From Kevin McCloud

‘We should reflect on the past decade’

kevin from kevin 240112

This is a momentous year. 2012 is the year of the dragon; the year of the British Olympics and the year in which Sequoia, IBM’s superfast computer, will be completed for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in the USA, reaching a peak performance of 20 petaflops, which is 20 quadrillion floating point operations per second. Which is mega.

It is also a year of mega-catastrophe in the Meso-American Long Count Calendar, but that is not enough to disrupt a double celebration at Grand Designs – the 100th TV episode and the 100th issue of the magazine.

So we should allow ourselves to reflect on the past decade or so. A flick through the architectural family album of a new millennium. And just as necessity is the mother of all invention, so change is the unpredictable half-bred sister of necessity.


Some of the changes in the built environment have been slow and accretive. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) grew into (generally) a force for good. Planning law acquired yet more detailed legislation and grew into the beast with a thousand tentacles – or pages. The law, eponymously introduced by environment minister John Gummer in the Nineties, which resulted in wealthy landowners building questionable faux-Georgian piles in open countryside, was amended into a greener Planning Policy Statement 7 and has now spawned a clutch of sustainable one-off exemplar buildings.

Architectural taste has moved slowly in 10 years: from white Modernist boxes to grey Modernist boxes; from riven-oak cladding to cedar-shingle cladding; from picture windows to bi-fold doors. Space, light and white emulsion, however, seem as much in demand as ever. Meanwhile, the very language of architecture itself has changed. Once architects began seeing themselves on television, only to realise what gobbledegook they spouted, they enrolled on courses in how to speak human. The result refl ects a big change in the way the profession now models itself – a service industry that wants to understand its clients.

There has also been fast change. The rapid introduction of new housing legislation: the National Planning Policy Framework which this year sweeps away 65 years of planning policy; the Green Deal for home refurbishment, also out this year (and a Grand Designs initiative); the Localism Bill and a national drive to promote self-build. When Grand Designs began, few people built their own homes and an infi nitesimal number employed an architect. Now it is seen as normal, if still adventurous.

And there has been change that has crept up on us and bitten us on the ankle. Context and contextual design, a subject close to my little heart, has become a mainstream obsession of the best young architecture practices. Sustainability, once a word nobody understood, can now be used, with discretion, in our programmes before the 9pm watershed. The green agenda, once the subject of a specialist ecobuild, now runs through almost every project we cover, I’m pleased to say.

Of course, some things don’t change. Mediocre buildings still look mediocre. Misled individuals still massacre old buildings with heavy-handed alterations in the name of restoration. People with more money than braincells still build Toblerone-turd houses on private gated estates that are distinguished by their labyrinthine arrangements of interpenetrating red-tiled roofs piled one on top of another. That isn’t architecture; it’s just triangles and lots of maths.


But Grand Designs has shown, repeatedly, another way. A place on the margins of the mainstream where people risk all to experiment with technology, architecture and their own lifestyle, all for our viewing entertainment. It introduced underfl oor heating to the nation. It showcased eco lifestyles based only upon coppiced wood and dog lick. It has also promoted craftsmanship in a big way. It has held a mirror up to the world of building and home-making and has gently enquired what those ideas mean; it has refl ected a taste of the times and, in a modest way, infl uenced the taste and ideas of the times. Not many television programmes have been able to do that.

In our own quiet way we will be celebrating these achievements, and at some point in 2012 my producers, publisher and editor will, I’m sure, be hosting a party. This last sentence is by way of a reminder. Oh, and alcohol will be served. Nobody wants a 100th birthday party to be a petafl op.

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