The Godfather of DIY: a Conversation with Bob Vila

Bob Vila today.

When you think of do-it-yourself, or home renovation, or even just power tools, the first name that might pop into your head is Bob Vila. He’s been the go-to guy in the field since there’s been a field. So as we plan our projects for this spring and summer building season, we had a chance to sit down with the man himself and talk about what to do and how to do it green.

Justin: The timing of this conversation is perfect, because as spring is upon us, people are planning their projects and renovations, and at the same time we have an emphasis on green solutions, with Earth Day and Arbor Day and that growing awareness of practical environmental innovations. It seems like that’s something you really focus on.

Bob: Well we try to, especially since we launched I’d like to give an example of what I think is an important thing at your local level. This has to do with water conservation. That’s one of my favorite topics in terms of the green movement and the general idea of conservation. When a lot of people hear you’re going to have them do water conservation they think, “oh you’re going to make me use one of those crummy shower heads.” The reason I’ve gotten more and more aware of it is that Florida, my home state, has been through a drought for the last several years. We all think of Florida as the everglades, and you’ve got the thunderstorms, the hurricanes--you’ve got water, and it’s hard to think Florida might have a drought. In fact we’ve got drought and it’s part of the world wide problem of warming and etc. But the thing is we who cultivate gardens in Florida, as with anyone else in the country, have to be considerate about things like fertilization and irrigation, on top of mowing and pruning and everything else before we get to enjoy our garden. Irrigation is kind of taken for granted by home owners, home managers, and landscape contractors have traditionally just kind of said, “oh yeah you need to water everything twice a day for 20 minutes,” or whatever the approach is, without the real regard for the need to conserve water. So one of the main things we’ve been helping people understand is that you can still maintain a beautiful garden, but maintain it on a diet of water. You can use smart irrigation controls, and that’s the key thing, use smart irrigation controls to manager your water use.

Justin: That makes sense, because like you said it’s a concern in Florida, where you wouldn’t think it would be. For instance in California we’re constantly going in and out cycles of drought and we’re used to that. But now the rest of the country has experienced it in ways that people aren’t used to.

Bob: Exactly, exactly. I think Florida is a great example because nobody thinks of Florida as having any problem with water. Well we do, and we’re huge we’ve got an enormous population. We’ve developed property into the actual Everglades and we drained and reclaimed parts of the Everglades, which we’re now realizing was an enormous mistake. Now we’re trying to take steps to curb that impact and to restore parts of the Everglades. But anyways getting back to the basics of green stuff, that’s been kind of at the top of my list at the personal level and at When we launched 2 years ago, I had a TV vehicle that involved looking at green technologies in building.

Justin: Building Green? I watched that.

Bob: Now I’m much less interested in producing more TV shows, and everything changes from year to year, so we have that material which we try to grow on in terms of more articles, more slideshows and more information. I’m pretty gratified by the attitude of the generation of my kids. My oldest kid is 36 and he is a home builder in Long Island, and has had a renovation business in New York City for years, and he and people like him are so much more aware of the need for applying the latest technologies to what they’re building and renovating. It’s like we’re successful here, and when I say “we” I mean those of us who’ve been involved in the field for 30 or 40 years and have been passing the baton.

Justin: I think it’s sort of becoming a no brainer. A lot of green solutions are becoming standardized in a way.

Bob: Exactly. And town governance plays a big role; in the town of Palm Beach we have a really first rate system of ordinances, regulations, and zoning that help incredibly in terms of these different concerns. I’m most involved with the water aspect that I was describing to you. We have a volunteer organization called The Palm Beach Civic Association that has a great website as well. Which kind of leads the community in the terms of all these issues, interacting between the governing bodies and the population. Grass roots organizations are so important in terms of making things improve.

Justin: So for my readers who are taking on DIY projects as they come, what do you think is a Green Solution that everyone should go out and do say tomorrow? Something every homeowner should take on.

Bob: There are several, and you know I think the top of the list has to do with the amount of electricity we use. Regardless of how it’s being generated its still being used by us in a traditional way. I was slow to change my light bulbs, and then I did a study on the west side of my house. Although it has a lot of windows it’s very dark. I work on a big desk with a couple of lamps on it. I now have those curly-Q pigtail fluorescent bulbs that I resisted mightily, but you can get them now so they’re a little warmer than they used to be and the light is a little bit more to what you’re used to. It’s the same thing with all sorts of conservation devices whether it’s a light bulb or thermostat.

Programmable thermostats are so inexpensive, so easy to use, and so important; a lot of people don’t pay any attention to them, living in a 10 or 20 year old house with thermostatic controls that are totally obsolete and are wasting energy all day long in an empty house, when they could program it. You go to work and there’s an empty house and it turns itself off and on again at a certain time to get it back to your predetermined comfort level. And you get your monthly bill and you’re saving a sizable amount of money and energy on electrical consumption. Truly one of those things the average Joe can look into.

Justin: And that’s one of those things that people might not think of when they’re approaching their renovations. “I’m going to re-do my kitchen,” or, “I’m going to make this entry look nicer.” It’s something more technical and less visual. A new thermostat might not pop into someone’s head naturally.

