Charlie Luxton Interview – Build A New Life

June 16, 2009 by  
Filed under - Home, Features

House do-er up-er shows are ten a penny, but in the recession (boo!) many are having to turn away from the more audacious ‘Grand Designs’ (see what we did there?) in favour of more realistic, achievable dreams.

Enter the homely stud muffin of the renovation world, Charlie Luxton, who spoke to us about his Channel 5 show Build A New Life, how to improve the safety of your home, the disastrous ones gone wrong and sexy Nuns?!

Why do you think shows like Grand Designs and Build A New Life In The Country have been so popular in recent years?
I think it’s the obvious thing that a lot of us dream of doing, but a lot of us aren’t in the right circumstances to build our own house. The home is such an important place that when somebody sets out to do something extraordinary as many of these people are trying to do, it’s obviously something very enjoyable to watch. I mean you get it all – an enormous sense of drama, inspiration, you get a sense of thank God it’s them not me. You get all of the great stories of our time.

Do you think it all stems back to Changing Rooms and Carole Smilie?
No I don’t, I think it goes far deeper than that, to the basic commercialisation of all aspects of our lives. Just look at fashion. Fashion is as much as anything about industry stimulating our desire to have and buy new clothes and the logical extension of this is our homes. If you are going to have mass production, post second world war – all these factories producing furniture that were producing spitfires, they’re going to stimulate a demand for you to wish to buy and the way to do that is to empower you in a way that you feel that you can change your home.

At the moment we’re in a recession and it’s difficult to raise the capital that people need to embark up on these ambitious projects. Do you think shows like this are mostly directed at people who have the money to improve their homes?
Grand Designs certainly is but I don’t think Build A New Life is. The people we work with in Build A New Life are not wealthy. A few of them are, but at least half pf them are not. At least half of them have no other option and they’re just going for it. They’ve sold modest houses and they’ve taken risks and that’s what I really like about Build A New Life, it’s much more genuine than Grand Designs. I don’t mean that in a critical sense, it pushes a different button, it pushes a property porn button and our programme doesn’t do that really.

It’s about pretty normal people achieving pretty amazing things. The houses they make are not the kind of things that will get into glossy magazines, they’re fairly normal little houses but the way that people have achieved them is what is extraordinary. .

Is there more of a sense of a DIY aspect and learning new skills and crafting your own furniture?
There is a real sense of people learning how to build. You’ve got people saying, “well we’ve got a quote in to re-tile the roof but it was too much so we just did it ourselves.” and people saying “well I couldn’t afford the plumbing, so I just learned how to plumb”

How risky is something like that – taking matters into your own hands, it could go either way couldn’t it?
It certainly could but I think most of the people that get as far as buying a plot of land or buying a house and taking on a project like this are fairly capable and competent people and they know their strengths, so people are happy to have a go. One guy’s doing all the electrics because he studied electrical engineering at university One guys happy to do the plumbing because he’s a designer.

Are you ever confronted with couples who have these really over-ambitious projects and are really ill-equipped to deal with it? Have there been any absolute disasters?
There have, but I’m not really at liberty to talk about it. In most cases it’s just a real underestimation of time and cost. Things take longer and cost more than you think they’re going to. That happens in 80-90% of building projects. You can pay to have it done quickly or you can take a long time and do it cost effectively. And you can’t really get around that and that is born out by what we see in the programme again and again.

How do you think the recession is affecting people’s decisions to create their dream homes? Are people abandoning their renovation dreams?
No I don’t. What I hope it’s doing is helping people reevaluate. It’s getting a bit insane; everyone’s house ends up looking like a boutique hotel. I wonder if people have stopped going “what do I want?” and it’s become more about “what does the market want? Or what does Sarah Beeny want?”.

I’d be quite happy if people wanting to be property developers comes to an end and I don’t mean this in a patronising way but a lot of people have done up houses very badly. I hear endlessly of people moving into a new house and saying it’s great and then three or four months later, things start falling off the wall. You hear that all the time. People are obsessed with the look of a building and not how it works. I hope in this recession people a little bit less bling and little bit more interested in quality. Is that a soundbite? Know what I mean? Everyone wants to flip it… and what ever happened to doing it properly.

You’re a specialist in sustainable building projects and this is something that not a lot of ordinary people know much about, so do you have any tips on how the average joe can make their house more sustainable?
Insulation, insulation, insulation. That’s the first thing you do with any property. You insulate it, insulate it and then insulate it some more. That includes windows and roofs. People keep thinking about sustainability and think it’s about getting solar panels. First thing to is reduce the amount of energy you’re using. Looking at your appliances, look at your old boiler. Reduce the amount of energy you’re using and then think about getting sexy solar panels.

The second thing I think is really important is internal air quality, it’s about the environment in which you live. A lot of these modern materials like MDF and particle boards give off toxins to an extent over their life – they off-gas. And the paints that we use. We’re surrounding ourselves with thousands of chemicals. And the industry will tell you they’re safe but what they don’t know is the effect of thousands of chemicals all come together. Sick building syndrome is a signifcant issue.

There were studies done over a decade ago in the States which said that internal air quality in your house was worse for you then it was in cities and that it was the fourth or fifth cause of premature death in America. That is pretty shocking. Whether those figures have changed I don’t know. So using organic or sustainable materials and paint. They might be a bit more expensive but it’s the difference between 25 and 50 quid for paint. That takes two or three days to put on the wall, the real expense is the time, not the cost of the paint.

Who would you say is the belle of the property programme world?
I don’t really have a favourite. I know that my wife is constantly perplexed by Sarah Beeny’s haircut. I don’t really watch them. So I’m trying to think of a female architect or artist… I’ll have to say Sister Wendy. Not in a sexual way you understand but I’m really interested in her take on art and religious iconography so if it’s the applied arts we’re talking then I’ll have to say Sister Wendy.


Sally McIlhone