This is what appearing on Grand Designs is really like

Spoiler alert – Kevin’s lovely and no, you don’t get paid.

Viewers of Grand Designs in 2009 may not have known it, but they will have shared in my journey of the restoration and extension of Kemeys Folly, a Grade II-listed hunting lodge in Newport, South Wales.

It was a relatively smooth – if slow – journey, but if I had £10 for every time I’ve been asked what Kevin McCloud is really like and if I got paid, I’d probably have been able to pay for the extensions all over again.

I’m also often asked if I regret doing the programme. Even though the experience went well for me, I think people naturally assume there must be negatives to being involved in what could perhaps be considered reality TV.

I can honestly say I don’t regret it, despite the fact it can be a little disconcerting when 14 years later people still say, “Oh, I saw you on TV last night.” I didn’t think about the re-runs when I signed up.

three storey stone tower with sweeping curved glass and render extenionsCredit: Sarah Harley

Would I do it again? No. But that’s only because I can’t imagine being in a position to build a house again. Would I encourage anyone else to apply? Absolutely. It gives you a visual record of an experience that you may never repeat.

Did it end well? Yes – although there’s a running joke that Grand Designs has a divorce curse. I have to admit I no longer live in the house and am indeed divorced. However, I can categorically say the programme had nothing to do with it.

Nonetheless, it was a journey and not everyone gets the chance to give it a go. So if you’ve always wondered what it’s really like to be on Grand Designs, here’s my story – including why Kevin and I will never agree on render colours!

I made a last minute decision to apply

Don’t follow my lead – do it as soon as possible

I had always been an avid fan of the series, with long-term dreams of building a house, but the thought of being on Grand Designs hadn’t been considered – until we found Kemeys Folly.

My husband and I both grew up close to the folly but were unaware of the building’s existence until a chance conversation with a friend revealed that one of their family members was selling up.

Armed with our eight-week-old son, we made the journey back from London to Wales to view the property. As a family we had long-term plans to move back to the area before our son reached school age – although this was still some time off.

But things don’t always go to plan and it was love at first sight. Three months later we picked up the keys to what most “Grand Designers” call their “forever home”.

split screen image of far reaching views across the countryside and the front of a towerCredit: Sarah Harley
Far reaching views and a character filled property ended in love at first sight

Fast forward almost two years filled with architect meetings, planning, council liaising, numerous tenders and a relocation to Wales, and it was nearly demolition day for the unlisted extensions that we’d been given permission to remove. It suddenly dawned on me we were about to embark on an epic journey that photography alone couldn’t fully capture.

Fuelled by a surge of enthusiasm, I filled in the Grand Designs online application form and waited for the rejection. It never came – instead the production company got in touch. Before we knew it, a test filming day was booked, and we found ourselves in front of the camera.

In hindsight, the lack of forethought on my behalf meant we missed out on filming a few early moments in the project, such as the labour of love involved in repointing the whole tower and the full demolition of the old extensions. I would therefore always recommend applying as early as you can.

What’s Kevin McCloud really like?

Maybe he’s a bit like Marmite, but I’m a fan

Meeting Kevin for the first time was a big day. I’d watched every episode of the series since it began. I relished his candour and acerbic comments on other people’s projects, but I admit to feeling nervous when I realised he would be offering his opinions on mine.

Thankfully, he was charming and chatty and soon put me at ease. Whenever we spoke, I knew in the back of my mind that he was always looking for a story angle, but as I’d immersed myself in the project for months, it was easy to talk about it everything openly and honestly.

Like most people who appear on the show, I also learnt that he doesn’t hold back on his thoughts, but I was unfazed by this (although I can imagine how some people may struggle with his candid approach).

However, I held the view that years of working in the industry meant he was giving knowledgeable advice and I was happy to listen. I was also equally comfortable to give him my opinion in return when I didn’t agree.

We built up a good rapport and towards the end of the project he used to joke that he’d nominate me as his replacement if he ever left the series. I’m sure it’s a standard way of making people feel more comfortable on screen, but it certainly worked.

As a bonus, we’d also go for lunch to a local pub on “Kevin days”, which was a welcome respite from site cabin sandwiches.

When I was filmed, Kevin made only seven site visits, so it was important to draw upon his bank of architectural and design knowledge when he was there. He pointed out architectural details about the property that I’d not noticed before on items such as fireplaces and decorative friezes.

Kevin likes grey render but I don’t

It caused quite the debate

I still take pride in the fact that I held my own when it came to debating certain design elements of the build with Kevin, which consequently means I also remain mildly disappointed that the episode didn’t include heated discussions we had about the colour of render on the new extension.

Kevin was adamant we should use grey render for a more utilitarian feel, whereas I’d opted for an off-white shade to complement the lime render we had painstakingly replaced on the whole tower.

tower clad in scaffolding and workman repointing stoneworkCredit: Sarah Harley
Part of the renovations included repointing all four sides of the listed tower

We debated and even argued on camera about this on more than one occasion, but it never made the final edit. Nonetheless, I didn’t regret my colour choice once the render was applied.

