Thursday, August 5, 2010

How to Build a Home

I am not a fan of so-called reality shows on television. My daughter, however, does have a soft spot for "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and I must admit, if I catch the start of an episode, I always end up watching until the end. The premise of Extreme Makeover is, the show finds a family who is struggling to maintain its home - often a family member also has a physical disability or condition that makes the current home unsafe. Then the show flies the family off to a week-long vacation, while back at home they construct an entirely new house in one week. The finale is the "big reveal" when the family returns and sees the new home. By this time I am usually crying along with the grateful family members.

The show's "cast" consists of Ty Pennington, carpenter, and his team of designers. On TV, it seems as though the cast does the bulk of the work, with a few anonymous volunteers behind them, although I know that this can't possibly be the case. After each episode I am fascinated considering the logistics involved in building an entire house in one week - how do they orchestrate the framing so every wall aligns properly? How do they install the electrical system and plumbing system when so many people must be working in the same area? And because the show surprises the chosen family on the morning construction starts, how do they organize everything without blowing the surprise in advance?

A couple of weeks ago, the local paper announced that Extreme Makeover would be building a house in the next county over, so it was the perfect opportunity to see first hand how the show works. The show had chosen Trisha Urban and her daughter Cora as the recipients of its newest project. Like all the other families on the show, the Urbans have a sad story that led them to be nominated. Last year, while Trisha was about to give birth to Cora, Andrew Urban, Trisha's husband, died suddenly from a massive heart attack. He had a congenital heart defect and could not get adequate health insurance due to this pre-existing condition. As a widow, Trisha could not raise her baby and also put time and money into renovating the family's very old house which was in disrepair. So some of her friends nominated her for Extreme Makeover.

Locally, the show worked with the Homebuilders Association of Berks County, who gathered volunteers and were, in fact, responsible for the construction of the house. The Homebuilders Association recruited hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers - carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers, and other people who would just be available for labor. The workers toiled around the clock for one week to raze the old house and construct a beautiful new house for the Urbans.

The build was planned with military precision. All workers reported to the local elementary school, where a bus company donated 24 hour shuttle service to the site. Spectators were allowed to park at a local shopping center where a second shuttle was available to take them to a barricaded area at the site to watch the house-raising. In addition to planning the logistics of the build, the show also had to organize food and water supplies for all the workers, 24 hour medical/first aid availability, and shipment of all the materials needed.

The reason behind the show's success, I think, is that everyone who works on the build seems to be motivated by altruism. While the local builders surely enjoy a lot of free publicity, they seem to view it as a privilege to work on a project to benefit a deserving family. One account I read noted that they had to turn away as many as 1000 volunteers, over and above the 3000 workers they did need for the job. I am well-aware that big corporate sponsors donate many of the goods in the finished house - there is always a nice shot of the new Sears Kenmore appliances or something like that featured, but I am able to set aside my usual cynical mindset because I think the end justifies the means.

The Urbans returned home this week to a lovely new cottage. The show also organized a celebrity flag football game to raise money for the American Heart Association, for whom Trisha does a lot of volunteer work. This episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is scheduled to be broadcast in September or October. I can't wait to tune in and see another example of thousands of community members working together to support one of their own. It gives me a small bit of hope for the future.


  1. Great stuff but wouldn't you be pissed to miss all the fun!

  2. RA, reporting in from London--glad to have a chance to peek online and see your post.

    WOS, I do believe you live in the center of the universe! What is the likelihood that a house so close to you would be nominated for a makeover. So glad you decided to venture out and report back. So wonderful to know there are so many willing volunteers--how to build a home, indeed!

  3. Wow, altruism is not dead! How refreshing to see the locals come out in masses to help. These are the good news stories I like to hear. Keep on writing them. Let me know when it will be aired. I'll be wetting the Kleenex right along side of you.

  4. What a heart-warming story! Something like an old-fashioned barn raising. Good to know that the American "can do" spirit is still alive and well.

  5. Thanks for an uplifting story! Your description of the efficiency and the "military precision" of the team makes me think how wonderful it would be if those services could be extended to the people of Haiti, or Pakistan. Though I imagine that would literally require an army.


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