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“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”: Thoughts from an Amazing Collaborative Effort

On July 13, we received an unusual call from executives with ABC’s hit show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” They were looking for a unique new elevator to feature in the show’s upcoming episode to be filmed in Crawford, NY. We showed them pictures of the Vision 830 and they loved it. The only problem was, ordering and installing a Vision 830 typically takes 8-10 weeks and a ton of coordination between the manufacturer, the dealer, the contractors and the installation team. With the week of building and filming just four weeks away, we were on the clock from the start.

Luckily, from the word “go” I experienced the phenomenon of this show — that people from varied trades and all areas of the country with different schedules and commitments come together without hesitation to become part of one big team to get the job done. We worked with the architect to get the elevator added to the plans at the last minute, and had conference calls with the electrician and the project manager to make sure we’d have the time we needed to get the elevator installed correctly.

Visilift, the manufacturer of the Vision 830, pulled out all the stops to get the equipment ready and shipped a week before the project began. Tim Lord, general manager from Nationwide Lifts Carolinas, and Sam DiGregorio, general manager of Nationwide Lifts Oregon, volunteered their time immediately, as did several others who ultimately couldn’t make their schedules work. In the end they were joined by Jesse Simmons, vice president of Visilift; Michael Holcomb, a mechanic from Nationwide Lifts New York; Nathan Lord, a salesperson from Nationwide Lifts New York; and me.

All of us were excited about the prospect of being a part of something so much bigger than one elevator installation. But none of us was prepared for just how amazing the experience would be.

Episode Production and Home Construction, Day 1: The old house is torn down and the new foundation is poured for the Korpai family, whose 5-year-old daughter, Hailey, is a little person. Because her parents and little brother are of average height, the family has been finding it increasingly difficult to make special accommodations so that both Hailey and the rest of the family can function and move through the house independently and comfortably. In addition, Hailey’s parents have taken up the cause to educate people worldwide about dwarfism, serving as president and vice president of the New York chapter of the Little People of America. Ty Pennington and the rest of the design team plan to not only give the Korpai family a beautiful new home, but an attached headquarters for their Little People of America chapter. The headquarters space has a futuristic design, and will feature the Vision 830 elevator.

Day 2: Jesse and Sam arrive on site. We aren’t scheduled to start until 2 a.m. on Day 3, but they want to offer extra help with prep work for the elevator. They make themselves useful digging holes and helping with general carpentry, excited for the coming days of collaboration and support.

Day 3: Tim joins the team, along with Michael and Nathan. The team was planning to begin the elevator installation on Day 3, but the foundation in the elevator location has been delayed. So they keep busy by prepping the elevator equipment and assisting other trades.

Day 4: Sue Siegmann and I arrive on site in the afternoon, expecting to see the elevator being installed, but other delays have forced our team to wait again. The Vision 830 is usually one of the last items to be installed in a house. It requires finished flooring to be in place, Sheetrock, mud, and painting completed. In general, the Vision 830 should be installed in a clean, finished environment. Also, we usually require the home’s electricity and a phone line to be in place. Definitely not the scenario we are facing in this instance.

Still, we needed to get going! Since the location isn’t ready for the elevator yet, Tim and Sam take it upon themselves to move the project forward by installing the subfloor on the lower level. I help the guys prepare the upper balcony for attaching our elevator, but the upper level is still only framed and there is no roof yet. At 10:30 p.m. we make the decision to start building the elevator — without a finished floor, walls or power. All seven of us work until about 1 a.m., getting the skeleton of the unit built. At that time we decide to break into two teams, so we can work 24-hour shifts if necessary. Jesse, Tim and I keep building, and Nathan, Michael and Sam head back to the hotel to get some rest. Working through the night, we build the cab, mount the motor/drums/gearbox, and install the hoisting cables. We call it a day at about 7 a.m.

The week was all about teamwork!

