When Kevin McCloud daydreams about houses, he doesn’t fantasise about a reconstructed 14th-century castle or converting a derelict Victorian water tower – although they’re among his favourite builds in 12 series of Grand Designs.
“The house that I shut my eyes and think ‘I want to go there now’ is on the Isle of Skye: a local architect designed this beautiful little wooden box: a one-bedroom house that has a great view over the northern coast.”
“I’ve sort of fallen in love with that place because it’s such a long way away and so far north – there’s nothing between you and the Arctic Circle. And because there’s this extraordinary rich wildlife and sealife: whales, dolphins, sea eagles…” He chuckles, aware he’s indulging in the misty-eyed sentimentality he always cautions against. “You can’t necessarily always rationalise it.”
Built by an artist couple in the last series, the larch-covered one-bed cost £150,000 and was one of the more modest designs. But it reflects a trend McCloud has observed both in Grand Designs and the wider industry. “What has happened as a result of the recession is that people have become far cleverer. So whereas once you could just spend your way out of a hole; now people are much more careful to think their way out.”
It’s not just budgets that have changed in the 14 years since he first started visiting building sites for the show. DIY housing or “self-building” – as it’s known in the business – is slowly but surely becoming a viable option for ordinary daydreamers: not only those with eccentric ideas and deep pockets.
That’s why McCloud declares himself “reasonably optimistic” about the future of housing in the UK, despite doom-monger headlines. “I’m optimistic in as much as the government sees self-builds as a very, very important way forward in the housing market. I’m becoming affordable and accessible, de-risked and de-stressed for the majority of people.”
Last year the government pledged to double the size of the sector, promising to do everything in its power to back what it called “the self-build boom”. So far this has included identifying land for development, relaxing planning regulation and a £30 million investment fund for would-be self-builders. “The government identified self-build as a means out of the housing problem. If you look to the continent – 80 per cent of all new homes in Austria are self-built. The average is 50 per cent across the whole of Europe. In the UK it’s eight per cent.
“What’s really surprising is it’s taken off massively,” enthuses McCloud. “All across the country there are local authorities saying, ‘We’re going to authorise 50, a hundred self-build homes’. Cherwell District Council is planning a site near Bicester in Oxfordshire, which is scheduled to deliver over a thousand.”
The Bicester site will be the first large-scale self-build project in the UK. For although “self- build” conjures up images of ruddy-cheeked couples in hard hats sweating over concrete mixers, it also means houses where an architect or contractor does the nitty-gritty (as usually happens in Grand Designs), flat-pack homes and community-led projects.
But what does he make of Grand Designs’ no-frills rival – The House that 100K Built? The new BBC2 series, which starts this week, cashes in on the trend for affordable DIY housing. Every programme features a self-build project with a budget of £100,000 or less: that’s £50,000 less than the £150,000 the government estimates adequate to build a three- or four-bedroom house (and of course it’s £50,000 less than the cost of the idyllic little larch-clad box on Skye).
“I think the £100,000 house is a really sensible target,” declares McCloud. “Eminently do-able.” It’s a surprising vote of confidence from a man famous for his raised eyebrow, his wry smile and blithely dismissing projects as “bonkers”. Nor is he concerned that a cut-price competitor could diminish the allure of Grand Designs – which he believes taps into a primal urge in all of us.
“It doesn’t matter where we’re from, what our backgrounds are, how much money we’ve got: we all want to do it. The idea of building, protecting and making a home is in human nature. It’s in our blood. So when people watch the programme they vicariously go on these adventures; they believe that one day they too might do it.”
Grand Designs is on Wednesdays at 9:00pm on Channel 4