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Grand designs Kevin on sustainable housing

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For non followers of the show Ben Law has access through some archaic law to maintain a forest and all it can provide. He's a woodsman. Even now you should be scouring the statutes for a similar law here. -_- I think he burns charcoal, builds his house from the forests wood among other things. His house is fantastic. It's a fine ideal but there's not enough forest to go round of course.

In his 12 years as the presenter of British television series Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud has evolved from grand to green.

So it's no surprise, when I ask him to choose a favourite house from the hundreds he has followed from concept to habitation, that he names Ben Law's hobbit-style house in a Sussex forest.

Fanatically and beautifully built from Law's own coppiced chestnut trees, with a pole frame, 10,000 hand-cut shingles, straw-bale insulation and fuelled with home-made charcoal, the house embodies McCloud's green idealism.

"Ben's presence on the planet influences me," he says. "He's absolutely right; he's doing what the rest of us should do if we could.

We can learn from him that to make anything requires energy - both fossil fuel and for us to apply ourselves. The most noble things speak of the energy that has gone into them. It gives them a fantastic integrity."

I had assumed from his authoritative manner that McCloud was an architect.

But a 1990 magazine profile about his first publication, Kevin McCloud's Decorating Book, outlines his career: art history at Cambridge; scenery design for the Royal Opera House, Royal Shakespeare Company and West End theatres; his own furniture and lighting design company; and interior design with a theatrical touch, using whimsical mixtures of antiques, bric-a-brac and faded paints.

His biggest commission was a lavish ceiling for Harrods' Food Hall. Even then, he worried about whether his paints and solvents were compatible with the environment.

He argues he has always been more ascetic than aesthete. "I'm more interested in the narrative of things than their design," he says. He raves passionately about the difference between his Apple laptop and a table a friend made for him from an oak tree.

One is beautiful but "fake - we don't know its whole story, the working conditions it was made in or the effect it has on the environment. It's pornographic rather than about love." The other is "more authentic; its story overwhelms you with its warmth".

His own house of 16 years, shared with his second wife and children, illustrates his attitude. The 500-year-old stone farmhouse in Somerset has flagstone floors, outbuildings, kitchen gardens, orchards and a few animals.

McCloud has installed a biomass boiler and is trying to retrofit insulation and other environmentally friendly features.

The decor mixes pieces such as an old carpenter's table, another he made "badly" from scraps of wood, a Marcel Breuer reclining chair, a designer stove and a 20-year-old TV.

He is constantly travelling and seeking out new ideas (he films Grand Designs for a week each month). But he says: "My own home stays the same. The rooms and the things we love reflect me and my family. I'm very romantically attached to place and history."

In recent years, he has launched the Great British Refurb, a campaign to have every home retrofitted to low-energy standards, and his company, Hab Housing, which has begun building sustainable housing.

Both projects attempt to put into practice the 43 principles in his new book.

Dedicated to his late father, an engineer, the book is full of photographs, McCloud's sketches, lists and personal stories.

It opens with a chapter titled "Energy" (starting quirkily with an efficiency rating of barbecues he has made), goes on to "Building" efficient and comfortable houses, "Shopping" (and as importantly, not shopping) and "Sharing", from recycling and renting to car clubs and community gardens.

This is, he says, "an attempt to democratise ideas, to show what's possible for not much money. It is about the relationship between us and things, whether they're cities, dams, spoons or food. We're enormously wasteful."

I like grand designs.

McCloud's sustainable design principles

  • Demand that your house consumes the minimum of energy yet keeps you warm and comfortable.
    Organise your home life around who you are and what you do. If you have a family, enshrine what is good about that family in the layout of your building. If you're single, enjoy it while you can.
    Avoid being seduced by the trinkets and gadgets of domestic life.
    Our experience of architecture should improve the closer we get to it and, for that matter, the longer we use it.
    Make everything you touch of the highest quality. Door handles, locks, switches, chairs and controls should be an ergonomic pleasure to use and robust enough for that pleasure to continue.
    Buy some tools and learn how to mend your things.
    The most interesting homes are those that are full of autobiography; those that are maybe a bit cluttered, feel lived in and are delightful for it; those that have a mixture of new and old, borrowed and bought — and not those that resemble furniture showrooms.

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