In 2003 ABC aired a new show called Extreme Makeover that helped people with major facial deformities get a new lease on life by giving them the reconstructive surgery they so desperately needed and deserved but were unable to afford themselves. The show proved to be a hit and ran for four seasons but it also spawned a spinoff series that proved to be even more popular – Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
If you are not familiar with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE), for eight years running the show has been helping families with unique stories get back on their feet by demolishing their current house – usually in a state of disrepair or inadequate size for the family – and building them a brand new house complete with furniture and tons of extras. America loves to watch a “feel good” show about special families in bad situations getting help from their local communities and that is just what ABC has given them with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
With former Trading Spaces carpenter Ty Pennington serving as host, EMHE has helped 185 families in each one of the 50 states from a variety of backgrounds move passed a rough part of their life. For those unfamiliar here is the process the show goes through each time a new episode airs:
- Months in advance, several families in a specific area of the country are nominated by friends and family members as deserving of getting a new home
- ABC goes through all of the nominations and picks a family
- Once the family has been chosen, a local contractor is selected to oversee the entire build. Then local companies DONATE all the materials necessary to build the home in exchange for advertising time or space on the build site and on the show.
- After ABC sends the family on vacation, hundreds of volunteers get together and tear down the original house and rebuild a brand new house in only 4 days!
- The house is revealed to the family with the now familiar catch phrase “MOVE THAT BUS!”
I’ve been watching the show for years now and have always wanted to help on one of these builds. While in college, I spent a couple of years assisting on build sites with Habitat for Humanity and had always enjoyed working in a team environment to help build something for a great cause. So when I heard a family in Middleburg, FL (which is less than an hour from my house) had been selected by ABC for EMHE, I knew that I had to be involved. I was able to spend four days on the build site, helping do all sorts of grunt work, meeting all the people behind the scenes and the celebrities who showed up to help.
Below you are my experience of what it is like to be a part of this massive undertaking – as well as a gallery of behind the scenes images.
The Family’s Story
Carrie Prewitt is the high school volleyball coach at Middleburg High School and first met the Brewer sisters – Ashley, Taylor and Gina – when Ashley was a freshman in high school. The Brewers came from a broken home and when their mom died of an overdose, Carrie immediately took Ashley into her less-than-modest double-wide trailer home while the two younger sisters stayed with their grandmother.
After the sisters’ father died of an overdose as well, the state was going to put them into foster care but Prewitt stepped up and requested to be legal guardian of all three girls. Carrie Prewitt became a mother that day to those three girls, which is why ABC chose her for the special Mother’s Day episode of EMHE.
I showed up shortly after the demolition, which was done by shooting frozen volleyballs from a pumpkin cannon. I was able to meet a couple of the designers – Tracy Hutson and Mike Maloney – and John Long, who is the owner of J.A. Long Design Builders. John’s company was in charge of the actual construction of the home. Along with his wife Linda and two sons Randy and Ryan, John and his family literally worked 24 hours a day for a week to make sure the Prewitt-Brewer family had a gorgeous new home to live in.
I was there all afternoon and it was amazing to watch the demolition crew go from standing house to level ground in less than six hours. There were motor homes and tents scattered everywhere as an army of volunteers all worked to prep the build site so that the foundation could be poured as soon as possible. If you’ve ever wondered how EMHE is able to begin building on a freshly poured concrete foundation so quickly, it’s because they use a very expensive fast setting concrete – the same concrete used to build bridges.
I came back early the next day and was determined to get onto the build site. Previously, I had been denied access because press was required to stay in the VIP area. Volunteers for the build had signed up weeks in advance and to even be allowed onto the build site by security you needed to have a blue volunteer T-shirt and white hard hat, neither of which were given to members of the press. However, I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, so I made it my personal goal to get a chance to actually help out.
Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia is a BIG military outlet with several bases located in and around the area; as luck would have it, over a hundred service men and women drove down with their families from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay and Naval Air Station Jacksonville to help, or so they hoped. After making the almost 2.5 hour trip to the build site, they were told all the volunteer slots for the day had been filled but that they were welcome to watch the action unfold from the sidelines in the VIP tent.
Show designer Mike Maloney spent time with the group signing autographs and posing for pictures and suggested the sailors could help install the pre-fab walls that were currently being installed one at a time by crane. They started passing out T-shirts and hard hats – so of course I grabbed a set and trotted off with the group. More than 150 people gathered on the build site receiving instructions of what we were about to do from Randy Long of J.A. Long Design Builders.
In teams of ten, we took each 500+ pound panel to its designated area on the foundation and stood it upright while qualified construction workers secured them in place. It was truly a site to see because what was going to take 3-4 hours to accomplish using a single crane literally took 15 minutes with all those servicemen and their families helping out.
I showed up late the following afternoon wearing my newly acquired T-shirt and hard hat and without even checking in I was able to freely walk around the worksite. This is where I noticed a major flaw in how EMHE organizes the volunteers at these events. There is only one person that is the head of the volunteers and she drove around assigning random people to tasks. Volunteers literally sit around in a staging area twiddling their thumbs – waiting for someone to ask for their assistance. Well my dad didn’t raise me to watch people work, so I combined my upbringing with a philosophy I came up with in college: “As long as you look like you belong somewhere, no one will question what you are doing.”
To prove my point, each day I showed up I would just walk into the house and find someone wearing a yellow hard hat – and because each one had their name printed on the outside front I would say, “I was told to find Jay and give him a hand” – then they would put me to work. I’m not a handyman when it comes to home construction but I’ve got two hands, a willingness to work hard and the ability to carrying things – so for several hours I, along with several other workers, carried board upon board of 4′x8′ Sheetrock until I thought my shoulder was going to give out.
