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‘Grand Designs’ Delivers a Dream Home—Disaster Included

What could possibly go wrong with the construction of a 10,000-square-foot palace made entirely from a mixture of mud and straw? Everything, it turns out. Which is part of the appeal of the British home-building reality show.

Fremantle/Ringer illustration

There are new seasons of Grand Designs on Netflix. I don’t know exactly when they appeared. Last month? It’s hard to tell, both because Netflix isn’t especially committed to promoting Grand Designs and because there have been so many seasons of Grand Designs that it’s hard to keep up. They sort of come and go without any obvious reason or warning, like the rains on the Serengeti plain, or like Kawhi Leonard on the rosters of NBA teams. Currently, you can watch seasons 10 and 15–not 10 through 15, just 10 and 15, those two, because who knows—both of which are new since the last time I checked. It doesn’t really matter which season you watch, though. They’re all great.

Grand Designs is a British reality show about people who slowly lose their minds while trying to build or renovate houses. Mostly, they’re rich people—rich enough to buy plots of land, hire architects, almost get divorced while arguing about whether the organic feature wall should be vine- or lichen-based, and so forth. But, and this is crucial, they’re not limitlessly rich. They’re rich enough to own seaside property in Wales but just poor enough for it to be situated on a rapidly disintegrating cliff. The show follows them through the highs and lows of British home building, as they form overly ambitious plans on unrealistic budgets, run out of money, see their progress destroyed by winter flooding in Yorkshire, and confront, as if for the first time, the awful limitations the world places on the power of even the most self-assured owners of a chain of West Midlands golf boutiques.

Grand Designs is, in other words, partly about the insatiable human drive to dream, plan, and build, but it’s more enticingly about the aspirational struggle of the lower half of the upper 6 percent. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, over the course of the series, this struggle becomes a kind of left-field emblem for the trials of humanity itself. Who amongst us has not, in our souls, tried to build a kitchen out of locally sourced pumice, only to discover, after flushing 40,000 pounds down the drain, that the pumice we have harvested is too heavy and will cause a catastrophic rockslide unless we spend 60,000 more pounds to have special pumice-amelioration machinery flown in by helicopter? If you have ever developed an unhealthy obsession, you will see yourself in the wild, glittering eyes of Kevin McCabe, an East Devon builder who, in a legendary 2013 episode, destroyed his finances, his life, and his marriage in order to pursue his vision of a 10,000-square-foot palace made entirely from a mixture of mud and straw known as “cob.” If you have ever convinced yourself you could salvage an unsalvageable situation, you will find your plight reflected in the ordeal of Francis and Karen Shaw, who, way back in Season 7, decided to buy and renovate a 700-year-old castle in Yorkshire, the only problem being that the “castle” they bought was actually just a field and a couple of ruined walls with weeds growing out of them.

This formula works largely because of the show’s host. Kevin McCloud is a lanky, keen-eyed 60-year-old with an affably penetrating way of quizzing his subjects, an extensive wardrobe of layered outerwear, and a tendency to say things like, “I, too, admire the noble tradition of cold tomato salad … but can it be architecture?” McCloud is always asking whether things—barns, boats, crocodiles, the Arctic Monkeys—can be architecture. “Now this is proper architecture!” he cries when he sees something he likes. You get the sense that if he met Vin Diesel, he’d say he enjoyed the Fast & Furious franchise, but wasn’t entirely convinced that jumping a car across the towers of the Burj Khalifa made sense from a cladding standpoint.

McCloud’s irreplaceable gift is his uncanny ability to project passion, intelligence, and curiosity while still selling the show’s formula, which follows an almost undeviating script across the 267 seasons of the series. (OK, 19 seasons, but McCloud wears 267 seasons’ worth of light-to-midweight jackets.) The formula goes like this: a project begins full of promise; then the project falls into catastrophe and debt; then some workers come to install grass on the roof for some reason; then McCloud visits the finished building and pretends to find it miraculous; then he gives a speech about how Suffolk leisurewear investors Barb and Kenneth embody that highest and most inimitable of human traits—the urge to leave something beautiful behind us. Along the way, he manages to put across the sense that he’s rooting for the project to succeed while still asking the builders all the urgent questions that occur to you at home. Questions like: Why did you, a leisurewear investor, believe it would be a good idea to project-manage your own cave excavation? And: Did you really mean the bathroom to be this exact shade of puce?

I have no idea why seasons 10 and 15 are the ones currently available in America, but if Grand Designs teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t hold good things to a schedule. In England, McCloud is currently facing a bit of public opprobrium due to the collapse of his own eco-building empire, which failed to deliver the dividends it promised investors. (I, too, love the noble tradition of the hyperbolic growth projection—but can it be architecture?) On TV, he’s a treasure. I belong to group texts where friends will periodically type KEVIN MCCLOUD in all caps, for no reason, no explanation necessary. I have at least one American friend with whom I’ve discussed manufacturing work trips to Canada to get the seasons of Grand Designs we can’t find in the U.S. With any luck, the cantilevered edifice of the series will endure for another 19 seasons. If you’re in America, though, I’d watch it as soon as possible. Netflix probably falls into the small category of things that cannot be architecture; still, it’s another place where mudslides can come at any moment and sweep everything out to sea.