Be prepared to find out things Kevin doesn’t like after the event

You won’t necessarily be told at the time

The disappointment about not seeing the render disagreements quickly faded when I first watched the programme and heard Kevin’s voiceover reveal he didn’t like the first-floor bathroom extension. It came as a total shock.

Like most reality TV shows, participants aren’t involved in the editing process and don’t see the show before anyone else. When it first aired, it was a nerve-racking hour involving wine, a cushion to hide behind and mobile phones switched to silent.

When he revealed his thoughts, I remember being furious that I’d not had the chance to counter his comments. We had simply replaced the footprint of an old first-floor extension and had no other option for adding a bathroom that wouldn’t damage an ornate ceiling in the main tower.

split screen image of tower showing location of previous extensions and then new extension having glass installedCredit: Sarah Harley
The new first floor bathroom matched the location of a previous extension

But there was nothing I could do and I had to accept that everyone is entitled to their opinion.

If you aren’t prepared to be told, by countless people, exactly what they liked and disliked about your build, I’d suggest you don’t ever apply for a programme like Grand Designs. You may be in the public domain only for an hour, but for a while afterwards, you will find everyone has something to say to you – even strangers.

I’d also recommend that you don’t make the mistake of going Googling yourself after the episode has aired. I found myself the brunt of a variety of weird, hurtful and often inappropriate comments.

While my instinct was to try and contact the people who had made remarks, I realised I would achieve nothing and so I decided very quickly to stop Googling myself or the programme.

If you put yourself in the public domain, it doesn’t give people the right to abuse you, but it was a short, sharp lesson in realising it happens. It certainly made me feel more empathetic towards celebrities who get trolled for no reason on a daily basis.

There will always be issues on site

But you do get through them

Even though I worked on site each day alongside the main contractor, Dave Bendon, who remains a friend to this day, it was inevitable the project would hit the odd problem.

We had a few – although thankfully nothing that led to the episode needing a blast of tension building music to accompany a head-in-hands moment.

We questioned our sanity quite early on when we began work during the wettest and coldest January the area had seen for some time. Thankfully people in Wales are used to inclement weather and it takes a lot to deter a bunch of burly builders.

My biggest worry about the groundworks phase was that Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service, responsible for listed buildings, had said we might find some Roman remains. This was because Kemeys Folly was rumoured to be built on a Roman encampment. But I should have been more worried about concrete than classical finds.

lorry pumping concrete into foundations on building siteCredit: Sarah Harley
A lack of bedrock resulted in extra concrete being required

A test dig had indicated that bedrock ran through the site. It did – but not consistently. In some places the builders dug way deeper than we had planned for. I can’t recall the number of additional cubic metres of concrete we used, but I was thankful we’d been encouraged to retain the rubble from the demolition of previous extensions to re-use in the footings. As well as saving money, it helped to counteract the non-eco-friendly nature of concrete.

Most other major parts of the build – such as the installation of steel, roof and blockwork – went fairly well. But of course, there’s always an exception. As is the case with many self-build projects, it’s the glazing that causes a glitch.

workers installing large panes of glass stored on siteCredit: Sarah Harley
The late arrival of glazing caused some minor delays

Window install day is also one of the most nerve-wracking days in the process. Even though double or triple glazed units are extremely strong, it takes nerves of steel to watch them being moved around site. I think my coffee consumption that day peaked at an all-time high.

It’s easy to forget the camera crew are there

The production team was brilliant

We were visited by the production crew around 15 times in addition to Kevin’s seven visits. Although everyone involved with the build had initial concerns that it would cause delays or feel intrusive, we were blessed with a great crew.

It also has fewer members than you expect. Non-Kevin days simply involved an assistant producer/camera operator and a director. Damian and Ann were assigned to my project, and they were always a pleasure to have on site.

crane lifting steels next to tower and men sat on roof in topping out ceremonyCredit: Sarah Harley
The crew capture key moments such as delivery of steel and completion of roofs

Even on the days when Kevin came to site, there was the addition of only an extra camera operator and sound technician. To my son’s delight, Johnny, the extra camera operator, also worked on one of his favourite programmes, Deadly 60, so I was able to relay tales of encounters with wild animals following his visits.

Although full “Kevin days” were undeniably more disruptive, as we’d sometimes have to ask the builders to down tools to reduce the background noise, on other filming days, it was easy to forget the crew was there, unless they were asking for direct pieces to camera or short interview sessions.

I always knew in advance when the crew was coming as they are keen to film important events such as foundations being dug, walls being built, roofs being completed and glass being installed. They rely on you to tell them those dates.

Also, they won’t just interview you but also key people on the build – they’ll obviously want to see if there are differences of opinion or any “dramas” behind the scenes. It’s entertainment, after all. Luckily my contractor Dave is one of the most loyal people I know, and we had a brilliant – and happily uneventful – working relationship throughout, so there was no gossip to be had!

