INTERVIEW: Home Improvement Legend Bob Vila Talks to Us About Green Building
Inhabitat: So what set the tone for This Old House and your work after that?
Bob Vila: Well, I think in all the programming that I’ve done — I left This Old House after 10 years and started the syndicated show Bob Vila’s Home Again and started BobVila.com, which this goes back almost 20 years– in all of these efforts one of the key criteria had to be entertainment. Because you wanted to entertain people so that they stick around and watch, but also give them pertinent information while entertaining. I think I was always conscious of the fact that many of my fans and viewers were interested in more midstream, midlevel, middle-class housing issues that applied to their own circumstances. So more than once I’ve been involved in shows doing projects that have to do with the refurbishing and renovating of a house, whether it’s a shotgun or a Craftsman-style bungalow, or a ranch house or a track house — house typologies that are not antiques. They might only be 20, 30, 40 years old, and not upscale. They’re solid middle-class housing.
These are all examples of situations where you can bring in not just fresh coats of paint and interior-design ideas, but fresh technologies to make them work better. And when I say “fresh technologies” I guess very often I’m referring to what today is referred to as “green.” Obviously the simplest thing that we have always promoted is to help people understand the importance of insulation. Nowadays this is well-known, but if someone’s house was built in 1920, it is not the case — they may have had a scattering of something like mineral wool in the attic. But today you can put in products that will give you a huge R-factor and really make your house a lot more comfortable and inexpensive to operate.
Inhabitat: Is there anything that’s getting you excited nowadays that you see as taking off or changing the way the building industry does its business?
Bob Vila: Well, I think that one of the things that has always concerned me is the inappropriate waste of product. I think the era of everything going to a landfill has changed sufficiently so that the idea of recycling rather than just throwing away has a firm grip on the industry. You see it here walking the streets of Manhattan, where you’ve got so many rehabs and office and residential buildings going on constantly, and you’ll see all of a sudden that you’ve got metal being sorted out very carefully. The products that are being taken out of a building are clearly going to get recycled one way or in another. That’s a big difference just, I think, in the last 5 or 10 years.
Inhabitat: We’ve seen, interestingly enough, new builds, where people are putting in old sinks and bathtubs and things that you’d never really have thought about before and obviously they’re coming from yards that have been keeping these materials.
Bob Vila: You know what? Architectural salvage is something that goes back 30 years. I always kinda look at ’76, the bicentennial year, as the beginning of an era of real appreciation for antique building elements and antique houses. But that whole concept has evolved to where a lot of these items that we’re talking about in terms of salvage are not necessarily antique. They’re not period. It’s not like, “I’m going out to look for an art deco bathroom suite.” They’re simply secondhand building goods — whether it’s plumbing or its doors and windows or lighting fixtures. They’re secondhand, but they’re nice and they’re perfectly useful. And, again, rather than throwing them away and having them find their way into a smelter or a landfill, let them be polished up and rewired and reused. Clearly one of the big advantages is that many of these things are affordable.
The one piece that we have on the website in the green area that involves an architect called Allan Shope, a very well-known architect who made his career really building mansions for millionaires. He got sick of doing that and in the last 5 or 10 years he became very involved in the whole concept of zero-carbon footprints and recycling materials. We shot some footage of his own personal Earth-bermed house. He’s a great example of people in the profession examining all these possibilities that involve not just good design from the energy perspective, but also the whole business of recycling and reusing materials that have been abandoned or that have become obsolete, and figuring out how to give it a new life.
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