We need to talk about Kevin

Kevin McCloud has just threatened to stash cannabis in the back of housing minister Grant Shapps’ Toyota Prius. Well, legal hemp rather than the drug per se. The presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Designs property show and head of housing development company Hab (short for happiness, architecture, beauty) has already cracked a number of other cannabis-related jokes - ‘I made a hash of it’ and ‘it doesn’t have that familiar whiff to it’ - before an audience of reporters, green experts, local politicians and would-be investors. Now, to the horror of the onsite health and safety officer, he is man-handling a corrosive lime and hemp-based insulation material called Hemcrete and encouraging Mr Shapps to do the same.

In the full glare of the media - including his own Channel 4 camera crew - Mr McCloud is charm personified. ‘I am going to ask the minister to help me build a house,’ he announces as he gets Mr Shapps to roll up his sleeves and fill a wall space with Hemcrete.

Wittingly or unwittingly, 52-year-old Mr McCloud has become the public face of sustainable housing in the UK. Today the one-time theatre designer is speaking at the ‘turning of the sod’ at his first development. The Triangle is a 42-home social housing development in Swindon, Wiltshire, and is the first project of Hab Oakus, a joint venture between Hab and Greensquare Housing Group, which is made up of Westlea Housing, Oxford Citizens’ Housing Association, and Oakus Estates.

The £4.2 million scheme consists entirely of affordable housing, thanks to considerable grant support - it won £2.8 million funding from the Homes and Communities Agency and £840,000 from the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s low carbon innovation fund - and some equity from Hab Oakus.

Eat your greens

All the houses in scheme are being built to level four of the code for sustainable homes (the national standard for new homes), though at least six will reach code five. While these eco-credentials are admirable, they are hardly groundbreaking - many developing housing associations are building schemes to code five and a few even to the maximum level, six.

What separates this project from most is its underlying philosophy: to create a wider benchmark for sustainable homes beyond the bricks and mortar. And most importantly, it will be built for a similar cost to a standard new build home, meaning it is not a one-off exemplar project, but can be rolled out elsewhere.

The wider development has been designed to meet the principles of One Planet Living, an organisation set up by the WWF and sustainablity charity Bioregional. The two, three, and four-bedroom homes, which will surround a central village green will be well insulated, have photovoltaic panels and all the usual eco-mod cons. However, the Glenn Howells Architects design is also intended to create a sustainable community, including a food co-operative, a car club and ‘edible landscaping’ (green spaces providing plants to eat).

Clear objectives

All this has been achieved while also ensuring the scheme is comparatively cheap to build. While most code four homes cost between £120 and £130 per square foot to build, Hab Oakus has driven the price down closer to that of a code three home, between £100 and £110 per square foot. Most of these savings are the result of long, careful planning in the design by Glenn Howells Architects and include the use of innovative insulation products such as Hemcrete. The process took six months longer than it otherwise would have and included extensive work by cost consultancy DBK alongside efforts by contractor Willmott Dixon.

‘Building an ultra-green scheme for 160 quid a square foot is great - but no one can copy it because it is too expensive,’ explains a tired-looking Mr McCloud from the other side of a dusty bench on the edge of his Swindon building site.

Speaking to him for more than two minutes is proving a challenge. He is interrupted frequently, saying goodbye individually to each person on their way home from the event. But finally, once he has posed for a photo with the catering staff, and everyone but his publicist has departed, he speaks with casual candour.

‘From the outset, we started with some very clear objectives: we wanted housing that is sustainable ecologically and socially,’ he says. ‘We wanted the project to be contextual, that is, [homes] properly designed to look as though they belong in Swindon - which they will. We wanted them to be enjoyable places to live and properly architecturally designed, involving public realm design too. And we wanted it to be profitable. It has to be triple bottom line - [offering] ecological, social and economic benefits - because if it can’t be copied, then it ain’t worth anything.’

Widely applicable model?

But is it actually so easily applicable elsewhere? While the build cost is impressive, Mr McCloud admits that overall the scheme is likely to just break even, which makes it unlikely to become a blueprint for developers who have only one bottom line in mind.

Following Tuesday’s emergency budget (see News), any future versions of the project are unlikely to win so much grant funding from the HCA so will need to have a different tenure mix (at present there are 21 homes for rent, 11 for intermediate rent, and 10 for rent to home buy) in order to make a profit.

