Emotional Grand Designs sees one family divide a plot to pay off debts and build an Asian-inspired villa in Cambridgeshire

·5 min read
 (Channel 4 / Malgosia Czarniecka Lonsdale)
(Channel 4 / Malgosia Czarniecka Lonsdale)

After 20 years in Malaysia, and following the sudden death of her husband, Gretta moves back to England to rebuild her life and an Asian-inspired villa in the Cambridgeshire Fens.

In tonight’s episode of Channel 4’s Grand Designs the teacher returns to the UK and, with no place to call home, moves into a caravan in her sister’s back garden.

Gretta’s sister Mary and husband Fernando have faced hard times too.

They lost their business in the global financial crisis and in order to pay off debts have been renting out their beloved family house and living in their garden - also in a mobile home.

The couple welcome Gretta mother-of-two-grown-up sons, into their lives and their garden and the three of them live for a while, side-by-side in two static caravans.

With no choice but to start a new life, Gretta uses her £100,000 of her savings to buy the garden off Mary and Mexican-born Fernando which will enable them to clear what they owe and move back into their house.

On the plot of land their son Carlos, a trained architect will design a new home for Gretta still right next door to her sister in what will be a shared garden. It really is a family affair.

 (Channel 4 / Malgosia Czarniecka Lonsdale)
(Channel 4 / Malgosia Czarniecka Lonsdale)

“The most poignant reason to build is founded in loss and in bereavement and it is perhaps in those bleakest of times we discover that those around us, who love us, will step forward and help us to rebuild our lives. And even to build a house,” says presenter Kevin McCloud.

The whole episode is tinged with sadness, hope and love and McCloud fears that the pressure of a build will test family relationships to the limit. He questions whether — with a budget of £300,000 — this extended clan move on from past difficulties and build a shared future. Especially given the fact that Gretta’s nephew is the fastidious architect and her brother-in-law (his dad) the novice project manager.

“No doubt there will be buggerations,” quirky Fernando tells McCloud. “But I feel responsible for Gretta and for the time and budget. We’re all in the soup,” he adds.

 (Channel 4 / Malgosia Czarniecka Lonsdale)
(Channel 4 / Malgosia Czarniecka Lonsdale)

On the show, detailed plans will reveal Carlos’s design: the footprint of a rectangular, single storey house will be pinned by deep piles into solid rock which sits below the Fenland soil.

On top sits a bespoke 130-piece steel frame with a well-insulated roof - all of this will be prefabricated off-site.The roof overhangs the property all the way around by 2m and on top is the terrace. The walls are glazed floor-to-ceiling to connect with the leafy green plot on the edge of woodland while the overhang and roof will be clad in a special Asian burnt wood rendering called Shoshugibon.

Charring the wood gives it a darkened and almost varnished look, protecting it from the elements and insects.

The style is a not-so-subtle nod to the eastern architecture that Gretta and Ray loved.

The open-plan living area and kitchen will form the main space with sliding doors onto the garden and wide corridors to the three guest bedrooms and the master bedroom with an en suite. A side door through a utility room will face Mary’s house, to connect the sisters.

The build starts with clearing the site in February 2020 and by March the country went into lockdown with no workers allowed on site, including the architect.

The trio of Gretta, Mary and Fernando were just going to have to get their hands dirty.

But would the pressure of the project, especially living on site, shake the foundations of the project and the family?

There are other issues too that will arise. Such as the preservation of Fernando’s favourite apple tree, which is more than 100 years old, produces an abundance of fruit and was a played in by his children. It’s right on the edge of the footprint of Gretta’s new house.

“In this project everyone is working together towards one happy project, if it goes well”, says McCloud. “If it doesn’t go well and emotions become frayed then the sense of renewal that this project represents can get eroded, and we don’t want that. Love must prevail.”

Inevitably, conflict arose. Fernando - a keen rewilder who had planted a thousand trees on his land over the past 30 years - saw his apple tree fall.

Gretta questioned the dark Asian cladding and whether it was too heavy to Carlos’s horror, but the architect got his own way. This decision took Gretta £10,000 over budget and the windows were £13,000 more expensive than first thought.

There were many delays along the way and the dream of being in the house for Christmas was shattered. She also ended up spending £450,000 on the project - 50 per cent more than planned.

In August 2021 Gretta finally moved in - two years after Ray died - and she describes it as a "peaceful and happy place."

McCloud says "it represents everything that is good about family." He declares it neat and crisp with the cladding shimmering off the Fenland sun and the landscaping signaling its eastern roots.

"When the foundations of a life collapse, the way forward is impossible to imagine," he concludes. "But in this house a new future is forged from the remains of the past...and they are still one happy family."

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