This New House -- TV Host Norm Abram Moves From Renovating Old Houses To Building His From Scratch

Let's guess now. If you were Norm Abram, for 16 years the master carpenter and then host of public television's "This Old House," would your dream home be a lovingly restored old house or a new structure?


Arguably one of America's foremost experts on home restoration, Abram not only chose to build a new house, he didn't try to hide it.

In fact, it's the subject of his fifth and newest book, "Norm Abram's New House," (Little, Brown $22.95).

Abram, 45, was in town recently to promote the book. It is not a how-to-build-your-own-home tome, he stressed, "there are enough of those already."

Rather, in a conversational tone he takes the reader through each step involved in his family's four- year journey to the end result: a 4,600 square foot, two-story, semi-traditional house set on four acres of woods and wetlands near Boston. And he, with all his experience, initially guessed it would take one year from ground breaking to move-in!

So why did he want a new, albeit old-looking, house for himself; his wife, Laura; and teenage daughter, Lindsey?

"From fixing up so many old houses, I knew that with the types of systems and space I wanted, I'd have had to do so much transformation that I wouldn't have much old house left," he said.

By systems, he means high-velocity air conditioning, a European-designed radiant-heat system installed in the floors (even under hardwood) and the types of large, energy-efficient windows not found in vintage structures.

As for space, Abram and his wife wanted amenities Boston architects didn't even dream about 100 years ago: a large kitchen-family room, a solarium, a home office wired for Norm's computers and an aviary for Laura's parrot menagerie.

"He's very proud of what he's done here, and he should be," Laura Abram said by phone. "He does an awesome job, even on his own house."

Not that it's completely finished. Months after moving in, Abram still hasn't built the bookcases in the library, his wife confided, nor has he finished the main staircase.

"He wanted to do the cabinetry in the kitchen, but thank goodness he didn't because we wouldn't have any," she said, laughing. That's because Abram, like every other home-project worker, has more dreams than time.

Still, in building his own house, Abram employed the same advice he gives others considering building new:

"Take the dream as high as you can, then work with the budget realities. Spend a lot of time designing it. Make as many decisions as you can ahead of time so you don't get to the end and find you have no money for carpet. Don't be disappointed when you have to cut back because everyone has to cut back."

And don't think you're going to be saving money over renovating the house you have.

"Now days, with the cost of land, you can assume new will cost more," said Abram. Expect construction to run $100 to $125 a foot, unless you want great detailing, then "forget $125 a foot," he advised.

In the end, his home, with its many custom details, came in at $125 a foot; he figures it would have cost half again as much had he hired a general contractor.

As for deciding whether to renovate, remodel or just move, Abram says homeowners should consider two things: the location of their present house and its structural integrity.

If the redo is a go, he says the keys to staying sane are to "keep your focus. Don't try to spread the renovation over too large an amount of time. Be careful of the `we might as wells' (as in, as long as we're adding one skylight we might as well add two). They'll drive the budget out of sight, and you can always come back and do them later."

Son of a New England carpenter who put him to work summers, Abram never set out to follow Dad. Instead he studied to be a mechanical engineer. But the lure of home building proved too strong. He'd just started his own business when he was "discovered" by a TV producer while doing a small project for a friend of his.

Offered 10 weeks' work on the infant "Old House" show, he took it figuring that would be the end of it. Sixteen years later, "This Old House" pulls in 30 million viewers monthly and is PBS's top-rated show nationally, Abram said. It airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on KCTS (except today, when its replaced by other programming) and at 12:30 p.m. Saturdays on KBTC, Channel 28.

It, and his 8-year-old "The New Yankee Workshop," are consistently in the top 10 PBS programs locally, according to Sheila Sundberg of KCTS.

"This Old House," in particular, has had a "a considerable impact" on the home-renovation business, believes Fred Anhalt Graham, grandson of Seattle's legendary builder Frederick Anhalt, and himself a professional home restorer.

"More people are interested in restoring their traditional-style homes than they would be otherwise," Graham said. He praises Abram for teaching "homeowners an appreciation for the style and quality of old homes. It (the program) makes them more realistic about the complexity and cost of doing an extensive restoration."

Said Abram: "More than anything, I hope the program demystifies things so that homeowners will be able to communicate better with tradesmen and ask the right questions."

He hopes his new book will do the same thing. Now if he could only get his bookshelves done.

--------------------- NORM KNOWS BOATS, TOO ---------------------

Norm Abram was in Seattle last winter to film two segments on sailboat-building at The Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union. They'll be aired July 9 and 16 on KCTS, Channel 9, as part of his second PBS program, "The New Yankee Workshop."