Home TV Shows -- Really?

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Do you get a kick out of watching the home and garden reality TV shows? I sure do. So many clever ideas. It's fun to watch a home transformed from dowdy and sad to fresh and new.

But I've gotta tell ya:  As much as I love tuning in to see what's next, often I find myself cocking my head sideways with a dubious eye. I'm thinking to myself, "Geez, they made that look so easy.”  Or, “How the heck did they do all that on that budget?" Or, "Well, that's a wonderful idea, but  I wonder if that would work here in our Central Texas hot, humid climate."

Worried about my ambivalence – pleasurable TV habit on the one hand, a snarky attitude on the other-- I checked in with Debra Blessman, Certified Professional Building Designer of Select Home Design to get her input.

Mary:    So, Debra, you’re a professional building designer. Do you watch these home reality shows too?

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Debra:   I do watch them! In fact, if I’m not careful, I can spend the better part of a Saturday wrapped up in these home and garden TV shows. There’s a show for most any kind of project. I honestly do enjoy seeing what they’re going to do.

And the backyard shows?  How could you not love those!?  Of course, it’s a whole different story for us, living where we do in central Texas, what with our drought and our hot summers.

Mary:    What do you like best about the TV shows?

Debra:   The shows help home owners get good design ideas. Plus, watching the before-to-after transformation helps people gain at least some understanding about the construction process.

Mary:  But building and renovating homes is complicated business. Lots of problems to solve, and hundreds of ways to tackle them.  Do the TV shows do a good job of educating people about how it all works?  And how to make choices?

Debra: Not really. And I say that with no intention of stepping on any toes.

I believe the purpose of these shows is to entertain. They show a few ideas. They show how a few things work. They show what a finished project looks like; almost instant gratification for a viewer.

I don’t believe the purpose of the shows is to educate the public in great detail about how the entire design and construction process really works. I mean, how could they? Truth is, much of the process involved in planning, design, and construction is complex, detailed, tedious, and not glamorous. Who would want to watch those bits in a TV show? Nobody.

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Instead, the TV shows use creative license required to keep the story entertaining. They have to keep it within the allotted time frame for the show. And they add a splash of drama to keep viewers hooked. Most folks know so little about construction and building that they don’t know how far from reality the shows really are.

Mary:  So kind of like Cliff’s Notes for construction, huh? What would be some of the real process they’re leaving out?

Debra:  Well, two things leap to mind:  Time and permitting.

A construction project doesn’t happen in just a day. But it can sure seem like it sometimes on those TV shows.

Let’s take permitting, for example. There’s so much involved in getting a project through a municipality’s permitting department. Loads of documentation, checklists, engineering, and detailed drawings. There’s the requirements and limitations in national code. In local code. Subdivision restrictions and requirements. The plans have to take all these into consideration.

A perfect example of a city code issue that must be addressed is impervious coverage. In simple terms, impervious coverage is any material that blocks water from soaking into the ground – house foundation, concrete driveway, sidewalks, patios, stepping stones, and so forth. It’s a big issue for us here in central Texas.

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Mary:  Last week it rained 12 inches overnight in my neighborhood -- one of our notorious central Texas rain bombs. There was a lot of water! The creeks flooded. I felt so bad for the people whose homes flooded.

Debra:  That’s part of why there are very strict ordinances regarding impervious materials and the percentages that are allowed on each lot.

I really do love the backyard/landscaping shows. But so many of those beautiful projects would never be approved here because of our impervious coverage restrictions.

Then there’s the time it takes to shepherd a project through the permitting process. Building permits, tree permits, potential variances, historical review, waste management restrictions -- anything that might be required for your property must go through a review and permitting process before it’s approved to be built. And typically a fee accompanies each step. This process can add months to your project before construction can even start.

Do the TV shows depict this part of the process? Nope, usually not. At least, I’ve never heard it mentioned. They seem to leap from great idea straight to implementation, zip-zip. I’ve worked in the construction industry almost 33 years and I confess that the skewed sense of time on the TV shows is almost an insult to me. I think they do an injustice to the public by not better educating them on how it really works in the construction industry.