The scheme has also received much attention thanks to Mr McCloud’s profile. Would Mr Shapps have used its launch to stage his first public speech as housing minister and pledge to define ‘zero carbon’ within weeks had 10,000-home Greensquare partnered an unheard of local developer? The orgy of good PR that accompanies Mr McCloud could be considered an investment in itself.

David Ashmore, chief executive of Greensquare, maintains that the Triangle development would have happened one way or another, even without Hab’s involvement, though it has certainly made things much easier.

‘Undoubtedly working with someone like Kevin means that doors have opened for us,’ he says. ‘His access to key contacts is much greater than ours, and there is also plenty of publicity. But Hab was formed as a result of Kevin and his team’s passion to put their principles into practice, and working with us has provided them with our development expertise [since forming in April 2008, Greensquare has developed more than 900 new homes] and funding, so it’s a two-way street.’

Personal involvement

It certainly is a two-way street. For many in the sustainable housing sector, Kevin McCloud’s fronting of the Great British Refurb Campaign, which, with the Energy Saving Trust and the UK Green Building Council, has been lobbying the government on retrofit, is exactly the injection of celebrity balanced with credibility any industry might crave. Given that his face is plastered over the scheme’s marketing literature, one would assume that he is not shy of this role.

‘Am I really? A “poster boy?”’. Mr McCloud appears either genuinely surprised or rather disgusted by this perception. ‘You turn up and see me do a bit of public speaking and assume that it is what I do for a living,’ he says, sounding slightly hurt. ‘But I have been in three meetings today - that’s the point. I am doing this, not because I want to stand up and talk about housing, but because actually, in a way, I have done enough talking,’ he explains. ‘I am over 50 and for me this project personally is about doing something that is tangible and different.

‘It is about trying to evolve a philosophy of construction and building and put it into practice - not to be the “poster boy” or the “front-man” for someone else’s scheme. That is precisely why I set up my own business and am doing it independently. For me the important thing is the philosophical contribution.’

Future developments

By teaming up with a housing association, he has already managed to do what few other developers can do at the moment: forge ahead and build homes. Now, despite the hurdles facing house building, Mr McCloud is gunning for his next project - or rather projects - that are far more ambitious and on a larger scale.

‘Instead of trying to do code four for less, we want to do code five for the same amount of money we have done this for,’ he reveals. ‘Already over the course of the Triangle project we have seen prices come down and found technologies that we have been able to afford on existing budgets that take it to code five.’

He is also trying to work out how to apply the Triangle’s development philosophy to flats rather than to houses, but he is coy about the details, saying only that he has been through the HCA competition stages to bid for funding. But now, like so many developers across the UK, he is waiting to find out what impact the coalition government’s cuts will have after the HCA said it would be slashing its national affordable housing programme by at least £100 million.

Making other plans

In fact, Mr McCloud has quite a lot planned - much more than he is willing to let on. In a vote of confidence for the social housing sector, Hab is drawing up a five-year business plan with Greensquare to extend their joint venture to build up to four other schemes. Discussions are understood to be underway with ethical bank Triodos about it financing the venture.

Hab Oakus has also made a competitive bid to develop a scheme in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in partnership with a community land trust, and is down to the final two. Furthermore, it has re-entered talks with Swindon Council to try to overcome planning hurdles and develop 180 homes on the 10-acre Pickard’s Small Field site where it had originally planned a scheme which was later quashed by local opposition.

‘There has to be a way of doing it,’ muses Mr McCloud. ‘We just have to be clever, lean and responsive. All projects in this world that succeed do so because they have been carried out with imagination, intelligence , wit and passion. And that is what the housing sector needs right now.’ In this final flourish, it is difficult not to hear Mr McCloud describing himself.

A fruitful partnership

The relationship between 10,000-home Greensquare Housing Group and Kevin McCloud’s development company Hab was forged three years ago.

‘Kevin McCloud and Hab had been exploring development options with a number of local authorities and were looking for backing,’ explains David Ashmore, chief executive of Greensquare. ‘They ended up in discussions with Swindon Council and were looking at building 200 homes near the city centre.

‘The council was going to put up the land. But local opposition mounted and they put in a village green application for the site so the plans had to go on ice. The council was still keen to do something so put up the land for the Triangle - albeit for a much smaller development.

‘Around the same time, the housing market collapsed and Kevin became much more aware of the housing association sector. He realised that Hab would benefit from the funding and development expertise of the sector, so there was a beauty parade of sorts with around 14 housing associations vying to be picked, and we were chosen.’