Grand Designs review: £4m down – and still no house

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A s soon as Kevin McCloud sets the scene – a graveyard in south-west London – you know the latest instalment of Grand Designs (Channel 4) is going to be a classic. Surely nobody would build on such a place, “out of respect, for fear of desecration,” says McCloud, hamming up the potential for gothic drama. “But that’s exactly what my man’s going to do.”

It isn’t exactly what his man is going to do – the prospect of ripping up graves to build a “baronial architectural masterpiece” is a little much, even for Grand Designs – but his man, former army captain Justin Maxwell Stuart, is quite happy to live next to a graveyard, and has a big plan to do so. As series 20 of the ever-soothing, ever-ambitious show begins, we learn that Grand Designs’ latest builder/dreamer/victim has spent £1.8m on the warden’s lodge in a Victorian cemetery and an old toilet block next door to it. The plan is to knock down the loos, build a new extension where they once sat and then extend the neo-gothic Grade II listed lodge by excavating a hefty amount of ground underneath it, constructing a huge mega-basement.

Anyone with a passing interest in the grotesque excesses of London’s richest inhabitants will know all about mega-basements, with floor upon floor being added to old houses by way of digging down, and deeper. Local papers often carry complaints about the practice from residents, but here, Maxwell Stuart’s neighbours are relatively undemanding, since they are buried six feet under.

What, then, could go wrong? It’s the question that makes Grand Designs so watchable, the promise of hubris among the rubble, of ambitions made of steel and glass, weakened by human folly. The issues facing Maxwell Stuart are floodlit from the very start. The lodge is listed; he is building just next to a burial ground; the cemetery itself is a sensitive place for a huge-scale building project to take place, and requires special permits for the necessary machinery. He plans to complete all the work in one year. I would watch a compilation of Kevin McCloud’s attempts to suppress any sort of facial response to the wildly gung-ho plans and financial implications laid out every few minutes.

This show refuses to be coy about money, which is a significant reason for its success. As well as the initial purchase, Maxwell Stuart has estimated that the work will cost an additional £1.6m. He raised the first part through savings and a loan from his mother; the second part is from a labyrinthine tangle of mortgages that I failed to understand. But as is often the case with these kinds of builds, time drags on, costs mount, and even a private gate into the cemetery becomes a problem. If he worried that he may find himself staring down “a catastrophic financial black hole” in 2016, well, wait and see what happens when the pandemic rolls around.

It is a fascinating insight into the strange economics of the aristocracy. A trip to Maxwell Stuart’s 900-year-old ancestral home on the Scottish borders reveals why his ambitions are so grand. “This is what I imagine a proper house to be,” he says, in front of a massive old pile, before he crouches through an escape tunnel used by Mary, Queen of Scots. McCloud explains that old money types are often asset-rich but cash-poor, and as the lodge project stretches on, and on, there is a real question of whether it will be completed at all, particularly when the owner keeps embellishing his plans. We are given the impression that Maxwell Stuart has reached his absolute financial limit, yet there is no question of sacrificing the gargantuan chain-mail waterfall that sits alongside his basement swimming pool.

Even McCloud seems shocked by the seemingly unnecessary scale of it all, likening the basement to that of a skyscraper, or a car park. The trick of this whole series, though, is that, despite yourself, you mostly end up hoping it will happen, and rooting for the person who has dared to take on such a task, who has dared to assume that they can do it quickly and relatively cheaply, and who might just, thanks to the absolute dedication of the workers they employ, pull it off. Maxwell Stuart is thoroughly can-do about the whole thing, even when logic suggests he shouldn’t be, and it’s hard not to wish him the best with it. Even if he is a little less chipper and bright-eyed by 2020.

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