This Old House Cast Reflect on 40 Years of Life Lessons and Home Renovations

We sat down with TOH master carpenter Norm Abram, general contractor Tom Silva, plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey, landscape contractor Roger Cook, host Kevin O’Connor, and show creator Russ Morash—those familiar faces shown here—to share memories, find out what they’ve learned over the years, and get an idea of what keeps the hits coming

“Whatever your budget, whatever the project, plan for surprises.”
—Tom Silva

“Tailor your investment to your longevity in the house,” Tom says. If you’re going to move in five years, get some nice appliances, paint, and maybe refinish the floors. But if you’re sticking around, Tom advises homeowners to spend money on “the stuff you don’t see”—robust framing, proper flashing, extra insulation, high-efficiency systems. “Otherwise you’re going to end up having to deal with gaps in trim, doors that don’t close properly, rot, drafts, and high utility bills.”

In fact, his devotion to quality is what landed Tom on the show. He had told Russ, whom he knew from growing up in the same Boston suburb, about a top-notch custom cabinetry company out of Maine, whose product he was installing on one of his jobs. The year was 1986, and “I’d been telling Russ for years, ‘No way, I’m never getting in front of one of your cameras.’ The next thing I know, they’re coming to do a scene about this kitchen, and I’m setting the room up for Norm to come in and shoot. Then Russ walks in and pins a microphone on me.” Thirty-three years later, the microphone is still part of his world. “Which is fine with me,” says Tom, “because if I hadn’t been a contractor, I’d have been a teacher, which is what I get to be on the show.”

Another thing that Tom has observed over the years: “Be careful not to bring too many people into the mix. Take the professional advice of your designer and your contractor, plan out the project as carefully as you can, but beware of listening to your friends, relatives, and neighbors.” He’s found that they sometimes bring their own agendas to a project, and often late in the process, leading homeowners to ask what Roger calls the most expensive question on a job: “Can we change that?”

“The best way often isn’t the easy way,” Tom says. That applies to “the stuff you don’t see,” like insulation, air sealing, and high-efficiency HVAC equipment, as well as things you see every day. Referring back to the Manchester-by-the-Sea project, an extensive restoration of a Shingle-style beauty, he recalls how the most important view in the house—from the kitchen, across the dining room, and out to the harbor—was going to be compromised if the house’s original ceiling height was retained. He spoke to the owners and got their blessing for the crew to stiffen each existing ceiling joist with a thin strip of steel and a new, narrower joist of engineered wood—a flitch beam. They then shaved down the original by a crucial couple of inches, raising the ceiling and “making a huge difference in how the room felt and how the outside came in.” It took about three extra days of work and has paid off on a daily basis ever since.

Similarly, he made sure the ancient Acton Colonial, circa 1710, looked right after it was re-sided. How? By tapering all the clapboards so that the eye sees them as parallel, rather than skewed by the underlying out-of-square building. More recently, when he saw how a newel post in the entry of the Belmont Queen Anne was being extended to the ceiling to support a beam—a look that was not historical, and would have blocked critical sight lines—he devised a way to transfer the load elsewhere, allowing for a classic newel and a clear look into the house.

The fun never stops. Ever since Silva Brothers Construction showed up on a This Old House job site, a tradition of pranking the television production assistant has been solemnly observed (for more, see page 12). However, it’s not been a one-way street. Asked about their favorite TV filming take of all time, everyone on the show agrees that it went down one late afternoon in the fall of 1991, in the kitchen of the Wayland House. Tom was enlarging and reframing a window opening to accept a new replacement unit. His assignment was to explain to Norm and host Steve Thomas that “good building practice tells us that when we remove structure, we have to put it back.” The scene started with Tom’s brother Dickie cutting a short piece off the end of a 2×4; then the guys would walk in and start talking as the camera followed them to the window opening. “Good building practice tells us that when we remove structure, we have to put it back”—Tom simply could not get that line out. Over and over the scene was broken, and a retake started. After a while, the pile of cutoffs on the floor beneath the saw grew; sometimes the scene would break as soon as it began, as Dick couldn’t keep a straight face. “I knew I was in trouble,” Tom says, “when Russ went and got a chair.” By the time it was a wrap, the sun was setting and the scrap pile held 17 pieces.

Notable Advances in Building Technology the Last 40 Years | Tools

The first cordless tools had brief run times, minimal power, and long recharge times. But lighter, smaller, and more powerful lithium-ion tool batteries, coupled with highly efficient brushless motors, made it possible to cut the cord on almost any electrical tool, including table saws and compressors. Now these batteries are even replacing the gas engines on chainsaws and lawn mowers

“They don’t build them like they used to.” At This Old House, the reply to that curmudgeonly complaint is “That’s right. We build them better!” And that’s due in no small part to the inquisitive, adaptable contractors at the heart of this venerable TV show. When they find a product or material that performs better, lasts longer, and still looks good, or when they find a tool that enables them to work faster with less effort and without compromising quality, they’re quick to make it their new standard going forward.

Shown: Tom Silva’s favorite drill/driver, a Festool CXS, is powered by a 10.8-volt lithium-ion battery, has a variable-speed motor, and weighs just a bit less than 2 pounds.

“The nice thing about battery-powered tools: no cords to get tangled, hung up, cut, or unplugged.”
—Tom Silva