17 Dec 2023

Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud: 'Happiness is not to be found in a suburban McMansion'

From Sunday Morning, 10:07 am on 17 December 2023
Kevin McCloud

Kevin McCloud is coming to NZ in February. Photo: Kevin McCloud

The presenter of the Grand Designs TV show Kevin McCloud doesn't want us to "go big or go home".

Instead, he says many house building projects come a cropper because their owners' dreams are too grandiose.

"I think it is planning houses that are just too big, with all these bathrooms - who needs them?

"They're so expensive to do. Why wouldn't you just do one beautiful bathroom that's properly organised, beautifully laid out for the family, maybe a downstairs loo? You know, if you want that - great - and a good pantry and utility if you've got space for it."

The broadcaster, writer and environmentalist is coming to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in early February for his stage show Home Truths.

He talked to Jim Mora on Sunday Morning about housing, his career and why he prefers New Zealand buildings to those in England.

"Honestly, one of the things I'm addressing in my talk [in February, which] is a really big thing for me, is the idea of just enough. Which in Swedish is 'lagom'.

"They take this idea very seriously - that you don't over-specify, you don't overblow your life ... because all it's doing is creating complexity and the more things you have, the more things there are to go wrong. So just focus on what makes you happy.

"If you ask people, what are the things that matter in life to them. Nobody says, 'I want a drawing room 15 metres by 16.' Whatever it is, it's not to be found in a suburban McMansion.

"We've got to reprioritise and and just remember what it is as ... individuals that makes our hearts sing. That's what we should be putting into our architecture."

It was not unusual for homes featured on Grand Designs to go over budget, he said.

"Generally, we overspend because we don't plan wisely in the first place. So often people ... have failed to prepare and therefore they fail - through lack of planning, lack of proper use of architects and consultants, through being too hasty.

"Sometimes people really don't have any more money and ... just stop and pick it up and earn money from [other sources]. I have the utmost respect for how they change their lives.

"Occasionally, we've seen people have to sell projects and we haven't had a film, [but] very occasionally.

"Mainly, people kind of find a way - they sell something or lend from family or they beg or borrow, steal - you know, whatever it takes to get there.

"It's that determination, that hope - and that desperation of course can take you right to the edge of a cliff. And it can then push you off if you're not careful. So I'm very respectful of the real-world difficulties and the demands placed on people."

McCloud told Mora that he believed homes in New Zealand were a reflection of our national character.

"I think it's to do with the fact that [you] tread quite lightly on the planet. I mean, not every single building in the country is a an eco home, but ... I find the New Zealand  temperament is one of self-deference, of modesty almost.

"I like the gentleness and the hospitality and the good humour of people in New Zealand and it's expressed in the buildings. Timber is so often used,... the architecture is quite inclusive in New Zealand and for centuries people have had to do with what they could get hold of. I think there's huge charm in that."

In the past, McCloud has gone on record as saying new homes have too many bathrooms.

"All you have to do is add up the total number of residents in the average home and then add up the total number of flushing toilets and figure out how often people need to go and how many.

"It's got to the point where it's nuts, we've got more flushing toilets in most houses than people. What's going to happen? You waiting for the postman to come round? Fifteen guests? It's a little bit like having too many packets of sugar in the cupboard, it's a 'just in case' strategy.

Poorly designed bathroom taps are among his pet peeves in interior design.

"So often I go into bathroom and there's a modern, Danish-looking tap and it doesn't have the indices marked - which is hot, which is cold. And you turn it on and you scald yourself or it's freezing.

"Then I often find in hotels, the controls for the shower involve reaching through the shower to be able to turn the thing on. So again, if you're not careful you burn your arm. And I just don't understand why.

"So I'll be talking a little bit about that and have a Q&A with the audience."

McCloud swears he will never tell people what his own house looks like, describing it as a "closely guarded mess... It would destroy any credibility I have."

He is, however, planning to sneak in photos of his home during the February shows: "They'll have to guess which is which."

What would his dream home look like?

"I'd be scared of having a limitless budget because good, creative thinking on a tight budget delivers some of the best stuff in the world.

"So my answer is, it all depends where it is: what the aspect is and what I'm trying to create and who for.

"I'm a private person, so I like the idea of enclosed spaces. Some of my most favourite buildings are cloisters, like in monastic buildings.

"There's probably a handful of things that I think are important in buildings [but] they're so personal to me that I wouldn't expect another human being to understand them. But for me, they just bring back memories and associations and and pleasures and lower my blood pressure and make me smile."

When pressed for his wish list, he named a view of a sunset, with a chair or hammock to enjoy a glass of wine or a pint of beer.

"This year I've finished building a little stoop outside my porch for me to sit under in the rain, and I got a hammock for my birthday for the first time. And I'm so excited about both of those.

"And the other thing I'm building at the moment is an outdoor shower so I can go out there in the middle of the frosty winters and stand under a warm spray of water and ... a cold one too in the summer. People [might] go, why would anybody want to experience those things in that combination? But for me all linked to previous happiness."