On the other hand, I understand the magic of a TV show.  And I do like to watch them. So there you have it -- the conflict between entertainment and reality.

Mary:  You’ve given us a great example of how the TV shows gloss over the details and the hard parts. What kind of effect does this have? Does it ever affect the expectations of your clients?

Debra:  Definitely yes. Often people have a skewed belief about how their project should go.

Mary:  So they’re surprised by the reality. Does it ever stop a project from moving forward when they learn how the process really goes?

Debra:  Not yet. But more than a few folks through the years were quite upset their projects weren’t going to be done within that TV-show timeframe.

Mary:  Let’s switch gears. Is it just me, or do many of these shows seem to be set in the northeast, or in California? Gosh, I’m like you – I love the lush landscapes in some of those shows. But where we live, we have water problems, and it’s hot as hell in the summer.

Debra:   The shows do seem to be a little heavy on northeast locations or California.

You raise a good point, Mary – climate differences. The way you design, orient, build, and insulate a house in, say, New England is vastly different from the way you do it in a hot, humid climate. At least, it should be different! Now, I understand that each show is specific to a locale, and so it would be ludicrous to expect they would cover the differences in construction between a cold climate and a hot one.

But what I do want is for viewers to be a little dubious and remember while they’re watching a show, that methods and materials that work in the locale of that show might be wholly inappropriate for where they live.

Mary:   What about the cost of stuff?  Sometimes I’m shocked at how little home owners and contractors on the shows are spending to make these amazing improvements.

Debra:  Ooh, I cringe when they give prices on the TV shows. It would be great if goods and services cost the same everywhere, but they don’t. For example, here in central Texas, construction is booming. As a result, prices for everything – materials, labor – have gone up and continue to go up.  The price to do the same project in an area of the country where construction isn’t booming would be considerably less expensive than here.  Shoot, it wasn’t that long ago when prices here were considerably less because folks were hungry for work.

Plus, I often wonder if there aren’t some pretty nifty price breaks on those projects since the contractors and suppliers will be on a TV show for some free advertising.

My advice?  Don’t take those numbers seriously, or you might end up with a false sense of economy about the cost of things.

Mary:  You know, Wayne was in one of those TV shows some years back. We’ll have to ask him about his experience with that.

What kind of effect do you see these shows having on the direction of design with your clients?  Does anyone ever bring into the discussion, “I saw them do this on a TV show and I really want to do this too”?

Debra:  Interesting question. Once in a while, I’ll be in the middle of a design phase with a client, and they’ll mention that their idea came from a TV show. Maybe I’ve even told them they can’t do something, or they shouldn’t do something, or that it will add too much cost to their budget. It’s at that moment I’ll hear, “But they did it on such and such a show, so why can’t I?”

Mary:  Like what?

Debra:  Windows, for example. A common item would be the desire to add windows in a space specifically to bring light into the house. It looked great on the TV show, that new room facing west with minimal overhang; only you may not know it faced west if they didn’t say so in the show.  Well, they added those windows, and boom, a dramatic increase in natural light, for at least the afternoon hours when the sun is in the west. But your new room faces, say, east, and you have a 10-foot covered patio shading your room. The level of light you would get in your room by adding windows in this type a situation might not be that dramatic at all. Seems obvious, right?  People tend to believe that what they see on TV will work for them too, whether they get all the details or not.  That’s why I spend as much time as needed to walk my clients through the details.  Not to mention, in our climate, I wouldn’t advise you to add a bunch of windows without some substantial shading in a west wall anyway!  There’s no need to purposely turn your house into an oven from the sun.

Mary: Right. All in all, I’d say I’m feeling better about my secret habit of watching the home and garden reality TV shows. Great ideas, but take the process and pricing with a grain of salt.

Debra:  Perfect.  And I guess both of us are busted on our secret habit now!

Mary: Thanks, Debra. Next time, I’ll ask Wayne to weigh in about his experience some years back in being a part of a green building reality TV show. There was something funny about his beard . . .

Meanwhile, I’d love it if readers would chime in and let us know what shows you like to watch. We might be missing something good. Leave us a comment.

‘Til next time.