“Imagine if building a house was as easy as buying something online,” says Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud, dressed as a postman. “But the thing about buying online is that you don’t always get what you order.”
The opening gambit of this week’s episode of the long running Channel 4 show, now in its 23rd series, gave viewers a big clue to the themes of the programme.
Former farmer and floorboard engineer Rob, and his partner Kate, live in a white weatherboard-clad, prefabricated shack in a quiet corner of Kent.
It was built in 1948 by Rob’s grandfather on part of the family farm in the post-war housebuilding era. In this decade 150,000 prefab homes were thrown up to replace the housing stock wiped out during the Blitz.
Paint is peeling off the exterior walls, there is asbestos in the cladding and it’s freezing due to a lack of insulation, explains Kate, who is training to be a paddleboarding instructor.
The couple, both local, have lived there for eight years with their two boxer dogs and are ready to take the plunge, and replace their home with a far superior modern version, which again, will be made in a factory.
“We have never been able to have a family,” says Kate, “but there is no point feeling sorry for ourselves. It is time we took a positive step forward.”
She feels that they have more control over the project – which will wipe out the entirety of their £350,000 budget – if it is manufactured in a factory and not constructed from the ground up, on site.
“This is the start of us achieving the happiness that Kate and I want. It means so much on many levels,” says an emotional Rob.
With permission to access the farmer’s field behind the plot, which is down a lane near Tunbridge Wells, the six modules have to be craned over the trees and hedges and placed into 14 concrete pad foundations.
These modules, clad in Corten steel, will be built, insulated, with plumbing and cables laid, and fitted with fixtures such as kitchen cabinets and taps in the factory on the Sussex coast before being wrapped like large gifts and delivered to Kent by a fleet of lorries.
The four modules on the ground floor, slotted together, will house the hallway, two guest bedrooms and an open plan kitchen and living area.
Two modules will be placed on top at an angle to make the most of the sunlight, and will form Rob and Kate’s bedroom suite with a private balcony overlooking his former family farm.
The project should take five months – with the couple planning to be in by Christmas – but the factory usually mass produce an assembly line of identikit social houses. Will they cope with thinking outside the box and producing this unique property, McCloud asks?
And if the couple do get exactly what they ordered, will this steel arrangement become an eye-sore in a quaint pocket of Kent?
However, as it turned out the precision of the order was not the major stumbling block for Kate and Rob. The “friend” who had agreed to allow them to use his neighbouring field from which they could crane the six modules over the hedge into their back garden, “had a wobble”, as Rob puts it. “He was concerned about damage and the chaos it would cause,” he explains.
Despite the setback which comes as the factory stage of the process is nearing completion, Kate and Rob demolish their existing home and move in with Kate’s mum.
“There is ivy growing through the floor and old wasps nests in most rooms,” she says. It had to go and, with each asbestos panel carefully removed and wrapped in thick plastic, the deconstruction of the shack took longer than it did to build it 70 years ago.
The couple did encounter problems in the factory too. The design of the metal frames meant the spanner couldn’t reach to tighten the bolts. Although with designers and engineers under one roof such issues are easily resolved, meaning site delays can be counted in minutes not months as is often typical on Grand Designs.
With the deadline approaching, Rob cashes in his pension to the tune of £20,000 to employ a land agent to negotiate use of the field and to draw up a contract. Finally, access is granted and the modules of timber, metal and glass arrive.
After eight years, the new home appears and takes shape in just 24 hours. Rob has always wanted to build Kate a house, and for £370,000 a warm, burnt orange, twisted house sits behind the trees in rural Kent. “These six blocks have now merged into what Kate and Rob can call home in just five months,” says McCloud. “It’s quite sculptural with no sense of compromise and offers a glimpse of precision efficient construction to come.”