After that, I helped install roofing tile until night settled in and rainy weather made the roof too slick and hazardous to work. For the remainder of the night I helped measure, cut and hang Hardi-board siding along the side and back of the house with Joe Collins, a series regular on The History Channel reality show Ax Men.
There were several celebrities, both local and national, that showed up to assist in the build but, I hate to say it – very few of them were active in the building of the house. Several members of the ABA basketball team the Jacksonville Giants showed up to “assist” but all they ended up doing was standing in the shade of the VIP tent eating food and watching others work.
Professional volleyball player Misty May showed up to surprise the girls and on the show you will see her driving a “bob-cat” bulldozer for the sand pit – unfortunately that was just for the short clip and didn’t last very long. I would have been more impressed with their appearances if she and the others would have grabbed a shovel, a broom or some debris and really lent a helping hand.
Joe Collins is to be commended in my opinion because he, his wife, and his son all showed up to assist in any way they could. Not only did they get dirty working in the dust and soil but they did it during the night shift – when no cameras where there to see them. We toiled side-by-side for over 8 hours eventually covering the entire left side and back of the house with Hardi-board.
At over 15 hours, this was by far my longest day at the build site but it was also the most productive. I started off the day helping several others measure, cut and install the entire deck in the center courtyard. I had been wearing steel toe shoes each day of the build – but on this day I had forgot to wear them and as my luck would have it, this was the only day I really, REALLY needed them. As I was cutting a piece of decking, a support beam made from a length of pressure treated 2×8 fell and landed its edge squarely on my big toe. I wouldn’t find out until 30 minutes before I left that night that I had broken my toe but I took a minute to gather myself, “rubbed some dirt on it” and continued working.
In earlier seasons, Ty used to be way more involved with the actual construction of the house. However, ABC has started doing two builds at once and Ty had to split his time between the Middleburg, FL build and a build in Richmond, VA. EHME is always looking for quality woodworkers to help build custom furniture pieces for each home and I’m fortunate enough to have a couple of friends with the skills to pay the bills.
They spent the entire night crafting furniture for the house by hand and built some plexi-glass screens for the outside of the home – much like you would see on a Japanese-style house. All of the tradesmen who volunteered on the build were top notch in their specific areas of expertise. From metal workers to finishing carpenters, all of them dedicated countless hours to making every piece of custom furniture something special.
DAY 5 – The Reveal
After leaving the build site at 4:30 AM, I had an hour drive home, slept for two hours then drove an hour back to be on set in time for the reveal, which was scheduled for noon. However, my hastiness was in vain as things did not go as planned. What viewers see on TV is a far cry from what actually happens in real life. For the first two hours, there was plenty of “B-roll” footage of the crowd chanting “Move that bus!” and plenty of footage of the bus moving before the family ever arrived. Then they spent nearly an hour filming the limo driving up but without the family inside.
Finally, after almost three hours of very boring and anti-climatic filming, the family showed up and Ty was there to greet them. You would think it was time for everything to go in one fluid motion but that was not the case. For almost an hour the family stood around filming various scenes behind the bus until finally the driver actually did move the bus.
Once the family was allowed inside the house the show was over and the crowd of more than 2,000 dispersed. We all went home for some much needed sleep and I had a broken toe to nurse.
It may shock some fans of the show to know that the designers rarely do any actual work on an EMHE build. In fact, there are two sets of show designers – ones in front of the camera and ones behind the camera.
The on-camera talent, though super nice, mostly walk around in designer clothes holding a bottle of sparkling water while standing around watching people work. The behind the camera designers are dressed just like the volunteers and are usually sweaty, dirty and exhausted – often times they know more about what is happening on the build than the on-camera designers.
A couple of facts about the build:
- Everything on an EMHE build is donated by local and national companies – wood, plants, furniture, appliances, ect. Nothing is bought by the show.
- The only people receiving compensation for their time on the build are the production crew who work for ABC. Everybody else, from the caterers and local police to the roofers and Sheetrock installers work pro bono.
- Surrounding neighbors are compensated for the use of their land, water, and driveways by the show with a variety of different services provided by ABC. Some receive new privacy fences; others receive new sod for their yard. One lady allowed the production staff to use her washer and dryer the entire week and her kindness was rewarded by the show with… a new washer and dryer.
- While the house receives its COO (Certificate of Occupancy) before the reveal, work continues on the house for several weeks after the family moves in. Minor things like touch up paint on the back of the house and the installation of a sprinkler system are all done at a later date.
- EMHE no longer builds 6,000 sq. ft. homes. The new houses are a “modest” and maintainable 3,000-3,400 sq. ft. and have all the latest “green” technology incorporated to help lower utility costs.
- Inevitably there will always be the people who, for whatever reason, be it jealousy or just an overall sour disposition, will try and rain on the family’s parade by spewing hateful comments in blogs across the Internet. Most think these families are not deserving of receiving such extravagant gifts or that another family in the area was more deserving. These people should be ignored because haters are always going to hate.
The English writer John Heywood once wrote “Many hands make light work” and that phrase rings doubly true on an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build. Hundreds of volunteers give up hours upon hours of their day or week to do everything from serving food and handing out water bottles to the build crew to simply picking up trash and moving scrap lumber and debris to the dumpster – every task on a EMHE build site is important and without volunteers this show would simply not exist.
If you have never been involved with a project like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or Habitat for Humanity, I would encourage you to look into volunteering – I promise you will not regret it.
Some photos courtesy of J.A. Long Design Builders
Follow me on Twitter – @Walwus – and let us know if you’ve ever worked on an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build.