Designing for TV: A Crash Course with Extreme Makeover

Photo Courtesy of Wadman Corp.

We recently had the opportunity to volunteer, by providing Landscape Architectural services for two very deserving families, on the hit TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”!  The episodes are 1002 and 1003 and we are looking forward to seeing them air in January 2020 on HGTV! 

In case you haven’t’ seen the show (seriously, who hasn’t seen this show?!), the premise is that the community comes together to remodel/build an entire home for a family, who has faced adversity – a family who’s story of perseverance and determination is truly exceptional.  Unlike a normal construction project that can take months to realize, the design-build team completes the project in a matter of DAYS!!! In this case, Wadman Corporation successfully managed the construction of two homes (designed by Bott-Pantone Architects) in a week – a seriously mind-blowing feat!

Episode 1003 Finished! Photo Courtesy of Wadman Corp.

Anyway, this process is not without a little stress and chaos. Designing for TV is a little different than traditional AEC delivery in terms of objectives/goals/approach.  Despite my personal 20-years of experience working in the field of Landscape Architecture, this process was a huge learning process for me!  And it was such a pleasure getting to collaborate with the show’s designers, taking their initial mood boards and coming up with concepts, and then working back and forth on materials, elements, and site furnishings.  It was also really fun to get to work out construction details and processes with the contractors as each new challenge presented itself.  And finally, working with the show’s designers, contractors, and volunteers during the whirlwind install resulted in a sense of camaraderie almost never experienced in our traditional design and construction silos.  We were all working together for a common cause, and all of our roles and individual ideas and contributions to the project were truly valued!  With that said, here’s a few takeaways from my crash-course in designing for TV:

Design Flexibility:

Unlike a traditional design-bid-build process we had to come up with an initial concept, and adapt it as we went based on ongoing construction changes, availability of materials, volunteer capacity, and speed of implementation.  We were literally making changes to the design until the very end, in order to account for a range of unexpected constraints. 

For example, on episode 1002, an ill-placed drain clean-out forced us to re-configure the layout of the front-walkway.  In a normal design process the large-scale pavers (4’x4′) would have been formed and poured on site, so making adjustments, while not ideal, would have been relatively easy.  But in order to facilitate the accelerated construction process, the pavers were poured  off-site and then moved into position.  The large-scale modules meant that it was really challenging to adjust the design. I attempted to adjust the layout on-site, and then, due to time and material constraints the edging had to installed differently than I had originally drawn it, which ended up accentuating the shift – so if you’re looking at the front-walkway shot thinking things look a little off-balance – that’s why!

Original design concept for 1002 – it changed a bit!
Adjusting on-site for the drain clean-out (the big pipe on the left).
Episode 1002 Final Design (can you spot the layout adjustment?). Photo Courtesy of Wadman Corp.

Plant Availability:

One of the most challenging things about being a Landscape Architect is designing with living plant material, the look of which changes throughout the seasons, and from year to year.  For this project we had to work with limited plant selection based on immediate/local availability, coupled with added challenge of what was going to look good at the actual time of installation –  a moving target!  

We were hoping to be able to use these Iceberg Shrub roses around the porch at 1003, but by the time we went to plant them the blooms were pretty well spent and they didn’t have the quantity we needed!

We created an initial design concept, based on the mood boards that the design team sent us and our knowledge of seasonal color in Northern Utah.  We then went to Tri City Nursery (who was donating all the plant material) to check availability and see how things looked, and then went back and created a design based on this preliminary inventory.  Then, a day or two before the actual planting was scheduled to start, we went back to the nursery to tag the plant material.  What we were surprised to discover was that availability, and what is blooming changes RAPIDLY.  So we ended up having to make some adjustments and substitutions! 

Plant Maturity:

Unlike traditional building materials, that look their best the minute they are installed, we plan for the plant material to fill in and to start looking really great after about 3-years, of course maturity of shrubs and trees can take many years beyond that.  In TV you don’t have the luxury of waiting years for the project mature – it has to look good now!  Coupled with the previous challenge of availability, this was a pretty tall order.  Our approach was to intentionally overplant, and in a few instances infill with larger shrubs that might potentially outgrow the spaces we put them in.  We basically had to plan for plant material to be removed/pruned as the design matures and fills in to keep it looking tidy.  This might seem a little wasteful, but I like to think of it as an opportunity to transplant plants to friends and neighbors’ landscapes – you know the way our grandparents used to share plants before the nursery industry was established!

Teamwork and Delegation:

We planned on this process being more of a design-build one, but the speed at which everything went in meant that I personally couldn’t be on-site during the whole installation to make all of the decisions regarding site and layout changes.  And even when I was there, I couldn’t keep up with the speed of the changes and decision making that had to happen, and I couldn’t place every single hardscape element, landscape light, or plant.  We had to rely on the contractors and volunteers to make a lot of the implementation decisions.  As a self-proclaimed perfectionists, who’s a little OCD at times, this was difficult, but necessary.  The contractors made some changes on the fly, and I was able to explain the planting concept to some volunteers and deputize them to lay out the perennial mix.  In the end I learned to let go of perfection (just a little) and to trust my team-members, allied professions, and energetic volunteers to get the job done!

Me and Veronica from EMHE TV, talking about design changes on-site at 1003 with my i-Pad. Photo Courtesy of Wadman Corp.

I would like to thank Wadman Corporation for asking us to be a part of this process.  We were also lucky to get to work with Pantone Architects who gave us such great architectural designs to play-off of and highlight with the landscape.  I also want to extend a special thanks to Andy and Veronica with EMHE TV for being so great to work with and really showing me the ropes of design for TV!  Maybe I’ll get to do it again sometime! 😉