Reality TV, Inspired

I was sitting back in my seat, thinking of the things I wished to accomplish at the International Builders’ Show in Orlando. The plane was still boarding, and I barely noticed the people filing by with weary business traveler looks on their faces. Imagine my surprise when I realized that sitting next to me was none other than Norm Abram of “This Old House” and “The New Yankee Workshop” fame. He was also on his way to the builders’ show.

As it turns out, Norm is just as personable and nice as he appears on television. We chatted for just about the entire three-hour flight. This led me to thinking about how the industry has changed over the past 30 years. What started out as a novel idea in the 1970s — showing homeowners how construction works while following a project from start to finish — has become an entire entertainment genre; the “how-to” program. If “This Old House” is the granddaddy of How-To programs, then Norm Abram is the godfather of home improvement.

Ironically, the original premise of the show was giving homeowners the information they needed to fix their homes themselves. Of course, it now features high-tech solutions with master craftsmen performing not only repairs, but major improvements. Rarely do homeowners put any sweat equity into their projects because, frankly, it is not cost- or time-effective for the producers. That is why “Ask This Old House” has emerged as the do-it-yourself programming that complements “This Old House.”

Because our residential design/build clients are exposed to Abram, Rich Trethewy and Tommy Silva every week, they expect us to offer the same level of expertise, craftsmanship and service when we’re building their projects. It can be daunting living up to those standards, especially when we know that the TV home improvement guys are not responsible for sales, marketing, labor, cost overruns, etc. (at least on those televised projects).

But it’s important for us to recognize these benchmarks of excellence. Although there is no camera capturing the work of you and your company crew, would you be pleased with the results if there was? Are the on-site workers courteous, clean and professional in their habits? Do they consistently produce quality craftsmanship and take ownership if they make mistakes? Well, Norm and the boys cannot hide their mistakes. Yes, editing can make things look rosier than they are, but it is hard to conceal poor craftsmanship and work habits. Abram became a home improvement icon, not because of pretty-boy looks and sweet talk. His star shines because of his genuine love of the work and his commitment to excellence.

Do homeowners have unrealistic expectations about the design and build process because of television programs? Yes. Does it take more than a week and some gung-ho workers to produce a quality home renovation? Absolutely. But as long as people view these programs and glean home building information from them, we need to acknowledge this phenomenon and educate them about the reality of the building process — which brings me back to Norm Abram.

While my wife was thrilled that I’d met Norm on the plane (and I think fantasized about having him come to our house to work his magic), I was glad to have had the opportunity to thank him for the service he has done for our industry. Not only has he demonstrated how things get done, but he’s also not afraid to tell the homeowner if something is impractical or cannot be done. In that way, he has put the “reality” into reality TV.