'This Old House': Now You Get to See the LA Project

Today's cuppa: Barry's Irish Breakfast tea

TOHLAProjectNormAbram1.JPG On Thursday , KOCE -- now the lead PBS station in Southern California since KCET cut ties with the Public Broadcasting System -- started airing episodes covering the "This Old House" project that has been ongoing in L.A.

(For viewers of KOCE -- now rebranded PBSSoCal -- the episode repeats on Saturday, from 3:30-4 p.m. PT)

As Cuppers know, HCTV has been all over this since the beginning -- click here and here and here for set reports and photos -- and now everyone can see what's been happening. A lot of PBS stations started carrying the new episodes on Thursday and likely more will roll in over the weekend. Check local listings for time and date in your area.

Here's my syndicated feature story, which came out this week ... and remember what master carpenter Norm Abram (left) always says, "Measure twice, cut once!"

'This Old House' sets up shop in Los Angeles' Silver Lake

East of Hollywood and northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the trendy neighborhood of Silver Lake clusters around a reservoir, with many houses packed tightly on narrow, hilly streets.

For the last few months, a Spanish Colonial Revival house on one of these streets has been ground zero for PBS' venerable home-renovation series "This Old House," which is tackling a Los Angeles project for the first time in its 30-year history.

Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 27 (check local listings), TV fans can watch host Kevin O'Connor, master carpenter Norm Abram and the rest of the Boston-based "TOH" team, along with Los Angeles-based design-build firm Home Front, start adding 750 square feet - comprising a second floor, larger kitchen, family room, and two bedrooms and baths - to the 1,500-square-foot 1930s home, which boasts a water view out the back.

It belongs to Kurt Albrecht and his wife, Mary Blee, who both work in the entertainment industry and whose expanding family necessitated more room.

"It goes well," says O'Connor on the job site in October (the wrap party is set for early February). "You've seen our little gem here in Silver Lake. This is quintessential California - red roof, clay tiles, stucco walls, earthquake prevention and hillside fire prevention."

In the early days of the show, when renovations were more modest and technology not as advanced, owners could be on site providing "sweat equity." Now local contractors do the work, with help and advice from the "TOH" experts - who also get to learn new things themselves.

"We did a whole scene on the first two steps of four on the exterior stucco," says Abram a few weeks later on the site. "They can now really fly over the next couple of weeks. When we come back in January, hopefully, we'll see the final two steps.

"It's just clean. I wish we could do more stucco in New England."

But just because the homeowners aren't swinging a hammer doesn't mean they're not part of the process, and that's where on-site executive producer Deborah Hood comes in.

"At times," she says, "it seems like a psychology degree would be very useful on the job site. In some cases, the homeowners have thought about the renovation for a long time, planned it, but once you actually start building ... .

"When they sign up with us, they commit to a schedule. We're not a miracle makeover show, but it does move right along. There are at least a couple of months shaved off this timeline, and they had to commit to not a lot of change orders."

Luckily for the homeowners and "This Old House," Home Front keeps a designer on staff.

Perched on a chair between contractors' trucks at the curb, in-house designer Nancy Ganucheau says, "The way I work with the company is, I come in at the beginning, and I work up a design with the client, and I work up the code issues.

"That's (company owner) Steve Pallrand's dream, to have the design integrated with the construction. It also means that all through the design process, they're doing pricing, so there are no surprises."

Pallrand joins the conversation, saying, "Often architects or designers come in, and what they've been taught is to impose their will on the design. We try to work with the existing house.

"Whoever designed this thing did a really good job. It's beautiful. We don't want to overwhelm it."

Even when O'Connor, Abram, Ganucheau and Pallrand aren't on the job site, site supervisor Angel Leon (below) is. He's going to become a familiar face to "This Old House" viewers over the course of the project, and he's also figured out how to integrate with the demands of making television.

"The camaraderie with everybody has been the funnest part," he says, taking a two-minuteTOHLAProjectContractorAngelLeon1.JPG break from working. "It's a very relaxed atmosphere. It's not all tense, with everybody running around, trying to make something into what it really isn't.

"Basically, they come in, and we get to do our normal thing, on a daily basis, and they accommodate to us."

As to whether he's prepared for TV stardom, Leon says, "Um, I'm not prepared. My family may be, but I'm not."

He's also gotten a taste of the affection and respect that the show's viewers have for those who work on it, especially Abram.

"That's what I've noticed," Leon says, "traveling around with 'This Old House,' with people coming from long distances, just to see Norm. 'Where's Norm?' It's all about Norm, absolutely.

"He's special. He does have a ton of knowledge. I've got to watch him work a little bit, and watching him talk about stuff, is impeccable. There's nobody who has that knowledge, unless you've been doing it for 35, 40 years."