Kevin McCloud is a familiar guest in our home. There’s something about his irrepressible love of architecture and how good design leads to good feelings that makes him compelling viewing. He’s spent more than a decade watching other people try and construct the perfect living space, so when he decided to build his own, we couldn’t help but tune in.
Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home in no way resembles the crazy luxuries or complicated builds he critiques in Grand Designs. The premise is as simple as his plan. He’s bought a couple of acres of Somerset woodland and wants to build an eco-friendly cabin to escape to. The two catches are he has to use his own elbow grease and every material must come from his own property, or be something someone else has thrown away. So in the first episode he decides to fell two giant oak and split them into pieces with gunpowder, the foundation for his hut comes from a discarded lorry, and his power supply turns out to be refined sewage. But as Kevin says, “This is more than a vanity project.” He’s not simply trying to see if it can be done. Our host has a much bigger question on his mind: can a simpler life lead to happiness?
How happy can a house make you?
At the heart of a program like Man Made Home is the realisation that excessively big TVs, well-stocked wardrobes and stainless steel kitchens don’t bring lasting happiness. Instead, Kevin often waxes lyrical about the beauty of an timber beam, the re-use of an aged piece of iron, or the soaring ceiling that lets in light and frames the perfect view. Yet I believe that he’s not so much responding to these things themselves as the way they make him feel – integrated, in tune, a part of something bigger. He tells the camera:
I think there will be a wonderful, hidden, quiet pleasure in sitting in a building made entirely from the place where I am.
But paradoxically, even this quiet pleasure doesn’t provide sufficient satisfaction, and in coming episodes, Kevin sets about re-complicating his life. He has a go at manufacturing beer from his leftover woodchips, a comfy chair from a 1950's tractor, an aircraft-inspired hot tub to relax in. He stops talking about his cabin as a place to be alone and starts thinking about sipping red wine with his friends and watching the sunset. Of course, all of these are good things, but I suspect Kevin will complete his project and find that something is still missing.
The elusive nature of Joy
Man Made Home illustrates for me that we long for something that our best laid plans can only remind us of, like the smell of an apple pie reminds you of childhood. You can keep taking deep breaths, but eventually your nose just gets used to the odour, and even that disappears. That’s why C.S. Lewis suggested that pleasures are only pointers to real joy, which is why we keep reaching for it:
Joy has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again ... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.
But the joy we’re looking for can’t be purchased with a credit card, nor can it be manufactured by Kevin McCloud. It can, however, be received. Pleasures point to joy just as gifts point to givers. What our hearts really long for is the God who made these things and made us to enjoy them in His presence. Joy is that sense of satisfying completion we find in Him alone and our longing for it the evidence that we weren’t made for a 'Man Made Home'. However well this series finishes up for our host, I’m certain that though he might find some happiness in Somerset, he won’t find joy.
Watching Man Made Home with your kids
If you’re the parent of an inventive or mechanically-minded child then maybe this is a program that you can share together. Here are a couple of questions worth thinking through together:
- Kevin is a highly successful television presenter – why is he looking for a house in the woods?
- Can you see Kevin giving up his day job and staying in his happy cabin?
- Why do pleasures ultimately fail to please? Why won’t they run out in God’s company?