After spending four long years looking for a home, merchant navy captain Dorran and his wife Vereuschka are taking the plunge and building a sunken spaceship in a Kentish quarry to house a young crew.
Tired of scouring the busy Canterbury housing market the couple, who have been renting with their three children, spent £375,000 on a historic hillside plot with a ready-made design for a hidden home.
Dorran, a meticulously organised military man who works in the North Sea, and Veruska who works full time for a pharmaceutical company, poured all their savings (including the sale of their home) into the build which they expect to cost more than £1 million in total.
The journey started in the summer of 2017 with huge machinery digging 3,000 cubic metres of red sand out of the slope, which was once an ancient hillfort and then a gravel quarry. It sits on the outskirts of Canterbury with the cathedral spire just visible above the trees.
The concrete shell will be wrapped in a waterproof membrane, with industrial strength walls strong enough to hold up concrete roof slabs.
Steps lead down into a central, uncovered garden with a rectangular water feature, surrounded by the walls of the room – clad in horizontal strips of chestnut.
The home is split into two halves, the sitting room, snug and kitchen on one side, and the bedrooms, bathrooms on the other with an underground garage and state-of-the art car lift to bring the car from the depths of the earth to the outside world.
“It is daring, demanding and difficult,” says McCloud, who questions how this pair of well-organised, sensible professionals will cope with the chaos and lunacy of a building site.
A scruffy site is exactly what McCloud finds when he turns up in March 2018 – the month which Dorran and Vereuschka had earmarked to move in. The concrete structure is bedded in and the roof on, but McCloud is disappointed to find that little else has progressed because Dorran has sacked the builders.
The naval captain, who works in the North Sea installing giant wind turbines, alternates five weeks away and five weeks at home. As he says “some people are born with sea in their blood, and I am one of those.” Left with little choice, he will now take on sole management of the project.
“So far they have spent £400,000 on half a buried concrete structure,” says McCloud. “They were seduced by a hi-tech design but building it themselves was never part of the plan.”
So, will they stay the course and, as McCloud puts it, “will Dorran finish the project or will it finish him?”
The second half of the show is set almost two years since work began as a long cold winter, which froze the earth around the build, draws to a close one early 2020. Vereuschka is working from the site and scheduling the next five-week chunk of work in readiness for Dorran’s return. The giant elliptical window frame for the living area has been installed, as well as the air source heat pump system. The terracing comes next.
Although the punishing five-weekly stop-start schedule makes life difficult for all the contractors, Dorran will not relinquish control, driven by a promise to his family, guilt, and a need for perfection. He upgrades the water-proofing membrane – a 5mm thick spray-on layer – which adds £100,000 to the budget. And then the first covid lockdown hits.
“For the first time cracks appear in Dorran’s stoic resolve” says McCloud, when he admits in retrospect when he sacked the builders he should have sold the site, shell and the plan to someone else.
Forging ahead he takes the brave decision to quit his job at sea and focus on delivering the house. To claw back the lost family time they move in and camp in the building as it takes shape around them.
In 2022, when McCloud finally returns he describes the finished home as a “concrete submarine that has breached the surface of a wildflower meadow.”
As he disappears among the poppies, he steps down the planted terraces which lead him four metres underground.
“You have no idea what lies beneath. The white terracing draws you down into a cratered home encased in green. It’s like a buried monument to what human effort can achieve,” McCloud says.
The presenter heaps praise on the mariner who he says entered an apprenticeship and emerged as a master builder.
“And it’s a home,” he concludes, “the creation of two people who shared a belief in perfection and in each other.”
The new series of Grand Designs airs on Channel 4 on Wednesdays at 9pm