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 December 5, 2011
Silva Happy To Be Man Of Old House

David: Soft-spoken and down to earth, Tom Silva seems an unlikely television star.

In fact, if "This Old House" creator Russ Morash hadn't been so persistent about getting him to be the show's general contractor back in the mid-1970s, the Massachusetts native most likely would have spent his building career happily in the shadows.

Truth be told, it's the hands-on work of restoring old and forgotten houses that gives him pleasure, not the fame that comes with being a part of the longest-running and most-watched home-repair show on TV.

"I live and breathe and die for this stuff," said Mr. Silva, who's been renovating houses since he was a boy and will appear from noon to 2 p.m. today at the 26th annual Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown

Mr. Morash first met Mr. Silva when he hired him and his father to build the original set for PBS's "The Victory Garden" in the parking lot of a Massachusetts TV station. They were also in the middle of a major restoration on an 1845 Greek Revival-style house.

"Russ said he had this idea and did we have any interest in doing it, " Mr. Silva recalled in a phone interview from his home in suburban Boston. "To which my dad said, 'Yeah, if we're not too busy.'"

When the legendary creator of how-to television came calling three years later, the Silvas turned him down.

"But Russ doesn't take no for an answer," he said with a laugh.

Now, Mr. Silva is into his 21st year with "This Old House," whose featured project is a "green" renovation and expansion of a 1926 Craftsman in Austin, Texas.

In addition to the TV program, Mr. Silva also provides his expertise to This Old House magazine and two new additions, "Ask This Old House" and "Inside This Old House."

Mr. Morash, plumber Richard Trethewey and other crew members came to Pittsburgh's North Side in 2002 to film a segment for "Ask This Old House." Mr. Silva, who still has his own contracting business, Silva Brothers Construction in Lexington, Mass., wasn't with them then but has been here before on business.

Considering the area's many older houses, he said water should be one of homeowners' biggest concerns. He's talking about leaky pipes, bad roofs and ill-fitting downspouts and gutters.

"When there are water issues, then there's structural issues, and then mold and mildew issues."

Second on his hit list are hazardous materials, especially ones like asbestos and lead paint that probably pre-date their ownership.

"I'm kind of an old body in that I love old houses and the attention to detail that gives an old house its charm," Mr. Silva said. "But it's more important to pay attention to the things that you can't see, so the things you do see perform and last and let you live in them."

Mr. Silva grew up in a house that was built in the 1700s and has lived for 30 years in a 19th-century, farm-style Victorian.

Longtime watchers of his show, which debuted in 1979 with the renovation of an 1860 Victorian home in Dorchester, Mass., have probably noticed that its projects have grown in scope and cost since then.

For instance, the Austin project took about 5 1/2 months to complete and boasted a $250,000 budget. It features on-demand water heaters, a drip irrigation system and photovoltaic, or solar, cells on the roof along with a gourmet kitchen, composite deck and custom lighting. The house itself grows from a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow into one with four bedrooms and two baths.

Projects must change to keep audiences interested, Mr. Silva said.

"We need dreams," he said.

One thing that hasn't changed, Mr. Silva said, is that the show only features products and techniques that are proven winners. Most of those items, in fact, have been tested on the cast and crew's own homes -- everything from radiant heat to super-insulated windows to floating floors.

"We don't want our viewers to get stung," said Mr. Silva, who has renovated his house three times.

His favorite products are ones that save homeowners money and allow them to live more comfortably, such as radiant heat and foam insulation. And as the current show in Austin demonstrates, he's also a fan of materials that are good for the Earth, especially ones that are recycled.

His favorite show? That's easy. It was when he and the crew rebuilt his brother Dick's Cape Cod-style house in Billerica, Mass., in 1999 after it was destroyed by fire.

With two decades of home repair under his belt, no one could blame Mr. Silva if he decided to hang up his hammer. But he's still crazy about the work and the people who make it all come together.

"I love what I do," he said. "I can drive down the street and look at projects I worked on at age 18, and it's still very gratifying. We are caretakers of these beautiful old homes, and we have to do it right."

"I love old houses and the attention to detail that gives an old house its charm," says Tom Silva.

Source: Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette