This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


“Go and buy a gazebo from B&Q, stick it outside your big glass wall, and you’ve sorted the problem.” I’d thought Kevin McCloud would be downbeat. After all, as he dusts off the architects’ plans and dons his hard hat for season 23 of Grand Designs, the entire premise of the show appears to be at risk from cataclysmic economic meltdown and unfolding climate disaster.

But here he is, telling me I should have gone to B&Q (“other gazebos are available,” he adds, forestalling any winces in the Channel 4 advertising department) to cool down my house during a British summer when temperatures topped 40 degrees – especially if I’ve been foolhardy enough to build a modernist glass box. Far from hastening Grand Designs’ demise, he insists, the end of days we’re presently enduring is actually playing to the show’s strengths.

“It’s about the third time around that we’ve had a big jolt to the economy,” he says. “All our contributors are thinking hard, and they’re working with people who are brilliant. If they’re faced with a real difficulty, they will think of a cheap and clever solution to get out of it.”

But what about the recent and ongoing crazy weather – is it still wise to put glass boxes on mountainsides? “Do we really? I can only think of three glass boxes in 23 years,” he says, rejecting my characterisation of a show that erects radical domestic architecture in hard-to-reach locations.

He does concede our modern affection for acres of glazing has meant a very sticky summer for millions of Britons. But it needn’t. “Go to Morocco or any hot climate in the world, and there are plenty of buildings with glazing. It’s not the glass that’s the issue. It’s the shading that we need to be providing.”

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Hence the gazebo, and the 63-year-old presenter has other fixes where that came from. Consider, he suggests, why “little old Italian men” (and women) in their hilltop villages put water on the pavement in front of their houses every day. “They’re not doing it to keep clean. The water evaporates; to do so it draws energy from its immediate environment. So, sun heats water, water evaporates off, stone becomes cool. Air passing over stone into house becomes cool.”

What if you don’t have a slab of Tuscan stone outside? “Mop your floors in the morning but don’t mop the water off, just leave it there to evaporate. Or go and sit under a tree; because the water is evaporating off the leaves you get evaporative cooling. Trees in cities can mean that the streets are up to 12 degrees cooler because of the evaporative cool rate. This is basic physics, it’s exactly the same physics of evaporative cooling in air-conditioning. You can put your hand in your pocket and pay £3,000 or you can let nature help.”

Kevin McCloud in Grand Designs
Kevin McCloud in Grand Designs Channel 4

Spending money, much more than £3,000, is central to Grand Designs’ appeal. Budgets, apparently expressions of desire rather than achievable ends, are invariably bust within minutes of the first footings being dug. Some guests have put hundreds of thousands of pounds into projects, not always entirely successfully – most notably Edward Short, star of the 2019 episode that was dubbed “the saddest ever” by viewers.

Short’s ultra-ambitious, lighthouse-inspired, neo deco clifftop house, overlooking the north Devon coast, was beset by difficulties and eventually put him £7 million in debt. Much of the adversity Short encountered was beyond his control – who priced Brexit and COVID-19 into their business plan 10 years ago? – but he aimed for the heavens and, in so doing, angered the property development gods.

“The project was vainglorious,” says McCloud of a build that long ago left the realm of challenging construction site and became a mythic quest. “The drive to build, to change the world and make in our own image, to improve our environment, all of these things can go too far. And that ambition can destroy the beauty that we strive to find in life.”

In Short’s case, it destroyed his marriage to wife Hazel. With raw honesty, the 57-year-old told McCloud: “My vanity and ambition probably collapsed the marriage.” Does McCloud feel any residual guilt? “I see my role as like that of a therapist. I’m not complicit with these people. I’m not egging them on. I’m not involved in their design.”

Consequently, he keeps an emotional barrier between himself and the people on the show. As he puts it, “If I’m too pally with the guys who are building then, in a way, I think I’ve betrayed my relationship with the viewer.” But he admits Short has broken through that barrier.

“I’ve known him now for 10 years. And I’ve always been utterly in admiration of somebody who is prepared to admit, with such humility, their failings, in front of three and a half million strangers. It’s almost a public self-castigation of human foibles and failings. I’ve become very emotionally bound up with it. You can’t not, can you? I’ve known these guys for that long. Their girls were young teenagers when I first met them. They’re now young women.”

Edward Short and his daughters Nicole and Lauren appear in the new season, but Hazel turned down the chance to be on screen. “We asked Hazel if she’d like to take part,” McCloud says. “She’d rather leave it to Edward and the girls to speak for her. And I understand why, because they’re still a family, and they’re still friends. It’s about trust and being totally open.”

This insistence on integrity means McCloud is no fan of makeover shows and their trickery, even though that’s how his own television career began, on BBC Two’s Home Front in the late 1990s.

“Makeover is my worst kind of television,” he says. “Whatever’s happening in front of the camera is being orchestrated by the team who are making the programme, by the presenter, who might or might not be a designer. So the viewer is being sold an idea as hard as the victims on the television are.

“When we started Grand Designs, 23 years ago, I thought, ‘This is more like it.’ It’s an opportunity to champion something because we like it, but also to remain on the side of the viewer. It’s almost like saying to the viewer, ‘It’s OK, I’ll hold your hand. You’re on the sofa at home. You’re not mad, they are.’”

Grand Designs season 22 begins tonight Wednesday 31st August at 9pm on Channel 4. Check out more of our Documentaries coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.


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