We Need to Talk About Kevin

12th January 2018

At 7-10% of new builds – around 12-13,000 homes per year – the UK has a much lower rate of self-building than most other European countries: in Austria, for example, around 80% of housing completions are self-built; in France 60%. The practice is growing in popularity, however, with this sector of the property market rising by about 10% per year. Heather Harris explores the reality of building your own house, and ventures that it all began with a certain architect/presenter…

Kevin McCloud is very big in Iran. He’s a household name in Taiwan, Turkey, India and most of Scandinavia. Across mainland Europe he and David Attenborough are doing more for international relations than most politicians. But McCloud isn’t a film star, a musician or even a Sir (although he does have an MBE for services to sustainable design and energy saving property refurbishment). He’s simply a designer and architect who just happened to have an idea for a TV show that has proved an unlikely worldwide hit.

First broadcast on Channel 4 in April 1999, Grand Designs has now run for seventeen series with millions of viewers tuning in for each of the 160 episodes – simply to watch a house being built.

The format never changes. Kevin meets the ‘clients’ at the start of the show and discusses their ‘project’, often using a computer-generated image to show the proposed final build. Over the next hour the viewers watch the highs and lows of the experience, with Kevin delivering his famous arch pieces to camera commenting on the work in progress. The episode finishes with him visiting the occupants once they’ve moved in, and one last philosophical summing-up for the viewer.

In today’s multi-channel, high tech world, it’s reassuring that all around the globe people still tune in to – almost literally – watch paint dry.

It is aspirational TV. A man’s home really is his castle and, secretly, wouldn’t everybody like to build one from scratch, turrets and all?

In the UK an estimated 1,100 people a month build their own properties and the number is increasing. It’s actively encouraged by the Government, who in 2017 announced a fund of £150 million for helping to service 10,000 new plots for residential building.

“We have seen the number of self-build completions rise every year for the past five years,” says Michael Holmes, Chairman of the National Custom and Self-Build Association. And, reassuringly, Rachel Pyne of mortgage broker BuildStore confirms that “self-builders come from all walks of life, are of all ages and really don’t need any background in construction.”

Presumably, all they do need to do is join the other 50,000 people trudging around Birmingham’s NEC for the Grand Designs Live show, where over 500 exhibitors gather together to promote everything from chipboard to chip fryers.

Carol Fraser is a self-confessed Kevin McCloud addict. “He really is my inspiration,” she admits, adding, ‘and I always said I’d build my own house before my 30th birthday.”
It’s a reaction I find surprising, given that approximately 26 minutes into every episode the self-builders run out of money / get hit by a hurricane / lose their project manager or architect – and someone cries.

“I actually collapsed in the middle of the gym one day through the sheer stress of building this place,” Carol tells me, as we sit in the five bedroomed, high-tech house in the centre of Sevenoaks that she and her husband, David took exactly a year to build – “when it seemed to rain every single day!” – during 2007.

“The worst moment was when, six months in, the neighbours complained about the windows and the planners said we might have to stop the whole project!” That’s another scenario familiar to viewers of the programme (and always revealed just before the commercial break).

Luckily for Carol, a sleepless 48 hours later they were given the go ahead, and work could proceed.

Fellow self-builders, Jane and Patrick Harrison had an even worse experience when they found a stunning plot in the Hertfordshire village of Potten End, with a view over one of the Chiltern valleys.

“It was fate,” says Jane. “I was telling someone at a party how I wanted to find a plot and a few days later I saw the same man waving at me from the window of an Estate Agents in Amersham, saying this plot had just come available and wasn’t even on the market yet!”

Having secured the plot in a blind auction, there followed three years of wrangling and negotiation that would make even Kevin’s hair curl.

“Everything that could go wrong did! A family feud meant the house was suddenly taken off the market,… once this was resolved, months later, we finally started the project, only for the builder to suddenly go into bankruptcy and walk away just as the shell was up… and then Patrick was made redundant and I discovered I was pregnant with our third child,” Jane remembers, adding that ironically, the redundancy did mean that Patrick could become more heavily involved in steering the project back on track. Before that, both had been working full-time which, as so many self-builders will testify, is not ideal.

Back in Sevenoaks, Carol could not agree more. “This build took over my life. David was working long hours so I was on site talking to all the contractors. I completely lost my voice, as none of them used text or email!”

It does generally seem to be the women who are making the day-to-day decisions on self-build projects – Grand Designs has featured many females in hard hats over the years – and it is certainly true for the third couple I meet, Sarah and Felix Leadbetter, from Berkhamsted. “I reckon I made 1,100 decisions in the 13 months it took us from start to finish – it became my full-time job,” Sarah tells me, as she shows me around the contemporary glass-fronted house she and her husband built in 2012.

Unlike the others, Sarah and Felix have never watched Grand Designs or bought Build It Magazine (Carol, by contrast, has an attic full of back copies).
“We were never remotely interested in building our own house until, out of sheer frustration at not being able to find anywhere we could afford, we were suddenly shown this 1960s chalet in a perfect location and had to make a quick decision.”

Unlike the many horror stories that are peddled around the self-building experience, their whole project went remarkably smoothly, from planning to knocking down the existing house, to the final build. Like Carol, Sarah was also on site every day liaising with all the various contractors involved. “I discovered I am a very good diplomat and also good at holding people to times” she tells me, confessing that their nightmare began the day they moved in.

“Our rental period had come to an end so I insisted we move in… the trouble was we had no staircase, scaffolding everywhere and were surrounded by mud. Oh, and living on site meant everything slowed down.”

Listening to their experiences – is it really worth the hassle?

After living in the house for four years, Sarah admits that there are some tiny things that still annoy her. One, ironically, is the front door. “I just don’t like it,” she says, “but couldn’t afford the one I wanted. I do love the rest of it, though!” And while she and Felix have vowed never to do it again, they do encourage others to give self-building a try, if they have a real passion for it.

Carol agrees that you can’t go into a project unless you accept that it will be stressful and also that you are unlikely to make money. Her view is echoed by Jane, who tells me that everything always costs more than you think it will. “You want everything to be perfect because it becomes so personal and a real labour of love. I know one day we will have to move from here and I just can’t imagine someone else living in what we have built.”

And there lies the success of Grand Designs. To see someone’s dream turn into reality, to watch a series of drawings on an architect’s table develop into an actual structure, is as thrilling as any blockbuster, as emotional as any reality show, as visually enthralling as the top nature documentary (and all served up by a leading man irresistible the world over).

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