I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bruce since my days at This Old House and it’s been great watching his career flourish since he left TOH. He’s since created a niche in the remodeling world as a renovation consultant and now he’s planning a return to television with This New House.
In the following interview Bruce shares his background in television production, his opinions on green building and why he loves old houses.
CH: You’ve been in the TV business for a long time and the remodeling/renovation industry even longer. Can you share how you got your start in both?
Bruce: Actually, they happened simultaneously when Russ Morash, the creator of This Old House (as well as The Victory Garden and The New Yankee Workshop), hired me in 1988. He was kind enough to give me the title “special projects assistant,” though I had no experience in TV or in home renovation at that point.
Maybe he saw potential in me as a researcher and storyteller, which, along with an ability to herd cats, are important aspects of being a TV producer.
CH: What do you think clicked with the larger TV audience and the networks to go from literally one home improvement television show on PBS to almost every network having a design or DIY program?
Bruce: Well, for the TV audience, we always thought folks were responding to the great and reassuring teaching skills of “the guys” (Norm, Tom, Richard, and Roger). Week in and week out they calmly described problems with one of our core possessions, our homes, and then went about solving them. It felt real because it was real–TOH has been called the first reality TV.
When other shows hit, I think viewers took to them as similarly fun and inspirational to watch.
For the networks, I think it’s as simple as this: it’s inexpensive TV to make. You’ve got a simple set–a house–and lots of improvement story lines that unfold clearly and sequentially. Combine that with TOH’s popularity and the rise of places like Home Depot and all the consumer dollars that represented, and it’s easy to see why everyone got into it.
CH: Beyond the shows you’ve produced, are there any other programs that you enjoy watching that cover remodeling and renovation?
Bruce: Granted I’m biased, but I love Ask This Old House–I’m continually amazed by the guys’ care and creativity in solving common head scratchers around the house.
CH: What will This New House bring to the table that we haven’t already seen on TV?
Bruce: A single-minded focus on what’s next for the American home. I hope that the same intelligence that goes into shows like TOH and ATOH will inform the way we choose and describe ways things can be done better and smarter.
CH: If I’m a homeowner looking to purchase an “old house,” what are the first red flags I should look out for?
Bruce: The hidden results of poor or postponed maintenance–structural degradation that can be masked by a new paint job and the romance of an old house but that will have to be remedied sooner rather than later. That, and a tendency on the part of nearly everyone–you, your realtor, an architect or a contractor–to underestimate just how disruptive (both to the building and to your life) and expensive proper renovations tend to be.
CH: What do you think it will take for “green building” to take the next step towards wider acceptance among contractors and home builders? It seems to get a lot of lip service in the media but are builders really coming around to it?
Bruce: They will when consumers demand it, which I think is happening. Rising fuel prices make the cost of operating a house very important, and “green” practices and products often result in lower operating costs.
I was struck by a conversation I recently had with the folks at Pulte, one of the biggest home builders in the country. They are trying to get buyers to look at houses like cars, which we choose on the basis of comfort, style, and miles per gallon. Until recently, a lot of us have bought homes based primarily on cost per square foot, which is like buying a car based on cost per pound. They’re laying out projections on cost per year, which bodes well for energy-efficient construction and systems.
More on green building from Bruce.
CH: Beyond “green building,” are there any other trends in home building or remodeling trends that you see emerging?
Bruce: Maybe you could point to a rise in popularity of the contemporary or modern style. Instead of the horrible pastiches of historical elements that so many McMansions comprise, influences like Dwell magazine and others have made it more likely people will buy something crisper and more architecturally pure.
Clayton, the country’s largest maker of manufactured housing (and owned by Warren Buffett), has started offering very modern-looking butterfly-roofed prefabs called iHouses–that gets my attention.
CH: You’re based out of New England but have been involved in projects across the country and even internationally. Is there a particular region with homes you enjoy working on the most?
Bruce: Yep–New England. The grace and craftsmanship of its old homes make me think of all we’ve been capable of building and could be again. And the contemporary houses going up all around the region prove it.
CH: Can you share some of your favorite vendors whose quality, service or craftsmanship you admire?
Bruce: It’s remarkable how often really great companies are private, often family-owned. There are many small ones, but Kohler is one of the big ones that pushes its design and manufacturing all the time.
There are great European products, like the engineered flooring made by Listone Giordano. And I’m very impressed with the way Serious Materials, out of California, has decided to take drywall and windows to their highest energy-efficiency and performance levels yet.
CH: What are the most popular home improvement queries you answer on a regular basis?
Bruce: Where can I find a good contractor? How should I insulate my house? How much is this going to cost? What’s Norm like?
CH: Thank you for your time and can you leave us with your favorite home improvement tip?
Bruce: If your house has its original wood windows, think long and hard before replacing them with insulating glass units. Not only do they probably have a longer life left in them than the new ones, but if you have them properly tuned up and weatherstripped, and have good storm windows with low-E glass, they’ll be a near-match in energy efficiency. And they look right.
Bruce can be contacted through his website where he offers renovation consulting and real estate services.
Interview by Timothy Dahl