Don’t give yourself a Christmas deadline

It resulted in the “day of the 35 vehicles”

Although the project began in 2006, it took almost two years to get to the point where we were able to start work on the new buildings. We had spent the time getting planning permission, working on the listed building and an extended period going out to tender for the works.

It was quite hard to find a builder that was able to deal with both the listed building and the contemporary extension. Companies either declined to tender, over-priced, or asked to do only certain parts. I don’t recall how I finally found Dave, but his experience, thoroughness, pride in his work, and seeming positive attitude won me over, meaning we finally started work at the start of 2008.

With the bad weather causing the site to close a few times, extra time for groundworks, delays in glazing, screed taking longer to dry, difficulties finding good tilers and other minor setbacks, it meant we faced finishing much closer to Christmas than we hoped.

floor being screededCredit: Sarah Harley
Screeding the glazed corridor pushed move-in date closer to Christmas

Instead of making the sensible decision to take our time, the desire to be in for Christmas was overwhelming and we pushed hard, resulting in the day that is forever known as the “day of the 35 vehicles”.

Mixing tradesmen on site is always difficult; they’re like children in the playground, squabbling over who goes first, or whose fault something is when things don’t go to plan. After 12 months I knew this only too well, but despite this knowledge, in the last few days before Christmas we decided to flood the site with everyone who had anything left to do.

When we reached the point of having 35 vehicles in the grounds, my husband’s role became car park attendant, negotiating and guiding everyone in and out. How no-one came to blows I’ll never know, but we survived to tell the tale and moved in.

On the night before Christmas Eve we had no decorations up, no presents wrapped and barely any food in the cupboards. But we were in and after a frantic Christmas Eve, we finally spent Christmas Day in our new home.

However, would I repeat that part again? Absolutely not. Christmas is about the people you are with, and the day would have been enjoyed more if we were less stressed and exhausted.

Being on Grand Designs won’t make you rich

You don’t get paid to appear

Despite what people imagine, I can confirm we weren’t paid to appear on the show. We received a minimal amount to cover admin expenses such as phone calls and extra travel, but that’s all.

You may find suppliers are willing to negotiate discounts when you explain their products or services will be on television, but there’s no guarantee. I was fortunate in being able to get reductions on my bathroom fixtures, kitchen units and sofas, but for smaller items there was less room for negotiation.

So, if money rather than passion for your project is your driving force behind applying, you may find yourself not getting what you hope for.

I always felt it was important to pay full price for a service so that I was confident of the level of work being provided. Giving a discount may mean people adjust the level of service provided to ensure a profit. I wanted to avoid this risk.

Living there was lovely but I wish I’d had more budget for interiors

It was a great house for parties

We lived in Kemeys Folly for around five years before relocating to Singapore, and I have fond memories of the time we spent there. Waking up to sensational views every day was a privilege, and the parties… well, the less said the better. It was a fantastic entertaining house.

exterior shot of castle like tower with lit up long glass extension to sideCredit: Sarah Harley
At night the house was great for entertaining and parties

If I did it all again, I would of course do a few things differently. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it only comes once it’s too late.

I underestimated the cost of fitting out the rooms, which meant that furniture never quite filled the space, and it sometimes felt slightly unfinished. I would have also fitted out the en-suite bathrooms in a more luxurious way and allocated budget to landscaping the gardens. But, at the time, you must work with what’s available.

kitchen with glossy units and chandelier style extractor fanCredit: Sarah Harley
Always allow sufficient budget for furniture and wow factor items

I lived there briefly again for a few months when we returned to the UK, but haven’t been back now for many years. It’s currently for sale on Rightmove, waiting for a new family to call it home, and I hope the right one finds it soon.

It may have been my “Grand Design”, but it was home for a while and a property like that needs to be lived in and loved. It was built with love, and I hope someone else falls for it soon.

Sarah Harley

Written by Sarah Harley she/her

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Since first picking up a paintbrush and experiencing the joy of re-decorating her bedroom in a questionable red, white and grey scheme as a young teenager, Sarah Harley was hooked on the world of interior design. This obsession even led to a real life ‘Grand Designs’ project in 2005 when she donned a pink hard hat and appeared on TV screens, project managing the renovation and extension of a Grade II listed 17th century Folly in South Wales.

Throughout her career, Sarah has gained an array of experience in several different roles, ranging from copywriting, PR, events management and photography to interior design and home staging. With her two passions being the written word and the joys of a beautifully designed home, Sarah’s mission is to open the door on the world of interiors, inviting readers in to help them work their way through the vast choice of products, ideas and trends so that their own homes can reach their full potential.

Away from work, Sarah fills her Pinterest boards with more ideas, dreams of where to travel, takes photographs and loves being by the sea. She has two sons and if she absorbed everything they said would also be a football expert. The fact is she is often more interested in the colour and design of the kit – but don’t tell them that.

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