Cover Story

Building the future

Through presenting television shows like The Restoration Man and Amazing Spaces, George Clarke has been a household name and regular on our screens for over 13 years. Sunderland-born George speaks to Deborah Busby about his passion for re-engaging young people in housebuilding through his new MOBIE project, how his grandad is his superhero, and why his headstone will refer to him only as an architect

Tell us about MOBIE (the Ministry of Building, Innovation and Education) and the courses you’ve recently set up in partnership with Teesside University? 

One of the main reasons I came up with MOBIE is because the industry hasn’t been innovating enough over the past 15-20 years – if anything I think it has gone backwards. I want young people to have the excitement and the passion that I had about the building industry when I was young.

We only formally launched [the four advanced home construction courses*] in May at Teesside University and we are making great progress. Of course, it’s great to be doing this in the North East, where I am so proud to be from. For me, this is a lifelong project and something I will always be committed to. I launched MOBIE to radically change the industry, and that is not something that is going to change overnight. The goal is to help change young people’s perceptions of house building, to bring some innovation into it, and to make it an appealing and exciting career choice for them. There is a massive skills shortage and we need to entice young people to want to help fill it.

Why does MOBIE focus on housebuilding in particular? Why do we need to change this aspect of the construction industry? 

I was brought up in a 1960s-built housing estate in Washington and that was more innovative than any modern new build estates I see being built today. In today’s world, we’re advancing quickly in so many areas, so how can a whole industry go backwards like this? I cannot think of another industry that is now less advanced than it was 20 years ago. The fact that people prefer older houses as they’re so much better build quality is something I hear a lot. People spend a fortune on new build houses that often aren’t very well built and aren’t really up to standard. This is not just me being an architectural snob, I am just sad to see an industry that hasn’t innovated and as a result is not advancing. We are very good at innovation in construction when it comes to big investment landmark projects like the Shard, but why shouldn’t housebuilding also be extraordinary?

You describe MOBIE as looking to attract the ‘brightest minds into the building profession’. What do you think currently holds people back from entering the industry? 

When young people are thinking about career opportunities, they are much more attracted by other, more progressive, industries. Look at the advances that have been made in design and technology or the manufacturing or car industry. The amounts these industries invest in research and development help them to continually innovate and makes them very attractive for young people to go into. With the launch of a new car, you will see somewhere around half a billion pounds invested in R&D before the first models come off the production line. And each time a car is made, it’s got the very latest in carbon emissions, the best technology, premium safety and innovative design, and you can customise the outside and inside so it’s absolutely bespoke to you. Compare that to how we build a house – in many ways, we haven’t moved on since the Romans built them.

The construction industry has seen a decrease in skills in the last 20 years. Young people don’t want to do it. Back in my day, young people aspired to be plasterers or bricklayers or to learn a trade. Now when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they’re going to say they want to work for Apple or Dyson or another similarly innovative name. The construction and housebuilding industry just isn’t something that appeals and excites them and that’s really sad.

What changes can be made to make housebuilding a more attractive career option? 

We need not only to engage children from the earliest age and to invest in innovation, we also need to make it inclusive for more people. Houses are all built on muddy building sites, as they always have been, and work stops when it snows and when the weather is awful – why shouldn’t we look at ways to change that? Perhaps more of the house can be built in a factory or similar indoor space, and then maybe more people with disabilities might be able to work in construction by working on a production line. It might also encourage more women and girls to come into the industry if they can work in a clean professional environment instead of a dirty outdoor building site. The industry needs to think about better design, better build, better manufacturing, and naturally that will attract more people into our industry. So many more people, young people, should be seeing this an exciting industry to be part of.

The North East, and particularly Newcastle, has been instrumental in the development of BIM (Building Information Modelling) technology. What is your take on this and what impact will it have on the industry? 

BIM is doing some absolutely great stuff, and is helping to bring about a cleaner, more efficient, hopefully more affordable means of housebuilding which I would love to see the industry as a whole using. It’s like when I was little and my dad bought a Betamax player for something like £300, which was a huge amount of money back then – housebuilding is stuck in the days of the VHS, but then something like Blu-ray and DVD comes along. These days, you can pick up a DVD player for about £20, because the innovation we have seen in technology has made it commonplace and it becomes affordable. I hope that BIM will have that same effect on housebuilding.

You have said that you knew from an early age that you wanted to be an architect. What inspired you to follow this career path? 

