Early August, Monday lunchtime, a quiet suburban Auckland street. From the roadside, sounds of children playing on a trampoline, birdsong and cars passing by. Oh, and the constant hammering, sawing and general hubbub of a construction site, thanks to the four teams currently competing on the second series of The Block NZ.
For my preview set visit, I've donned a pair of oversized gumboots and waddled on to a building site that in a matter of weeks will be home to four newly renovated and up-for-auction homes. Back on air tomorrow, this year's series will screen three nights a week for the 10 weeks, with four teams of two renovating four houses in Auckland's North Shore suburb of Belmont.
This year's site places the houses in a courtyard-mews setting, on the corner of Eversleigh and Lake roads. Two houses were already on the site; two have been brought in from elsewhere. All are dilapidated, with tiny interior layouts and missing walls. Over the course of the series, the teams have to transform the houses into 160 square metres of modern, eco-friendly, stylish living space. As with the first season, the houses will be sold at a live auction - teams get to keep any profit they make and whoever makes the most will receive an extra $80,000.
As my visit happens six weeks into filming, I'm not allowed to reveal anything about what state the houses are in, or which team is working on which building. I can say that the place is a hive of activity, with people everywhere - hanging on to scaffolding and ladders, camera crews sussing out perfect angles and producers working out what should be filmed, when and where.
"I think everyone will be surprised at the scale of it," executive producer Greg Heathcote says. "It's like we've turned the volume up to 12."
Last year's series - the first locally produced version of the globally successful Block format - was a huge hit for TV3. Ratings grew week by week, reaching a peak of almost 1.1 million viewers for the live final where brother-and-sister duo Ben and Libby Crawford walked away with $237,000 in prizemoney.
"It was wonderful," says Heathcote of season one. "It was like it had taken television to a whole new level and the audience got so tied into who the contestants were and everyone had their favourite. It was the perfect storm of a show really."
That's one of the reasons contestant Alisa Keall-Grant says she and partner Koan Vette applied to be on the show.
"You really feel like you get to know these people and you feel like you want them to succeed and you feel like you're feeling their hardships and you feel their successes as well," she says. "Even though you've never met them, you feel that you know them. They almost seem like friends. That's what I enjoyed about last year, you really get involved in what people are doing."
Keall-Grant, 23, and Vette, 25, have been together for three years and were in the midst of renovations on their own Auckland villa before they began competing on The Block. Keall-Grant says they're no strangers to hard work at all costs - "on Koan's birthday we did a 12-hour day renovating our own house" - but they were both surprised at just how tough competing on the show has been.
"The first few days were the hardest and we totally wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into because there's so much ahead as well. It's such a massive task to look ahead to, you sort of think, ‘I'm here for two months and I've got to finish this whole house in this time.' It was so hard . . . I do a desk job normally so, for me, even doing a full day's labour was quite a stress on my body. I wasn't used to it."
That side of things shouldn't be a problem for brothers Andy and Pete Walker. Born and bred in Rangitikei, both now live and work on a family farm in the Catlins and are used to hard, physical labour.
Chatting with the brothers inside their half-finished home, it's clear they'll make great TV - both have bone-dry senses of humour and come across as good, solid, down-to-earth Kiwi blokes.
"If I won a thousand bucks," Andy says, tongue firmly in cheek, "I'd probably buy a pallet of Speight's. Drink my sorrows away."
He's equally droll when asked why he thinks they were chosen to be on the show.
"Maybe only four teams applied?" he quips.
Humour is the brothers' way of coping with the pressure, he says.
"We don't really get too stressed out because we always joke it off."
Pete does admit that the whole experience has been a lot tougher than they thought it would be. "It's been really intense. When someone does a bathroom in their own home, they can spend four weeks just working out what they want to put in there and how they want to do it. Some of these decisions, we're doing in a couple of hours. That component is the most challenging, not having time to thoroughly think through how you want to make those decisions.
"It's going great though," he says. "It's like a holiday camp."
"Yeah, it's like that holiday camp in Russia," his brother chimes in. "Gulag."
Heathcote says he's been impressed at the quality of teams on this year's show. Having worked on Changing Rooms, Treasure Island and New Zealand's Hottest Home Baker, he says he has noticed a significant shift in the TV-literacy of reality show contestants. "When we did Changing Rooms for the first time . . . the contestants didn't know how to react." But now the contestants are "savvier" and understand TV a lot better.
"We thought we were spoilt for choice last year, but over 2000 couples applied for this season," says Sue Woodfield, MediaWorks TV head of factual production. "It just goes to show how much Kiwis love DIY and how much they have embraced The Block NZ. In general this year's teams are more experienced at DIY, but that doesn't mean they'll find it any easier."
This could not be more true for contestants Alice and Caleb Pearson. The Auckland couple may be only 26 years old, but they have already completed three house renovations, two of which they still own and one which was sold at a profit. They would have been seen as the favourites going into the show, but Alice says they quickly realised experience isn't everything in this game.
"As soon as we got here, we felt like absolute rookies," she says. "It's just the [size] of the project and the tight deadlines and all that sort of stuff. I think even if you'd done 10 renovations to this scale, it's not the same as turning round a room in days, you know?
"It seems like we're always a little bit further ahead than most people in terms of running our tradesmen and project management - that's what Caleb does for a job . . . But in terms of actually the renovating and the painting, we just feel like we're complete rookies."
Nelson couple Tom and Lauren "Loz" Heaphy are the least experienced renovaters in the competition. But Tom believes their ages - he's 31, she's 29 - will be their advantage.
"We're pretty practical, logically minded people. We're pretty experienced," he says. "We're the oldest couple so even though we haven't renovated at all, we've been through lots together, travelled round the world . . . so I guess we thought we'd bring a bit of groundedness to the competition as well."
If the Heaphys win, he says, they'll put the money towards buying their own house - most likely in Nelson "unless some other work opportunities come up". Their main motivation for applying to be on the show was to try something new.
"I wouldn't say we were in a rut, but we've both been in our respective jobs for two and three years, in Nelson, still trying to save for a house and this was just something different."
The other teams have got varying plans for any potential prizemoney they might win at auction - Andy Walker wants to move himself and his wife out of his brother's house into his own place, Pete Walker wants to be a helicopter pilot, and Keall-Grant and Vette would like to buy an old villa in the country. But it's youth worker Pearson who has perhaps the most endearing answer when it comes to plans for the future after The Block.
"To be honest, we'll probably just invest it or look for another property. We're definitely not in it to win a whole lot of money . . . we're more motivated on the experience and the opportunity to renovate something that's actually not a financial risk for us," she says. "We won't be massively disappointed if we walk away with nothing in terms of money because we're walking away with so much more."
And Heathcote says although this season will be bigger and better than last year, it still has the same heart.
"It's still a story and it's a very New Zealand story because we all love renovating and doing up homes. The story resonates with most New Zealanders. It's just a matter of trying to do something different, and more ambitious and pushing the boundaries with the buildings and the ideas," he says. "Just don't ask me what we're going to do next year."
The Block NZ, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 7.30pm, TV3.
- © Fairfax NZ News