With a grand (excuse the pun) history, which includes a total of 23 years, and 24 seasons, Grand Designs UK is one of the longest running TV shows that I personally have ever committed to watching. And that’s saying a lot for someone who really doesn’t watch much of what the world of television offers anymore. But Grand Designs is not just any TV show. The reason this show is resolutely watchable is the promise of hubris amongst the rubble, of bold ambitions realised in steel and glass, weakened gradually over the course of each episode by human folly, only to be resurrected in an architectural marvel of glorious success.
Each episode begins in a similar vein, with owners seemingly unaware of the scale or the costs of what they are about to embark upon (a premise that makes the payoff all the more impactful). As time drags on, building costs mount and deadlines are not met, and despite our obvious judgement, as viewers, we find ourselves rooting deeply for the family who have laid it all on the line in the name of impassioned design. These people have dared to take on such an arduous task, assuming they can achieve it quickly and relatively cheaply, and despite the odds, they actually manage to pull it off, leaving those of us at home inspired not only by their dedication but their creative prowess.
Our own incarnation of Grand Designs New Zealand is no less nail biting, nor less inspirational in the homeowners’ quest to create the designs of their dreams. Something I recently learned, after having an exclusive one-on-one tour of some of the show’s greatest homes in the Auckland region, with Grand Designs New Zealand’s host, architect Tom Webster.
The British-born architect — known locally for his involvement in the design of The Hotel Britomart, and his time at Cheshire Architects (though he now has a practice with his wife Anna, Webster Harding Architects), is no stranger to ambitious designs. His diverse portfolio moves from designing and repurposing ancient and historic buildings, to projects for Google. Webster also has a huge passion for cars, so the Grand Designs New Zealand partnership with Jaguar is one he finds immensely rewarding from an aesthetic synergies perspective.
Our tour of some of the grandest of homes from previous seasons of the show takes place behind the wheel of Jaguar’s fully-electric I-PACE. Once inside the elegant, highly aerodynamic car, Webster informs me just how deep his obsession with cars goes. Having graduated in architecture in the UK, but always having a love of cars, Webster tells me that “in my third year of architecture school, my sketchbook was filled with drawings of cars.” This passion quickly saw him study car design in Coventry, which also happens to be the home of Jaguar, and the centre of the UK motor industry.
We immediately begin an analysis on the variations between automotive design and residential architecture. “Architecture,” explains Tom Webster, “is a far more comprehensive beast. It involves every aspect of the build, from electrical, to plumbing to engineering, while car design is purely about styling and aesthetics.”
And with the advent of electric cars changing the game completely, we both agree that car designs are evolving massively. Webster suggests, “They really have the opportunity to become like spaceships now, you actually don’t need a car to look like a car anymore.” Take the I-PACE that I am driving. While it still carries the DNA of its fuel-powered predecessors, its shape is more elegant and refined and it is clear it has been created to provide efficiency by slicing cleanly through the air for maximum range and stability. Its flowing waistline, dramatic bonnet scoop and signature rear haunches elevate this into a truly beautiful looking car. As Webster offers, “car design now, is really all about the battery and aerodynamics. You no longer need an exhaust or a radiator grill, allowing for the design to be far more interesting than ever before.” I get the feeling that he would be happy to be back in the world of car design again now (he got back into architecture when he moved to New Zealand with his wife six years ago).
I suggest that cars have always been about elegant engineering, and those at the luxury end of the market are more than just a mode of transportation; they are in fact an extension of your stylistic leanings, or of who you are. Webster reminds me that “Jaguar is passionate about championing innovation, it’s at the heart of everything they do, so their collaboration with Grand Designs New Zealand makes a lot of sense.” Their progress in the EV space is also extremely compatible with Webster’s own design philosophy, which is to embrace projects that are sustainable. When asked about the houses they select out of all that are submitted to the show, Webster suggests, “we’ve got to love the houses, and I have a strong leaning towards passive housing, so yes, the house needs to look beautiful, but it also needs to be environmentally responsible, much like your choice of vehicle.”
Webster is clearly incredibly suited to his new hosting position, his immense passion for representing great architecture in New Zealand is obvious. “So many of the owners have an aesthetic leaning towards a particular type of design, and it’s interesting to see their car leanings are often similarly suited. We had one homeowner that owned two beautiful E-Type Jaguars, which seemed like we were coming full circle with the show and our partnership with Jaguar.”