• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

A subterranean build in a London graveyard freaks out the builders, but we’re more spooked by the $8.8 million cost.

Apr 8, 2021

REVIEW: We know land is in short supply in big cities, but to build in a graveyard?
This season of Grand Designs UK starts off superbly with one of the most bizarre stories weve seen. Presenter Kevin McCloud wanders among old tombstones, fallen angels and broken crosses in an old London cemetery. Its cold, dark and eerie.
This is seriously spooky stuff, yet it is where Justin Maxwell Stuart wants to live (above ground we hope). The former Scots Guard, who has seen action in Iraq and Northern Ireland, and now leads extreme fishing expeditions, clearly has nothing to fear. Hes incredibly enthusiastic, which is just as well.
It took four long years and a budget of NZ$6.23 million to complete this Grand Designs UK build in a London graveyard.
He wants to rebuild a derelict 19th-century Gothic cemetery-keepers lodge. I had always looked at it and thought what a wonderful building, he says.
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You’ve got lots of neighbours, but theyre all dead. McCloud points out the obvious. But it doesnt bother Maxwell Stuart, who can see himself as an honorary warden wandering around with a lantern.
I dont think of [them] as my dead neighbours; I just think of [them] as my neighbours.
Justin Maxwell Stuart is not the slightest bit fazed by the idea of dead neighbours.
Fair enough, although we wonder what his 5-year-old son George thinks about this. But were told he learnt to read by reading gravestones. Of course. And we get to meet his cousin, Lady Catherine Maxwell Stuart, who says it reflects a vague eccentricity that runs through the family. No surprises there.
Justin Maxwell Stuart plans to restore the old lodge and demolish an adjoining brick toilet block to build an extension with an enormous 1300-cubic-metre basement. (So he is going underground a massive 6 metres. He will be just a metre from the nearest grave.)
This will give him a whopping 490-square-metre house with a pool, so he can have lots of fun.
There is a bridge across a moat leading to the front door.
Gargantuan house with a moat
McCloud calls the plan gargantuan there is even a moat. And this is the stuff of a truly grand design by architect Simon Gill. Clever graphics (the best weve seen) show exactly how it will all come together.
And of course the build is subject to huge restrictions, including noise and dust (the existing residents must be respected at all times).
Maxwell Stuart has already forked out £1.8 million to buy the plot. This wont be cheap.
He has used his savings and a loan from his mother to buy the land, and he has raised two mortgages for the build, but its still not quite enough he thinks it will cost £1.6m.
In my mind there is an enormous amount of terror and fear that I am heading down a catastrophic black hole, he says. Trouble brewing for sure.
Builds always cost more, and sure enough the quotes coming in are too high. He could be looking at a £4m (NZ$7.84 million) project. Ouch. Thats NZ$1m more than planned.
Glass walls bring in plenty of natural light, even in winter.
Then they are excavating, which is pretty scary. The contractor admits it wasnt easy to find people to work here. Will his dog discover a bone? Its a very real concern as we see Thunder digging furiously.
We get to see Maxwell Stuart’s ancestral home in Scotland, where his family have lived for 500 years. It is mind-boggling this is Lady Catherines home. Mary, Queen of Scots, slept here. (It will be hard for Grand Designs NZ to top this.)
Back in the graveyard, the build excavates right under the original stone lodge, which McCloud says is bonkers. It seems a needless risk. Of course there are delays.
The basement is huge. We see this a lot on Grand Designs UK everything is simply too big, which is why the budget blows. Bigger isnt always better. Maxwell Stuart will have to leverage against everything he owns he is now short about NZ$2m.
You cant sell the family silver, he admits.
The interior is just as impressive as the outside.
Down into the crypt
And it gets even better. In another cemetery, Maxwell Stuart lights a candle and heads down to his family crypt. We see where his ancestors lie. As McCloud says, the crypt helps explain Maxwell Stuart’s fascination with the cemetery and its beautiful graves. This is great television.
Then there is a problem with having a gate opening into the cemetery. The council tells him it will cause offence to the people in the graves. The gate is everything to Maxwell Stuart, and he points out an ugly container next to two graves and wonders if the council consulted those people in the ground before they put it there. (See, councils can be a problem anywhere.)
Work progresses; the mortgages mount (NZ$3.8m now). The build takes shape, with a lot of clever craftspeople.
If you thought Kevin McCloud had seen it all, that’s clearly not the case this project was one out of the box.
Covid-19 stops work
Then the pandemic hits and all work stops for three months. Maxwell Stuart’s travel business is hard hit.
Eventually, four autumns after the start, McCloud cycles in for the reveal. And it is exceptional. The lodge is probably better than it has ever looked the whole thing looks very sharp.
Theres a great stone staircase in the centre of the building, topped with a Gothic skylight. Its a very modern, light-filled space, with a connection to the garden you can see the trees in the cemetery over the wall.
The basement rooms are more playboy bachelor with a 13m-long pool and a medieval chainmail waterfall.
But the most splendid rooms are in the gatekeepers lodge. They are beautiful despite that eerie, misty view of the cemetery.
And the money? A terrifying financial rollercoaster at £4.5m (NZ$8.82m). It is a ridiculous amount to spend in a graveyard, no matter how good the Halloween parties.
But Maxwell Stuart has a new girlfriend to share the enormous space. She hesitates only momentarily before admitting she feels just a little bit scared at night.
Yes, we got a budget blowout in this first episode, but there was no divorce and no ill health that we know of. Its going to be hard to beat this one.