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Grand master

people

The articulate enthusiasm of Kevin McCloud, presenter of Channel 4's Grand Designs, is proving popular as architecture permeates the entertainment mainstream The Grand Designs film crew had travelled down to the New Forest early in the morning.

As they arrived on location for the day's shoot, a mesmerising scene unfolded in front of their eyes - and cameras - as a white stag with large antlers moved noiselessly through the resplendent, sun-tinged, red and goldenleaved trees, disappearing slowly into the autumn mist.

Playing the footage back later in the day, Kevin McCloud is excited: 'Look at that, ' he says, pointing at the screen. 'Isn't that amazing?' And his enthusiasm is infectious - in the most part not for wildlife, however, but for design in general and architecture in particular.

As the alternately avuncular and acerbic presenter of three series of the Grand Designs programme, McCloud has become a familiar face and voice to millions of television viewers as he has followed numerous diverse builds across the country. They have included conversions and new builds, ranging from timber-framed structures to concrete and glass Modernism, in cities, towns and countryside - a plethora of projects using an enormous variety of materials and techniques. But McCloud sees people as the vital core to the success of the programme and, indeed, to architecture.

'Architecture is for people; without people there would be no architecture, ' he says expansively in his distinctive tenor. 'It's that extraordinary will and that kind of energy which drives people to do the unusual and to go on these adventures.' And the adventure of a build is one that McCloud compares to 'sailing around the world and climbing K2'. He enthuses that it is this aspect of adventure, and of the emotional highs and lows that a build entails, that Grand Designs is all about, and which enables an examination of the more esoteric aspects of design and construction.

'I interviewed a carpenter about jointing, ' he says. 'I was talking to a roofer about the seamwork and about the process of making the roof. And those are great vertebrae in the backbone of the story, but they're also anorak sequences for people who are really interested in buildings but how do we get people interested in the building in the first place?

The answer is that you get people to care about the protagonists.'

If McCloud has a mission it is this: to get the wider public to understand more about architecture and buildings through the effective telling of a story. In fact, his proselytising zeal seems, at times, almost Ruskinian: 'I want the audiences we get who know nothing about architecture - but who may, as a result of enjoying the stories - to come out of the experience of watching the films with a better understanding of what buildings are, how they are put together and what good design is, ' he says.

Anyone who has seen the programme instinctively understands the storytelling formula: first set up a clear vision at the beginning of the project as to what the end product is going to look like, getting the viewer hooked ('Wow! But are they going to be able to do it?');

then add the inevitable risk, unforeseen complications, financial, time and emotional problems to achieve a story of some drama.

McCloud finds it hilarious that at the beginning of most builds there is usually the sense that, this time, everything is going to run smoothly. 'Everyone I meet in the building industry is an optimist, ' he says. 'Clients, owners, builders, plumbers, architects, engineers I am yet to meet a specimen that will say: 'No, no, no, it won't work, it's going to run horribly over budget and it's going to take three times as long.' No one ever says that.

And yet experience teaches us that there is a distinct probability of that happening.'

McCloud recognises that one of the key reasons for these problems is the bespoke nature of most builds and this, in his eyes, is the unique aspect of architecture, or at least good architecture: 'There is no production line with most of architecture - it's all prototypes; it's all borderline stuff.'

A designer himself, but not an architect, McCloud until recently ran a Somersetbased design practice specialising in lighting and furniture (it has now been sold). The firm designed the lighting for many prestigious buildings including Edinburgh Castle, Ely Cathedral and the Savoy Hotel ('great fun!' he says). It is evident that his idea of good design lies in the rejection of any sort of 'onesize-fits-all' philosophy - he is against homogenisation and for heterogeneity - and most of all he insists that buildings need to be contextual products - 'site-specific, locationspecific, owner-specific'. This design approach offers a great deal more flexibility than might otherwise be the case. McCloud offers the example of a build on the Sussex coast that is using UPVC windows - a product that he professes a great deal of distaste for. However, he asks: 'This is right on the coast, there is a force 10 gale, how else do you keep your windows weatherproof and airtight?'

Nonetheless, he does insist that perhaps the biggest challenges facing architects are issues of sustainability and the environment, an admission from someone who defiantly claims not to be in the 'knitted sandals brigade'. He argues, though, that it is an 'ethical prerogative to minimise the use of highly processed materials'. However, for McCloud, 'the real big issue is how planning law has got to change in the next few years. A massive volume of housing is going to get put up, particularly in the Thames Gateway, and the Building Regulations are going to change in order to accommodate that.'

McCloud recalls that a journalist once asked him: 'Why are you not more critical?'

But he insists that architecture is, for him, not about making token judgements. 'I am very happy to look at the process, ' he says, 'but for me it's a gentler thing: to allow people to understand and allowing them into the secrets of what makes buildings tick and getting them enthusiastic.'

And if we should give Kevin McCloud credit for anything it is for this - architecture is so often in the mainstream media because of big-name architects designing major buildings, or public buildings running massively over budget and over schedule. How refreshing, then, to see the minutiae of buildings being articulately explained for a mass audience by someone with such an infectious passion for design.

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