On a brilliantly sunny July day, Concord, Massachusetts, is almost heartbreakingly quaint. The classic old Colonial homes are well maintained, with tidy gardens and neatly painted fences. The street where Jeff and Janet Bernard live is quiet, with the spell broken only by the sudden chatter of young campers spilling out onto a nearby field to collect their backpacks. In the shimmering summer heat, it’s as bucolic an American scene as one could imagine.
While This Old House was at work, however, things were a little different on this block. The whine of saws and clatter of hammers filled the air. Trucks and heavy equipment were coming and going. TV producers and camera crews descended, filmed, and decamped, then descended again. Neighbors strolled by, hoping for a peek at Norm, Tom, and the rest of the crew. Another This Old House television project began, this time turning the old barn behind the Bernards’ house into a cottage for Janet’s parents.
Ask the Bernards about when the project started, though, and they won’t say July of 2003. In fact, Janet Bernard said she can’t quite remember when she and Jeff started talking about it. “There was no Eureka moment,” she said. “I don’t really know where the idea came from — I just presented it as a ‘what if?’ scenario, and we’ve been talking about it ever since.”
Janet’s parents, Len and Jacqueline Buckley, have lived in Concord for 35 years, and their nine-room Colonial was much more than they needed. They knew it was time to downsize, and they’d been looking at their options, hoping to stay right in Concord. A small, low-maintenance condo seemed to make sense, but not only were local apartments expensive, but none of them felt right. After all these years in a neighborhood, the Buckleys thought the condos felt too impersonal, too secluded. They continued to look, and to think about how they could stay close to Janet and Jeff, but in a smaller space, and still retain that neighborhood feel.
It wasn’t until Janet heard that This Old House was looking for its next project that the idea started to go from concept to reality. “The producers were looking for a big project,” said Janet. “I said I didn’t have a big project, but I did have a small one.” TOH saw some big ideas in the small building, and the producers’ enthusiasm motivated the Bernards to get started.
“Getting started” meant getting the Concord Board of Appeals to approve a special change of use permit. That meant producing floor plans, building specs, and historical documents to prove that the barn pre-dated current zoning laws. With the permit in hand, the project could move forward: The architect and construction team started finalizing the plan’s details, the Buckleys started sorting through 35 years’ worth of possessions, and the Bernards started making room in their basement for overflow storage.
“The challenge in downsizing is not the furnishings,” said Janet. “That part is actually kind of liberating. All their old furniture is going to family members or to Goodwill. But the memorabilia, the photos! My father has literally thousands of books. Now they’re moving into a place with a Pullman kitchen, a 12×12 sitting room, and a dining area. No basement. What do they do with everything?”
There’s also the question of family dynamics — things can change when parents and adult children live in close quarters. The two families are very conscious of that, and they had talked about it and prepared for the change.
“We’re a very close family, and we’re together all the time,” said Janet. “We’re a strong matriarchal family with strong women — we couldn’t live under one roof, but we can certainly live within 40 feet of each other. It wasn’t a stretch to think that we could live this close.” Still, she said, they know they’re going to have to respect each other’s privacy, and set some boundaries. Both families are clear that they are not a sitcom: There will be no unannounced dropping in, no uninvited intrusions.
Still, they’ll welcomed the proximity. Jeff gets along well with his in-laws, and 12-year-old Andrew is close to his grandparents. Jeff is a big believer in the concept of the extended family — his grandfather lived with his family when he was growing up, and he sees in this arrangement a chance to do the right thing and help aging parents. “He overcomes my insecurities about it,” laughed Janet.
With the plans in place, Janet was looking forward to the last week before the cameras start rolling. “It would be the calm before the storm,” she said. TV producers were squeezing in their own summer vacations before work began, so she’d have one last week without constant phone calls to answer and decisions to make. That didn’t turn out to be exactly the case: The EarthCam team was at her house for a full day, setting up WebCams and installing the computer system to run them. The landscape team came by to talk about the plans and start choosing plants. Roger Cook came back to set up a temporary area for trucks to park off the street, to minimize the impact of the project on the neighbors. A last-minute question about where the new parking court will meet the porch of the main house required a visit from Tom Silva. The architect called with a question about screen doors. A moving company had to be booked to come empty the barn — which now holds two cords of wood and a decade’s worth of toys, tools, and other accumulated “stuff” — as soon as the first episode has been filmed.
The landscapers left just as the gas company arrived. Andrew called out to his mother from the next room, looking for lunch ideas. “Oh, great,” sighed Janet. “Tell everyone I forgot to feed my child today!”
The calm before the storm turned out to be not so calm after all. We’re hoping Andrew knew of some great take-out places in Concord.