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The Acerbic and Extremely British ‘Grand Designs’ Is “HGTV, but Honest”

Almost two decades in, the program is equal parts home design and personal breakdown

Channel 4

I have gone on days-long Fixer Upper binges. I have slumped, hungover, into my couch and awoken, hours or years later, with semipermanent pillow lines and opinions about beachfront bargains. I have learned about backsplashes and accent walls and teen rooms and — of course — shiplap. I have been told that happy couples with beautiful children need only hardwood floors and open-plan kitchens for their families to become happier and more beautiful and — wink-wink — perhaps more numerous, and that all of this can be obtained for an eminently reasonable amount of money. I have watched beaming homeowners stand on their newly extended verandas and learn that their $5,000 in home improvements yielded a gourmet kitchen and three spa bathrooms and an in-law unit and also saved them from the electrical fire set up by the previous owners, and that all of this yielded no debt, marital acrimony, meaningful disruption, or regret of any kind. I have chosen, mostly, to believe it.

I do not say all this to criticize HGTV, whose blissed-out capitalist daydreams are generally doctored, scripted, or otherwise “retold” to maximize the pure, wholesome delights of renovation, homeownership, and farmhouse sinks. But if you find yourself tiring of the Jonathan-and-Drew, Chip-and-Jo, Hilary-and-David, Karen-and-Mina, Christina-and-Tarek-and-contractor opium drip, your savior is waiting for you: the long-running, viciously acerbic, ruthlessly realistic British dream-home-building program Grand Designs.

The thing about buying, renovating, building, or probably even looking for a very long time at a house is that it is a miserable experience. I confess that I have not done any of these things; if you say down payment three times into a mirror, Jeff Bezos appears and laughs at you. But I am certain all the same.

HGTV glosses over all of the awful parts of what seems like a near-wholly awful process in favor of a picture-perfect — and, let us acknowledge, unrealistic — portrayal of home improvement as simple, affordable, speedy, and, above all, relationship enhancing. Grand Designs, bless its heart, doesn’t just leave the chaos in the final cut: It draws it out in mesmerizing and excruciating detail. Any given episode is as much about construction disasters and intensely personal and passive-aggressively British strife as it is about the construction of a home. If HGTV’s offerings are a sunny afternoon doze, Grand Designs is a migraine. I say this as a compliment.

This week, Grand Designs kicked off its latest offshoot, Grand Designs: House of the Year, a mild twist on the original series, whose 17th season concluded earlier this month. The premise of Grand Designs, which has been a hit in the U.K. for most of its run but has been slow to infiltrate the cheery territory of the Property Brothers, is simple: A person or (most often) persons decide to build or renovate a house, and host Kevin McCloud tags along through the design-and-construction process. The catch is that the designs tend toward the wildly eccentric — cantilevered treehouses, restored Welsh castles, cliffside modernist mazes — and that the would-be builder-owners generally have exactly zero experience with construction. The show is such a reliable source of schadenfreude and despair that it has spawned a drinking game — drink when the builders run out of money, drink for unexpected pregnancies, take two drinks if a composting toilet somehow becomes involved, etc. — whose notoriety is such that McCloud said in 2014 that he had designed a recent episode “to get people as drunk as possible.” In the United States, episodes are harder to come by: A handful of seasons recently and blessedly appeared on Netflix, but a North American catastrophic-construction completionist in search of the entire run of the Channel 4 series might be forced to turn to a mix of, ahem, mildly less-than-reputable streaming sites.

We meet the builder-owners early on, as blueprints — if they even know enough to use them, which they sometimes do not — are being drawn up, and follow along as construction begins and a series of calamities (months of cold English rain, devastating new expenses, fussy local boards, threats of divorce) emerges. The final scene, improbably enough, takes us to the finished home — where, we learn, three years or more have elapsed since the first scene, and wan spouses confess that the final budget was orders of magnitude beyond either the original plan or what the family could remotely afford; in the meantime, the family has generally resided either with in-laws or in a trailer, where they frequently conceive one more child than the new home is designed to fit. But their house, they insist stiffly to the camera, is lovely.

Take, for instance, Rob Hodgson and Kay Ralph, who decided that the home of their dreams could be constructed only on a wild and rapidly eroding cliff in Wales. Over the course of the episode, we learn that Hodgson and Ralph have been told that the cliff below the site will crumble within 60 years; a bad storm during construction pushes that timeline forward significantly. Asked at various points about the wisdom of spending so much money on impending oblivion, the pair shrug and carry on. “They’re spenders,” a daughter says at one point of her newly imperiled inheritance. “We were never going to see that money.” (The finished home is, for now at least, still standing.)

Or consider Peter Berkin, an aviation hobbyist living in Milton Keynes with his wife, Chard. Berkin, who has no experience with architecture, chooses, mostly against Chard’s will, to spend £400,000 constructing a semicircle addition to their existing home, becoming frequently distracted by planes along the way. Asked at the episode’s conclusion after a tour of the finished property whether the process — which entailed delayed retirement, the sale of the pair’s former home, a doubling of the original budget, and “a small loan” — was all worth it, Chard can’t bring herself even to feign happiness. (The home was put up for sale less than two years after the episode aired.)

McCloud has perfected a tone of sardonic horror thinly disguised as interest in his subjects’ plans. He treads around the properties on Grand Designs throughout their construction, asking questions like, “Are you sure you can build an all-glass mansion for the price of a sedan?,” and, “What do you mean the house won’t have any doors?,” and, “Have you thought this through?” This is the real plot of the show: A line on McCloud’s Wikipedia page reads, “In the series McCloud always remains sceptical of the designs, continuously hoping for a house to be designed that follows the schedule properly and does not go over the estimated budget.”

House of the Year moves slightly beyond this: McCloud and a panel of Distinguished Architects roam Britain for architectural feats, mostly encountering people whose ambitions roughly match the level of their competence. Never mind, though, because the equation remains the same: You can build any sort of house you want, but you will be miserable throughout. Total honesty, perhaps, is a tall order for casual television, but if you want just a little bit more — or, at the very least, a somber Brit making fun of people who do not notice — then a run-down manor in a dreary bog with endless potential is waiting for you.