mix of tenants from both the private and public rental sectors, as well as homeless families from within a two-mile radius.
But even if they were local, the people who now live in the Triangle started from a different place since, he says, “When they moved in, the majority of the residents already knew one another, thanks, partly, to Facebook.”
So it’s a physical place made solid by social networking? He agrees: “Yes, it might just be the first on-the-ground community formed through the online community!” There’s already a residents’ association as well as garden and car clubs. Everyone gets a share certificate, marking their own stake in the common space surrounding their houses.
It’s a particularly good way, McCloud strongly believes, “of engendering a sense of ownership and responsibility. There are an awful lot of measures we’ve put in I’m really proud of,” he says, such as the use of “hempcrete” (cavity insulation made from hemp fibres mixed with concrete), air source heat pumps, rainwater recycling and underground storage. But there were disappointments, too.
The housing association budget by which McCloud was bound ruled out making the houses even partially self-sufficient in energy. There were no photovoltaic roof tiles, which generate electricity from sunlight, nor any domestic wind turbines.
Grey water (from washing machines etc) goes down the drain. On the other hand, each household boasts an intranet screen to monitor its energy consumption.
The most assertive and architecturally distinctive feature of the Triangle remains the chunky cowls on the rooftops, housing the natural ventilation system for each home.
They’re a nod to chimneystacks on Brunel’s terraced 1840s Swindon railway village nearby, and in a very general sense it was the village that provided what McCloud calls “a locally distinctive typology” and guided the design.
“We’re keen wherever we work to produce something that’s not a reproduction of that place, but produce something to root the scheme,” he says.
Yet even after seven planning consultations, making alterations to the design, holding open-house evenings and offering membership of the car club or use of play equipment on site, neighbours still objected.
But McCloud understands why. In the film we see the previous site he and the team found on the edge of Swindon, which is larger and greener than the Triangle, being abandoned under Nimby onslaught.
“Reaction to buildings happens when they start to go up, not when people see planning drawings. That’s when they get upset,” he says.
Had he consulted too much? “You can’t over-consult. There will always be people who object, saying, ‘I didn’t realise that was going to be at the bottom of my garden.’ It’s human nature.” Sometimes, you think, McCloud is too amenable.
Prince Charles’s Poundbury
What about others who are trying to break the house-builders’ mould in this country? He cites Wayne Hemingway’s partnership with Taylor Wimpey at Gateshead and some successful Bristol self-builders. But what about the best-known example of a “model village” – Prince Charles’s Poundbury in Dorset?
McCloud spent several days there, but “aping” other styles and architectural periods leaves him uncomfortable. “It seems an easy thing to do, but in fact it’s impossible to reproduce a building of 1823.”
Those little thatched cottages around the green are pretty on the outside but, for him, “the Tiggywinkle cottages have all the disadvantages, low ceilings and so on, without any of the charm, flagstone floors and the rest. It’s lose, lose.”
For McCloud, “the built environment of the home is an interior, internal experience. It has to work.” In fact in the Triangle project he admits, “We only came to the exteriors of the buildings at the 11th hour in the design process.”
In the film he says he’d tried arguing for his favourite finish, pebbledash (“like a sandcastle”), but in the end the houses were plastered smoothly. Then he began to worry that it all might turn out looking ordinary; so the Triangle is a simple scheme, but none the worse for that.
So why is it so hard to build good mass-market housing in Britain? McCloud thinks that in Germany or Denmark, where co-operative schemes flourish, the answer lies in “relatively cheap land, planning consents that are easier to obtain and an existing support for community self-build.”
By contrast, Britain has high land values and a planning system that has restricted development and forced prices up. The cost of development land, “has led to a conservative construction and property development culture, which is very risk averse”.
So, is he merely battered, rather than beaten, having risked his reputation so publicly? Not everything went right, he admits, but, “We’re trying to push – some of these ideas are so unknown here and so misunderstood.”
Indeed, he is already committed to develop other schemes: one in Stroud in Gloucestershire and three sites in Oxford. “In any case I’ve got to try and get my money back!”
And then he speeds up again, the passion coming back into his voice. “But I’m also locked in because this has been, for me, one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.”
Kevin’s Grand Design begins tonight at 8pm on Channel 4.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 26 November 2011.