Last week's edition of Channel 4's Grand Designs series promised much of interest, being the first programme to look at a group housing scheme rather than a one-off project for private individuals. However, it was difficult to understand why this particular housing association development in Birmingham had been selected, since it offered absolutely nothing of value in design terms;
indeed, it was a depressing indictment of the quality of standard housing provision in general.
The main reason for following the project seemed to be the procurement structure: a selfbuild venture in which each team member/future houseowner put in 20 hours a week for 18 months in exchange for a 25 per cent share of the property on completion. Kevin McCloud was obviously looking forward to witnessing some serious Big Brother-style interpersonal dynamics developing during the course of this hugely stressful experience. But it did not happen.
McCloud seemed to be obsessed with progress of the project above all other factors (as he has been in other programmes), and the difficult meetings in which team members were chastised for not putting in enough time. 'This team is simply not building enoughà only two months [into the project] and already things are going wrong, ' he noted with pleasure. For every week construction continued beyond the finishing date, members were set to lose £1,000 each off their sweat equity but, as many of them had day-jobs, they could only put in the hours at night. And, as McCloud pointed out, jobs such as nailing up plasterboard are tedious and repetitious.
These houses were being built for £30,000£40,000, with an estimated market value of £60,000-£70,000. They were all exactly the same in layout and appearance, and built on a conventional system of concrete base, timber frame, brick cladding, roof trusses and tiled roof. The components arrived in flat-pack form, and part of the rationale of the project was that members should learn building skills on the job that would enhance their employment opportunities afterwards. This was also, depressingly, a reason not to build a scheme that was innovative either in terms of environmental sustainability, planning or design because, as the housing association director explained, an innovative project would not provide the self-builders with skills they could use in the job market.
Even more depressingly, he suggested that another reason for pursuing the mock-traditional, ungreen approach, was that they 'didn't want social housing to look like social housing' as if it is for needy groups'. He claimed that the Brookside model was 'how the self-builders wanted their houses to look'.
It seemed there had been no attempt to introduce them to any fresh ideas about what might have been achieved on the site. McCloud's failure to draw out any of these issues could only produce flaccid and banal television.
The final Grand Designs programme will be on Channel 4 on Tuesday 4 September at 9pm