09-10-13 - Grand Designs

I've been watching a lot of "Grand Designs" lately; it's my new go-to soothing background zone-out TV. It's mostly inoffensive (*) and slightly interesting.

(* = the incredibly predictably saccharine sum-up by Kevin at the end is pretty offensive; all throughout he's raising very legitimate concerns, and then at the end every time he just loves it. There are a few episodes where you can see the builder/client is just crushed and miserable at the end, but they never get into anything remotely honest like that, it's all very superficial, ooh isn't excess consumerism wonderful!)

I'm not even going to talk about the house designs really. I think most of them are completely retarded and abysmal generic pseudo-modern crap. (IMO in general modernism just doesn't work for homes. Moderism is beautiful when it's pure, unforgiving, really strictly adhered to. But nobody can live in a home like that. So they water it down and add some natural materials and normal cosy furniture and storage and so on, and that completely ruins it and turns it into "condo pseudo-modernism" which is just the tackiest of all types of housing. Modernism should be reserved for places where it's realistic to keep the severe empty minimalism that makes it beautiful, like museums).

Thoughts in sections :

What makes a house.

One of the most amusing things is noticing what people actually say at the sum-up at the end. Every time Kevin sits down and talks with the couple when the house is done and asks what they really love about it, the comments are things like :

"We're just glad it's done / we're just glad to have a roof over our head".
"It's so nice to just be together as a family"
"The views are amazing."
"The location is so special."

etc. it always strikes me that none of the pros has anything to do with the expensive house they just made. They never say anything like : "the architecture is incredibly beautiful and it's a joy to just appreciate the light and the spaces". Or "we're really glad we made a ridiculous 4000 sq ft living room because we often have 100 friends over for huge orgies". Because they don't actually care about the house at all (and it sucks).

Quite often I see the little cramped bungalow that people start out with and think "that looks just charming, why are you building?". It's all cosy and full of nick-nacks. It's got colorful paint schemes and is appropriately small and cheap and homey. Then they build some awful huge cavernous cold white box.

The children in particular always suffer. Often they're in a room together before the build, and the family is building to get more space so the kids can all have their own room. But the kids in the shared room are all laughing and wrestling, piled up on each other and happy. Kids are meant to be with other kids. In fact, humans are meant to be with other humans. We spend all this money to get big empty lonely spaces, and are worse off for it. Don't listen to what people say they want, it's not good for them.

In quite a few of the episodes, the couple at the beginning is full of energy, really loving to each other, bright eyed. At the end of the episode, they look crushed, exhausted, stressed out. Their lips are thin and they're all tense and dead inside.

Even in the disasters they're still saying how wonderful it is and how they'd do it all over (because people are so awfully boringly cowardlyly dishonest and never admit regret about major life decisions until after they've unwound them (like every marriage is "wonderful" right up until the day of the divorce)), but you can see it in their eyes. Actually the final interviews of Grand Designs are an interesting study in non-verbal communication, because the shlock nonsense that they say with their mouths has absolutely zero information content (100% predictable = zero information), so you have to get all your information from what they're not saying.

It's so weird the way some people get some ridiculous idea in their head and stick to it no matter how inconvenient and costly and more and more obviously foolish it is. Like I absolutely have to build on this sloping lot that has only mud for soil, or I have to build in this old water tower that's totally impractical. They incur huge costs, for what? You could have just bought a normal practical site, and you would have been just as happy, probably much happier.

In my old age I am appreciating that all opinions are coincidences and taste is an illusion. Why in the world would you butt your head against some obviously difficult and costly and impractical problem. You didn't actually want that thing anyway. You just thought you wanted it because you are brainwashed by the media and your upbringing. Just get something else that's easier. All things are equal.

Eco Houses.

The "eco houses" are some of the most offensive episodes to me. The purported primary focus of these "eco houses" is reducing their long-term carbon footprint, with the primary focus being on insulation to reduce heating costs. That's all well and good, but it's a big lie built on fallacies.

They completely ignore the initial eco cost of the build. Often they tear down some perfectly good house to start the build, which is absurd. Then they build some giant over-sized monstrosity out of concrete. They ignore all that massive energy waste and pollution because "long term the carbon savings will make up for it". Maybe, maybe not. Correctly doing long term costs is very hard.

