Grand Designs: Malaysian-inspired burnt wood and glass home

Grand Designs: Malaysian-inspired burnt wood and glass home

09/22/2021

Widow clashes with brother-in-law and nephew after hiring them to design and project manage her Grand Designs build – but gives them a tight £300,000 budget and seven-month deadline

  • Teacher Gretta moved to Malaysia 17 years ago with her husband Ray and two son, but Ray unexpectedly died
  • Moved back to Cambridgeshire where nephew designed a new build and brother-in-law was project manager 
  • Appearing on C4’s Grand Designs, Gretta said had £300,000 budget and a schedule of just seven months 

A widowed teacher who wants a fresh start in Cambridgeshire has a Malaysian-inspired burnt wood and glass home designed by her nephew and project managed by her brother-in-law in Grand Designs – despite his lack of building experience. 

Tonight’s episode of the Channel 4 show focuses on teacher Gretta, who explains how she thought she’d made a home for life when she moved to Malaysia 17 years ago with her husband Ray and two sons. But a couple of years ago tragedy struck when Ray died unexpectedly. 

‘So Ray died very suddenly of a heart attack,’ she explains. ‘I knew it was right to come back even though I miss Malaysia very much. It would have been very painful to stay.’

But with no house to call home, Gretta says her sister Mary and Mexican-born brother-in-law Fernando took her under their wing and invited her to live with them in rural Cambridgeshire, in a caravan. 

However, when they decided to sell part of their garden as a building plot, Gretta snapped it up – and the £100,000 Gretta paid Mary and Fernando will allow them to refurbish and move back into their old house right next door. 

In tonight’s episode of Channel 4’s Grand Designs, teacher Gretta who wants a fresh start in Cambridgeshire has an Malaysian-inspired burnt wood and glass home designed by nephew and project managed by her brother-in-law in Grand Designs – despite his lack of building experience. Pictured, the kitchen

Gretta explains how she’s building a new life in a place where Ray knew and he loved it. Pictured, the bathroom 

Gretta explains how she’s employed her young nephew Carlos – Mary and Fernando’s son – who is conveniently trained in architecture, to design her a Malaysian-inspired single-storey, burnt wood and glass pavilion (pictured, the exterior)

Gretta’s sister Mary and Mexican-born brother-in-law Fernando take Gretta under their wing and invite her to live with them in rural Cambridgeshire, in a caravan – before they set to work on her own project. Pictured, with Kevin McCloud

Gretta explains how she’s employed her young nephew Carlos – Mary and Fernando’s son – who is conveniently trained in architecture, to design her a Malaysian-inspired single-storey, burnt wood and glass pavilion.  

‘It’s Grett’s new family home but at the same time, it’s on the land where I grew up and where we’ve had a family home for 30 years,’ Carlos says. 

Keeping it firmly in the family, brother-in-law Fernando also steps into the role of project manager, despite having zero building experience. 

‘We’re building a new life and hopefully and very happy one in a place where Ray knew and he loved it – so I think he would’ve approved of us building our home here,’ explains Gretta.

With an initial budget of £300,000 and a schedule of just seven months, Fernando is right up against it for such an ambitious build. 

‘Fortunately dad is in charge of project management so if anything goes wrong I can shift the blame onto him,’ jokes Carlos. 

With an initial budget of £300,000 and a schedule of just seven months, the family are up against it for such an ambitious build. Pictured, the garden

The chic and stylish kitchen features dark units, modern lighting and neutral flooring (pictured)

Gretta thought she’d made a home for life when she moved to Malaysia 17 years ago with her husband Ray and two sons. But a couple of years ago tragedy struck when Ray died unexpectedly. Pictured, with presenter Kevin McCloud

Admitting they’re both quite feisty personalities, Carlos says: ‘There’s a bit of Mexican in both of us.’ 

As site clearance begins, so does the pandemic. Patriarch Fernando finds he has to bite his tongue now his designer son has effectively become his boss. And family harmony is tested when his beloved apple tree is condemned for removal by Gretta.   

The ambition was to rebuild a new life for Gretta in the embrace of loved ones, but it’s clear the stress of building a house together is presenting real dangers for on-going family harmony.

Speaking to Kevin McCloud about her plans, Gretta says: ‘It was really funny actually because they were like, “Grett you can have what you like now.” I submitted it to Carlos and he was like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming at all.” I want open plan, modern, lots of glass, quite minimalist.’ 

