A Career in Changing Lives

How Ty Pennington started building houses for other people

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- Posted on Aug 1, 2008

You might have seen me on TV on the show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where we find a family in need and build them a dream house.

It's a role I take to pretty naturally. I'm good with a hammer, nails, screwdriver and a tape measure, and I've got a lot of energy. That's me—Mr. Energy.

My mom would tell you I was always that way. As a kid I had too much energy. Back then doctors didn't know much about attention-deficit disorder, or I would've been diagnosed in kindergarten.

All Mom knew was I was bouncing off the walls. There wasn't a table or chair I didn't think was meant for leaping. I was on a first-name basis with the local emergency room staff. My mind was just as frenetic. I couldn't stick with one thought for more than a nanosecond. Forget about sitting at a desk and studying books.

At my grammar school in Georgia I always ended up in the principal's office. Mom was raising us on her own. I hate to think of all the prayers she said on my behalf. She worked as a waitress at night and went to grad school during the day to become a child psychologist.

One day, as part of her fieldwork, she visited my school and asked if she could study the kid who struggled most in class. "Do you mean that?" asked the principal.

"Yes," Mom said earnestly. "I'd like to see how the child functions."

"Well, you've seen that child already, because the biggest problem kid is yours."

I didn't want to be a problem child. I wished there were some plan for me, some place I could fit in. I just didn't know how not to be who I was, running around like crazy. The only time I felt focused was when I was working with my hands. I loved to build things—chests, toys, forts.

Other kids collected baseball cards; I collected tools. A hammer hung from my belt at all times. If I had a pile of comic books I traded them with friends for tools. And I was the neighborhood's Dumpster diver. I grabbed anything—rusted window frames, doors, molding. You name it, I saved it.

One morning when I was about 10 I looked at our old piano and saw that a leg was loose. Maybe I can build something with it. I took my hammer and started prying the leg off. The screech of the wood rang through the house. Mom came running. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"It'll be okay with three legs," I said. "It doesn't really need this one."

"Ty, go outside," she said. "I'll pack you a thermos and a sandwich and you can go exploring. Burn off some energy."

Mom didn't mean it as punishment—she just didn't know what to do with me. I picked up my toolbox and went. In a corner of the backyard was a pile of old planks and two-by-fours I'd collected. I stood next to the wood and looked up. There were three pine trees that grew close together; I'd been thinking about the tree house I could build. Not a wimpy Dennis the Menace tree house, but a deluxe three-story one.

I'd designed it in my head. If my teachers believed my thoughts were disorganized, well, they'd never seen the blueprints in my head, everything sketched out to the last detail. I'd figured out how a platform could be wedged between the trees. I saw the whole thing in my mind's eye, a perfect design.

I worked all day, sawing and hammering. My friends came by and pitched in. I don't think we even used the tape measure. I just marked things with my thumbnail on the wood. I wouldn't do that today—on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition you'll always see me with my laptop, figuring things out ahead of time.

But what was exciting was seeing how a design in my head could turn into something awesome. I climbed up to the top floor and felt like a king. I could see out over the roofs of the neighborhood! At the end of the day we stepped back and stared up like it was the Empire State Building. It was the greatest tree house Cobb County had ever seen, maybe the greatest in the whole world.

Mom came out to get my thermos and looked up. Her jaw dropped. "Ty, you are something else!" At that moment, I realized that no matter what any teacher said about me, here was something I could do. Something that made me happy and Mom proud. There was a plan for me.

I held on to that. I wasn't stupid. Mom knew it too. God had given me skills that didn't show up on an SAT exam. By the time I went off to college I was diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), and properly treated. But I was still really energetic. I attended art school and worked for a graphic designer in Atlanta.

Then, skateboarding around town, I got discovered by a modeling agency. They signed me up for a gig in Japan. Next I lived in New York, where I worked as a photographer's assistant and did some commercials. No matter where I was, I always made things. I could fix up an apartment with junk left on the side of the road.

Once, my brother and I bought a warehouse with 20 water-damaged pianos inside. Everyone told us to get rid of the worthless things. One guy was ready to take a chain saw to them. "Yo, man, what are you doing?" I said. "We can make great stuff out of that." I cut them up and presto! turned them into chairs, tables, candleholders.

I'd seen how God could use my gifts and turn them into something. Just because I was different didn't mean I couldn't succeed. I kept wondering how I could turn it up a notch and use my talents to really help people. The first step came with an audition for the show Trading Spaces. They needed a carpenter who'd be comfortable in front of a camera, could design stuff and had an offbeat sense of humor (sound familiar?). I got the job.

Suddenly I was traveling all over the United States, fixing up homes. But wasn't there more we could do? I kept thinking about the day I built my tree house. In the morning I was destroying an old piano and driving Mom nuts. By the evening I'd created a three-story gem and my mom had hope for her problem kid and maybe an answer to her prayers.

That's why I wanted to do the reality TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I wanted people to know that their dreams, the impossible things that they had hoped for, really could come true. The people on our show always amaze me. They lose jobs, they face catastrophic illnesses, but they never give up.

At the end of the show, when everyone shouts, "Move that bus!" and the family gets to see their dream house for the first time, I ask them to take a private off-camera moment to give thanks.

We're in the business of making their dreams, their greatest hopes, come true. That's one of the most amazing things you can do for a person, a gift not just from the recipient but for the giver. I never would have guessed that it's what I would do for a living. But then all along I think I've been part of a larger plan. 

Check out Ty's Toolbox Tips.

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