Today I had the pleasure of meeting Kevin McCloud at the Grand Designs Live exhibition. Given that I'm a random blogger, I suppose it could have been any Kevin, so it was a real privilege to finally meet the man who, since the launch of Grand Designs on Channel 4, has left me and millions of others day-dreaming about designing our own homes.
But I didn't trek all the way up to Birmingham to talk to him about that perfect self-build dream, nor to wax lyrical about my obsession with proper lighting, one of his other passions. What really interested me on this occasion was Kevin's Green Heroes, the range of eco products that he has selected to highlight at the show as a showcase for strong eco and ethical design.
So while Kevin McCloud was busy greeting visitors following the official opening, I took the opportunity to have a quick glance at the products that he'd chosen. The ones that particularly caught my eye were "slate" roof tiles made from recycled plastic, unusual picture frames and a chest made from old tyres and some beautiful lights designed from old books that would have otherwise been discarded into landfill. There was even a gumdrop bin that was actually made from recycled chewing gum.
Here's the gorgeous Lula Dot paper lampshade designed by Lucy Norman, which is made from discarded old books.
On meeting Kevin minutes later in the VIP Lounge, I asked how easy it was to discover such products.
Of course, it's a process he actually finds quite easy. Through his work he has access to a wide range of technologies and ideas and when he sees something new, it really does catch his attention. However, he highlighted that one of the key criteria for this year's show was that the products had to be market-ready, as it is frustrating for visitors if they are inspired by the designs but unable to buy them.
As he settled into the conversation, Kevin's passion for his Green Heroes showcase was clear.
"What I love about these products is that they've been recontextualised," he revealed.
My ears pricked up and although I was recording the interview, it was a word I didn't want to lose. In other settings I've heard the term "upcycled" but this concept seemed more specific.
"Recontextualising is when you take something and you change the setting contextually," he added "taking a functional quality material and changing it into something beautiful, thus persuading you that it's something else".
He went on to add that the first rule of recontextualisation is that the object being recycled should not be changed that much. Processing it minimally and turning into something else is the trick to clever design.
Kevin illustrated this point with the Tread Tyre recycled eco products, highlighting how the tread looks like carved wood and plays on the visual language of something else and it's the amazement that it is "something else" which contributes to the joy of ownership.
It was at this point that I showed Kevin my much-coveted handbag, which is made from decommissioned firehouse that would otherwise be discarded in landfill. Could this be described as a recontextualised product?
After a moment of admiration, he confirmed that it indeed fitted the bill, with its clever design, using the different textures of a practical piece of emergency equipment and changing it into a desirable fashion accessory that resembled leather.
Like many of the designs that have been chosen for the Green Heroes showcase, I highlighted that such businesses with their size limitations can only "rescue" a small amount of waste for redesign and broached the question over how we get the wider industry to notice the same issues and follow greater opportunities to turn waste into useful products.
"It's a slow, somewhat painful and long process," Kevin replied. "And in the context of the bag, one day other companies such as Mulberry will probably make them and then you'd likely find two or three brands flooding the market."
And he made another equally valid point, "On one hand you want everyone to do it but on the other you'd like the small companies to thrive as well. The issue is as much about creating a change in mindset in consumers and users."
Kevin explained, "There are lots of ways in which we can and should reappraise our relationships with made things. Fundamentally the real problem is not whether we are making items out of leather or firehose, it's whether or not it is made in a giant factory by people who are underpaid, exploited and the environment is damaged, the local ecology and biodiversity is wrecked, materials are squandered and carbon is burned."
Suddenly we'd progressed from the appreciation of clever design to the worrying issues of global manufacturing, something that is easy to forget when you're so mesmerised by the glossy world of a lifestyle exhibition such as Grand Designs Live. Kevin McCloud's concerns run very deep.
"The root of the problems that we face is the disconnection that has happened between us and the things that we make, consume and use. If we all met the people in the factories where our goods are made, we would think twice or even offer more money."
We were now broaching the need for wider education and Kevin McCloud is in a privileged position to do this. I asked if there were any more projects in the pipeline that would help make people more aware and adopt more sustainable practices.
He mentioned his new TV series as one particular example, which will be broadcast this autumn about his sustainable housing scheme in Swindon. He says it's a project which came about in no small way because of what he'd seen in Mumbai, during the filming of Slumming it, where he spent two weeks living in the city slums.
He added, "It's the principle of sharing, which underscores both a coherent civic society but also a more sustainable way of life, with low carbon and low resource use. That use of sharing is what I saw in India, occuring in every walk of people's lives and it's something that we could be doing a lot more of here in our society."
"There are lots of ways of sharing, whether it's signing up to a car club, joining a food network, growing veg and swapping it with your neighbour or simply taking a bus. It's down to how we eat, live, move around and consume. These ideas point to a much more efficient way of life and much more lower carbon impact and resource use. It's only one in a small army of approaches but it's a real powerful one. The whole idea of shared time, shared work, shared responsibility and shared ownership, is really interesting."
As we approached the end of the interview Kevin pointed to the key position that the UK holds in global society and asserted,
"This country was once the cradle of the industrial revolution and because of that we have an ethical responsibility to the rest of the world to demonstrate what the post industrial solutions should be."I've often pondered this very thing and wondered whether we can actually succeed. I looked at Kevin and asked what he thought.
There came a light shrug and he replied, "For every wonderful new idea there is a terrible groan from a corner as the government backtracks on policy, or local council does the wrong thing or a business decides to give up on an idea due to the recession."
And as we were about to discuss the way that communities harness roots-based projects at the time of recession, our time was up and Kevin McCloud needed to move on to his next appointment. It was unfortunate as I could have listened to what he had to say for hours.
I thanked him for taking time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed by a random blogger.
"A blogger and a bag," he laughed as he picked up my recontextualised handbag again, coveting it once more. After he asked to look at the lining, he responded with a teasing comment and a warm smile "I'm a blogger. You don't know me, but here are my credentials. That's a great calling card"
And as Kevin McCloud admired the lining that had been made from orange parachute material, I immediately regretted not recycling all my old receipts. Honestly woman! If you're going to show Kevin your bag, the top tip really should be to declutter the contents first.
Design guru and TV broadcaster Kevin McCloud also hosts Grand Designs Live. Based on his popular Channel 4 series, the inspirational and innovative home improvement, self-build and design show is running at the Birmingham NEC (7-9th October) and will run next year from 5-13 May 2012 at the London Excel Centre. The show boasts over 500 exhibitors as well as offering free consultations, catering for both home owners looking for new ideas to renovate their homes and aspiring self-builders looking for advice, inspiration and value to build their very own Grand Design. Book ahead and see Kevin at the live show www.granddesignslive.com
Also, if you fancy living rent-free for a year to test out an Eco Home, check out the competition that is being promoted by Velux.
(Updated 8/10/11 with extra images & extra info about next year's show).