The Mystery House

Special to the Star

In my southeast Oakville neighbourhood, I’ve become jaded by the sight of wrecking crews knocking down bungalows to make way for larger homes.

Contractor’s white panel vans are a familiar sight and the sounds of construction are just part of the ambiance. So when a small bungalow became an empty lot one day, I thought “another one bites the dust.”

But when I walked my dogs past the site a few days later, and noticed the foundation formed and poured, I became intrigued by this mysterious house that was being built so quickly.

The plot thickened a week later, when I saw HGTV design show host and author Debbie Travis looking trim and fashionable speaking animatedly to a camera in front of a partially framed new house. When she saw me, she ducked out of view.

The house is posted with No Trespassing signs and a security guard patrols the site at night.

I realized this was no ordinary construction site. And why was Debbie Travis in my neighbourhood?

Most people are star-struck by actors and musicians. For me, it’s the decorating gurus like Travis, Candice Olsen and Sarah Richardson who leave me shaking at the knees.

At the spring Home Show in Toronto my daughter and I waited in a long line to get Debbie’s autograph in her new book, Debbie Travis’ Facelift, Solutions to Revitalize Your Home, while my husband and other two kids stood impatiently nearby.

I wanted to walk over confidently, say “Hi Debbie,” and find out what she was doing here. But the burly guys in hard hats, along with the danger postings and the large “NO TRESPASSING” sign, made me think twice. I headed home.

The next morning, I woke up determined to walk over to the house and introduce myself to Debbie and get the story behind this house. But she was nowhere to be seen.

So, with curiosity as my guide, I walked up to a guy who was putting tools in the back of his van.

“Excuse me,” I began, “but can you tell me what’s going on here? This house is going up really fast and I’ve seen Debbie Travis here with cameras and lights.”

“It’s for a TV show,” he replied. “Debbie Travis and Tribute Communities are building this house in five weeks. It has to be ready by November 12.”

“Five weeks? How is that possible?”

“Well, they have at least 40 people working here every day. The foundation was formed and poured in one day. Twenty roofers shingled the roof in one and a half days. I had 20 of my guys here to wire the house in three days, and I think they plan to have the drywall done in one day. There are also 12 kids here who are being trained to build houses. Kids who are down and out, without jobs–kind of a second chance.”

Seeing that he was exhausted and anxious to be on his way, I said thanks and rushed home to search on the Internet for more information, which I found eventually on Searching under “Debbie Travis” I discovered a letter written to applicants thanking them for their interest in being on her new show:

“Through our online application process and the cross-Canada open casting calls in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Halifax, we have received over 5,000 applications…..The 12 participants chosen for my new show will represent the best of our diverse country.”

I planned to contact my editor the next day with this information but he beat me to it with an email asking me to write about this house and interview Travis. I immediately called Cathy Paine, deputy director, publicity and promotions for publisher Random House, who would set up the interview.

Paine confirmed that this house is being built for a new TV show—From the Ground Up with Debbie Travis—a 10-episode one hour prime-time series for Global airing next spring.

And Travis, with the help of Tribute Communities and master tradespeople, is helping 12 young Canadians—ages 19 to 30–learn valuable trade skills. The young people will be vying for a reward of at least $10,000, which will go to the person judged by viewers to have the most ability and best attitude.

The young workers are even living together while they’re working on the house.

“Once it’s built it will go on the market,” Paine told me. “We hope to get at least $1.5 million for it as the people building it are the tops in the business.”

To get more basic information about the size of the house and permits required, I contacted Shelley Reeds, architectural technologist in the building services department of the Town of Oakville . She dealt with the permit required to build this home.

“The house is huge,” I said to her in a phone conversation. “Were any special variances or permits required for the size or to get it done so quickly?”

“The house is 353 metres which is about 4,000 square feet, and the basement will be finished,” she said. “They did not need a variance for the size. It’s within the size allowed for the lot, but they did need and received permission to work longer hours than usual to get it finished on time. This means there are noise issues but the neighbours are fine with it.”

My final call, before meeting Travis, was to Mark Cohen, vice-president, sales and marketing for Tribute Communities. I wanted to know how they were involved.

Cohen told me that Tribute doesn’t own the home but it is working with Travis’ people.

“We’re part of the fabric of the show,” he said. “Our involvement includes management and guidance with respect to trades and the kids in building the house.”

Knowing that this part of Oakville has some of the priciest real estate in Canada , I asked Cohen why this particular area– where small bungalows on large lots can go for $800,000– was chosen.

“There was a feeling that there was a reasonable chance of uplift of the property’s appreciation,” he replied. “This is a wonderful area where there is not your typical subdivision housing.”

Finally, with my “homework” complete, I was ready to meet with Travis.

But it was not meant to be. We were told that an interview could only take place if the story would be held until next spring, because “we don’t want stories to run until closer to the air date,” said Paine.

For a daily newspaper this is impossible so my interview was cancelled. That’s why I’m writing this piece about Travis without actually talking to her.

In a perfect world, the interview would have taken place and maybe we’d even hit it off so well that she would come to my house for tea and give me Facelift (Travis’ HGTV renovation show) ideas.

Instead, I’ll keep walking my dogs past the site, wondering, like my entire neighbourhood, why there’s a security guard every night and what’s going on when the camera is rolling.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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