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According to the Daily Express, ‘’Kevin McCloud is to the architectural world what Jamie Oliver is to cooking.’’  I couldn’t disagree more.  Where Jamie Oliver is helpful, hands-on and friendly, Kevin McCloud is dictatorial, elitist and rather unfriendly.   Admittedly, I’ve never seen the accompanying Channel 4 television series, but if this book is anything to go by, such is most definitely the case.

For a start, McCloud doesn’t talk to us, he talks at us, which invariably detracts from the enjoyment of this book.  Furthermore, the writing itself is both laborious and repetitious.  By page 44 for instance, McCloud has already reminded us on three occasions that, ‘’architects spend seven years training […] so we ought to use them.’’  Really?  How annoyingly un-insightful is that?  We also ought to use doctors, dentists, solicitors and other professionals from time to time, who have no doubt, also spent several years in training.

On the plus side, the presentation of this Grand Designs Handbook is nigh second to none.  There are countless, fabulous colour pictures, many of which are highly inspiring and a joy to behold.  Of particular resonance, are the pictures of the Bloembollenhof housing-scheme in Holland - within the ‘New Suburban’ section of the book – of which McCloud writes: ‘’Bloembollenhof is a progressive community architecture project in Holland.  Many are surprised that such a socially successful scheme should look so severe, but these democratic facades hide a mix of social housing and privately owned dwellings in a boggling array of sizes, from one-bed apartments to large family houses.  The architects S333 have deliberately cloaked all these social differences in a unity of style and a rigid design code that I find curiously pleasing.  A breath of fresh Dutch Calvinist air.’’  

Broken into three stages – ‘Thinking,’ ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Doing’ – the author attempts to guide us through each stage of the self-build process.  From working out what we really want and finding a plot, to obtaining planning permission and commissioning builders.  There is indeed, an array of areas covered.  

But - and here’s the thing - who on earth is this book actually aimed at?  

It’s most certainly not aimed at yer average Joe Schmow on the street – that’s for sure:  ‘’One of the secrets of a happy build is, perhaps, to rely on as many chosen professionals as you can possibly afford […].  I’d employ an architect on a full-service contract to hold my hand all the way and produce every detail drawing necessary.  And I’d like a good working relationship with the structural engineer.  I think I’d also like a quantity surveyor involved to cost the project – who might not be the same person as the project manager, whom I suspect I might want to employ separately from the builder or subcontractors […].   If my planning application ran into trouble, I might need a planning consultant, and if my plot turned out to be on the site of a medieval dung pit, I might want to employ a soil engineer, if only to dig it out.’’  

Suffice to say, the list doesn’t end there.

If you’re one of the wealthy banker wankers – sans morality and a soul - who helped initiate the current financial crisis, then maybe this book’s for you.  If on the other hand, you live on the fourteenth floor of a high-rise in Tottenham, or are about to move into a moderate two-up, two-down, then I very much doubt that it is.  

That said, you could invest in a Jamie Oliver cookbook, and enjoy some really scrummy nosh (regardless of where it is you live).

David Marx
Grand Designs Handbook
By Kevin McCloud
Collins – £14.99
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