The Design Hub has had the pleasure of talking to Grand Designs creator and eco building champion Kevin McCloud. Since it first aired in 1999, Grand Designs has had eleven series’, and as one of the UK’s most successful design programmes it shows no signs of stopping. Besides several spin offs, including the popular Grand Designs Live exhibitions, writing books and raising a family, Kevin has also entered into the world of construction with his company Hab (Happiness – Architecture – Beauty). Taking time out from his busy schedule, here is what he had to say:
DH: From your experience of working with the construction industry what do you think the barriers are regarding the use of sustainable designs and materials when building new homes?
KM: Though there are some fantastic things going on in the industry; there are some developers who have fully embraced sustainability and all it entails and all it means. One of the first problems within those camps is it is very hard to get the rank and file to join in. It’s very easy for the board and the senior management to buy-in, but to actually get buy-in further down the chain is harder and that’s because the wider industry is still pretty anti ‘green’ and to admit that you like building ‘green’ is tantamount to admitting your gay, and as far as I can see nobody in construction is gay. It’s one of those few primitive parts of the world which is yet to catch up the 20th century and it’s a shocking thing I’m afraid. It’s just a bizarrely macho male dominated thing, there are no women working in construction, it is a very very primeval world. I work in it, I’ve worked in it and I continue to work it and I’m repeatedly shocked by the attitudes within it, and I’m not talking about the Directors of companies. I’m talking about builders, I’m talking about the ground workers, the sub contractors. It’s a very gung ho world and as a result, anything that hints at namby pambyism is considered as highly suspicious. I’m talking about the industry in its widest sense here, there are pockets of good guys out there. Some companies are really trying to change these entrenched views, but others are less enthusiastic. For what I’ve done I meet with quite a lot of suspicion from large developers; but you know, I’ve been slagging them off for years.
DH: Despite the growing imperative to build sustainably, why are housing developments like The Triangle the exception and not the rule? What needs to change?
KM: I don’t know how much of an exception it is actually, it’s a project we’ve been working on. We’re working on several more now and with more enlightened builders and I’m very pleased to say there are constructors out there who do understand our objectives and share them. We’ve got some big legislative targets coming up, like the 2016 Zero Carbon in Construction and the 2050 Zero Carbon Britain target. The 2016 is a big one and I think it’s fairly safe to say that the industry is not ready for it. It’s getting there and the professionals get it; by which I mean the quantity surveyors , engineers and architects. The MD’s get it, but it’s the rank and file who don’t, it’s about getting that big culture change down to the root.
It’s a shame we can’t do more, but had we not been in recession there might have been a bigger change. I think at the moment the entire construction industry and development world is in crisis and shock and is need of therapy. On the one hand we needed this recession, this shock, but on the other hand had we not had it perhaps we’d be building more, and building more adventurously.
DH: Building eco homes is one thing, but what do you think the key to changing people’s behaviour is, with regards to living less environmentally impactful lives?
KM: You’re absolutely right, you can build an eco home, but you can’t control how someone lives in that home. The real interesting stuff and the culture change all happens in the public realm. My social housing partners Greensquare Group who I am working on schemes with in Stroud and in Swindon are really good at coaching residents and that’s very helpful and I think very much a part of working in communities. However the really interesting stuff is happening in the public realm. If you want people to have a car club, a bicycle club, an allotment, some food growing plans, or just sharing lifts and having a healthy environment for kids to play in and a green space which is good for the soul and promotes sociability; all this stuff, plus traffic management and rain water harvesting is all down to your landscape architects. We work with Luke Ableback, who is a great Landscape Architect. I firmly believe that good social sustainability happens in the public realm, it is down to your landscape architects. It’s quite a controversial idea because traditionally architect types took the credit for that.
DH: All the homes at The Triangle in Swindon include a touch screen device called a ‘Shimmy’. A bit like an iPad that monitors energy usage and useful local, community and travel information. What other sustainable home technology has impressed you in recent years and why?
KM: I’m not an enormous fan of technology, it has its purpose, but the more complicated you make a home, the more things there are to go wrong. It’s one thing to think as an enlightened home owner that that’s what you want to do with your life, it’s quite another thing when you start to push it on to other people, and at The Triangle I think we learnt that. We had systems which our engineers were really excited about but which our residents thought were less than fascinating, because unless you are an engineer you are not that interested in spending your evening sorting out your heating controls. So we should be making our homes very very straight forward and I think that was a big lesson there.
DH: In the spirit of making things simpler, what do you think about providing communal spaces for meetings, sharing meals etc, similar to co-housing principles?
KM: We looked at that, and it would be very interesting to be in a position where we could afford to provide huge sociable spaces on projects, and pre-recession these things were a little bit easier. On the scheme in Stroud we are putting in an allotment building which is a sort of social space, come vegetable selling space, come storage space, come shelter from the rain. The building is very plugged into its environment, into the allotment itself. It’s a very simple shelter and I really like the idea of making buildings which aren’t too flash, but do a really important job.
