Designs For Life

3rd October 2014

Kevin McCloud, the man behind the long-running home-build show Grand Designs, has witnessed his fair share of design marvels and miseries. He spoke to Optima’s Al Gordon about the power behind modern design.

Channel 4 design guru Kevin McCloud has long been interested in renovated buildings – and long been ahead of the game – with sustainability at the forefront of every light configuration, endless references to the word ‘space’ and the majesty behind the use of a spirit level. A man with countless favourite buildings, the 55-year-old cites London landmarks at the top of the list.

“I recently visited King’s Cross train station – not the kind of thing you wanted to do ten years ago,” he says with that trademark twinkle in his eye. “But now that they’ve taken down the front canopies from the 1970s and built a new extension to the site, it’s a fabulous building and has completely lifted and reinvigorated the area. And that’s the power of architecture… it influences everything around it, right down to the way people behave.”

It’s not the only station on McCloud’s radar.

“I used to live in Bedfordshire and would commute though St. Pancras station. It was black and hideous and everyone wanted to demolish the station, but John Betjeman campaigned to save it. We thought John was mad at first, but now you look at it and think ‘how could they ever have wanted to tear this down?’”

For McCloud, our affinity with buildings is all to do with changing tastes. He might protest that, “I wouldn’t know what a trend was if it hit me in the face!” but he is someone who understands the importance of upkeep regardless. “It’s whether we decide to look after our buildings. A building that has been polished up beautifully can be an inspiration.”
McCloud has been in the presence of many a worn, majestic building, but his Grand Designs days have seen him witness some impressive new builds too.

“I’m very fond of the little house designed on the Isle of Skye. We filmed in the summer of 2012 when it was raining just about everywhere across the UK except, for some reason, the Isle of Skye. I fell in love with the rural Isle and it’s impossible to separate the direction of the film from the experience of making it and the people. It all rolls into one and it was a lovely, happy experience.”

McCloud’s latest project is Grand Designs Live, the four-day Birmingham event towards the middle of October. “We’ve got rather amazing buildings, lots of building techniques to have a go at, and amazing food being created in front of an audience – what more can you ask for?!” The event also features a look at the technologies which are driving the future, and McCloud has instrumented an urban allotment. “We’ve got bee keepers and architects together in the same room!”

The show still excites McCloud. “Birmingham was the cradle of the industrial revolution, and it’s rather cool to think that right now, in Britain, we still have the innovation and design techniques. We’ve got those great resources and people are beginning to turn them into a new kind of manufacturing and a new kind of making. We’re driving forward with new ideas and new technologies and it’s like the good old days again – this is a nation that has become obsessed with the service sector, but there’s so much incredible manufacturing… new technologies in Formula 1, aerospace, new growth in rapid prototyping and 3D printers. It all means it’s a really fascinating time to be alive right now, I feel.”

A man invested in sustainability, McCloud has often had to bite his tongue when overseeing the development of some projects that are perhaps not as ecologically responsible as they could be. But for those projects that do come with an environmental edge, he’s confident that thatched roofs and solar panels can still exist side by side.

“Right now there’s a whole band of architects who are really trying to evolve a style of architecture, incorporating natural materials with contemporary.”

McCloud has a vested interest in low impact building, and while he understands that “we all like bling and the government are going to carry on commissioning those big glass towers”, he sees exciting developments in the future of architecture.

“Particularly with architects designing buildings for developing countries, where we are seeing such population growth, it’s important that we develop technologies for building that allow communities to empower themselves and to use available materials, rather than import concrete and glass.”

McCloud clearly has his eyes on the future of the building industry; his just might be the next Grand Design.

Grand Designs Live will run from 9 to 12 October at Birmingham's NEC. See for more details.

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