Bob: No, and lighting that is really economical to use, light emitting diodes, LEDs, are becoming more and more affordable. And if someone is doing a kitchen rehab, which is the one renovation that usually has a great deal of lighting attached to it, because your average kitchen is going to have your general lighting, and the task lighting and lighting under cabinets, and dedicated lighting, whatever. The kitchen provides the opportunity to have the most complicated lighting plan of any room of the house, as it should. You want the opportunity to have it be well lit while you’re working. Then have it be lit differently when you’re just sitting back to schmooze, having dinner with some friends, drinking wine. LED lights are so important right now, they’re getting to a more affordable price point and they are very attractive. Right now as we speak I’m renovating a kitchen in an apartment in New York City for us and that’s what we’re using, LEDs.

Justin: In my own projects I’ve been using LED ropes which I really like.

Bob: I’ve used them for accent lighting like in shelving, but I’m not using any in this particular project because it didn’t lend itself, but yeah all these different options are important to let people know about. A lot of people don’t know about it. Electricians don’t know about it. If you’re doing a renovation that doesn’t involve an architect, which is usually the case--often you’re going through your home center and doing it yourself, or with a local contractor who’s not working with a designer or architect, who’s not keeping up with the technology--it’s often in those situations that homeowners keep buying or paying for recessed lights that we’ve all gotten used to, these high intensity MR 16s and all these things that are not horribly wasteful, but they’re not state of the art.

Justin: And that’s something someone who’s renting can do, if they don’t have a lot of latitude to change something in their home, whether it’s an apartment or they’re renting a house.

Bob: That’s true; not so much in recessed lighting but in terms of add-on lighting it’s absolutely true. In terms of thermostats that’s absolutely true. And you can take it with you when you leave.

Justin: Exactly. Before this call I did a bit of research on you of course, and I had no idea you had a degree in journalism. It’s not surprising considering what you do, but I figured you came from strictly a building background but happened to be a good presenter. Do you see yourself as a journalist?

Bob: Actually I do. It’s one of those extreme examples of serendipity I suppose. The study of architecture was my passion on day one, and in the middle of college, when I started having a great deal of trouble with the math requirements, I found myself switching gears and ended up moving into the journalism program at the University of Florida. So, after that I was in the Peace Core for a couple years and got involved in building houses and doing community development in Central America. To make a long story short, my future wasn’t going to be in a newspaper, but going to be into housing. So when I came back to the states, I went to Boston to study architecture once more. And it was in the early 70s when I had the opportunity to become involved in a development group that was restoring an old brownstone, and one thing led to another and I never finished the architecture degree because I got too involved in restoring brownstones, buying them, converting them, and all that stuff. Which is what led to my quite accidental career in television; the next thing you know 35 years go by, you go, “wow, I got lucky.”

Justin: Not just lucky, it seems like it just fell into place as it should.

Bob: Yeah it’s a pretty happy circumstance. It doesn’t always happen that way, which is why I feel lucky. It’s a question of where you going, what you doing, and who you meet. I suppose the ultimately most important element to anyone’s life is your own level of curiosity and adventure. If you don’t have that, you’re probably going to have more limited prospects.

Justin: So those many years ago when you did stumble into a TV career, there were pretty much 2 or 3 shows that covered this on PBS. Now there’s entire networks that cover it. What do you think caused that explosion of interest?

Bob: Well, This Old House was the first show that did anything ever to do with houses; PBS had done cooking and gardening. That was Julia and Mr. Crocket, but This Old House was the first show ever on American television that dealt with the idea of taking a derelict house and renovating it. What the show was about was what I did in real life, and what the objective of the show was to take the mystery out of building and remodeling in the way they took the mystery out of flipping an omelet or trimming a hedge. That’s now 32 years ago and I produced my last show 5 years ago, in syndications at Home Again. By the time I produced my last show you had seen this proliferation of home or housing related programming, and HDTV, and all of the above. So I think what we’ve seen is a transition from information programming--how to programming--to infotainment programming, to entertainment programming. I think that a lot of the programming on the air today that has to do with housing renovations really has more to do with entertainment. In some cases the program is more tied to the soap opera aspect.

Justin: I think that’s true.

Bob: I’m often told, “gosh, don’t you think you created reality TV?” And, the fact is we were putting real live people on television who happened to be the homeowners. We were often engaging them and asking them to do entertaining things, like taking a sledgehammer to knock down a wall, and so yeah, we were doing reality. But we weren’t capitalizing on anything like what you see today in reality TV. Which some people would say is main stream, some people would say is vulgar, some would say is sensationalism and I would say all of the above.

Justin: I wonder at the same time, and especially with the entertainment aspects of those shows, at the same time those shows have exploded, there are fewer and fewer young people entering the trades and I wonder have you seen that? The decline in people heading that direction, making that their profession.