DH: The Grand Design Live shows do a lot to educate about sustainable materials, systems and products*. Do you think that schools and universities have a responsibility to teach students about sustainability as part of any design based course?
I think it’s beginning to happen. Sustainability is beginning to be woven into design courses as a principle of design. I wrote a book a few years ago called 43 Principles of Home in which I sort of took the Vitruviun principles of firmness, commodity and of delight and I added a fourth which is sustainable. I think that all products, all things we make should be well made, durable and fit for purpose. They should be beautiful, delightful and fun to use. They should also have done the minimal amount of harm in their manufacture and design, and that’s a very hard thing to ask or to police but I think it’s a fundamental requirement which, as we move toward a more sustainable way of living, that all our products and environments are ecological in composition but in performance as well. Yeah, why not, it seems like a reasonable ask really.
With regards to the show, we keep plugging away at the green agenda, we are promoting green self build, we are promoting the Governments ‘Green Appeal’. We have a green trail around the show for visitors to follow. The promotion of sustainability has and will get bigger and bigger. When we first started it was a drum I was banging in the corner and now it underscores the whole exhibition, even the way we put the exhibition together because it’s assessed for its green credentials as an exhibition; we have waste management policies, waste is hand sorted if it is not pre-sorted by consumers. We have a lot of recycling of carpets and of the fixtures and fittings. As an exhibition it’s a very green event itself.
*For further information about design courses that feature sustainability as a core module, visit our education partner National Design Academy.
DH: With the rise in popularity of Interior Design as both a hobby and a career these days, do you think too much emphasis is being put on what the inside of a home looks like stylistically and not enough on how a home functions as a living space?
KM: Well that was what my book was about! I wrote 300 pages about people saying to me, ‘what’s fashionable? What’s trending at the moment?’ and I’d say ‘I have no idea’, and if I did it would be pointless me telling you because it will be out of fashion next week by the time you go to print.
Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect said there’s no point to try and be fashionable because it takes so long to do; it takes ten years to put a building together, so you know it’s out of date.
Taste changes with time and age, with socio-economic class. We all have different tastes, we all believe our taste is better than our neighbours and it’s not true. Buildings get torn down and skirt lengths get shorter and longer, but in the end the one thing I do know is that taste is a nonsense. Good quality design, a well made thing, quality of design and quality of manufacture; those things are tangible, you can recognise those, we can all recognise those. We all know a well made thing when we see it, handle it and use it, and it lasts, and that’s what matters. So I deliberately avoid all the questions about ‘trending’.
DH: You live in a 15th Century Farmhouse, have you had to make many compromises regarding retaining the original heritage features* of the property against modernising it for sustainable living?
No, not hugely. I’ve done that thing with an old building if you want it to be sustainable; I grow trees, I burn wood in wood burners and I heat it with a wood pellet burner. I put in Photovoltaic Thermal Panels connected to a heat pump for the central heating so that the system is relatively off the grid now and I’ve got the straight forward Photovoltaics as well. All these you’d consider retro fitted, the panels are all ground mounted. I’ve also been experimenting with one or two insulation products to see how well they perform in an old building. No, it hasn’t compromised the aesthetics or the historical narrative of the building at all. I put secondary glazing in but everything is reversible, its removable, I haven’t double glazed it, I’ve just put a secondary glazing panel in and… I wear pullovers.
*For further information about Heritage Interior Design courses, visit our education partner National Design Academy.
DH: What do you think the most valuable thing people can do to improve their homes is?
Spend the money on the bones for sure; on insulating it, draft proofing, making it comfortable and then double insulating – because it’s money well spent; you can earn it back in a few weeks.
The other thing I like to see people spend money on is design. Services of professionals that make the project go well and be the most useful and beautiful thing it can be. I also think people should spend money on light switches and taps, and hand rails, and door handles; all the stuff you touch. Your lips can tell the difference between cut glass, fine cut lead crystal and cheap pressed glass. In just handling it you can feel the difference between porcelain and terracotta and you can tell the difference between a cheap, nasty cast handle and a beautifully made stainless steel European cast one. The hands, lips and finger tips are the most sensitive parts of the body, and after sight and smell the touch of our hands on objects is the most important way by which we judge them.
DH: Finally what do you think makes a design grand?
Very simple. It’s not money, it’s vision – and the vision can be extreme. It can be spending very little money on doing something outrageous or adventurous and with that vision always comes risk, the two are intertwined. Those are the key things; vision and risk, and they are inseparable.
Kevin McCloud is the ambassador for Grand Designs Live Birmingham (12th– 14th October 2012, NEC). This leading contemporary home show is based on the popular TV program. For more information and to buy tickets visit www.granddesignslive.com or call the box office on 0844 854 1348.