An interview with Bob Vila: the original do-it-yourself man talks about his work, the construction industry, and has advice for students.
BV: Well, it's kind of ancient history at my age, but the approach I took was to study what was called pre-architecture at the junior college level in Florida. So straight out of high school, I was taking architectural drafting courses along with liberal arts courses and history and everything else. And that was a two-year degree program for an associate of arts in architecture. From there I went to the University of Florida where I switched from the architecture school to the school of communications.
And I did that largely because I was having trouble handling some of the higher mathematics that were required in the architecture school curriculum at the time, this is back in the mid-60s. Nowadays architectural education has a lot of freedom in certain respects to allow you to focus more on where your talents might be, whether it's design or engineering. But I graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in communication science in 1968.
And, after a couple of years of volunteer work as a Peace Corps volunteer, I came up to Boston to pursue an architect's degree again at the Boston Architectural Center, which is a cooperative program that is fully accredited and has a faculty made up mostly of professors from some of the other area schools like the Gund school at Harvard, and the MIT School of Architecture, and so forth. And I attended there for about a year and a half and jumped into business renovating houses right after that, without actually finishing that degree.
ACTE: We've read that your father was self-taught, and that he taught you as a boy about home improvement. What impact did that have on you?
BV: My dad built the house that we grew up in South Florida, starting around 1944, '45. And I guess my earliest recollection is of kind of moving into the not quite finished house. The tail end of World War II meant there were a lot of materials shortages and sometimes things just were not available. And I still can remember as a little kid, we had a bathtub but we had a scratch coat on the walls around it because there were no ceramic tiles available.
I think the impact that he had more than anything was to practice your curiosity and to experiment. And to learn how to do things, whether it's around carpentry or masonry, or just in terms of fiddling around with design. To be an experimenter and to be a student. I mean, I'm 61 years old and I'm still always looking at new solutions, new problems, new areas, new things. It's, I think, the best way to be.
ACTE: Is there a workforce shortage in the construction industry today? How can educators get and keep students interested in the construction trades?
BV: I don't know the answer to that specifically. I know that in certain areas of the country where a lot of people want to live, you don't have enough contractors to go around. So if you look in Sunbelt locations like South Florida, if you look at desirable locations anywhere along the waterfront or resorts and mountains and ski areas and all of that, you probably do have a lack of sufficient talent in the workforce.
And I'm not sure what you can do about it other than make sure that you provide housing for people who want to come and work in the construction trades in those areas. One of the biggest problems is that there's no place for these people to come and live affordably.
ACTE: What training do you think is needed in the construction industry? Degrees, apprenticeships, certifications?
BV: I think apprenticeships should be much more available, and I think certification is a very important thing. Certification and certificates of insurance and all these things should be a requirement before anybody is allowed to enter the building and remodeling industry, really. I think the whole idea of apprenticeships for carpenters and artisans and the people who do all the finish work that's involved in building a house is extremely important.
And I think from the point of view of safety and from the point of view of quality it would be extremely important to have framing carpenters and construction crews that have been through some kind of training and certification program--whether it's at the high school or junior college level, or just entering the workforce. Now this exists in many of the trades like plumbing and electrical work, and it's something that I think would be wonderful to see exist in terms of carpentry and building.
ACTE: What do you think are the top three innovations in construction in the past 20 years?
BV: I've been asked that question before, and I usually list engineered lumber products at the top because we have seen the lumber industry really develop all sorts of engineered wood products that are stronger, and can handle bigger spans and can do things in terms of architectural design that you just couldn't do with regular lumber, dimensional lumber; it can't compare. I think we've also made a great deal of progress in terms of energy conservation and the awareness of the importance of building houses that are energy efficient.
And I think that especially today, with the interest in everything green, we're much more conscious of curbing waste and of recycling materials, and what we build, how we build it, and what kind of products we're using. I'm hoping that this is leading towards a simplification of our housing needs that will help us scale back from the excessive mega housing that's been going up in the last decade.
ACTE: Do you mean simplification in size?
BV: Primarily in size. I think that we have been kind of seduced by this status-seeking house building that creates these volumes that are expensive to heat or to cool, and that are hard to maintain and that require a great deal of money. Everybody has to have a double-height entrance hall for some reason. Yon know, these are all relatively wasteful approaches.
ACTE: With the energy efficiency and the green construction, do you know about training that people would need to go through learning about that?
BV: Well, I don't specifically. As kind of a reporter on the housing industry on the "Bob Vila" show over the years, I've always made a point of trying to introduce materials and methods of construction that answer some of these issues. I'm in my little office here looking at a glass star from the--let me pick it up a minute and see what it says--the ENERGY STAR program, which is a federal program that was started almost a decade ago.
But essentially it's how we've been promoting the use of energy-efficient appliances, windows, roofing materials, standards for insulation, all sorts of different things within the housing industry. So I don't know specifically in the world of training young builders, architects, engineers, etc., how much importance is attached to this; but I assume quite a bit.
ACTE: You called yourself, just a minute ago, a reporter. Do you also think of yourself as an educator, educating your viewers?
BV: Well it's the same thing to a large degree--to inform your viewers is to educate them and to let them know about different aspects of the subject matter. I have been involved in building and remodeling and restoring for over 30 years, and I think one of the pleasant things about such a long career is that I've had an opportunity to touch a lot of different people.
ACTE: What projects are you working on now?
BV: Well, we've just finished reconstruction, restoration work on a big brownstone in New York City, and the business project that I'm most involved with right now is my line of tools. I developed Bob Vila-branded tools in the last year. We're selling them online and on TV on the Home Shopping Network. And we're kind of trying to market a concept that brings a lot of value to the consumer.
One of the things that we're putting together is toolkits--whether it's a starter kit with basic hand tools for a new homeowner or for a youngster first leaving home and having their first apartment or dorm room, or kits that are specific to a particular type of home improvement project, for example, simple things like a picture-hanging kit or a more complicated thing like a plumbing repair kit. And this kit would come with a bunch of tools that are specific to plumbing, let's say, as well as a DVD that gives you instruction on certain basic plumbing repairs and improvements.
ACTE: What advice would you give students who are interested in achieving what you've achieved?
BV: I think that the most important thing for anybody's career success has to do with having a passion, you know, a passion for a particular thing that you want to do. And if you're lucky enough to recognize that you have a passion for hammering nails or for soldering pipes or for doing any of the various things that have to do with building a house, then you're that far ahead of the game. I know that a lot of youngsters get through your traditional high school situations without ever having been exposed to some of these potential areas. I have a cousin whose son was lucky enough to figure out that what he loved more than anything in the world was tinkering under the hood of a car. He ended up applying for and getting accepted into a Mercedes-Benz mechanics training program, and today he's a certified Mercedes mechanic and is extremely happy with his circumstances because he's involved in doing what he loves doing.
And I think, in many cases, people Don't get an opportunity to experiment and to find out what those things are that turn them on, and to develop skills in that direction. That's why I think exposing young people to the possibility of technical education is such an important thing.
For the podcast of this interview with Bob Vila, visit www.acteonline.org/resource_center/podcasts.cfm.