Bob: I think that to be honest, our educational aspirations for our kids, over my lifetime, have been anti-trade. If your father worked in a trade, if you came from a middle class family, which would be considered blue collar, the aspiration is for the next generation not to be doing that, but to be college educated. And while I think it’s wonderful and important for education to be as broad as possible, and I think a college or junior college education is imperative now, I still think that there are a lot of young men and woman who would benefit from considering taking careers in arts and crafts. There was a time when we referred to them as the arts and crafts you know, the joiner, the journeyman finish carpenter, the wood carver, the glazer, the painter, all these different trades are honorable and in many cases highly artistic professions that don’t get the R. E. S. P. E. C. T. they deserve.

Justin: I agree.

Bob: There’s small movements. There’s a terrific school in Charleston recognizing the value in arts and crafts; wrought iron work, stonemasonry, etc. But it just doesn’t have the same appeal to people that will say “oh, I’ll just go to college.” That experience is very important, but after that four years you might just have the disservice of debt, a degree in English, and no job. So I just think it’s really important to encourage people to follow their instincts in terms of doing what they love. I have a cousin whose son is an auto mechanic and he works for a Mercedes Benz dealership in Southern Florida and he’s a very happy young man. Happily married, had his first kid, but more to the point, his passion was mechanics and he got into a great training program straight through junior college, he’s probably 10 years out, and he’s a great example of wonderful careers that don’t fall exactly in the white collar category, and that’s fine. We have all these different categories, I mean today if you look at the technologies of auto mechanics it’s not the same thing as it was in the 1950s.

Justin: Yeah, I look under the hood of my car and I have no idea what I’m looking at.

Bob: Me either.

Justin: And I’m a handy guy. Just bringing it back to DIY kinds of things, when you see homeowners taking on a project, would you say there are some common mistakes across the board, people starting off on the wrong foot?

Bob: I think one of the things people have to always ask themselves before they take something on after you observe what it is, ask yourself, “am I really capable of doing this?” And that applies to a problem with a circuit breaker, or a broken roof tile, you name it. ‘Sure I can probably fix that broken roof tile, but at my age do I really want to climb that roof?” Or, “I think I know what’s wrong with this plumbing problem for the pool filter, but I’m not sure though. Maybe I don’t want to create a bigger problem than I have right now.” So I think stepping back and assessing what it is you’re going to try is good. And if it could be possibly life threatening, stop.

Justin: That’s a good basic piece of advice.

Bob: That applies to climbing ladders, that applies to electrical work, that applies to heating, etc. Sit back and think for a minute; its one thing to do a little paint job; it’s another to do something that’s complicated and or life threatening. You have to also get back to what tickles your fancy. If you love to do a painting project, then that’s what you really have to focus on. If you are an impatient sort who wants instant satisfaction, a painting job probably isn’t for you because a good painting job requires a great deal of planning and preparation work, and protection work for surfaces, tape, sanding, dusting and vacuuming before you even get to open a can of paint. If you’re an impatient person who wants to get it all done on day one, start with a smaller project.

Justin: Alright, well I have a standard question that I always ask of someone who has done the work. Every time you do a renovation, or just about every time, you have to start with demo, and I always like that part of the project, not because of the knocking things down aspect of it, but I always feel like an archaeologist when I do it.

Bob: You and me both!

Justin: Oh good because I was wondering if you’ve ever found anything interesting inside of a wall.

Bob: Oh God yes. I remember one in particular, but you have to remember that back in the day before screw on caps on glass bottles they corked everything. A lot of things that were corked and sold as elixirs were really alcohol, and I found a little bottle of, I don’t know what would be in it, but next to it I found a tiny little corkscrew that could fit on your finger. It was like a ring with a corkscrew and it was totally rusted, but had been there for probably 2 centuries in a roof overhang for a federal period house built in the 1800s. So yeah, I have gotten rid of a lot of my junk over the years, but it’s an inherited trait. My son is like that. We’re currently renovating a 1930s New York apartment and in peeling away the layers of finish we found in the original apartment, the walls were painted dark green all over the place. And if you think about the 1930s, and the art deco, and movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the scenery and sets, they used a lot of dark finishes. So yeah, there’s a little bit of archaeologist in anyone that is truly interested in this.

Justin: Yeah. I love that.

Bob: In New England, where everything is kind of older, there is always an opportunity to find neat things. I lived in a house that had been partially renovated, then I took it over and finished the renovation. We’d lived in it for 12 years, and once we were taking out some built-in drawers in the kids’ room, we found a revolver and box of ammunition in the floor. The family who owned the house since 1917 were still on an adjacent part of the property. I immediately took this thing, and went next door to this man named Ben Williams and I said, “Ben I just found this pistol.” And he said, “Damn that was my father-in-law’s.” So houses are all going to be full of surprises.

Justin: Alright. Well I wanted to say something on a more person level for myself. I have a degree in literature and a background in construction, and I now work here at, and I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m sitting, I don’t think, if it wasn’t for you and what you do.

Bob: Well that’s great of you to say. I get great satisfaction in that type of feedback, so thank you.

Justin: Well, it’s been a real pleasure.

Bob: Yes, and thank you. Good luck on your piece.