There’s this show on PBS called This Old House that’s been running for something like forty-five seasons. It was on Sunday nights when I was a kid, sandwiched between Oregon Field Guide at 6 o’clock and Antiques Road Show at 8 p.m.
The basic premise is that a bunch of construction workers, along with plumbers, architects, landscapers, electricians and a few others work to renovate an old New England home. With names like Tommy, Jeff, Norm, and Kevin, these middle-aged white guys talk you through the steps of building walls and running electrical conduit. They go visit factories to show you how some of their materials are made, they explain building codes and talk with the homeowners about the tradeoffs between a roof pitches and the impact of three more windows on the south side.
When I think about it now, and even as I describe it, it sounds like one of the many HGTV renovation shows. But I never liked those; there’s something different about This Old House. It’s not a couple pretty faces on House Hunters or Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Hollywood charm. These genuine tradesmen walk through the site and seem to know the names of everyone working there. They sponsor apprentice programs for young tradespeople, give generously to New England communities, and just generally give off Good Dad Vibes. Maybe it’s because I grew up with it, or because the way the contractors explain things reminds me of my own dad, but watching that show just seems to calm me down.
When I came to college, I found that I could stream episodes online; it felt novel to watch the whole house get built in an afternoon instead of waiting a week between laying the foundation and watching the walls go up. There was something nostalgic, maybe, about watching that show when I went away to school. It felt like a little slice of home, and my friends quickly learned that if I had a bad day they could find me in front of the fireplace, watching This Old House and eating peanut butter straight from the jar.
Once or twice maybe, I convinced someone to watch it with me: the reviews were not great. “Too boring,” they said, “why would you watch this?” But that didn’t sway me. With its no drama and the charm of creating something from nothing, I remained smitten.
Recently, I sat cross-legged on the floor, sewing elbow patches into my old plaid-wool camping shirt like some waste not, want not old lady and watched an episode for the first time in years.
As they explained the liquid/vapor makeup of propane in the tank, my brain superimposed thermodynamic statepoints over their diagrams; I found myself nodding along with the explanations about heat exchangers and chuckling at the jokes about battery-free plumb bobs. Who have I become? Was this who I’ve always been?
Now that my day job is Engineer and no longer College Student, I admittedly spend less time watching homes get built through my screen and spend a lot more time on job sites in muddy boots talking to the guys who actually get things built. Sometimes it’s a site walkthrough, sometimes it’s trouble-shooting a surprise issue with construction, sometimes it’s meeting an angry customer and explaining our processes. But no matter the day or the weather, chatting with my crews and my contractors gives me a little warm-fuzzy feeling, a feeling like home and childhood and knowing what I’m getting myself into.
I’ve decided that I like my job for the same reasons that I’ve always loved This Old House. On the outside it may seem boring and mundane, a thankless chore of building and maintaining infrastructure that most people don’t give a second thought. But every day has a new puzzle, and new little piece of equipment or a new design challenge. And every day has people named Steve and Jeff and Aaron—and Meghann and Lindsay and Britni and Sarah—who explain things in their good-natured, blue-collar-brilliant ways and make me feel like I could build anything.
So skeptics be damned—I will keep loving my job and my show for all the things that they are and all the things that they aren’t. At the end of the day, both are exactly what I’m always longing for: the newness of adventure and challenge, with the safety net and support of relationship and experience. And who doesn’t want more of that in their life?
Lillie grew up on a forty-acre hay farm in Central Oregon, making the trek to Michigan to study mechanical engineering and sustainability. After graduating in 2020, she moved to Rochester, NY, where her day job as an engineer for the local gas utility funds her outdoor adventures, love of books, various craft projects, and investment in her new community.