Mary adds: ‘It’s very much like the feel of the houses you’ve had in Malaysia isn’t it.’

The interior and exterior of the build resembles the feel of the houses Gretta had in Malaysia. Pictured, the bedroom

The ambition was to rebuild a new life for Gretta in the embrace of loved ones. Pictured, the modern-looking kitchen

‘Carlos’ design requires deep piles to pin it to solid rock buried deep beneath the soil,’ explains Kevin McCloud. ‘A concreate ring beam creates a rectangular footprint from which a bespoke 130-piece steel frame rises up to form the single-storey allowed by planning to match the existing caravan.’

He continues: ‘The roof is infilled with highly insulated SIP panels to form a massive room terrace which is extended out by 2 metres all round to create an overhang – a design feature borrowed from Malaysia. 

Carlos plans to clad the walls in a special burnt wood cladding, while the front and back of the building are glazed floor to ceiling to give a powerful connection to nature – a feature Gretta was familiar with in the far East. Tiling connects the outside in via sliding doors to an open plan living room, dining and kitchen area.’

‘A main bedroom with en suite also shares views out to the garden, while out the front are further three guest bedrooms and a bathroom with a handy utility area.’

However, just days in the family encounter their first hurdle.  

‘The finished look of the house is super important,’ explains Carlos. ‘I’ve got this lovely finish which is an Asian technique of charring timber and it really nods to the Malaysian influence.’

However, Asian style comes at a price – an extra £10,000 – and with her eye on the budget, Gretta would rather go with a cheap render. 

Fernando notes how Carlos is uncompromising on anything to do with design during the build. Pictured, the living room

The family are determined not to let Gretta down with the build. Pictured, the new kitchen

‘A change like this could really, really ruin the design so I’m desperately hoping she’ll be convinced,’ he adds.  

Soon, it becomes a case of design purity versus family harmony. 

Fernando adds: ‘He will guard his design like a Pitbull Terrier. Because I’ve never done this I want to make sure the budget is controlled. We mustn’t let Grett down.’ 

But when Gretta is worried black cladding might look too heavy, Carlos finds a a manufacturer with lighter options.

‘Yes it is more expensive, but there are certain things you think it’s worth spending more on to get the effect that we want,’ she says.

However, the decision will take Gretta beyond her £300,000 building budget. 

Soon, Covid-19 strikes and Carlos has to stay away. First-time project manager Fernando is left to rely on his own judgement – and there’s an important decision still to make about the apple tree – which sits right on the end of the footprint. 

The simplistic modern living room features white walls and Malaysian-inspired art (pictured)

Gretta (pictured, with Kevin McCloud in her new kitchen) is delighted with the finished results

However, leaving the tree will push the edge of the new building within 3 metres of Ferndando’s house – too close for Gretta. 

‘If it can be saved, then we will do our best,’ says Gretta, before revealing: ‘The apple tree had to go. That was probably the biggest issue, if you like. We’ve moved on from that now.’

Fernando adds: ‘Here was my baby. Absolutely lovely tree. My children used to play on it all the time. I would’ve loved not to have cut it.’ 

With lockdown restrictions lifting, workers can return to site but with a quantity surveyor reassessing the project to a cost above £400,000, Fernando, feeling the pressure, decides against using a tried and tested steel fabricator and opts for a one-man band instead – saving £12,000 in the process. 

But gambling on a first-timer is a risk – and Fernando, who admits he thought they would’ve been further ahead of schedule, is still adamant it’ll be finished in time. 

‘To have a Christmas with her kids in the new house is very meaningful to her – and that’s what I’m aiming for,’ he says.   

But after delays with the cement, reality dawns that Fernando just can’t get the job done in time and he throws in the towel.

‘We failed – in two days time the people from the air venting were hoping to start and now they’re starting next week,’ he admits. ‘One knocks onto the other.’

And the desire to maintain the quality of Carlos’ design has blown Gretta’s original budget.

‘Carlos is uncompromising on anything to do with design,’ says Fernando.’ He’s a bugger for that! Let’s say the windows, which were £13,000 expensive – that’s a lot. There’s a lot of detail I haven’t catered for – such as the window frames.’  

So, will Gretta make it in for Christmas with her kids and how much will the build total by the time it is complete?  

Grand Designs airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 4 

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