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Kevin McCloud – Grand Designs supremo

Grand Designs' Home of The Year competition is going to be televised for the very first time later this year. Richard Waite caught up with Grand Designs presenter and Stirling Prize frontman Kevin McCloud after a hard day’s filming.

Should the RIBA be worried about Channel 4 televising this award and it overshadowing the Stirling Prize?
I’ve talked to Tony Chapman [head of competitions] about it at the RIBA and told him I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes – especially the Manser [residential] prize. And in respect of the Stirling, I would be the first to dispel any allegations we are ripping ourselves off.

Why will these awards be different to, for instance, Stirling?
The RIBA’s awards go to the practices and are judged very much by their peers. Although Will Alsop and Wayne Hemingway will be among those on the jury drawing up the longlist – and then the shortlist – there will be a mixture of eyes on the panel. And then the winners will be decided by public vote. For this contest we are interested in the owners and the residents and the award goes to the building. It’s like on Grand Designs – it shows how architecture works in practice with the people. You start to care about them. These awards are about that experience and how people use these buildings.’

But Grand Designs is an hour-long show, how can you do all these buildings justice? [There are five categories, whittled down to just one winner]
We hope each film about the shortlisted homes will not be a dry summary but show off the quality, and that is going to be hard in three or four minutes. But that’s the job of the directors and we will be using lots of material and retrospectively assemble the history of the building. Houses will not be chosen simply because they are telegenic or televisual. Some buildings don’t film very well but again that when the creativity of the director comes in. We will be looking at the sometimes very intimate relationships with the owners – otherwise the show could just turn into architectural porn.

What kind of schemes are you looking for?
Previously we’ve had projects on the shortlist by people like Justin Bere and Alison Brooks. If Niall McLaughlin wants to put in a social housing project in the East End for example, then of course there is an opportunity for that. But it does not matter if practice ABC isn’t there. We just want to get a rich variety and texture of schemes. You want something with a strong character. Yet I’d been surprised if the shortlisted schemes weren’t designed by architects.

Do you think the awards – and their public/populist nature – will really appeal to the AJ’s readership?
The awards have been well supported by the architectural profession in the past [before they were televised]– it can be a rewarding experience. Grand Designs magazine has been running the awards for three years and to take it on to the television was the obvious next thing to do. Some architects may find it distasteful that their project should be on television, exposed, pitted against another house and finally subject to a popular vote. But I think it could be rewarding for architects to experience something other than that keen-eyed professional regard.

And what about your own HAB housing project (in Swindon)?
We have had one major public open day already. It was really interesting going out to the market. As a developer you expect hostility, but this was a proper dialogue about how to create a proper community.

Has the fear of recession affected the proposals?
The recession puts an enormous pressure on the margins and what you can deliver, say, in terms of sustainability. But when we set up we were very, clear. We are pushing and taking every opportunity to change things and use architecture as a tool for that. We are, however, taking nothing for granted. Still, we are looking to submit a planning application in late spring.

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