SANTA FE, N.M. —
Home-renovation expert Steve Thomas, who gained fame as a TV host and is now promoting Habitat for Humanity’s model for sustainable housing, says renovating his tiny, winter home on Santa Fe’s east side is challenging.
“For a guy who’s cut his teeth in New England on wood-frame houses and timber-frame houses,” he said, “wrapping my head around mud as a building material has been … “
Thomas’ voice trailed off as if searching for the right word, then he added theatrically, “You can build with mud? Come on!”
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Soon after taking over as host of PBS’ “This Old House” in 1989, Thomas came to Santa Fe to work on the renovation of a house with contractor John Wolf. Thomas said he and his wife and son, then 3, stayed in Santa Fe for a few weeks during the project and have returned at least once a year since.
In 2007, the Boston-based Thomases bought a 1,000-square-foot “fixer-upper” that was partly adobe, partly frame and partly Pen tile. They rented it out for two years, and when the renter left they began to spend their winters there and their summers in a camp on an island in Maine.
“Like most boomers who (have become) empty nesters, we want to downsize, so we’re going from a 3,500-square-foot historic home in Boston to 1,000 (square feet) here,” he said.
Thomas said the Santa Fe house needs a lot of work, is currently gutted, and he’s still considering how best to remodel it.
“You want to restore the house to itself,” he said. “It’s almost as if you can feel the house saying, ‘Oh, thank you.’ Not that I have any mystical feelings about the house talking to you, but they do. You take an old place that sorely needs renovation and turn it back into what it wants to be — that’s the fun part. You see the house within the house.”
Thomas, 59, got a degree in philosophy from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he supported himself as a painting contractor and carpenter. He helped build a sailing ship in France and traveled to Micronesia to research a book about the ancient techniques of star navigation.
He joined “This Old House” in 1989 when its original host, Bob Vila, left, and continued there until 2003. Since then, he has worked on historical pieces for the History Channel, on “Renovation Nation” for the Planet Green Channel and on projects promoting sustainable housing.
YouTube currently carries Thomas’ video about Africa’s largest slum, Kibera, near the city of Nairobi, Kenya, where Habitat for Humanity is helping people build small, efficient, stone structures.
Thomas appeared recently at the Santa Fe ReStore outlet to talk about and show slides on Habitat for Humanity’s international efforts as well as discuss his own experiences with renovations.
“I do actually manage to close the circle,” he said.
He said Habitat for Humanity’s “ReStores,” such as the one in Santa Fe for the past decade, allow perfectly good items that are removed from houses under renovation to find uses in other construction projects, rather than being dumped into landfills.
“How do you live on a planet with 9 billion people?” he asked. “We’re 7 billion now. By 2050, it’ll go to 9 (billion). How do you sustain civil society in that kind of an environment?
“Habitat has got a worldwide model for sustainable housing development that addresses this huge and growing problem of the housing crisis.”