Obviously anyone serious about an eco house should build it as small as reasonable. Not only does a small house use less material to make and use less energy to heat and light, there's less maintenance over its whole life, you fill it with less furniture, it's smaller in the landfill when inevitably torn down, etc.

Building a ridiculously huge concrete "eco house" is just absurd on the face of it; it's so hypocritical that it kind of blows your sensor out and you can't even measure it any more. It's sort of like making a high performance electric sports car and pretending that's "eco", it's just an absurd transparently illogical combination; oh wait...

One of the big fallacies of the eco house is the "long term payoff". There might be new building technology in 5 years that makes your house totally obsolete. Over-engineering with anything technical is almost always a mistake, because the cost (and environment cost in this case) is going down so fast.

Your house might go out of style. Houses now are not permanent, venerated monuments. They are fashion accessories. You can see by the way the eco people so happily tear down the houses from the 50's and 70's as if they were garbage. In 20 years if your house isn't fashionable, someone will buy it and tear it down. You're using lots of experimental new technology which greatly reduces the chance of your house actually lasting for the long term. Things like burying a house in the ground with a neoprene waterproofing layer makes the probability of the house actually lasting for the long term very small.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that they assume that the carbon cost of energy is constant. In fact it's going down rapidly. The whole idea of the carbon savings (for things like using massive amounts of concrete) is that the alternative (a timber house with normal insulation and more energy use) is polluting a lot through its energy use. But if its heat energy comes from solar or other clean sources, then your passive house is not a win. The technology of energy production will improve massively in the next 20-50 years, so saying your house is a win over the long (50-100 years) term is insane.

As usual in these phony arguments, they use a straw man alternative. They compare building a new $500k eco house vs. just leaving the old house alone. That's absurd. Of course if you want to say that the tear-down-and-build is more "eco" you should compare your new house vs. spending $500k on the old house or other eco purposes. What if you just left the old house and spent $100k to add insulation and solar panels and better windows? Then you could spend $400k on preserving forest land or something. A fair comparison has to be along an iso-line of constant cost, and doing the best you can per dollar in each case.

I'm sure the reality in most cases is just that people *want* a new house and are rationalizing and making up excuses why it's okay to do it. I'd like it so much better if they just said "yeah, we fucking want a new house that uses tons of concrete and we don't give a shit about the eco, but we're going to make it passive so that we can feel smug and show off to our friends".

European building vs. American.

Holy crap European building quality is ridiculously good.

In one of the episodes somebody puts softwood cladding on the house and the host is like "but that will rot in 10 years!" and the builder feels all guilty about it. (it's almost vanishingly rare to have anything but softwood cladding in America (*), and yes in fact it does rot almost immediately). (* = you might get plastic or aluminum, or these days we have various fake wood cement fiber-board options, but you would never ever use hardwood, yegads).

Granted the houses on the show are on the high end; I'm sure low end European houses are shittier. Still.

Almost every house is post-and-beam, either timber or steel frames. The timer frames are fucking oak which just blew my mind the first time I saw it. Actual fucking carpenters cutting joints. And real fucking wood. We have nothing like that. "skilled tradesman" isn't even an occupation in America anymore. All we have is "day laborer who is using a nail gun for the first time ever".

An American-style asphalt shingle roof is looked down upon as ridiculously crappy. Everything is slate or tile or metal. Their rooves last longer than our entire houses.

One funny thing I noticed is that the cost of stonemasons and proper carpenters seems to be incredibly low in the UK. There are some houses with amazing hand-done stonework and carpentry, and they cost about the same as the fucking awful modern boxes that are all prefab glass and drywall. Why in the world would you get a horrible cold cheapo-condo-looking modern box when you could have something made of natural materials cut by hand? The stone work in particular shocked me how cheap it was.

Another odd one is the widespread use of "blockwork" (concrete block walls). That's something we almost never do for homes in America, and I'm not sure why not. It's very quick and cheap, and makes a very solid wall. We associate it with prisons and prison-like schools and such, but if you put plaster over it, it's a perfectly nice wall and feels just like a stone house. I guess even blockwork is expensive compared to the ridiculously cheap American stick-framing method.

Another difference that shocked me is the "fixed price contract". Apparently in the UK you can get a builder to bid a price, and then if there are any overruns *they* have to cover it. OMG how fucking awesome is that, I would totally consider building a house if you could do that.

