February 2011

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Author: Luke Kerr-Dineen

JANUARY 12TH, 2010
It’s 6 a.m. on a cold Wednesday morning. The bright January sun starts to rise over the north side of Beaufort County, its first rays illuminating an empty home on the outskirts of town. The sidewalks are swarming with people, the roads filled with cars. On the site where a new house will soon stand, an elderly couple hammers nails out of a plank of wood. Stopping briefly to exchange loving glances at one another, the two have worked tirelessly through the night trying to get their jobs done. As their shifts are called to an end, they turn to the person working to their right: a sweat-covered young man half their age and twice their size. They smile at him, shake his hand and say how glad they were to meet. The satisfied volunteers ride the shuttle back to their cars and drive away happy and excited to see the rest of the project unfold.

Things are going well after the first day and a half of Beaufort County’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build, yet the build supervisors, frantically assigning tasks to the next batch of volunteers, are too busy to care. They have one week to build a new house for a family in need. In their minds, things can never go well enough.

Six weeks earlier, William Court and James Atkins, co-founders of the Beaufort County-based architecture firm Court Atkins, were entrenched in a three-hour conference call with Todd Hawk, founder and CEO of H2 builders, Inc. “I got a call from Todd in the middle of the Thanksgiving holiday saying that he needed to meet with both of us the next morning at nine o’ clock,” recalled Atkins, “I was like: ‘Now? William isn’t even in town…Can’t it wait?’”

No, it couldn’t.

“So the next day I’m knee deep in this three-hour conference call,” said Court, “and my wife is wondering, ‘What could be so important to interrupt our vacation?’ Of course, when I hung up and told her what was going on, needless to say everyone was pretty excited.”

The bizarre manner in which Court and Atkins found themselves involved in the EMHE Beaufort project is hardly a surprise when considering the coincidental way they found each other in the first place. The two had attended the University of Cincinnati at the same time, each eventually graduating with honors, but they did not meet until 1995 while both interning at a Bluffton architecture firm. The two became friends, opened a joint venture a few years later, and now they employ interns from the University of Cincinnati pool from which they were drawn.

Yet the partners were quick to note that the excitement which accompanied such a high-profile invitation soon subsided amid the realization of one harsh reality facing their industry today: The economy is still hurting. State-wide unemployment rates have been setting record highs while housing prices have dropped to record lows. The economic downturn of 2007 affected both Court Atkins and H2 Builders—people just haven’t been building as many houses.

Working their way out of the mess Wall Street had started, Hawk, Court and Atkins had now stumbled onto a project that required them to donate labor, materials, time, energy and all their creativity throughout the holiday season until the house’s slated January completion date. To make matters even more challenging, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition had just finished a build in Savannah a month earlier. The fear was that the same show in Beaufort might be impractical or perceived as unoriginal by the surrounding community.

“There was probably a flurry of second thoughts,” conceded Court, “but James and I just sat down with our staff, told them what was on the table and asked for their input. They were unanimous in wanting to do it. We all just agreed that the joy of changing one family’s life forever, in the end, outweighed everything else.”

Hawk had his architects—they would start working immediately— and now he would start enlisting the help of the other 50 or so sub-contractors needed to make a dream project like this a reality. Next he made calls to three Beaufort County-based companies: Grayco, J Banks, and World Design Marketing. They each came aboard shortly, and three more essential pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Grayco agreed to supply and lead the installation of lumber needed for the home. “We just believe in paying it forward. We know how good this community is, and that what goes around comes around,” said Grayco general manager Ben Tomilson. “Our only goal is to do good for this family so they can get the happiness they deserve.”

J Banks Design Group, a Hilton Head Island-based interior design firm, started in 1986 by Joni Vanderslice, signed on next. Named one of the fastest growing businesses in South Carolina in 2010, and with a diverse business portfolio boasting projects all over the country as well as in Italy, France, and Spain and an in-house design library among the biggest on the East Coast, J Banks has been left largely untouched by world-wide recession. The task of furnishing the EMHE VIP tent was more an opportunity for this thriving local company to continue their longstanding tradition of using their good fortune to give back. Since 2003, J Banks has donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars to local charities and has also established a now-thriving orphanage in Tanzania titled “The Valentine Project.” For this local firm, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Beaufort County was just another way to give back.

The call to World Design Marketing was a no-brainer for Hawk. The award-winning local advertising and marketing firm, founded by former Disney marketing director Wayne Johnson, has hit several home runs for Hawk and H2 Builders over the years. This request however—to act as the organizational hub, marketing and public relations arm and the official voice of the build—would require a major commitment from the WDM staff. Whether it was members of the press wanting to talk to Hawk, companies who wished to help sponsor, or interested citizens who wanted more information, WDM would be the place to call. Branding, website, print ads, speech writing, press releases, e-mail blasts, logos, slogans, banners, T-shirts, daily Facebook and Twitter updates, would all be produced by World Design Marketing staff members donating their time and marketing savvy to EMHE Beaufort County cause.

Just three weeks after Hawk was approached about the planned Beaufort County build, an official announcement was made to the public. “Everything moved so fast,” said Susan D’Anna, account manager at WDM. “When people watch the show, it’s natural to think that there’s a ton of planning going on behind the scenes, but it’s really not like that. Everything comes together very quickly and we had to be on top of our game.”

