Smarter than HGTV and livelier than PBS, the British program ‘Grand Designs’ celebrates architectural problem-solving.
In an episode of “Grand Designs,” a couple wants to expand a tiny cottage into a three-bedroom family home. One member of the couple, Gregory Kewish, has the idea to use panels of a high-tech wood—called cross-laminated timber—in a new and experimental way, as structural components. His engineer is not so enamored of the idea, and quits. But Kewish perseveres. We see him crawling across the cottage’s roof one night, in pitch darkness and pouring rain, moving the massive wooden panels into place as his partner, Rebecca Sturrock, looks on worriedly.
Building a house can possess a person, become a kind of madness. This is a theme that runs through “Grand Designs.”
Nearly two decades into its run on Britain’s Channel 4, two seasons of “Grand Designs” are now available on Netflix, finally plugging a hole in American TV programming for smart, watchable shows about architecture. It’s a genre the British excel at. In the U.K., architecture shows don’t make you feel like you’re eating your spinach—the way a multipart PBS documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright might—but they rise well above the junk food of “House Hunters.” (No offense, HGTV fans.) For instance, there’s Jonathan Meades’s jump-cut architectural criticism on the BBC, or the 2011 miniseries The Secret Life of Buildings.