Oh yeah, and of course the planning regulations are insane. Necessary evil I suppose. It's why Europe is beautiful (despite heavy human modification absolutely everything) and America looks like a fucking pile of vomit anywhere it's been touched by the hand of man. (though a lot of the stuff that gets allowed on the show in protected areas is pretty awful modern crap that doesn't fit in or hide well at all, so I'm not sure the planners are really doing a great job. It seems like if you spend enough time and money they will eventually let you build an eyesore).

It's interesting to watch how people (the clients) handle the building process.

A few people get completely run over by their builder or architect, pushed into building something they don't want, and forced to eat delays and overruns and shitty quality, and that's sad to see. But it's also unforgivably pathetic of them to let it happen. YOU HAVE A FUCKING CH4 CAMERA CREW! It's the easiest time ever to make your builder be honest and hard-working. Just go confront them when the cameras are there and make them explain themselves on camera. WTF how can you be such a pussy that you don't stand up for yourself even when you have this amazing backup. But no, they'll say "oh, I don't know, what can I do about it?". You can bloody well do more than you are doing.

A few people are asshole micro-managers totally hovering over the crew all the time. The crew hate them and complain about them. But they also do seem to work harder. In this sad awful life of ours, being an annoying nag really does work great, because most people just don't want to deal with it and so will do what they have to in order to not get nagged.

Building a house is one of those situations where you can really see the difference between people who just suck it up and go with the flow "oh, I guess that's just what it costs", vs. people who are always scrapping and fighting and getting more for themselves. You can see some rich old pussy fart who doesn't fight might spend $1M on a build, and some other poor immigrant guy who knows how to deal and cajole and hustle might spend $200k on the exact same build. You can be bigger than your money or your intellect if you just fight for it.

The ones that are most impressive to me are the self-builds. It just astounds me how hard they work. And how wonderful to put 2 years or so of your life into just building one thing, that afterward you can go "I made this". Amazing, I'd love to do that. It's also the only time that I really see the people enjoying the process, and being happy afterward. (I particularly like the couple in scotland that does the gut-rehab of an old stone house all by themselves with no experience).

There are a few episodes with the classic manipulative architect. The architect-client relationship is usually semi-adversarial. Architects don't just want to make you the nice house you want, that suits you and is cheap and easy to build. They want to build something that will get them featured in a magazine; they want to build something that is cutting edge, or they have some bee in their bonnet that they want to try out. They want to use expensive and experimental methods and make you take all the risk for it. In order to get you to do that, they will lie to you about how risky and expensive it really it is. I don't necessarily begrudge the architects for that, it's what they have to do in order to get something interesting built. But it's amazing how naive and trusting some of the clients are. And it's a sort of inherently shady situation. Any time one person gets the upside (eg. the architect benefits if it goes well) and someone else gets the downside (the client has to eat the cost overrun and delays and live in the shitty house if it doesn't go well), that's a big problem for morality. You're relying solely on their ethics to treat you well, and that is an iffy thing to rely on.


WhatHouse.co.uk said...

Love grand designs but just once you want Kevin to turn round and say "come on guys what were you think?????"

what house

nothings said...

"awfully boringly cowardlyly dishonest"

please extend this phrase to a few more letters of the alphabet!

cbloom said...

Hah, yeah, I could do the ABC children's book of misanthropy.

Chris Hamilton said...

The hearsay and probably entirely inaccurate things I have heard about concrete block walls is that they tend to collapse in earthquakes and increase the occupants exposure to radiation over long periods of time. I don't have a citation right now for either of these but I'll stop by with one if I find anything from a trustworthy source.

cbloom said...

@Chris - I guess the UK is a very low seismic & hurricane area. FYI the concrete block they use for load-bearing walls is solid concrete block, not like American "cinder block", which is very bad in earthquakes.

quick googling :



Terje Mathisen said...

My wife tends to watch some of those shows from the UK, I smiled when I read your description of how much higher quality they have in the UK compared to the US:

I have lived in Utah, which has real winters, but are back in Norway where we built a new home two years ago:

This is all wood, but everything exposed is treated, just like your poolside deck, and all waterboards and similar structures are covered with aluminum siding.

The walls have at least 25 cm of high-quality insulation, with 35+ cm for the roof.

According to the current Norwegian building standard there is a forced ventilation system with filtering and a heat exchanger.

old rants