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House Calls

Celebrating its 25th year, This Old House, produced in Boston, is drawing 4 million viewers a week. Sales at Home Depot are through the roof. So why, if our fathers and grandfathers were such handymen, are we so clumsy with a hammer and nails?

By most measures, Joshua Frances is good with his hands. A onetime paramedic who's restoring a vintage pinball machine in his spare time, Frances has replastered walls and installed a sump pump. But when he and his fiancee, Rebecca Hoffmann, moved into their 1880 home in Stoneham last fall, they immediately encountered a problem he couldn't fix: The side door was so drafty, it left the kitchen 10 degrees colder than the rest of the house. During a storm, snow blew in through a crack between the door and the threshold.

A generation ago, Frances might have enlisted a neighbor or a relative to help him install weatherstripping, a simple repair that takes about 20 minutes. Or he'd have been taught to do it by his father, as part of a transaction in which handiness — along with the ability to grill meat — was bequeathed to sons as an essential part of being a man. But Frances, who's 27 and has the build of an offensive lineman, couldn't find any relative or acquaintance familiar with the mysteries of weatherstripping. So he stuffed a towel under the drafty door and then went online, where he e-mailed his dilemma to the home-fix-it show Ask This Old House.

A few weeks later, a cameraman is standing by as Tom Silva drives a blue pickup truck into the young couple's driveway. Silva, 57, wears jeans and a fleece jacket. There's a pencil wedged over his right ear and a tape measure hooked onto his belt. Frances greets him at the door. While Hoffmann and two producers stay out of camera view, watching on a tiny remote screen in the bathroom, Frances walks Silva through the house. The proud homeowner shows off an original tin ceiling, following the improvised script they'd worked out just a few minutes earlier. When they enter the kitchen, Silva asks, "What's up with the towel, Josh?" "This is my homemade weatherstripping," Frances says with mock pride. "Oh, boy," Silva replies, examining the door. "You've got a lot of air leaking around this door."

In the next scene, Silva is wearing his tool belt. He wields a hacksaw, sandpaper, and hammer. Silva is a master builder who specializes in complex structural renovations of antique homes; asking him to install weatherstripping is like calling on a cardiac surgeon to Band-Aid a paper cut. Regardless, the door is quickly sealed tight. As the scene ends, Frances gushes appreciation. Back in the studio, host Kevin O'Connor praises Silva's weatherstripping wizardry. "Tommy, you just made one homeowner very happy." Roll the credits.

This isn't the kind of work Silva, a third-generation tradesman with graying hair and an air of patient, fatherly wisdom, dreamed of doing when he was growing up. But today the co-owner of Lexington-based Silva Brothers Construction spends much of his time in front of a This Old House camera. Lately, the home-improvement show — a folksy, Boston-based institution that will celebrate its 25th anniversary this fall — has been expanding faster than the homes it remodels. Since 2001, when WGBH sold the program to Time Warner, it's morphed into what the new owner calls a "multimedia lifestyle brand."

Today, in addition to a magazine, books, and website, the brand features a growing TV empire. The original half-hour This Old House TV series is now joined by Ask This Old House to form The New This Old House Hour (it airs Thursdays and Saturdays on Boston's PBS channels). There's also another spinoff, Inside This Old House, which appears along with reruns of the other shows on cable. These programs have been joined by a host of imitators — from Trading Spaces to the Comcast Network's upcoming reality show American Builder to the entire lineups of cable networks HGTV and DIY — filling the television dial with sawdust and two-by-fours.

There is an irony to this televised building boom. In the same way that people are watching more cooking shows but doing less actual cooking, the fixer-upper genre is exploding at a time when homeowners are tackling fewer do-it-yourself projects. Kermit Baker, a Harvard researcher who tracks home-improvement trends, estimates that 40 percent of such projects in 2001 were do-it-yourself, down by about 10 percent from 1985. The Florida-based Home Improvement Research Institute agrees that homeowners are more likely to hire pros to do repairs than they were a decade ago. When Silva makes his TV house calls, "I can tell if someone is handy in about two minutes," he says. "You can see the way they hold a hammer, the way they drive the nail." These days, fewer homeowners seem able to pass muster.

As these skills deteriorate, what's emerging is a sort of post-handy world. It's a place where professional handymen do the tasks — like cleaning gutters — that many homeowners once proudly did themselves. Observers blame a variety of forces for driving the shift: an aging, affluent population, the growth of white-collar jobs, and even the demise of high school shop classes. But the biggest driver may simply be the increasingly busy lives of suburban professionals, for whom home improvement is becoming a task to be outsourced, not savored. "There's less inclination to pick up a tool and do something with it," says Baker. "It's more of a do-it-for-me generation."

