I don’t watch much television, but there are some programmes I can’t resist. Grand Designs is one. The premiss is that wonderfully ordinary people with creative and ambitious ideas for their home are followed as they turn a housing wreck into an architectural wonder. So popular is Grand Designs, it is in its third decade of being produced.
I love this programme for the presenter, Kevin McCloud. With schoolboy enthusiasm combined with middle-aged scepticism, he offers his incredulity for the plan, the budget, the time available. But by the end, he always finds something to marvel at and be positive about. Even buildings you sense he finds monstrous insults to his profession, can have something positive said about them, such as his thoughtful reflections about how we live conjoined to our environment, and how differences in taste offer richness of experience. I also love to see the houses themselves, their colours, panoramic views, use of materials, and to imagine a life living there.
There is an added intrigue to the programme for me, in the form of the shape of the storyline itself. There is a beginning, full of vision, promise, passion, and energy. There is a middle, where disaster strikes, rain floods the site, money runs out, the onsite caravan is cold, the children are fed up, and the couple bicker. And there is an ending, where smiles return, the increased budget is accepted, the building site is wrestled into a home, like a phoenix rising from the mud, and there is the declaration that “it was worth it.”
What we are seeing played out, in a 60-minute advert-interrupted programme, is the classic “man in the hole” storyline, and the getting out of the hole, is when coping skills and strategies are used. We see the family, rocked by crisis, the building steeped in debt, and the flooded site empty of workmen. And gradually we see the tears flow, we hear of the meeting with the bank and the agreement of extended credit. We see a woman planting a vegetable garden in the shadow of her half-built house and know it as hope and optimism. We see suppliers adapt their schedules to accommodate changes. We see ambitious plans curtailed to something more realistic, and we see meaning ascribed to the disasters and positives sought: “If the window contractor hadn’t gone out of business, we’d never have redesigned, and this new plan is so much better.” We see neighbours turn up with food, and friends arrive to help.
In watching Grand Designs, I’m awed by people, their ideas, and their endurance. I am taught about coping, and how we get out of holes. I’m inspired by the people surrounding such a project, the designers, project managers, builders, interior designers, and how they cope with the challenges and changes. It’s a slightly twee programme, almost always ending positively and with beauty. But it’s a helpful metaphor for our own life struggles, our own coping, and for building empathy between us as we learn from seeing others cope.