This Old Architect

Surprisingly, many of the lessons I’ve learned over the years have little to nothing to do with designing buildings. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth learning.

Recently, my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit the set of This Old House, which is to say, the active work site of a home renovation in Westerly, Rhode Island.  I won a contest as a member of what they call the “Insiders”.  It’s a yearly subscription where you get access to every show produced, plus a digital version of the magazine, plus New Yankee Workshop.  This is not a commercial but seriously, if you are fan, check it out.

I was extraordinarily excited to put it mildly.  My daughter heard me talking about the upcoming trip and hit me with the “Nerd” label.  Whatever…! I was stoked.  I watched the show as far back as I can remember. You watched what was on then and there were only 12 channels to choose from back in those days, but as my studies and career led toward architecture, I continued to watch.  Even with the flood of home improvement shows of the last couple of decades that concentrate on the entertainment rather than the education aspect; or the shock value rather than the shop value, This Old House was always my go to program.

Yes, the trailer really does show up on site.

My wife and I watch every Saturday morning with our coffee, whenever possible.  We watched together before we even owned a home.  In fact, she will be the first to tell you that it was because we would watch this program together and then launch right into a Penn State football game on a Saturday morning, that it first occurred to me to ask her to marry me.  Well…It didn’t hurt.

The trip from Southeast PA to Rhode Island was not going to be an easy one, we knew.  It is about 300 miles but can take anywhere between 5 and 6 1/2 hours, depending on traffic in the greater New York area.  We had to brave it in a torrential down pour, too.  We left the night before the shoot in order to be on site by 11 AM on a weekday.  We got to our hotel at about 11 PM.  The following morning, our hotel room electronic lock decided to malfunction while we went to breakfast.  I think I may have scared the young lady working the desk at our hotel after her efforts to open the door went nowhere after about 40 minutes.  I believe I demanded a locksmith, another room to shower in, and threatened to tear to the door off the hinges in order to get to the show.

Eventually, the door opened, but we were warned not to shut the door unless someone was inside to reopen it.  We only had a short 15 minute drive to the job site.  We even had a couple of minutes to spare and drove around the neighborhood and to the shoreline, which was only a mile or so away.  Unfortunately, the rain the night before had flooded the shoreline streets, so we had to turn back.

Current apprentice De’Shaun and former apprentice Mary McGuire Smith.

The project house sat at the back of a cul-de-sac bristling with activity.  We parked a little way away to keep out of the hustle and bustle of the various work trucks.  Other cars started showing up and looking for a place to park like we did.  After a while, everyone started migrating over to a pop up tent that looked to be our welcome center.  A young man with a huge smile stood at the entrance into the cul-de-sac to greet us – his name was De’Shaun Burnett and we came to learn he was one of the newest apprentices along with Kathryn Fulton.  They were so engaging and happy to see all of us, that by the time we had to leave the site, I wanted to adopt them!

As the other winners of the contest assembled, we found that there were about 15 winners and 15 guests coming.  Most of the visitors were husband and wife and most of the winners looked to be retirees.  So my wife and I pulled the age demographic down – I think there were 3 couples in our age range (40’s) and one couple in their 20’s, but the rest seemed to be in their 60’s.  Then I saw the host, Kevin O’Connor walking around the site!  I resisted the urge to point and shout, but his presence was definitely noticed by all the other visitors too.

Huge screen, eh?

It was an active job site indeed.  My wife was in the residential home building industry for a decade, and she commented that she missed the smell of fresh sawn lumber – there was definitely real work being done.  At the appropriate time, all of the guests were ushered into a second floor bedroom to watch a very small monitor of the opening shot for the day.  There were about 30 folding chairs facing a screen about 24 inches wide.  It was kind of funny and Chris Wolfe, who is the Executive Producer and General Manager of all the This Old House Productions television series, made light of the fact that they pulled out all the stops for our visit.  It was Chris’ job to entertain us all until the production team was ready downstairs.  The group was very engaged and asked a lot of questions, and Chris was reprimanded on one occasion for making us laugh too loud.  Questions mainly pertained to the process of how they pick the project houses, at what stage is the design in when they do, how long the process is, etc.  The Q&A session could be a long post in and of itself.

Sara Ferguson, Coordinating Producer, kept Chris from being too funny.