My grandad was my superhero, he lived in Plains Farm in Sunderland and he was a builder, he was involved in building the A66 and A69. He was in the building game all his life and he loved it. He took me onto building sites when I was a kid of about eight years old, this was before any of the health and safety legislation, of course! I thought it was amazing. I didn’t want to play with Lego, I wanted to be out there doing it. I still love that now, every day I’m surrounded by my job – whether that is a 1960s tower block or a beautiful historic square in Italy. My grandad inspired me to get into the industry and building and from that point it was part of my DNA.

 

I want MOBIE to inspire young people in the way that my grandad did with me; not just to become part of the industry, but to become the future of it and to help change it.

 

You’ve been a regular on our TV screens since the early 2000s. How did your presenting career begin? 

It’s quite funny because being on the TV is something I never wanted to do. I wanted to be an architect, pure and simple, and on my headstone it will say ‘George Clarke: Architect’ – nothing about me being on the telly. That said, I do absolutely love being on TV, it’s privilege and honour to be asked to do it, and adore working on every show I’ve ever done.

It all came about while I was teaching at Newcastle University – I would do a round trip from London every Friday to teach my students. I was asked if I would write a book and I got a literary agent to help me get it published. I didn’t know at the time, but she was also a broadcast agent – I met her on a Thursday and by the following Monday she was encouraging me to consider TV. I said no the first few times she asked but, in the same way as your mam somehow gets you to do things through encouraging you to give it a try, my agent persuaded me to give it a go.

 

I’m pleased now that I did change my mind. I genuinely love my presenting work but I know one day it will end – as these things inevitably do – and then I will quite literally go back to the drawing board full-time in my own practice.

 

Tell us about your architectural practice, George Clarke + Partners and how you came to be an entrepreneur? 

I started my working life at FaulknerBrowns in Killingworth on my year out on professional placement while I was at Newcastle University. While I would’ve loved to stay there longer, I also had this huge desire to go to London. I loved being in practice and went to work for Sir Terry Farrell in London, who is a very passionate North East man. I worked for him for quite a while. I also worked in Hong Kong on some big industry projects during the handover in 1997. I had to go back to university to finish my degree, but didn’t return to Newcastle as I was offered a place at University College London – one of the best architectural schools in the world. I went back to work with Sir Terry, but right from the days where I used to go onto the sites with my grandad, I wanted to have my own practice, to run my own business. Although I have TV commitments, I am still massively hands-on in the practice. The team are great and they run things so well while I’m filming and am not physically there, but I am always sketching, and the mobile technology we have today means I don’t need to be in the office all of the time. I can sketch and draw designs on the iPad, or take a photo of hand drawings with my phone and then email them over, so I am never out of reach. I still oversee each and every project, and the fact I am so involved in the business and so hands on with projects also makes me a better presenter who can give better advice to people through my shows.

Can you tell us about one project that sticks in your mind? 

The Shed of the Year [part of George’s Channel Four series Amazing Spaces] this year was won by a 14-year-old girl who designed a mushroom house and her dad built it for her. It was absolutely beautiful and how brilliant that she had this idea that she then brought to life with the help of her dad. That is so inspirational for young kids, and it’s what MOBIE is all about. Imagine her going to school and saying she’s had this idea for a design which has then become reality in her back garden.

What does the future hold for MOBIE? 

As well as the brilliant courses we have launched at Teesside University, which are aimed at 16-20 year olds, what I am planning next is to get kids engaged from the earliest age by getting primary and secondary schools involved. One of the most effective ways to disrupt an industry is to get the people with the energy and enthusiasm to make a difference, and for me that’s about harnessing the potential and interest of kids at school. One of the most important parts of MOBIE is our aim to have a kids outreach programme in schools. Imagine the ideas that the imaginations of 5,6,7,8,9 year olds could have and the amazing new designs in housebuilding they could come up with. I think often by secondary school age, they’ve been told not to worry about design, as it’s maths and English exams they need to pass. I want these kids to be sketching and drawing. We want to run some really exciting primary and secondary school design courses so these kids and young people have something to aspire to through MOBIE.

George Clarke
Teesside University launched a suite of courses in partnership with MOBIE. Courses, which began this academic year comprise a HNC Advanced Home Construction, HND Advanced Home Construction, BSc (Hons) Advanced Home Construction (top up) and MSc Advanced Home Futures.
For more information visit: www.tees.ac.uk/minisites/advancedhome
www.georgeclarke.com
@MrGeorgeClarke

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