Contractors push ‘Extreme’ to its limits

Homes are constructed at a breakneck pace

As executive producer of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Denise Cramsey knows how quickly a house can be built. So when it comes to getting an improvement project done at her own place, things seem to move in slow motion.

“I had to get my driveway repoured and they took two weeks,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I can do that in 40 minutes on my show.'”

That’s no exaggeration. On the popular Sunday night skein, everything goes at such breakneck speed that a new home can be built in a matter of days.

But it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work for everything to go as smoothly as it seems in front of the cameras.

After a family is chosen, the show taps a local builder that has strong connections with the construction trades. That’s important because none of the workers are paid. Most if not all of the materials are donated, too.

The job itself also is different than the norm. Instead of workers from each of the trades taking turns to do their part, during an “EMHE” build everyone works at the same time.

“We’ll have a guy lying down on the floor putting plumbing pipes in the ground while there’s another guy above him on a ladder running electrical wire,” Cramsey says. “It’s a very choreographed dance, which people in building say can never work — they would get in each other’s way, they would never get along — and yet, somehow, we make it work every time.”

And each time out in less than a week. In fact, sometimes a builder sets such a blistering home-building pace that even the speedy “EMHE” construction schedule is left in the dust. That’s what happened in August 2006 after the show called on the Gilliam family in Michigan.

The Gilliams had purchased an old farmhouse and were renovating it when the family’s father, David, died in his early 40s. Later, tests on the house found the basement and walls were filled with a toxic mold to which he was allergic. The widow and her five young children packed up and moved in with her sister.

American Heartland Homebuilder of Macomb, Mich., was picked for the project and more than 2,000 tradesmen and volunteers came together to knock down the old structure, then build, decorate and landscape a 3,900-square-foot new house in 53 hours and 54 minutes.

Even the founder of the 19-year-old company, Rick Merlini, was amazed at how fast everything came together.

“We had a schedule that was 80 hours. We didn’t even think it was humanly possible to do it faster than 70 hours,” Merlini recalls. “We started on a Wednesday afternoon and something magical just happened. The emotion and the passion that my employees and the subcontractors had, they came in there and performed, actually overperformed, and they did it for the right reason — to try and help somebody out. It was pretty cool.”

Any “Extreme Makeover” home needs the same permits and goes through the same inspections as homes built the traditional way. The only difference is local governmental agencies often will make their employees available around the clock. They’re on site to make sure the homes are built to the same standards as any other home in the community.

“It’s not sticky tape that holds up the walls. It’s not a movie set,” says executive producer Conrad L. Ricketts. “These are real houses that people live in, and in many cases, many generations will live in.”

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