We’re kicking off our interview series with the host of This Old House, Kevin O’Connor. Six years ago Kevin was working in finance but was also an avid DIY homeowner intent on renovating his 1894 Queen Anne. His unlikely ascension to the “dream job” as host of This Old House has become legend. “In Kevin, we found the perfect mixture of optimism and energy, two ingredients an old house owner must have to survive” says Russell Morash, creator of This Old House.
Nominated for an Emmy award in his debut season, Kevin is currently hosting his 7th season of This Old House and Ask This Old House as well as his first season of co-hosting This New House.
C&H: Your casting as the host of This Old House was very serendipitous, can you please share this story?
Kevin: It’s a remarkable story and even five years later I’m still surprised by it. My wife and I bought our first house five years ago and it was real fixer-upper. It needed everything, which is just what we wanted. It didn’t take long to get in over our heads though and after several months of working away we emailed This Old House for some advice. It seemed like a logical thing to do since I grew up watching the show and have always been a big fan.
Remarkably This Old House didn’t just respond to the email they came to our house and filmed a small segment for the TV show (for Ask This Old House to be precise). My wife and I were thrilled. I got to meet the crew and Jim Clark, the show’s painting expert and Tom Silva. We all know who he is. After half a day of filming and having a great time the crew left and I thought that was the end of it. I took my picture with the gang, cracked a beer and called some buddies to tell them about my foray into TV. The next day I put my suit back on and returned to my job as a banker.
About three months later, completely out of the blue, a This Old House producer called and asked if “I wanted to help with the show.” I had no idea what that meant and he was cagey about it but I figured I had such a good time when the crew was at my house I had nothing to lose. So I went to the studio for a meeting, then to one of Tommy’s job sites for another meeting. And then just like that they asked me to be host of the two most popular home improvement shows on television.
Bizarre. But I never looked backed.
C&H: How has your life been most impacted by your career change as host of TOH? Besides your DIY IQ going through the roof.
Kevin: Day to day it’s just a job. You have to get up, work, travel, work some more and always fight to put out a great product. That weighs on you when you inherit a legacy and don’t want to be the guy to screw it up.
I say that because the biggest impact on my life is how the show has changed my life day to day. It’s a job for sure, but it’s also a great one. This job allows me to be creative, it challenges me, I learn from it every day, and I have great exposure and access to things I care passionately about. And I work with a team that cares passionately about those things as well.
This might sound trite but the fame part, the being recognized in public, being asked for your autograph, getting a good table at a restaurant, all of that is fleeting. It quickly becomes background noise. It doesn’t satiate, or fulfill any part of me. Having the opportunity to work and to create is what excites me. And now, thanks to this job, I have that opportunity every day I show up at the office – or the job site as the case may be.
C&H: Do you have a favorite House Project and what did you like most about it?
Kevin: I’ll always have a warm spot for my first project, the little barn conversion in Concord, MA. It was simple, elegant, and thrilling to do since it was my first. But my favorite of all time is the Carlisle project which we did the next year and was in celebration of our 25th anniversary. The project was huge. There were three buildings involved; we renovated one, completely rebuilt another, and converted a third from a working barn to a magnificent living space.
I loved the scope, the challenge, the fact that we spent longer than usual on the project (a full season of 26 episodes rather than the usual 18), which allowed us to dig deeper into the stories. And I loved the fact that we owned it, and weren’t working for a homeowner with a real life budget. Owning the property allowed us to build our dream house with all the bells and whistles, which makes for great TV but is also a lot of fun.
I’ve worked on six projects since and Carlisle is still my favorite.
C&H: How are things coming along in New Orleans? What is TOH’s philosophy towards the rebuilding of N.O.?
Kevin: The New Orleans project is tough. There’s a labor shortage, problems with infrastructure, and everything seems to take longer in NOLA. We’ll get our project done but not without some incredibly hard work from our producer who is making miracles happen every day. And of course the craftsmen doing the work are the ones making it possible. When we do a project out of state we rely on our local team for everything.
Our philosophy? I’m not sure we have a company philosophy on New Orleans. It’s a good project and a great story. That’s all that matters.
That said I’m sure everyone on the crew has their own opinion of the project and the significance of being in New Orleans. Personally, I don’t get caught up in the politics and shouting about what should and what shouldn’t get rebuilt. When I met the homeowner and heard her story I was on board. She grew up in the neighborhood. She bought the home and spent a year fixing it up with friends while living in it.
Then she took on six feet of flood water after the levies brook and all her work was destroyed. She spent two years fighting to get back into her house, raising money, and putting a plan together to rebuild. Now, she has the help of This Old House and we’ll make sure her new house respects the historic nature of the original structure and her neighborhood. And along the way we’ll tell stories about individuals rebuilding their houses and teach people about New Orleans architecture and building styles.
