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Grand Designs

Pop CultureSeptember 15, 2020

So much more than a home reno show: The simple joys of Grand Designs NZ

Grand Designs

Grand Designs NZ is back with a new season that promises more incredible homes, optimistic owners, and the easy charm of presenter Chris Moller.

Grand Designs NZ kicked off its sixth season with a reminder that most of us will never have six million dollars to transform a heritage building into our house of dreams, and I’m not even mad about it. It’s impossible to be angry at Grand Designs NZ, the fascinating series that follows the tumultuous journeys of ambitious New Zealanders who are building their ideal home in innovative and creative ways.

Last night’s episode focused on the transformation of Auckland’s historic Farmers Department Store Grand Tearoom, an enormous and beloved space that now sits on the top floor of the Heritage Hotel. The tearoom was purchased in 2018 for $2.5 million by Steve and Bridget Varney, who plan on transforming the empty heritage-listed building into a New York-style loft penthouse.

It’s an extraordinary space, but heritage laws make the build a challenge. Nothing can touch the tearoom’s intricate walls and vaulted ceiling, and all building work must be able to be dismantled. The Varneys want a mezzanine level with glass floors, floor-to-ceiling bifold doors, and a distinct industrial vibe. “I think it’ll be pretty cool,” Bridget says, in classic Kiwi understatement.

A man and woman standing in their renovated apartment

These are dreams that only money can buy, but the Varneys are fully committed.  The project will cost “three, three and a half”, according to Steve, and he doesn’t mean $300 or $3,000, or even $300,000. He’s talking millions, an amount so large he can’t even say the word. It’s a crapload of cash, but that’s the appeal of Grand Designs NZ. The Varneys are doing this renovation so we don’t have to. They’ll endure the stress and the mess, while we watch from our own personal architectural wastelands, ready to be inspired by curvy tapware and clever kitchen design.

Sadly, no amount of money can stop things from going wrong, and Grand Designs NZ is here for every bump in the renovation road. There’s a storm that breaks the cladding, and a crane company that goes into receivership. Scaffolding has to be cantilevered from the roof, while the steel beams for the mezzanine need to be lifted to the seventh floor by a crane that costs $5,000 an hour to hire. The logistics are mind-boggling, and once you throw in the responsibility of transforming a much-loved heritage building, Steve and Bridget begin to feel the pressure.


Praise the building gods for architect Chris Moller, Grand Design NZ’s enthusiastic presenter who pops up both in good times and bad. Like his UK counterpart Kevin McCloud, Moller is a relaxed and benevolent presence, a thoughtful observer who translates the project for us design numpties at home. He nods when the optimistic owners tell him they’ll get building consent in just a few months, smiles when they reckon they’ll move in by July, and stays silent when they claim they won’t go over budget. Moller’s experience tells him otherwise, but he’s happy to be proven wrong.

The worst we ever get from Moller is the occasional “hmmm” or “oh dear”, as he leads us through the highs and lows of each project. Moller also gives some architectural context to the build, which elevates the show above your standard HGTV do-up series. In this episode, he looks at the work of Roy Lippincott, the American architect who designed the Grand Tearoom and other famous Auckland buildings. It’s a way of showing us our world with fresh eyes, and a welcome insight into a part of New Zealand’s social history that rarely makes it to primetime television.

But Grand Designs NZ isn’t just about the buildings, it’s about the people who fill them. The passionate owners, designers and craftspeople give the show its beating heart, as well as the retired Farmers staff who reminisce in the Grand Tearoom over one last cuppa. The Tearoom is being transformed by empty nesters ready for the next stage in their lives, but the space echoes with memories of family gatherings and playing children, even All Blacks hanging out between games. This is a story with many chapters, and Grand Designs NZ is just capturing the latest one.

It’s satisfying to see the end result, and Grand Designs NZ condenses two years of work and worry into a tight hour of television. The Varneys pull off a stylish design that mixes urban industrial with heritage features, successfully keeping one foot in the past and anchoring another in the future. It’s hard to see how spending $3.5 million wouldn’t deliver an incredible result, but again, this is the joy of Grand Designs NZ. These are the renovations most of us will never get the chance to do, and we’re here for every glossy kitchen cabinet and shiny bathroom tile.

In a year where our dreams have shrivelled to an empty husk, it feels good to have Grand Designs NZ back on our screens. This is a show where anything is possible, and where vision and courage (and cash) can transform an outlandish idea into something spectacular. Grand Design NZ celebrates the small wins – the perfect spiral staircase, a clever way of capturing the light – as much as it champions those wild ideas, and it’s a warm and inspiring watch. Best of all, it reminds us that while this new world has us constantly worrying about risk, taking a chance can also deliver grand rewards.

Grand Designs NZ screens 7.30pm Mondays on Three

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