To understand why America is losing its home-repair mojo, I spent some time alongside Tom Silva — arguably the handiest man in America — as he battled this decline, one episode at a time.

ilva is kneeling on the staircase inside a Concord cottage. As producers traipse up and down the new stair treads, Silva patiently resands and dusts them off, getting them camera-ready for a segment on staining. Just a few months ago, this building was a barn, but $325,000 and 18 This Old House episodes later, Silva and a team of subcontractors have turned it into a luxurious in-law suite. Though the projects have become over-the-top extravagant in recent years, the show's basic formula hasn't changed much since 1979. That's when creator Russell Morash, who'd previously introduced the cooking-show genre with Julia Child at WGBH, sent cameras to document the renovation of a Dorchester home.

The show made celebrities out of carpenter Norm Abram and hosts Bob Vila and, later, Steve Thomas. But since Abram began devoting most of his time to his spinoff woodworking show, and with Vila and Thomas departed for cable shows, Silva has emerged at the center of the ensemble cast (it includes plumbing and heating specialist Richard Trethewey, landscaper Roger Cook, and host O'Connor, an infectiously enthusiastic MBA who quit a vice president's post at Fleet Boston Financial Corp. to join the show last year). Morash, who met Silva when he hired him to build a set for another WGBH show in the mid-1970s, made him primary contractor for This Old House projects in 1988. "Tommy is familiar with all the trades," says Morash, who's stepping down as executive producer this year but will still consult for the show. "He has the wonderful advantage of being out in the real world every day with real customers."

Authorities on the art of building credit This Old House with helping to fuel interest in restoring antique homes. But they say the nation's fondness for home improvement predates the show by at least a century. It was during the late 19th century that "working with your hands as a way to relax and at the same time improve your home" really took off, says Chrysanthe B. Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The pastime grew as home ownership increased during the early 20th century. It accelerated further during the Great Depression, when unemployed folks tinkered around the house and the federal government began loaning out money for home improvement.

The biggest jump in American handiness came after World War II, says Carolyn M. Goldstein, author of Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th-Century America. War mobilization left factories primed to churn out high volumes of building materials such as plywood. Many returning soldiers and their Rosie-the-Riveter wives had picked up new mechanical skills. Suburban developers began mass-producing homes, many featuring unfinished basements and attics that invited do-it-yourselfers to create rec rooms to accommodate the nascent baby boom. "Through home improvement, families were leveraging their class status to become what we now call middle-class Americans," says Goldstein. By 1954, home improvement had become so trendy that Time magazine's August cover featured a caricature of a suburban man riding a lawn tractor while simultaneously using six power tools. The headline read "Do-It- Yourself: The New Billion-Dollar Hobby."

During those years, Tom Silva was growing up in Lexington, one of six children of a local contractor. "We lived in a house built in the late 1700s, and my dad used to work around the house on weekends," Silva says. To prevent the kids from getting in the way, his father gave them tools to keep them busy. "That was my training," Silva says. "I literally grew up in the business." He's always been good with his hands. When his two children were small, he sewed some of his daughter's outfits for school. His expertise extends to motors. "If there's a weird noise in the car, he knows exactly what it is," says Sue Silva, his wife of 30 years. "Honest to God, I think he has a gift."

What Silva didn't learn at home, he learned in shop class. Men of a certain age probably remember building curio shelves in a school wood shop just down the hall from algebra class. Shop classes, which took hold in the United States around the turn of the 20th century, became quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s, even for students planning to attend college. "You learned how to read a ruler, use a level, a framing square — all the basics," Silva says. But by the late 1980s, school-based "industrial arts" had been relegated to vocational-technical schools, axed from regular high school curriculums by declining enrollments, budget cuts, and a preference for more academic course work. Nowadays, "shop is a four-letter word," says David Jurewicz, president of the Massachusetts Technology Education/Engineering Collaborative.

Today, Jurewicz instructs students in the discipline's modern equivalent at Sudbury's Ephraim Curtis Middle School. The class emphasizes computers instead of drill presses and focuses on engineering-style problem-solving skills. Students might construct small bridges or hot-air balloons, but the aim is "more about finding out how things work," says Jurewicz. The shift is appropriate, observers say, because fewer Americans are making their living using their hands. Better that schools teach higher-level skills that develop students' minds (and boost their MCAS scores). It's a nationwide trend. "Acquiring [home-improvement] skills in high school is rarer and rarer," says Charles Gagel, president of the National Association of Industrial and Technical Teacher Educators. "That's one reason you see places like Home Depot and Lowe's have these Saturday-morning classes," Gagel says. "They're filling that gap."

AT THE HOME DEPOT on Speen Street in Natick, class is called to order on a brutally cold Monday evening in January. The workshop, on laminate flooring, is part of a "Do-It-Herself" series that the retailer runs for women. For more than an hour, flooring expert Fred Strelke shows four women how easily the modular flooring snaps together. Shoppers pause to watch, as if he were performing a magic trick. On a wall nearby hangs a list of other classes, including lessons on installing ceramic tile and closet organizers.