I’m on board for that.
C&H: What is your take on the growth of online DIY sites especially independent publishers such as ourselves or Houseblogs.net? Do you ever refer to any particular online resources besides ThisOldHouse.com?
Kevin: The growth in DIY is remarkable. On the one hand I love it because I think it’s vindication for all of us house lovers and do-it-yourselfers. There are a lot of great shows and web sites out there that never existed and that’s great.
On the other hand there’s a lot of crap out there too. I can think of a dozen shows and web sites that wouldn’t hold my interest for a nanosecond.
C&H: How close are you with the other guys and is there anything you can share about them that the TV viewers don’t know (not too embarrassing of course).
Kevin: The five guys are tight and I’m honored that they let me into their little family. They’ve all been together for 20+ years and I’m still the new guy. But despite that they made me part of the team from day one and now we’re tight friends.
Remarkably there aren’t any great secrets or revealing tidbits to share because each one of the guys is as down to earth and as regular as they come across on TV. Honestly, what you see is what you get, and I love that. After all this time and all this exposure each one of them is unchanged, approachable, humble, and dedicated to their craft, and I don’t mean just the craft of making TV. I mean their crafts of carpentry, plumbing, landscaping, etc. They are great role models as well as friends.
C&H: Can you share any particular remodeling/renovating trends you are seeing and which have the most relevance?
Kevin: The single biggest trend in renovation right now is “green”, however you define it. It’s as if we’re in at perfect storm of consequences. People are aware of rising fuel prices, global warming, the resources our homes consumer and the impact that consumption has on the environment. That may seem like a predictable answer but it’s a revolution, for sure.
C&H: What will it take for the green building movement to become more widely accepted?
Kevin: Instead of the practitioners pushing these ideas now the consumer is now pulling them, and I think that is a much more powerful force.
And the field is only in its infancy. I think it’s impossible to predict what forms, technologies, or conventions will emerge as winners. But I will predict the movement is here to stay. The American consumer is a powerful force.
C&H: What stamp do you feel you’ve put on the show that may be different from your predecessors?
Kevin: Approachability. The job of the host is to ask questions and to get great information out of the craftsmen who have spent a lifetime accumulating it. It’s not to become an expert on everything myself. That would just be bad, fake TV.
I have great respect for the guys I work with and I hope that comes though to the viewer. Despite our friendship and closeness I still know they are the real pros and I try to get as many great lessons from them and then get out of the way.
C&H: How is your own Victorian fixer-upper coming along?
Kevin: Slowly. But we’re getting there. My wife and I have been working on it for five years and in a few months we’ll be done with Phase One, which is most of the necessary improvements. We’ve redone the kitchen, two bathrooms, turned an unfinished attic into three bedrooms and a bath, rebuilt the porch, an office, a playroom and a laundry room. We replaced the heating system, most of the electric and plumbing, and a lot of the old plaster. We reconditioned all the windows and tackled the landscaping. And we spent twenty grand to have the place painted. I’m getting hives just writing this.
It’s been and continues to be a great learning experience and rewarding. It informs my performance on the show, makes me a better interviewer and gives me a better respect for the real craftsmanship that we show on This Old House.
It also has been and continues to be hard and frustrating. There have been weekends when I’ve wanted to reach for my checkbook and pay to have it finished so I could play with my three year old son or spend more time with my wife – not discussing the house.
But I’m committed to finishing. Hopefully that will be soon.
C&H: What are your interests outside of Home Improvement?
Kevin: Would you believe finance? I love it and miss it sometimes. I used to be a corporate banker and loved working with clients and helping them with their capital structures and putting together deals. I was a deal junky and still read the Wall Street Journal everyday. It’s almost like the sports page to me.
O.k. that was weird.
I also like golf and try to play as much as I can, which isn’t enough. And I love being at the beach with my family, both immediate and extended. We’re a beach clan and any activity within a whiff of salt air is fine with me.
And travel. I’ve been to about twenty countries in my life and would life to get to another twenty. Right now it’s hard with a little child at home but eventually we’ll get back on the road. Russia and China are high on my list.
C&H: Can you share your most important DIY tip? Learned before or during your time with TOH.
Kevin: It will take longer and cost more than you think.
It will cost more and take longer than you think.
How else can I say it? Remember that, adjust your expectations, and you’ll be fine.
C&H: Well said, Thanks Kevin.
This spring you can watch Kevin and the rest of the This Old House crew as they rebuild an 1892 New Orleans home of a fourth-generation Lower Ninth Ward resident, that was damaged by hurricane Katrina.
photo courtesy of This Old House and Tracey Powell