Reality Hits Home

Home renovation can be funny. But filming a reality TV show about your own family's home renovation isn't. I realized this when my wife burst into tears the other day because she couldn't find a spoon for her yogurt. It was in the kitchen, which had been demolished just three hours earlier.

I should mention that last summer our home-based production company, Serious Fun Productions, was chugging along, producing TV segments for programs like CNN Headline News and NBC's Today. I was getting enough sleep, and my two children were staying out of trouble (as far as I knew).

Then we got a call from the network executives at the Discovery Channel. They liked the reality TV pilot that my wife, Tricia, and I had been working on for the past two years. The pilot was about a clueless homeowner-me-who goes through the process of grafting a 1,000-square-foot addition onto a small, 100-year-old Dutch Colonial.

The producers wanted to meet us, so we flew down to their sleek headquarters. We liked them, they liked us, and after a little back and forth, a deal was struck: My wife and I would produce the home-renovation show in real time, starring ourselves as the homeowners. Our contractor would be an actual guy, not a pro in a $450,000 “workshop” turning out replicas of St. Peter's. Notably, there would be a budget-my wife's and mine.

Our task was to film 13 half-hour shows by the following April-in addition to actually finishing the renovation. The name given to the show: HouseLift. As in facelift.

On September 3, at roughly 7:55 a.m., I heard the bang of a pickup truck door. It might as well have been a bell tolling because, within moments, my family's life was forever changed. My kids ran off to the bus, Tricia stepped out to direct a scene, and our dog appeared bemused as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, kitchen designers, insulators, and plasterers marched through the front door. The construction crew was followed quickly by a rear guard of videographers, sound guys, production managers, TV editors, and accountants. The irony of it was, we weren't allowed to complain: We had hired every single one of them.

The only way to survive the onslaught was to create a strong chain of command. Indeed, the whole project worked because it was run by the odd-but-effective combination of Tricia and our general contractor, Mike McCrobie.

McCrobie and his company, McCrobie Construction, are based in Burlington. A martial arts teacher whose big laugh and perfectionist streak define him, he's known to cajole, persuade, threaten, and sweet-talk just about anyone into getting a job done. It's like watching Norman Schwarzkopf with a Sawzall.

McCrobie will rarely lose his cool, but when he does, his outbursts are calculated to get results. And as with most effective business owners, he's not the only one doing the thinking. McCrobie's right-hand man is a bull of a sidekick named Stevie Sekenski. Sekenski's trademark: lifting 200-pound laminated beams like they were helium balloons. When a sticking point in the construction comes along, Sekenski will either dislodge whatever's stuck or argue with McCrobie about strategy.

“We're like a married couple,” says McCrobie, “and I'm the husband.” To which Sekenski quickly replies, “Which means I'm the one who's actually in charge.”

Similarly, I'm the husband in the production mix. Which means people listen to me politely on the job site and then go to my wife for final approval. That said, I'm the so-called host and am writing most of the show's episodes. There can be some touchy flare-ups, which dissipate quickly, due in part to our company motto: “Divorce, never. Murder, maybe.”

That first September morning, McCrobie gave us a heads-up on the looming disruption. To create a new family room, master bedroom and bathroom, kitchen, and mudroom, we'd have to tear off our quaint-but-useless 100-square-foot sun porch, dig a nine-foot, 900-square-foot hole around it, build a new foundation, cut a door in the old house, and connect it with new framing. Under the expert guidance of our architect, Medfield-based David Sharff, we also had to make the whole gambrel-roofed addition look as if it had always been there.

The Discovery Home and Leisure Channel wasn't kidding about our April air date; the powers that be were putting the squeeze on us to have the project completely wrapped up by late this month. Little did we know that we would soon hit the water table, lose our beloved cherry tree, discover carpenter ants, and find out that our old bathtub had been suspended over our old kitchen by . . . air. Or that on January 10, the week before the guys from Pro Insulators came over to spray our walls with a new, high-tech wadding, the New England weather would be colder than the surface of Mars.

But part of what makes this show thrilling-and the process of redoing your home exhilarating-is living through the highs and lows. We wanted to show the hellish shopping and debating required to meld a century-old home with a minutes-old addition. We didn't want to hide the fact that toilets don't just show up in your bathroom. You have to choose them. But when you triumph over this type of adversity, it sure feels good.

Example: At J. D. Daddario, a plumbing supply store based in Franklin, it's important to muddle through the embarrassing personal questions you will be asked by the sales staff. Be prepared for a conversation that may go something like this:

Question: How many people will be in your shower at the same time?
Answer: If all goes well with the project, two.
Question: Where do you want the body sprays aimed?
Answer: Not there.

Nate at J. D. Daddario also suggested I try out every toilet in the store, “just to make sure it fits.” Turns out Toto is good for men with medium-to-narrow hips. I know. I tried.

Our kitchen experts were design specialist John Babcock and the incredibly patient designer Rasesh Patel. The two men, from Kitchen Views in Newton, gracefully handled our homeowner idiocy. When Tricia and I started glaring at each other over whether we should put the Thermador cooktop in the kitchen island, for example, Patel acted like a combination of Dr. Phil and Philippe Starck. Result: cooktop, no; marriage, yes. And we'd go with a sleek, slightly more-modern-than-expected, plain-front mahogany kitchen from Imperia that would be the new centerpiece of our home.

Finally, our addition was lit up by the presence of lighting designer Michael Eberle, who manages Chimera Lighting Design in Boston, and who told us, a little darkly, that “I don't light rooms. I light surfaces.” His theory is that putting recessed lighting in the middle of a room will make the space feel gloomy, with the exception of the spots in the center. Putting the lights at the edges of the room makes the light bounce off the walls and adds a warm glow.

Our building supplies-and lots of free professional advice-came from Friend Lumber in Burlington and Empire Stone in Somerville.

Niceties aside, not one of these suppliers emphasized the inherent difficulty associated with demolition. Plaster flies. Sledgehammers sledge. Sawzalls saw. And film crews shoot. Add a full production team to the mix, and what results is a recipe for conflict. Which is what we got.

The tension reached the tipping point when Tricia and McCrobie butted heads. To a television producer, a quiet workspace is a sign of efficiency. To a general contractor, a quiet workspace is a sign he's losing money. A word to the wise: Avoid telling anybody holding a pneumatic nailer that he's making too much noise. Don't yell “Quiet on the set!” in your living room. And never, ever touch the electrician's wires without asking first.

In the end (and, as of this writing, we're not there yet-New England Plastering just finished this week), what we hope to create is a seamless addition that blends the old with the new. In our minds we see a modern, horseshoe-shaped kitchen that lets us entertain family and friends, a gambrel roof that protects our heads, and a strong front door that shuts out the rest of the world. At least until we decide to renovate again. Stay tuned.