Eighteen Years of Grand Designs Demonstrate Creativity in UK Home Building

Episode 8; London Miniscule House

I’ve written about Grand Designs before. It’s the long-running UK house-building show that’s just finished its 18th season. Unlike US shows, with their short attention spans, Grand Designs follows the progress of people building their dream homes from scratch.  Sure, sometimes “scratch” means from the dirt up, but it can also mean converting an old structure (barn, power station, water tank, etc.) into a residential dwelling. (If you want to read more about these, and other shows, click here and here.)

Crews follow the builder/owners for as long as it takes. Sometimes it’s a year but often more … one literally took a decade.  For some reason the US, and our instant gratification HGTV, just can’t make the investment in this kind of filming. And it’s a shame. We all know how to renovate a kitchen or bathroom in our sleep, but the complexities of building a complete home remain a mystery.  What makes Grand Designs so interesting are the construction methods used to make the homes eco-friendly and super insulated.

Thankfully naughty people post the program on YouTube for us to see (you’d think with 18 seasons, DIY or something would buy the distribution rights). Aside from the original UK version, an Australian spin off is in its seventh season and New Zealand just wrapped up its third (more on that later). Watch these episodes quickly, they tend to vanish.

Malvern Hill House

Series 18 Showcases Eight Interesting Builds

Episode 1 Malvern, Hill House shows a couple building a three-story home into a hillside overlooking the countryside.  The front of the home faces the valley below while the rear of the home is tucked up to the hillside giving a treehouse feeling.  Excavating the hillside was a harrowing and muddy experience.

Victorian Gatehouse Pairs Classic with Modern (Before)

The second episode showcases the transformation of a crumbling 1854 Victorian Gatehouse in London, purchased for £700,000, into a combined restoration and a modern addition.  Once the sentry building for Grove Lodge, the owners recreate the Victorian streetscape that houses a guest cottage and attaches to a black brick cube that melts into the background behind the old façade.  You really won’t believe how well this project works.

Episode three heads to Belfast, Ireland, where a young family build a home evoking the agricultural farm buildings of the surrounding area.   It uses local materials from a stone ground floor to a timber upper floor.  The large glass ends of the house focus the eye outwards to the rolling views. Trying to have as little scrap as possible, various waste was upcycled into home décor items.  For example, wood scraps were cut into various shapes, painted and used as the kitchen backsplash (to dramatic effect … which admittedly I thought would look tacky before I saw the end product).

Next up in episode four is a fascinating build in South Hertfordshire in the shadow of an Abbey on what is known as a Scheduled Ancient Site which, as it sounds, makes building near impossible.  The family owned a home across the road from the parcel but its remoteness had attracted the local booze and drugs culture. So they decided to buy the land and build on it. But being so protected, it took them six years to get approval to build a roman-inspired home that floats above the Medieval and Roman remains beneath the area.

Episode five returns to London with a rotting Victorian Dairy House where cows used to live to supply milk to area residents.  It’s sandwiched in the middle of a street of townhomes with a large front courtyard, center barn and a thick-walled brick cold storage room in the very back.  The couple use the very front for parking (gold in London) which then screen before an open courtyard under an open roof.  The barn’s ground floor is extended for a larger living, dining and kitchen area with a wall of glass overlooking the courtyard.  The upstairs of the barn contains bedrooms and the cold storage room is skylit and turned into an office and second courtyard.

Coiled snake or seashell. This is one interesting home.

One of the more unusual homes ever features shows up in episode six.  In the Blackdown countryside, about 60 miles southwest of London, one couple builds a spiral house shaped like a coiled snake, complete with a scaly exterior. The precision of the home combines the talents of a couple where one is a horticulturist and the other a decorated engineer. Two years in the making, the roof is a series of solar panels and 4,600 diamond-shaped timber slats screwed in by hand by the owners. The exterior may not be to your liking, but the interior curved and vaulted spaces are universally cool.

The Peak District is located south of Manchester and Sheffield and a local couple returns to a childhood area to create the most eco-friendly house possible.  Episode seven, like episode one, burrows into a hillside, below the roadway, to take advantage of the views of the forested countryside.  Of the three story home, just the upper level with an office and garage will be visible from the road.  The home generates its own electricity and heating with a south-facing aspect and plenty of windows to trap the winter warmth.

The final new episode is a heads-up for Millennials on a budget and those interested in tiny living without the sacrifice of actually living in a postage stamp.  Called the Miniscule House, the 31’ x 13’ lot, 403 square feet, lives up to its name.  But inside is a surprise with four levels, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, plus an upper floor kitchen and living area with a protected roof deck. Sure there are lots of stairs, but the owners are young.  The project isn’t without angst with a basement collapse, bowed walls, contractor abandoning and a start-over.  The £160,000 budget smashed up to £250,000 … still a bargain for London.  Perseverance is the name of this build.

House of the Year 2017 finalist. Macdonald Wright Architects


Royal Institute of British Architects awards the House of the Year for 2017 and the four-part series has just begun.  Eighteen homes are featured before the top awards are handed out in episode four.  If it’s anything like last year, the winner will be a corker, but with eighteen finalists, we will all have our favorites.  The home pictured above is a dramatic finalist, others are more circumspect all oozing quality. While episode one and two have been posted, you’ll have to look for the remaining two each week to see them all.  I can’t wait.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.

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