I adore property shows. I couldn’t tell you why exactly, but I guess it’s similar to why people on diets read recipe books – my house is tatty and pokey so I enjoy spending a couple of hours a week looking at houses that are neither.
Grand Designs always follows the same formula. People design house. Kevin McCloud furrows his brow and expresses his concerns about the design. Build starts. Problems (with the finances, the site, the builders) ensue. Kevin gets a bit smirky – he knew it wouldn’t work out! The house is (almost always) finished and (almost always) completely amazing. Kevin eats his words. Or, as @gracedent tweeted last night: “omg. that house that kevin from grand designs didn’t believe would work turned out ok in the end!!!”
Last night’s show featured architects Helen and Chris Seymour-Smith who, thanks to a loophole in the planning laws, had permission to build a property in open countryside. The land they’d bought came with an old barn that they had to promise to preserve, but they weren’t going to convert it, no – that would be too easy! – they were going to levitate the barn and build their home underneath it. Underground. They wanted to make it England’s first passive house, i.e. airtight and requiring no heating. The husband described it, a little bit irritatingly, as “loft living, underground”.
Unsurprisingly, Kevin was sceptical: “It seems more than slightly barmy.”
The first problem the couple face is that, thanks to the “credit crunch”, they had to knock £100,000 of the price of their home. Can I just point out that my house isn’t even worth £100,000? I’m just saying.
As a way of saving money, Helen decides to project manage the build herself. I’ve watched enough of these shows to know that rarely goes well. “In an industry still dominated by men and traditional attitudes…” says Kevin. “We have worked with ladies before and, yes, it works well and sometimes you think, oh leave us alone,” says Nigel, one of the builders. Aw. He lost me at ‘ladies’. But it actually didn’t go too badly. In fact, for once, the entire build went fairly smoothly. In fact, I needn’t have bothered watching it. I could’ve just seen the plans at the start, watched a couple of Friends repeats on E4+1, and then tuned back in for the reveal.
And what a reveal. The finished house is amazing. All you can see from a distance is the original barn – although it has been smartened up considerably and partly converted into a walled garden. Despite being underground, the house is “flooded with light”. Kevin makes a few little digs about how he wouldn’t be able to sleep with a water feature outside the bedroom, but in the main he seems impressed.
I always have a strange sensation of anticlimax at the end of Grand Designs. There’s so little drama. It’s not like Property Ladder in which people often make a total hash of things (“With no offers, they’ve decided to live in the house themselves…”) and you can indulge in a little schadenfreude, but at the same time that’s what I like about it. You know exactly what you’re going to get. And sometimes that’s exactly what I want.