Once the announcement was made, people from Beaufort County and beyond were flooding the website with volunteer applications; companies from all over wanted to give anything they could. Chef Robert Irvine, Food Network star and Hilton Head Island resident, was in the middle of filming his show: Dinner: Impossible, when Wayne Johnson contacted Irvine about EMHE. “I wanted to get involved from the second I heard about it,” Irvine said. An avid participant in the renowned Make a Wish Foundation and a proud veteran of the Royal British Navy, Irvine said he fell in love with the family from the minute he heard their story. “We all have struggles in life,” Irvine continued. “It’s not a question of if, but when, and there’s something redeeming about stepping up and giving back and helping others. We’re all just custodians of this planet, and spending a little time giving back makes me feel as if we’re all in the same family, and that no matter what, we can get through any hardship. I’d like to think that if I ever fell on hard times, I would be able to depend on the people around me to help me out, too.”

On January 4, 2011, more than a thousand people packed into the LowCountry Community Church for the EMHE Pep Rally and heard for the first time that Chef Robert would be hosting a gourmet dinner fundraising event for the family, themed Dinner: Possible. The proceeds from the soon-to-be sold-out event would be used for the mortgage and maintenance on the new home.

One of those men in the pep rally audience that night was Mike Covert, CEO of the Covert Aire, a local air conditioning repair company. As he listened to Chef Robert and the excitement of the roaring crowd around him, Covert made a personal commitment to help with the project in any way possible. Founded in 2007, Covert Aire is a young and growing company. Providing the air conditioning for the EMHE home was simply outside the realm of possibility. The company is much too small, and Covert Aire doesn’t even do air conditioning installation; they specialize in repairs. Still, Covert felt strongly that he had to do something—contribute to the cause in some way—so he walked outside after the rally and bought more than $2,000 worth of tickets to Dinner: Possible. Eventually, Covert Aire also became an official corporate EMHE Beaufort County sponsor. Why? “Simple. It was the right thing to do,” said Covert in his humble southern drawl. “What an unbelievable experience; why would we sit and let something like this pass?”

The perfect embodiment of what Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is all about.

JANUARY 11TH, 2011
On Tuesday, Ty Pennington and his crew ambushed The Dickinson Family, and the site for the newest Extreme Makeover was revealed: 45 Mystic Circle, Beaufort, SC. Marine Staff Sergeant Bill Dickinson is in his 17th year of service for the United States Marine Corps and has been deployed in Afghanistan since early November, 2010. His wife India and their five children are left behind trying to live in a flood-destroyed home with a cracked foundation and unhealthy mold invading every wall. The house is un-sellable, and with each day in the house, the Dickinson children get sicker.

Ordinarily, a standard home building project—from conception to finished project—takes between eight to ten months. The client calls an architect to start configuring a layout. The builders would be involved throughout the process and would start work as soon as the house blueprint is fully finalized, usually around the three-month mark. The whole process is designed to be a very formulaic, organized and efficient one—every step executed according to a specifically arranged plan.

The plan for the EMHE build was slightly different. The philosophy was simple: Get in and get it done—fast. “We’ve had some pretty demanding clients before, but no one has ever asked me to build a house in a week,” said Hawk. “It’s not like we can move the bus and then explain to the family why we didn’t have time to get the roof on.”
The EMHE production crew demolished the Dickinson’s home four hours later than scheduled, and the race to catch up was on. Clean-up duty extended into the night, and construction started in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Hawk, Court and Atkins were on site day and night, closely monitoring and recording every movement the blue-shirted volunteers were making. There was no order to the chaos, and yet it all got done, smoothly and seamlessly. The house’s wiring was being installed the same time the walls were being built; the windows were installed before the roof was finished—all was according to plan.

David Justini walked into the construction beehive on Friday evening, day two of the build. His company, Porch Outfitters, had three porches to install on the 4,000-sq.-ft. house. The standard timeline for a project like this: two days. The timeline allocated to Porch Outfitters to complete the project: less than 12 hours. “I’m just loving every second,” said a defiant David Justini earlier that day. Justini had been lured into the project earlier than most and seemed more and more confident as his time to work drew closer. Three porches in a few hours? That was easy; Greenhouses? Now those were difficult.

“We’re going to have so many men working on this lot, there’s not a doubt in my mind we’re going to be done in time,” said Justini. His prediction proved true. When he and his crew packed up their tools, they left in their wake three beautiful porches the Dickinson family will surely enjoy for years to come.

“It’s just good to know that we helped do something good for a member of our community,” Justini said. “I’m honored to be a part of it.”

JANUARY 18TH, 2011
The bus moved on the Tuesday following the family ambush, the mold-ridden house with the cracked foundation at 45 Mystic Circle had been replaced by a stunning, two-story Lowcountry masterpiece. At one point in the build, construction had been almost a day behind, but somehow, it all managed to come together. When she saw her family’s beautiful (and healthy) home, an overwhelmed India Dickinson thanked God. An exhilarated Todd Hawk hugged his wife and son before shaking the hands of those around him. The crowd cheered, the Marines roared, and the Dickinson children wept with joy.

It was a good day in Beaufort County.

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