Kevin McCloud interview image Theo Cohen

Kevin McCloud interview

Kevin McCloud interview

What we really need to do to be more sustainable

Solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, insulation… we can all take action to make our homes more sustainable but the conversation is complex, says Kevin McCloud.

The Grand Designs presenter says that not only do we need to take a good look at what we as individuals are actually doing within our own homes but we also need to rethink how the building industry can be better equipped to deliver sustainable properties.

Energy performance certificates [EPC] on properties and appliances can be a red herring. For example, a fridge rated as being the most energy efficient is all well and good, but how are you actually using the appliance? Says Kevin: “It’s not just about its rating but what temperature you set it to, where you have fitted it or even how long you open the door for. It’s also about whether you have signed up to a green energy provider to actually get the electricity to run it.”

He gives another example in how electric cars are used: “You might have someone who buys an electric car and drives 60 miles to work every day and 60 miles back and then recharges it at home on the mains from a power station burning gas.” Meanwhile, a classic car owner who only drives for 20 minutes a week might have a lower environmental impact. “You kept your machine going, you’ve invested in craftsmanship and you’ve contributed to preserving something that makes a contribution to national heritage and culture. The arguments are really complex around sustainability.”

It becomes even more complex with an entire house. “You can move in to the most energy efficient home with the most advanced heating system and fantastic insulation and ventilation but what tends to happen in Britain is that people crank up the heating and then open the windows. That’s the worst-case example but it shows you how pointless an EPC rating is because it’s all about how we use a building. It’s all about us. We should be rated EPC not the buildings.” There is also a big gap between what is designed to be eco-friendly and what is actually built. “The difficulty is that the assessment is done in an office by a surveyor with a clever algorithm and it’s done with architects’ drawings and engineers’ calculations. These are skilled people who have beautifully engineered something to be absolutely the most efficient thing it can be.”

But the realities of the build then don’t go as planned. “You end up with this huge discrepancy between the quality of the build and the quality of the design and the EPC rating is based on the design, not on the actual finished item.”

Given how much carbon emissions result from our homes, he says our future is in the hands of those who build our properties. “I want to see a massive investment in national training programmes, and we need to reassess the reputation of our construction industry. I want to see carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers and plumbers as people who are as important in our lives as ambulance drivers and train drivers. There is tremendous pride in the industry, just as there is a lack of skill in certain sectors of it. We need to build on the pride and deliver homes which are beautiful, properly designed, architecturally impressive, affordable, and very well built.

“More ideas on creating sustainable homes will be on offer at the Grand Designs Live show, which comes to ExCel London on 29 April to 7 May. It will feature a whole host of experts who will be on hand to offer free advice, as well as Green Grads – students who will showcase their eco ideas, as well as Kevin’s own Green Heroes section. Green Heroes showcases a wide range of clever ideas, and has been running for many years. “It’s been a delight to see some of these products take off. We always have a variety – they might be recyclable or they might sequester carbon into the product, even better if the idea solves a problem that nobody has tried to address before. But they also have to have curb appeal. They need to be beautiful, they need to be appealing. People have got to like them otherwise they’re just a technical solution that look ugly and no one will adopt them.”

Highlights this year include lighting made from wool, a product called Gulp that traps microfibres from the washing machine to stop them being released into the environment, a chandelier made out of mycelium and furniture created from salvaged maritime rope.

Kevin has seen a great many eco houses throughout his career, so which projects have impressed him the most? “The answer is always the next one that I’m going to visit. I’m about to go and see an 18-storey block of flats in Norway made entirely out of wood. Scandinavia is way ahead in terms of using timber. This one is a game changer.”

Other inspiring projects include Ben Law’s house in the woods, which was featured on Grand Designs, and was built from Ben’s own timber. It cost just £28k to build and features wind turbines and solar panels. “It was a wild experiment that showed what could be done. It’s not something you are going to copy, but showed ideas and technologies that emerge somewhere else in the mainstream.”

Another example he points to is an entire village of self-build eco homes in Wales. “It was a hugely important project in terms of showing people that it was possible, if you tried really hard, to change your lifestyle and live off the land.”

As to what we can do with our properties that will make a difference, Kevin says insulation is key but that has to go hand-in-hand with air quality. Mechanical ventilation systems are vital in keeping homes free from humidity and mould. He says there are some exciting experimental projects happening right now where houses have been retrofitted, improving air quality, humidity and conserving energy. “I think the future is really exciting. We have just got to be careful of the snake oil and instant cures
– and ask for expert advice. That’s really important because there’s some amazing technology out there.”

This is Kevin’s advice for any project you do regarding your home – ask the experts. “The problem is that we’re not used to asking for help or think we can learn how to do something from a YouTube video. But actually the whole process of building and making is fraught with danger. A building is a highly complex machine. You wouldn’t attempt to build a car in the middle of a muddy field if you’ve had no experience…

“Get help from an engineer and an architect. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kichen extension or a new-build, you’re spending vast amounts of money on your project and if it is flawed and a disappointment, it is a waste of money. Get in the consultants such as a quantity surveyor as they pay for themselves.”

“The trick is to work alongside good people. I think that’s the single biggest thing I’ve learned, not least because it’s a stressful experience. You cannot control the way in which it creeps into every part of your life and stains it with anxiety and obsession…”


  • Kevin McCloud will be at Grand Designs Live, at London’s ExCeL from 29 April – 7 May.

Image: Theo Cohen