Listen, we all love HGTV.
But do you ever find yourself four or five hours into a marathon of “Fixer Upper,” feeling a little unsatisfied? Do you get bored by all those vintage mirrors and wall quotes?
Do you wish the “Property Brothers” used words like “overweening”?
Do you long for a home show where the outcomes are less canned, the problems more catastrophic, the designs more ambitious and the hosts less, well, Canadian?
Do you like nice coats?
If the answer to any of these question is yes, then allow me to introduce you to “Grand Designs,” one of the most popular and longest running property shows in the U.K. Hosted by Kevin McCloud, a former theater designer with a truly dazzling collection of outerwear and a taste for sustainable, minimalist architecture, it recently concluded its 17th season on Channel 4. The show has spawned numerous spinoffs, an exhibition and even a magazine.
Its premise is deceptively simple: Each episode documents a unique home-build or renovation from start to finish — however long that might take, whether a few months or many years. The projects range from a compact one-bedroom house with a turf roof to the renovation of a 1920s movie theater to a seashell-shaped retirement home. The common thread is ambition.
Until recently, “Grand Designs” was only available to watch in the U.S. via dubious YouTube accounts, which is how I became familiar with it. But — praise the gods of Peak TV — it is now available to stream on Netflix. (But only two seasons, so pace yourself, though you may not want to.)
The beauty of the show lies in its hands-off approach.
“Grand Designs” is there simply to observe, not to meddle or create false moments of conflict. Girded against the weather in layers of fleece and wool, McCloud stops by every few months to furrow his brow over the inevitable inflating budgets and make a few observations. That’s pretty much it.
When construction is complete — or close enough to it — McCloud comes back for a tour and issues a critical assessment. The only prize to be won is his approval. Passionate and endearingly pretentious, McCloud has a gift for delivering blunt criticism with a gentle touch; he is to architecture what Tim Gunn is to fashion.
The show has a pleasantly predictable rhythm, with McCloud generally going from skepticism to amazement. And there are certain recurring themes, nicely encapsulated by both this Buzzfeed U.K.listicle or McCloud’s beat poem below (yes, beat poem). Rain is a factor in seemingly every episode, because it is Britain, after all.
There’s an element of voyeurism inherent to every show about real estate, and with episodes running nearly an hour, “Grand Designs” offers unusual insight into the lives of other people. McCloud is part host, part design consultant, part counselor.
He always brings up money, pointedly asking homeowners how much they spent in total (spoiler alert: they all go over budget). But he clearly views houses as places for living, not as investments or pieces of property. You will never hear him talking about “appraisal value” or “comps” or anything that obviously commercial.
Even still, the show has much more genuine tension than you’d find in a comparable American series, maybe because the British aren’t so cursed with relentless optimism.
The projects often go off course — sometimes spectacularly so. In one unforgettable episode, an engaged couple began renovating a crumbling mill cottage in Northumberland not long before the mortgage crisis; by the time it was finished, they were married with two toddlers, roughly a million pounds of debt and a house that still didn’t have carpets or curtains.
The more bonkers episodes tend to be the most memorable, like the one that followed an eccentric Irishman’s doomed quest to renovate a 16th century castle, complete with hot tubs in the battlements. Or the one with the couple who converted a derelict nine-story water tower in Central London into a private home with the largest sliding glass doors in the U.K.
Of course, not every episode plays like a real-life version of “The Money Pit.” More often, the results look like something suitable for the pages of Dwell, leaving McCloud gushing with eloquent praise.
It’s train wreck TV meets real-estate porn, all wrapped up in a stylish coat. How could you resist?
Follow me @MeredithBlake