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Peter, you had the launch for the first series of the show last night. How did it go?
I think it went well, there’s a lot of hype over any launch, but we’ll have to see how the first series goes. Australia will decide!
Have you found it to be a big transition from architect to TV presenter?
Well, it is and it isnt. There are skills you develop as an architect: people skills, communication skills. Architecture is more than just drawing – it’s about selling the idea and bringing all the players together. I’ve been passionate about architecture all my life, and I think to be good at architecture you’ve got to be a good communicator. So there’s an extension there. It’s been a journey to take those skills and apply them to a life-changing career that I never anticipated.
Was it daunting turning up for the first day of work?
I shit my pants! When they offered me the job a year ago, I thought, Why are they selecting me? The screen tests went ok, I just told them what I thought, which might have been a bit dumb .
Or perhaps thats exactly what they were after, a bit of honesty?
Actually they told me last night they screen tested 50 people, so clearly they didn’t just select the first person! But I’m happy I took it. I almost didn’t. I thought, what about my practice? It was quite hard to say yes to the job. But if it fails, I’ll go back to doing what I do with my practice. In the end, I realised there was nothing to lose so I should give it a go.
So what can we expect from the first series?
We’ve got nine projects this series, the tenth project had some problems with the builder so it wont be included. The series focuses on builds in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
In Victoria, we’ve got Fish Creek at Wilsons Promontory – a church that a couple bought in pieces and reassembled; a house at Indented Head on Port Phillip Bay, which sees two guys building the entertainers paradise; and a great story at Callignee South, which follows this really genuine guy, Chris Clarke, who rebuilds his house after it was destroyed in the bushfires.
In New South Wales, there’s Cottage Point – a very big undertaking, the biggest house were featuring this season. It’s in a fantastic location, right on the national park, a complex build on a steep escarpment overlooking the Hawkesbury River. There’s also a house in inner-suburban Sydney, in Surry Hills, built by Design Director of Woods Bagot, Domenic Alvaro and his partner Sue Bassett. It’s a real architects house, beautifully detailed and conceived, and very modest in scale. And then there’s Clovelly House, a house that was made in Melbourne and transported up to Sydney. Such a brave project involving Melbourne architects, Sydney builders, Melbourne builders and the owner works in and out of Singapore, so it was very difficult for them to bring the whole thing together.
In Queensland, weve got a Queenslander in Southport. The couple have lifted it off the ground, moved the house and built another level underneath. Plus theres The Hamptons House, just inland from the Gold Coast, this couple have a left-field approach – she is just mad for the Hamptons style.
And lastly, up in the Northern Territory, theres Lake Bennett House, which has been built by a guy who leaves Steve Irwin in his wake – a real crackerjack Aussie.
The personal stories seem to be the main attraction of the show.
And what’s been really interesting is the different ideas they’ve all got. There is real diversity in this country, and the materials available to build these houses are also so diverse. And each individual has different cultural backgrounds. Australia is vast, we’re larger than Europe, and there’s diversity in a country that size. The aspirations of someone who lives in the Gold Coast will be quite different to those of someone living in Tasmania. The materials, the design, and their vision of the dream house are different – and thats an exciting prospect. It’s exciting to see the experimentation that’s going on, and what strikes me is that there isn’t one answer. Everyone is trying to work out what the right residential answer is. But what is consistent in all of the designs is that each house responds to the landscape, and the owners are showing real inventiveness and courage in their designs.
And what kind of extraordinary designs have you encountered?
Domenic and Sue’s house, on a narrow site in Surry Hills: the whole house was pre-made in a factory and dropped in. Dominic researched how to prefabricate concrete for this context. Normally they’d only do this for factories and large commercial buildings, but he’s applied that to a tiny inner-suburban site thats 6m x 7m. They’ve built on two car park spaces. Before Dominic even started the design, he was speaking to local specialists Hanson Concrete about how to make the concrete high quality and on a small scale, discussing how to get it delivered to the narrow site. From there, he was able to begin designing. It’s not the easy route – he’s pushed the boundaries of materiality, construction techniques, technology, and what you can do in terms of sustainable living in the city, reconsidering what size house you need and how you can run it. He’s made a real statement about a different way of living. Its so important to follow houses like that, to show the rest of Australia what the alternatives are.
Grand Designs UK often follows homeowners dealing with difficult heritage constraints. Have any of these houses been restoration projects that grapple with heritage listings?
As a country, we’re only 200 years old so we dont have that stuff to build on. But the heritage issue, particularly in Sydney, is gaining pace and I hope we get the opportunity to find a house like that. We need to keep the DNA of our country’s short history, to retain a sense of perspective. The one house that did address heritage in this series is the Southport Queenslander, built in the 1880s as Sir Augustus Gregorys summerhouse. The 130-year-old home is a great timber structure, but it was full of white ants and really dilapidated. I think these homes are an Australian icon, and they need to be retained but we need to be able to use them too. Theres no point hanging on to buildings as an antique period piece that we can’t use. What the owners Ed and Jan Gillman have done is retained the spirit of the house, but adapted it and transformed the interior to give it a contemporary fitout.
And what’s it like being the outsider looking in on a project, is it easier when youre not committed to following the build through all the stages of construction?
It’s a lot easier than being the architect! I walk in, everyone is civil to me, I don’t have to sort out disputes and go away to do more detailing. In many ways its much easier than being the architect. I reckon being a practicing architect is one of the toughest jobs, no-one realises how much work goes into it. Its very consuming. Workload wise, the show is easier for me than being a practising architect. I can be free with myself.
Is it daunting to think youll be called the Australian Kevin McCloud?
My brother’s partner calls me Aussie Kev! At times it is, but then I think bugger it and get on with it. The reality is, most of the time it’s four of us out on site – me, the cameraman, the sound guy, and the producer were like a SWAT team. We arrive, get the essence of the situation and report on it, then we leave them alone. That’s kind of fun. But the hoopla of the TV show is all a bit mad. People like Andrew Winter and Brendan Moar came up to congratulate me at the launch, which is a bit surreal. Its daunting, but also exciting.
How does the selection process work for the show? Do you get a say in which projects are featured?
Yes, we’re looking for three key elements: Great people, sensational locations, and new and dynamic architecture. The shortlist is given to me, and I pass comment on them. Its not just about the architecture, but its a key part of the mix. But, really we can only select from whats been submitted – so I’m hoping people are really going to get behind the series.
Thanks for taking time to talk to us, Peter. Good luck with the show. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of you in the lead up to the premiere in October?
I’m going to be on every bus, every tram stop, the back of every taxi, the boards by Federation Square above Young and Jacksons . It’s pretty spooky, I kept looking up at that advertising board wondering if I’d ever be up there and now I’m going to be!
Grand Designs Australia premieres on Thursday 21 October at 8.30pm, on the LifeStyle Channel. Grand Designs Australia is produced by FremantleMedia for The LifeStyle Channel.
Grand Designs Australia is currently looking for residential projects to feature in the second series. If you are building your own grand design, complete the application on the website: www.fmashows.com/granddesigns