Grand Designs: Houses of Fun


I just took a series of planes from London to Singapore, during which I ended up watching far too many episodes of a show called Grand Designs, a fascinatingly endearing programme about self-build projects in the UK. Apparently this is a show that has gone on for over ten years now, and the programme itself is a home-builders wet dream, or should i say, one big fat architectural wank fest. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this earlier but OH!!! Its fantastic!

What really fascinates me is the characters who are the homeowners/builders, who are often delightfully grating, anal-retentively stubborn, and pigheadedly ambitious. I am not sure how or in which order the episodes had been curated or selected for my viewing pleasure on the plane, but it seemed to me that many of the episodes were featuring people who had been specifically seized by the desire to build HOUSES OF FUN (notably, to be spelt in CAPITAL LETTERS) — this was just something that they all seemed to say: “HOW CAN ANYONE NOT HAVE FUN IN A HOUSE LIKE THIS HOUSE!”. No matter how expensive or impractical or annoying (to others) it would be for them to do so, no expenses were to be spared! £20,000 dance floor in your basement? Yes! Fantasy volcanic sauna spa just for yourself?? Yes! Gratuitously curvy looking house just because you like curvy houses?? YES! 2-tons of minimalist artisanal latvian glass surrounding the exterior facade of your delicately cantilevered house??? YES! Reality TV style camera swoop onto the house? YES! YES! YES! NOW THIS IS WHAT I CALL TELEVISION!


Planning permissions battles? Water table considerations and flooded worksites? Theft of all your precious work tools while you’re away for a weekend? Mortgaging yourself up to the eyeballs and doing some refinancing gymnastics? Moving the whole family into a boathouse temporarily because you had to sell your original house to pay for the construction? Resorting to completely un-ecofriendly cement fills to prevent leakages? Investing in eco-friendly but expensive energy panels that will charge your electric car and maybe hopefully pay back for itself after about what, 7 years, or was it 25 years? Totally self-cleaning houses? Excessive use of astroturf? Exploring stone finishes which feel like leather? Behold, the host, Kevin McCloud, enthusing that ARCHITECTURE CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE!

As you can tell, I have been won over by its winning combination of reckless ambition, ridiculously minimalist cuboidial architectures, and sheer boring construction site mundanity. I mean, if you’ve ever been unreasonably excited by a trip to the B&Q, then you might conceivably feel drawn towards these lofty spires of epic DIY housebuilding! Whenever my housing conditions are correct, I do turn into the sort who might be obsessing over joint fillers and materials, getting all excited by the thought of customizing my own drainage system for my hypothetical one-day-to-be-built-from-scratch-with-my-own-two-bare-hands future house. This show has admittedly reinvigorated my housebuilding aspirations. I love building things! I mean, WHY DON’T I RANDOMLY OWN SOME LAND ALREADY? Why can’t I build myself a funny house to live in?

My favorite was this episode with a woman who wanted to build a minimal modernist box of a boathouse on the River Thames in the middle of a long row of pristinely conserved Tudor houses. AND SO SHE DID.


“My next project is to demolish the other houses next to mind and BAM! Turn them all into awesomely NEW and FRESH and SHARP houses and turn this part of the river into a frozen snapshot of the new and fantastic modern 21st century forever instead of the 16th century. That’ll show them up, all of them them stuck-in-the-mud Tudor houseowners…”


Okay the lady did not quite say all that in quite those words, but she did say everything until the BAM (addition mine), and she also did say it, gleefully, whilst sitting in a little wooden pleasureboat as the host Kevin McCloud interviewed her and they floated sanguinely down the Thames…

McCloud then tiptoed over to the neighbors to ask them if their views might ever soften after seeing the no-expenses-spared construction work and extremely thoughtful delicate care that was taken to produce what the homeowners wanted to be the best ever modern contemporary house on the Thames riverfront in Oxford. NO!!! NEVER!!! hissed the lady neighbour, and god almighty what was that sound we heard echoing in the background? Was that the sounds of pearls exploding as they were being tightly clutched all up and down the riverfront, or was that just the sound of 21st-century-style house-demolition-and-construction whether-or-not-you-like-it-or-not? The housebuilding lady was totally trollin’ man. She totally worked them all up and I love it.

You know, if I could build any house in the world, I think I might want to build a ridiculous house as well. I wouldn’t want to build a traditional house in a traditional style in a traditional area. I’d maybe like an upside-down house. One that got bigger at the top instead of being bottom heavy. I’d want to build a house that would look like NO OTHER HOUSE IN THE WORLD…