Working all night is difficult under any circumstance, but energy and spirits remain high; the teamwork mentality helps to shrug off the fatigue when it sets in. Plus, the folks who do this show know exactly what it takes to keep people happy and awake. One of the Korpais’ neighbor’s yard has been set up as volunteer headquarters, with a large tent and about 20 large tables for sitting and eating. One wall of the tent is lined with buffet tables, and fresh food is set out every four to five hours. The opposite wall of the test has tables with bins of snack food — cookies, chips, energy bars, and candy, along with coolers of every flavor of soda and energy drink. In the corner is a self-serve coffee station. Parked outside that tent is a Chock-Full-O-Nuts truck with coffee service and hot snacks. And at all times, a handful of people walk around the site with buckets of Gatorade, soft drinks, water, and energy bars. If you’re too busy to go to the tent for a bite to eat, the drinks and snacks came to you. There is no shortage of caffeine and sugar to keep the volunteers going!

Day 5: We have the elevator structure in place, the cab, motor, ropes in place …  but we still don’t have power. We spend the morning and early afternoon installing the controller, encoder, and call stations in anticipation of getting power. Then we wait. And wait. And wait for the power to arrive. My wife, Erin-Leigh, and our infant daughter, Elise, drop by to visit in the afternoon. Sue watches Elise in the VIP tent (children are not allowed on the construction site), which is equipped with coffee service, ice cream, snacks and drinks, a couch and chairs, free WiFi and television. Erin-Leigh gets a grand tour of the construction site as we continue to wait. At 6 p.m., we give up waiting on power, and head back to the hotel. Jesse stays behind to continue waiting.

At 9 p.m., he calls me to say the power is being installed. I have to leave Erin-Leigh and the baby at the hotel and drive back to the site, where Jesse and I work until about 3 a.m. (with a quick break to partake in an amazing buffet by Outback Steakhouse), getting the power hooked up to the elevator and getting it running in automatic operation. At this point, the elevator is 80 percent done. We just need to install the acrylic panels and make some final adjustments. But there are still several areas without Sheetrock, and no mud at the upper level. We can’t install the acrylic until the walls are done and painted, so we’re in for more nail-biting waiting.

Day 6: I spend the morning driving out to a West Marine store to get Plexus, the acrylic cleaner that I prefer to use on our elevators. I pick up some other supplies at Home Depot, and get back to the job site in time to meet our visitors, Lorrie Crannell, finance manager for Nationwide Lifts, and Caitlin Robichaud salesperson for Nationwide Lifts, who’ve come from Glens Falls to see the activity. Lorrie is a big Extreme Makeover fan, so she loves getting this unique backstage pass! Several relatives show up a little later, making it so much more exciting to have family involved. Everyone gets a tour of the site and a glimpse of the elevator. At one point during the early afternoon, Paul DiMeo, one of the show’s main designers, comes by with a video crew. They do a quick skit with some puppets on the upper landing, asking Paul to come up. Paul asks Jesse if he can use the elevator, Jesse gives him the OK, and Paul steps on and rides it up. At this point, the elevator is just a skeleton and a platform… there’s no glass. Still, it’s exciting to see the attention that the elevator is getting. Shortly after, we wrap the elevator in plastic to protect it from the Sheetrock installers.

The elevator inspector shows up a little later, right on schedule — at least, our original schedule for when we had planned to have the elevator finished and ready for inspection. Unfortunately, we are nowhere close to being ready for inspection. He decides to spend the night and do the inspection tomorrow when we’re ready, and we all cross our fingers that we will be.

More hours go by with us waiting and snacking and watching in wonder as the whole project is coming together. At about 9 p.m., the painters leave unexpectedly before their job is done. We simply can’t wait any longer. We unwrap the elevator and start installing the glass, working in two teams — Jesse and me, and Tim and Sam. We work for several hours until we have the majority of the glass installed. Then we call it a day — a day that was probably 5 hours of work and 14 hours of waiting to work.