After class, I ask the women why their husbands aren't here. A round of male-bashing ensues. Their husbands, mostly in their 30s and 40s, talk a good game about being handy, they say, but the men rarely pick up a tool. None of the women wants to be the household handywoman. One admits that power tools scare her. But if they want a home-improvement job done at all, they say, they'd better do it themselves. They're not alone: In a 2003 survey for Home Depot, 45 percent of women said they'd purchased hand tools in the last 12 months, and 26 percent said they did all or most of their household's routine maintenance themselves.

The women's comments are a sign that home improvement can be a flash point in modern marriages. Judy Brasher, a full-time fund-raiser who lives in Natick and has two children, says her husband, Brad Brasher, is plenty handy. To relax from his job as a biochemist, he builds intricately detailed model rockets. But, she says, "I'd like him to redirect his energy to a more useful project," citing the chair rails, crown moldings, and built-in bookcases on her to-do list. "I try to stress how much fun it's going to be, how we'll feel so much satisfaction when we're finished, and really try to sell it to him," she says. At Home Depot, she muses that maybe she could start the laminate-flooring job herself, knowing that her husband would jump in. "I can be a little bit sloppy," she says, praising her husband's meticulousness. "If he saw me start a project like this, he'd at least take it over or let me be his assistant."

At the Peck household in Sherborn, both parties agree that husband Chris Peck is fully capable of replacing a light switch or replumbing a toilet. In their last home, in Medfield, he even gutted rooms and repaired walls. But, like Judy Brasher, Heather Peck says her husband would rather relax than work on their home. To spur him to spruce up a kitchen, she once took a sledgehammer to some cabinets during one of his fishing trips, leaving him no choice but to fix the mess. "He's really big and strong. It's convincing him that this is something we can do" that's a challenge, Heather says. "He's very much 'Let's [hire] somebody to do that.'"

Chris, a banker who works long hours, pleads guilty to preferring to play with their three children over cleaning the gutters. He says what makes him different from his own do-it-yourself father is the way he values his time. Why not hire a professional to do a job that would otherwise consume his entire weekend? When he observes friends who still tackle their own projects, "their houses are absolutely gorgeous, but they spend no time with their family," he says. He describes one handy acquaintance who spent months redoing his kitchen while the family cooked meals in a toaster oven. "That's no way to live," he says. "I'd rather save up the money and let [a pro] do it."

In fact, Home Depot is capitalizing on that trend. The retailer still tries to woo do-it-yourselfers: Its current ad slogan is "You can do it. We can help." But it's also aggressively cultivating what it calls the "do-it-for-me" segment by pushing installation services. Lately, the stores have been clogged with customers asking Depot designers to plan their new kitchens. In addition to doing tough jobs like installing new cabinets or vinyl siding, the store now sends pros out to install screen doors or garage-door openers. Last year, sales of these at-home services jumped 40 percent over the previous year, to $2.8 billion.

Taking a break from filming at the Concord project, the This Old House crew reflects on the "do-it-for-me" shift. O'Connor, the new host, is renovating his own 1894 Queen Anne Victorian in Beverly with his wife, Kathleen. Their willingness to spend weekends covered in sawdust makes them somewhat unique among their 30-something friends, most of whom are second-generation white-collar professionals. "If you look at the trends, as we had to in business school, the service industries have taken over," Kevin O'Connor says. "These jobs don't lend themselves to being handy at all. You work the mouse and the keyboard and the phone. [As a banker,] there was no component of my job that exposed me to a craft or required me to be handy. It had to be something you did in your spare time, which is a diminishing asset." The best part of his new job, he says, is hitting up Silva and the other experts for advice on his own remodel.

Silva is less alarmed by the decline of the weekend handyman and more concerned about the dwindling number of kids who aspire to be full-time carpenters or plumbers. "In today's generation, I don't see that handing down of a trade," says Silva, whose own children work in graphic design and sales. Even among people who do enter the field, he wonders if they've been well taught. He describes visiting shoddily built new homes. "You hang a picture on the wall, and it won't stay straight it pulls away from the wall because the wall is leaning," he says. "Did the builder not know how to read a level, or don't they care?" When Silva checks out competing home-improvement shows, he watches the way the "experts" handle their tools. He believes some have no clue what they're doing.

As more suburbanites reach for a telephone instead of a wrench when something breaks, people like Dave Lavalle are finding a way to profit. In 1996, Lavalle, now 41, closed his Lowell furniture-restoration business and began advertising himself as a handyman. He got so many calls that within a month he'd hired two employees. "I was surprised how busy it was," he says. "I thought we must have caught an unusual wave here." But it was no fluke. By 1998, he owned 10 vans, and two years later, he began franchising the concept.

