My chat with Kevin McCloud

Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud on Britain’s small houses, why new builds are a turn-off and the importance of preserving your home’s soul

Dubbed the thinking woman’s heartthrob, it truly is somewhat impossible not to warm to Kevin McCloud.

Ever charming, often critical but always courteous the stalwart of Grand Designs’ passion for his subject is almost tangible.

So what makes a good home I ask the father-of-four?

‘The best homes are always the autobiographical homes,’ he enthuses. ‘Where there’s a table from granny and another piece of furniture from when you were a student and you’ve got the cutlery set you bought from a supermarket and the other thing you got from Oxfam…

‘We’re worried about what people are going to think but in the end I think the best homes are always those where the people have decorated, furnished them with conviction and belief.’

How important is location I wonder?

‘In the end, the design of the building is far less important than where it is,’ Kevin states. ‘It doesn’t matter how beautiful a place is, if people don’t welcome you to it, you soon leave. I’m very struck that two of the most welcoming cities in the UK are Newcastle and Birmingham. They wouldn’t necessarily be high on anybody’s list of choice places to live but the people there make all the difference.’

New statistics say that just one in four Brits would choose to buy a new build. And that’s not surprising says Kevin.

‘New builds tend to be poorly built; fairly small, rather small windows and we don’t have minimum space standards any more.

‘I’ve been part of a campaign by the Royal Institute of British Architects(RIBA), to champion, to get people to write to their MPs because building regs are being reviewed this summer to demand minimum space standards and demand minimum light standards.’

Indeed Britain’s new houses are the smallest in Europe, new research has revealed.

‘There’s been quite a lot of work done to establish the link between small, dark spaces and depression, lethargy and other psychological disorders,’ says Kevin.

‘There’s no doubt that a poor environment has a bad effect on you. It’s that simple. We all feel that intuitively and it’s certainly borne out by the research so it would stand to reason that we should be demanding better.’ And how does he really feel about total modernisation of character homes?

‘I’m a sort of die hard conservationist. A building’s soul, if you like, its identity, its character is comprised of 10,000 tiny details: scratch marks on the skirting board and wobbly door handles, strangely curved walls and wonky cracks and mouldings of timber architraves and window details. From handles to light switches to everything. Now if you replace bits you start to just scratch away, etch away at that, to eliminate, rub out little bits of that character. Buildings are lots of stuff and the more you rub away and remodel, the more destroy the very thing you fell in love with in the first place.

‘If you try, as I have done, to conserve as much of the detail as possible you will still end up rubbing out 20% of it because that’s the nature of building when you come to re-plaster, repair, knock a door through and so forth. Your own taste you will rub stuff out so you’ve got to start with a really hard line attitude.’

What one thing in the world of architecture would he ban?

‘I think the greatest enemy of good urban design and of great architecture and good social space and nice communities is the car.

‘If you go to communities like Freiburg in Germany where the car is banned from residential areas, it’s amazing. The kids play out in the streets, people are out talking and cycling and socialising. Societies cannot survive without cars and yet they create enormous physical divisions in our communities.’

Kevin’s life is rather governed by transmission dates he confesses. There’s a new series of Grand Designs coming out in the autumn. Right now it’s all about Grand Designs Live, and then he has a new series about his shed and series two of Man Made Home comes out in September. So what on earth does he do to relax?

‘I have a bit of woodland and I like to spend time there. I have orchards and I like to look after my trees. That’s my great hobby, it’s hugely absorbing. It’s mainly cider apples.’

Does he make his own cider?

‘I have made my own cider,’ he twinkles.

‘And I continue to dabble but the apples also go off for organic cider production as well.’

A dab hand in the home AND a man who knows his apples. A thinking woman’s heartthrob indeed.

Kevin is hosting the 9th Grand Designs Live London show at Excel May 4-12. Visitors will see Kevin tackle industry hot topics on the Grand Theatre stage as well as view his own personal exhibition – Kevin’s Green Heroes. Tickets still available

First published in the Lady magazine

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