A conversation with Ty Pennington
Ty Pennington is a celebrity carpenter best known for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” a show that involved lightning-quick remodels of less-than-stellar homes for families with compelling stories about why they needed a better living space. After taking the grand prize in a nationwide voting contest sponsored by home loan company Guaranteed Rate, Haywood Pathways Center won Pennington’s help for a day to help make their vision of a prison turned to a center for healing a reality.
Pennington took a break from his work on the site to sit down with The Smoky Mountain News and talk about the project, the secret to renovation success and what makes mountain towns so great.
Smoky Mountain News: There were 322 entries in the Guaranteed Rate contest. What did you think the first time you saw this one?
Ty Pennington: I’ve never really heard about anyone deciding to flip a prison, and that’s why I was like, “What a cool idea.” Seeing how many votes these guys got was like, “Wow, this is someone who clearly has a vision.”
SMN: Did you think it would win?
TP: In all honesty, I wasn’t sure. I also thought, “Well, this could be a lot of red tape.” There’s several things that could sort of hinder it from actually happening. We don’t know what kind of condition the place was in before.
How do you make a prison into a warm inviting environment that makes you feel like you’re stepping in the right direction? So there was a challenge there. But I think that what’s great is with a mission and a passion, changing a place from a cold environment to a warm environment is quite easy, and I think that’s exactly what these guys have done.
That’s why we’re going to be doing a lot of quilts and a lot of macramé. And I’m the person to do it myself. I do a lot of needlework. I actually do design quilt fabric — don’t get me started on that though.
SMN: What kinds of challenges could you foresee in turning such an old campus into a comfortable living space?
TP: It’s like going into the [Great] Pyramid and saying, ‘We’d like to put A/C in.’ Well, they didn’t really run pipes for that. You’ve got challenges when building anything that is so much older because the codes were completely different, materials don’t exist and it just makes challenges because things have to be checked off by an inspector.
SMN: How is renovating a prison different than renovating a home?
TP: Chances are they didn’t build it for the most luxury ideas. It’s basically as primitive as you can get because you’re not trying to spoil the prisoners. They may have left out a few key things like proper drainage, partitions, ventilation. It’s not like they were thinking, “Let’s make these guys incredibly comfortable.” Not to mention you’re working with materials that aren’t that easy to work with. Plaster, block, concrete — things that are not the easiest to move from one spot to the other.
It’s going to have a lot of challenges, but at the same times it’s going to have a lot of charm. With any project, it’s about story. I think all homes have a story and I really do like the ones that have had a past life and you’ve kept some elements of it that tell its history when you walk into it. This one is really going to have a great story that one would not have guessed would have a happy ending.
SMN: What’s the secret to success with a renovation project?
TP: The only secret for success is to allow yourself double the time, double the materials and double the labor. Nothing ever goes easy — there’s always going to be a complication.
But, I’m a true believer in that I think some of the greatest creation, some of the greatest art, is done because there’s not enough resources and you’re limited. Some of the best ideas come from when you don’t have all the necessary things to do it but you find a way to do it anyway.
SMN: It’s been a busy day. How is that organized chaos going for you?
TP: It’s been really incredible from the get-go. It started off sort of loading up on a bus that felt like you were going on a trip with the local community, and then you wound up at a great restaurant, The Chef’s Table.
Motivating a community, having people rally and want to do something positive, sometimes all you need is a belief in yourself, that you can do it. What has blown me away is that these guys have really convinced a lot of people that this is going to be a phenomenal thing.
SMN: What have been some standout moments of the day so far?
TP: My moment where I met one of the guys who had been inside [the prison], who has turned his life around and is now volunteering to help someone else go through the same process and get their life back on track, get a job and have the self confidence to go out and not only better his life but find a way to inspire someone else to better theirs. That’s when change happens, is when you’ve gone through the process and you’ve done it and you want to help someone else go through it.
SMN: Tell me a little bit about your impressions of the community from the time you’ve spent here.
TP: In the morning what was really nice was meeting some of the people in the town, in the community and how tight-knit it is. Even the thrift store next door supports the restaurant that feeds the homeless. I think it is a community where people look after each other.
I think that’s what’s really great about a small town here, because in bigger cities sometimes things get a little bit lost. What I’ve learned in the shows I’ve been on is I’ve seen people coming out of their doors and getting to know their neighbors when you have a community project that involves the people in it.
SMN: Had you been to this part of the country before?
TP: I’m from Atlanta so I used to drive up — let’s be honest, the Georgia beginning of the mountains isn’t as beautiful as this ridge — but clearly I’ve been up for the change of the seasons. I have some friends who live in Boone. I actually come up once a year for the Beer City Soccer Festival [in Asheville]. Like all the other players I sweat out all the beer I’ve had before.
This area is really cool. I think people really appreciate the nature around them. It’s kind of neat, I think. In the last 20 years people are really starting to appreciate the beauty of this area.