Today, there are about 130 Mr. Handyman franchises nationwide, including four in suburban Boston. The average shop has four vans and takes in $350,000 in annual revenue. The service charges $75 an hour, with the average job lasting three or four hours. "Fifty percent of what we do is carpentry minded," Lavalle says, such as fixing rotted house trim or installing a garage door. But their assigned tasks include lots of jobs once classified as typical weekend work: replacing out-of-reach light bulbs, cleaning gutters, installing drapes, changing washers in a faucet, or adjusting door locks. Lavalle says his service is booming for the same reason that maid and lawn services are, and he compares it to the "outsourcing" trend of sending lower-skilled work to foreign countries while Americans toil at higher-skilled jobs. "We're all a little bit too affluent to need to be handy," he says, observing how kids' soccer games now consume the time parents once spent maintaining their homes. When Lavalle attended a vocational-technical school, everyone aspired to build the biggest buildings. "Nobody saw value in repairing somebody's mailbox," he says. But in a post-handy world, it's a nice living.

IT'S JUST BEFORE 80' CLOCK on a brisk March morning in Manchester-by-the-Sea, and Silva is standing on an ocean-view lot, watching five workers frame a home. There are no TV cameras in sight. Today, his company has crews working on seven different projects, from here to Littleton. But instead of picking up a hammer to help, Silva will spend the day driving around the suburbs, supervising jobs and meeting with architects about the upcoming This Old House project.

Before 2001, Silva spent less than a third of his time on This Old House business. But with all the new spinoffs, the TV gig now consumes 80 percent of his time. "I miss the world of hands-on," he says, watching his workers hammer boards. "You get to lose yourself in the world of sawdust. It's rewarding and relaxing." (Later, when I tell Sue Silva that her husband was complaining about spending his days in meetings, she sounds puzzled. "He comes home dirty," she says.)

In a few weeks, Silva's crew will be on-camera again as they start demolition on an 1849 Greek Revival farmhouse in Carlisle, the renovation that will be the main subject of the This Old House silver-anniversary season this fall. In a departure from its usual practice, the production team purchased the property (there will be no homeowners), so the crew get to renovate it as they please and sell it at a profit afterward. Proceeds will go to a scholarship fund for the building trades, a topic dear to Silva's heart.

Like that Carlisle project, the house rising on this Manchester lot is immensely complicated, something no homeowner would try himself. That raises a question: If fewer This Old House viewers are ever going to pick up tools, why are they watching the show? Silva echoes a sentiment long espoused by Morash, the show's creator. Even if you're not going to do a project yourself, Silva says, the series can teach you the language, the concepts, and the latest practices of builders to make you a more sophisticated client. By knowing the lingo, "you can put the professional on the edge of his seat — he'll know he can't cut any corners here," Silva says. And people who try their own small repairs after watching Ask This Old House may discover they have a knack for this work. I remind him of a woman on a recent segment who proved to be a remarkably proficient plasterer. "I could tell as soon as she picked up the tool that she had some talent," he says.

By now, I've heard him use variations of this line — "I can tell right away if someone is handy" — several times. I'm intrigued. I consider myself at least semi-handy: I've renovated two bathrooms in my home, gutting them to the studs, hanging drywall, laying tile, and setting toilets. Admittedly, my finish work looks amateurish, and my measurements, like the Gallup Polls, usually vary by plus or minus 5 percent. I'm certainly less handy than my father or stepfather, but judged against a random population of 30-something homeowners, I think I'm above average. Here's my chance to find out.

I ask Silva to grab me a hammer. He smiles and borrows one from a worker. He walks to a pile of two-by-tens and pulls out two scrap pieces, setting the boards at right angles (like a "T"). He hands me four nails and the hammer and tells me to start nailing.

I'm nervous. I've framed an interior wall out of 2-by-4s before, but I rarely work with lumber this big. I set down the extra nails, hold the boards in place with my foot, and begin tapping in the first nail. After a dozen hits I miss the nail, a moment of high embarrassment. Twelve seconds pass, and I'm still hammering, delivering with each blow about as much force as a metronome. Finally I finish and look up.

Silva's face is a mixture of pity and amusement. "There's no hope for you," he says, only half-kidding. He lists my errors: nails in the wrong hand, misplaced foot so I couldn't see the joint, hammer gripped awkwardly and much too high on the handle. Most grievously, I'd taken 20 strokes to drive the nail home, a study in inefficiency. Silva takes back the hammer. He buries a second nail in two strokes.

"Does this mean I shouldn't take on a big project myself?" I ask.

"You'd better call someone," Silva says.

In a post-handy world, shouldn't we all?

Daniel McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek, based in Boston. He lives in Westborough.

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