Jesse Simmons, vice president of Visilift, gives the Vision 830 a try.

Day 7 (Reveal Day): The reveal is planned for early afternoon, but with everyone behind schedule, it is pushed back to 7 p.m. This gives us a bit of breathing room, and we spend the morning finishing up the glass, cleaning it, and doing the final adjustments. At about noon, we go through the inspection. Everything passes inspection, with one request — to add a second light to the cab so there will always be light, even if a bulb burns out. This is great feedback, and not only will it be fixed on this unit, it also will be added in future units.

Just as we complete the inspection, Paul DiMeo shows up with the camera crew to do another video of the elevator. He “helps” Jesse install the last piece of glass on the elevator, and then takes it for a ride, interviewing Jesse about the elevator along the way. When then get to the top landing, Paul notices the elevator inspector. With the camera still rolling, he asks the inspector a couple questions about his opinion, and we’re given a “Thumbs up” from the inspector on camera! What fun!

It’s mid-afternoon and our elevator is operational! At one point, Ty Pennington comes into the room near the elevator, does a quick motivational speech in front of the camera for the volunteers, and takes off. He is probably there all of 90 seconds. We spend the next couple hours cleaning up and making some final adjustments to the elevator. As 7 p.m. draws near, the excitement grows. The place is going wild. Most of the contractors and volunteers are asked to leave the house and join the crowd out front. Jesse, Tim, Sam, and I stay in to tidy up the elevator and help others. People are running around hanging pictures, hanging curtains, putting together end tables, placing groceries in the kitchen, bringing in cupcakes and cookies, finishing painting, cleaning the floors, it’s chaos! I’m asked to help move a kitchen nook table into place, and as I lift it, I notice the paint is still wet! It is spectacular how many people are actively bringing the house together. It reminds me of the end of the children’s story “The Cat in the Hat,” how somehow everything just comes together right before the mother steps inside.

Then we hear the crowd out front yelling “Move That Bus!” and everyone steps it up into another gear. I didn’t know we could move any faster until that chant starts rising; it is pandemonium both inside and outside. Then, all at once, the project managers decide we are done, and we’re shuffled out the back door. It’s a little anti-climatic, not being able to see the bus move, or see the family’s reaction. We just quietly creep away into the night after a hard week’s work.

We walk through the backyard and meet at the food tent where we exchange high-fives and handshakes, grab some snacks and head for our cars. Fifteen minutes after the bus moves and the Korpai family catches their first glimpse at their new dream house, I am back in my car and on the road toward home. The project managers ask Jesse to stay to provide training and support for the elevator. He needs to be available for any questions, and assistance with any special filming requests, so he remains on site until 2 a.m., when the film crew wraps after filming every detail of the big reveal. Jesse sticks around for another full day after the reveal, providing his volunteer work to various projects and walking the family through the elevator usage.

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One month later: I visited the home to replace a button (the led light never worked) and check on the elevator, and I had a chance to talk with Mrs. Korpai. She is very thankful to us for donating the elevator, and to everyone that contributed to the project. There were painters on-site touching up things and repainting areas that needed it — a full month later the contractors were still willing to do small tasks for this project. I was happy to see that the efforts didn’t stop when the bus was moved. ABC made sure the homeowners were happy and the house was in excellent condition. The day I visited was just two weeks before the air date, and Mrs. Korpai was very excited. She had a huge episode viewing party scheduled at a local high school for the big night.

Show night:  The hours leading up to the show were very exciting. Facebook was buzzing with friends talking about the upcoming show. I thought about having a party, but my wife and I decided to quietly watch the show with family, and the show did not disappoint. As usual, the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” team captured the essence of why so many people pulled together for this amazing family. I felt so proud to have taken part in this project; it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

~ Andy Darnley, President of Nationwide Lifts

Andy Darnley beside the finished Vision 830 elevator.