It’s 0900 on Day 1 of the operation, and already troops are swarming the target zone. The chain of command has been put in place, materials are being transported in every hour and the surroundings are being transformed into a massive staging area. But this isn’t a military operation in some far-off locale, and these troops aren’t the fighting kind: This was just the first of seven days in the life of a quiet Beaufort neighborhood last month when ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” came to town.
Photos by BO MILBOURN / 33PARKPHOTOGRAPHY.COM
In mid-January, working around the clock for seven days, a virtual army of local professionals and enthusiastic volunteers swept away an old, sick house and replaced it with a two-story, 3,700-squarefoot Lowcountry-style manor for Beaufort residents Bill and India Dickinson and their five children. A 17-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Bill is a staff sergeant currently deployed to Afghanistan; at the Jan. 18 unveiling of his new home he appeared on a large video screen via live satellite link, looking more than ever like he couldn’t wait to get home.
That day was a drizzly, dreary one in the Lowcountry, but it also had a certain soggy serenity about it; the gray skies couldn’t dampen the spirits of the community volunteers and tradesmen whose 24/7 efforts made the build possible. The show’s trademark climactic “Move that bus!” segment, in which the family first sees their new home, was even accented by a Marine Corps flyover.
Staff Sgt. William Dickinson of Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 31 and his wife, India, and five children, Grant, 16; Briana, 14; James, 10; Robin, 8; Sophia, 1, were selected from hundreds of candidates.
WHEN TO WATCH
“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” airs Sundays from 8-9 p.m. on ABC. Producers say the show should air in 6 to 9 weeks.
What requires most contractors at least six months to accomplish took Bluffton-based H2 Builders — and a team of subcontractors, tradesmen and volunteers — seven days of nonstop, acutely focused teamwork. Speed-dating has nothing on this massive maneuver.
“This has brought together not only the community, but also my company and employees,” said Todd Hawk, president of H2, the lead contractor on the project. “We planned for a while and were able to shut down our operations the week of the project. We (had) 30 people on the ground for this. It’s helped us to think more as a team.”
“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” shoots 22 projects per season; the production staff is split into two teams, which are often filming simultaneously in different parts of the country. The Dickinson family was chosen from hundreds in the area, producers said, because of Bill’s service to his country, the family’s volunteer work in their community and the poor condition of their former home.
The old place was woefully underinsulated and moldy; there were also serious electrical and foundation concerns and problems caused by past flooding.
“Mr. Dickinson, who I know a little, is very deserving of this,” said Ashley Hultgren of Lady’s Island, who volunteered on the build. “He’s a very nice guy, and he’s worked hard to get where he is. I was thrilled to be able to pitch in, especially for someone who is serving his country.”
Fellow volunteer and former Marine Jane Kirk said a lot of Marine spouses made it a point to step up. “This is a good way to build positive relations between the Marine community and civilians,” she said. Both Kirk and Hultgren said they rearranged their lives to be able to work every day. “As long as they need us,” Hultgren said.
Hawk became involved after being contacted by the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association, which had been approached by “Extreme Makeover’s” producers. “The association thought of us, and had the producers call me,” Hawk said. “A lot of (builders) have scaled back due to the economy, and this is such a massive project to take on.”
Hawk didn’t think about it long. “It’s a heartwarming story. Plus, I have a 10-year-old son who’s already a die-hard construction nut, and he and I watch construction shows all the time.”
“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” co-executive producer George Verschoor said he was grateful to have found such a local ally. “(Hawk) ‘got it’ right away,” Verschoor said.
But it was hardly a one-company show: Hundreds of companies and organizations donated time, services and materials. “This ‘Extreme Makeover’ project is amazing in the way it brings together all the pieces, people and companies needed to make it successful,” said Anna Ruby, vice president of creative services for J Banks Design, which volunteered interior design services.
William Court, partner with Court Atkins Architects of Bluffton, was also recruited by Hawk and the producers. “(We had) a 30-second conference with our staff, talked about having to work late and what it would take, and we were all in,” Court said.
The show’s team explained to Court Atkins what the family would need in a new home — particularly more space for the five kids — and Court said they had a concept ready in days. “We put four bedrooms for the kids upstairs, and the nursery and the master bedroom downstairs. Then it was just logistics, getting all the permits. The city of Beaufort and its permitting agencies have been totally supportive and gracious. They’ve worked hard on this too.”
It’s not overdramatizing to say that it takes a massive effort to build such a large, two-story home in such an insanely short time. At least a dozen neighbors’ yards were transformed into staging areas for material stockpiling, tent cities and even portable toilet centers. “The producers were very diligent in preparing the neighbors for the impact this would have,” Hawk said. “They go above and beyond to make sure the neighbors are treated well. If someone had a real problem with the crowds and the noise, producers offered to pay to put them in a hotel.”
In such an undertaking, timing is everything and every job is critical. “You have one problem, and two, and the ripple effects can be debilitating,” Verschoor said. Early on, for instance, members of the design team were stuck in the Charlotte airport due to bad weather.
Luckily, help seemed to come from everywhere. Diane Lancaster and Lisa Baldwin served as volunteer greeters at the end of the street where busloads of volunteers disembarked, enduring the early days’ pre-sunrise freezing cold. “We like to think we help put everyone in a good mood as they headed toward the site,” Baldwin said. That’s a lot of mood altering: The duo estimated 400 people trooped by their little outpost halfway through the first day of the build.
Near them were Beaufort policeman and security officer Chris Jones, who traveled with the production crew. As you might guess, security was tight for safety and sanity; appearances by Ty Pennington, Jillian Harris or Xzibit caused ripples of excitement, but no major problems. Jones says the most common breaches of security simply involved volunteers or spectators rambling into construction areas without hardhats, usually preoccupied with food provided by local restaurants and caterers.
A list of some of the hundreds of local companies and sponsors pitched in on the build; for the complete roster go to extrememakeoverbeaufortcounty.com.
- 4M Metals
- A Floral Affair
- Distinctive Granite and Marble
- H2 Builders, Inc.
- Horizon Heating and Plumbing
- J Banks Design
- KPM Flooring
- Picture This Art Gallery
- Palmetto Security Systems
- Robert Irvine’s eat!
- Savannah Hardscapes
- The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa
- World Design Marketing
But a possible brush with fame was far from the reason hundreds came out. Sun City residents Ev and Tom Sellers saw news reports about the project and were moved to help, in part because Tom is retired from the Navy. “We don’t watch much TV, so we didn’t know about the show, but an effort helping a military family sounded worth supporting,” Ev said.
Fellow Sun City volunteer Mike Antonelli pitched in with framing on Friday, and moved materials inside until midnight on Monday night. “The kitchen is awesome. It’s just gorgeous,” Antonelli said. “The family will flip when they walk in that house.”
They most certainly did flip, and after the show’s climactic segments were taped, Hawk and other contractors did a walk-through with the family to make sure they felt comfortable in their new digs, their work finally done. “(This has been) a great opportunity to give back to the community which has given my family so much,” Hawk said.
Court agreed. “It’s strange how this economy has slowed everything down, but not this,” he said. “It shows what we can do in a bad economy when we all pull together.”