The house was essentially fully framed but drywall had not yet started, so from where we sat, we could see the entire floor through the open studs.  Obviously any noise would travel down the open stairs to where the team was shooting.  They started with the “long open” shot, where Kevin O’Connor arrives on site and walks through the house and happens upon whatever work is happening that day.  This day happened to be installing a coffered ceiling detail.  We learned later that it was supposed to be installing some doors, but the rainy weather required the team to reorganize the day at the last minute.  We obviously had to hush during camera rolling, then between takes, Chris would described various facets of production.  During the long shot shooting, we learned that there really is no script, just an outline.  Kevin will assess the progress on the house since the last day of shooting and talk with the show runner and crew about what he might say.  I think the long shot took about 3 takes and each time Kevin would edit himself and make the shot smoother.

Once he got to the work area inside the house at the end of the long shot, Tommy and Jeff were positioned to talk about the mock-up of the wood trim detail that would become the coffer on the ceiling.  It too started with an initial conversation with the show runner about what the viewer would be looking at and what was important to talk about.  This shot was more technical and took quite a while to shoot, each take was a more condensed and streamlined version getting to the essence of what needed to be conveyed.  It was very interesting.  After the initial shot at the work table, various B roll shots were taken for close ups of the work.  Care had to be taken to make sure there was continuity with the overall shots previously taken.  Questions were posed by the show runner, like “weren’t you holding that with your other hand in the other shot?”  As a viewer, you don’t often think about these issues – if the show is done well (obviously, This Old House is).

Production shots: ceiling layout on the floor.
Don’t you just want to go have a beer with this guy?

Once they left the work table shot, they prepared to shoot in the living room where the coffers were to be laid out, so the group was allowed to go downstairs and watch the shot in person.  Tommy and Jeff used a layout stick to mark the floor of the room and those marks would later be transferred to the ceiling using a laser.  This part was really cool because we could see not only the “shot” but all that goes into the shot.  You can see show runner John Tomlin talk to the hosts and ask them to redo a part of the scene, or the camera operator crouched on his knees or how the “extras” walk through the shot the same way every take.  Up until this point, the only regular cast members we had the chance to see were Kevin, Tommy and Jeff – and that was all we were expecting to see.  But during the end of the shooting for the morning, I turned my head and was surprised to find I was standing right next to Richard!  He saw me do a double take and smiled, and after I pointed at my camera and then at him, he nodded with a sly grin.

After shooting, Richard took us outside to talk about how special the septic system here was.  As exciting as that subject seems, I really don’t remember what he said about it, but he actually became my favorite story teller of the cast.  He genuinely seemed like he wanted to talk to 30 strange fans and even answer one guy’s oddly specific and detailed sewer questions.  He talked about how his sons came to decide to work with him in the business, how he took over for his own father in the speaking roll on season one of This Old House 40 years ago after his father got tongue tied and passed those duties on to him in his early 20’s, and finally about how Tommy pranked Kevin the very first time they met by nailing his tool box down to the ground.  I left there thinking about applying for a job at his shop!  While we were outside, I caught a glimpse of Mark, the masonry expert.

Richard telling all sorts of stories, including those about sewage.

After we talked about sewage for a good long time, we were ready for the barbecue that was part of the contest winnings.  They set up tables on the deck and through the house, luckily the weather changed and it was sunny and delightful outside.  There was a big buffet of really tasty food.  While in line we chatted with a really nice couple who was very close to our age and got tips on where to go on our planned vacation to Rhode Island a month later. we got the skinny on which Newport mansions to see, where the best beaches were – what luck!

We ended up sitting down to eat at a table with Jeff Sweenor, the builder they recently collaborated on with the Net Zero house season, and were working with him again.  Chit chat included a discussion of the special wood trim being used, called Solid Select.  It is an exterior grade trim that comes from New Zealand that is treated for outdoor use and comes pre-primed.  It is so straight and defect free, they not only used it for exterior trim, but used it throughout the interiors as well.  Sadly, no one carries it outside New England – yet.

After we finished eating and wiped all the barbecue sauce off our hands, I got all the cast that was there (pretty much everyone but Norm and Roger) to sign my copy of the recent This Old House book.  I don’t care if that makes me look like a dorky fan-boy, when else would I get a chance like that?  After that, the crew in charge of the Insider contest winners coordinated a lot of photo opportunities which made their way into a very nice article on the day here:  TOH Westerly Article

Jim Mehaffey, AIA, Senior Project Manager

I am an architect with 20-plus years experience in the health care and senior living sector. I am an enthusiastic pragmatist and fan of sarcasm.