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Meet ‘Renovation Nation’ Star Steve Thomas

by Starshine Roshell

When it comes to TV, there’s “reality” and then there’s reality. As host and producer of “Renovation Nation,” Steve Thomas aims for authenticity — even when it finds him dangling from trees. The series, which launched on the brand new Planet Green cable network in June, follows Thomas as he travels the country checking out innovative green homes and building technology.

“We don’t script it,” he says. “When I knock on the homeowners’ door, that’s when I meet them for the first time.” And when you see him personally drilling geothermal wells, standing atop a 210-foot wind turbine or zipping into a haz-mat suit to spray foam insulation into an attic, you can bet your slab foundation the stunt was his idea. Like the time he volunteered to swing from a Bunyanesque Douglas fir tree during a segment shot in Seattle.

“We could have done the scene sitting on the ground and talking to the arborist,” he allows. “But I said, ‘Do you have another climbing harness?’ He looked at me like, are you nuts?” Some might think so. Thomas, who won an Emmy as the longtime host of PBS’ popular home improvement series “This Old House”, has a taste for adventure that belies the “congenial handyman” persona we se on TV.

Raised in Manhattan Beach, Calif., he was an avid surfer who bought his first sailboat at 13. After studying philosophy at a Washington state college, he took a job building sailboats in France. He sailed a 43-foot wooden sloop from England through the Panama Canal to San Francisco.

In the early ’80s, he traveled to the remote Micronesian island of Satawal to learn the ancient art of navigating by using the stars. He published a book, “The Last Navigator,” and shot a PBS documentary on the subject.As a former carpenter — and the owner of an 1836 Colonial Revival house near Boston — his interest in home remodeling is personal. But as an environmentalist, it’s philosophical, too.

“The founding principle of green-ness is stewarship,” he explains. “We don’t own a thing. We’re really just stewards of our planet, our houses, our children.” And since 48 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are from the built environment, he says, “My (goal) in life is to alter the way we build buildings, to change the rules of the game.”

For his part, Thomas just renovated his family’s summer cottage on an island off the coast of Maine, using locally logged and milled timber, recycled rubber tires and recycled wood in the construction. He plans to install solar panels, too. The remodel will be featured on the last two episodes of the “Renovation Nation” season.

The show also features simple rainwater collection techniques, high-tech Nanogel insulation and eco-chic designs like recycled shell countertops. Thomas is inspired by the ideas — and the folks determined to give them a try.

“There are people who are really committed to taking their houses green,” he says. “And they’re not necessarily rich people. They’re just people drawing a line in the sand, saying ‘I’m gonna do something to help the planet. That really encourages me,” he says. “I love it.”

“Renovation Nation” airs at 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday on Planet Green. Check to see if the network is available in your area.

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