HGTV’s Chip Wade Shares Lessons in Renovations

Even a master of home design like HGTV’s Chip Wade admits there are projects he wishes he could redo. The key to a successful renovation, Wade says, is coming up with an authentic, personal cost-effective canvas before putting together that dream home Pinterest board. Make It Better caught up with the Atlanta native and host of Elbow Room at Lewis Floor & Home in Northbrook, Illinois last week to talk structural engineering, family, DIY projects and how to renovate wisely.

Make It Better: You began building at a young age with your father; what was your favorite project to work on with him?

Chip Wade: We were renovating our house, and it’s the first project I really remember doing. I was 6 years old, and there’s a picture of me running a chop saw. I have a 7-year-old son now and I’m like, holy smokes! You know? That’s really dangerous. But we always had a workshop and he [my father] taught me how to use tools… how just a little bit of effort can really go a long way. From a very early age, I started becoming aware of the types of things that we could do, and I just ended up falling in love with it, whether it was renovating houses, building doghouses… you name it. Just always pressing yourself a little bit beyond what you thought you could do yourself.

At what point did you realize you wanted to make this your career?

I was actually a structural engineer at the time I got cast on the series for HGTV; that was approximately 10 years ago, and I just loved to make things. I studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, so I loved more of the analytical side of engineering things, but I also loved designing construction sites. I basically cold-called a custom builder in the southeast and became a structural engineer for them. That’s really where I learned the art of economizing space – how can it structurally be efficient, how you can create the canvas before the styling ever comes into play. I have a real strong desire to make things personalized. When I started with HGTV, I really was able to completely focus on the home and lifestyle category. Since then I started my own architecture and design firm; we service clients all over the world.

Had you ever considered going into another field?

Oh man. Going into another field? I’m always open. I’m a problem solver, that’s really what I do. I scratch that itch in this home and design category. I love it. I probably will always have a passion for doing things and building things, but I also tinker in sculpture and public art. It’s really more of a creative problem solving desire, but I just have the most experience doing it in the architecture and design category.

What’s your favorite part of the home?

Oh man, I do probably about 80 percent interior design, but I get really passionate and excited about doing landscape design. Exteriors have less rules. It has a way of energizing us in a different way, so having an indoor-outdoor space is one of the most transformative things you can do in new construction or remodeling to change the lifestyle of the way that we live.

What part of the home brings back your fondest memory?

It’s gotta be the kitchen, right? I love to eat. I love grilling, I love cooking outside, but growing up we always ate together as a family, and that’s something that I think with this generation, I have three young children as well, it’s one of the hardest things to maintain with our lifestyles going all over the place. There is a fondness of that closeness that I had, I value family so much, and that’s really where so much life takes place.

What parts of the home do you enjoy working on the most?

Oh man, I’m equal opportunity. It’s really more about what the homeowner really needs. Everyone always asks me, ‘What is the place where I should start: Should it be the master bedroom or my kitchen or my backyard?’ Well, there’s not a universal answer. The answer lies with where do you spend the most time or where do you want to spend the most time. That’s where you should start. And it’s different for everybody. There’s so many families where I find they have unique needs, unique desires… that call for a personalized floor plan and authentic design to resonate with what they love and where they wanna do life.

What is your creative process like? How do you begin to concept, customize spaces and transformations?

Most people focus on inspiration first – inspiration imagery. We find magazines, we find beautiful imagery online and we create these compilations of inspiration, and most of the time what people try to do is they try and take inspiration and cram it into their space, cram it into their architecture and it just doesn’t work that way. I actually spend the first 80 percent of my design process having nothing to do with style; meaning it doesn’t matter what your idea book or your Pinterest board looks like. I spend the first 80 percent on authentic creativity, personalization, and creating what I call the most cost-effective canvas, and that comes from the engineering side, where I do a cost analysis along with multiple iterations of visions of a space to create a canvas that’s going to be the best possible platform for personalization.

Once we solve those problems, the very last 20 percent [is when] I start weaving back in that aesthetic. And of course it tweaks it a little bit, but the aesthetic overlay is really just that. It’s never actually formulated as the foundational threadwork of the space, even though it feels that way, but any space that focuses just exclusively on the style and not just the function you run the risk of just having a very expensive pretty picture – which is way more common than people realize. I’ve even made this mistake, even in homes that I’ve designed, falling into that category of making something beautiful, or an image of beauty, and then living in it, it really doesn’t work. I’m really past that, and I try to press other people to think beyond just that perfection image that you have in your mind, and really take a step back and do authentic design and real personalization.

Is there one project that stands out that you reflect on and think, “I could have done that better”?

Yes, absolutely. I’ll actually bring it really close to home—a master bedroom that I actually did for myself. I built a house quite a few years back, and I could have done anything I wanted. I spent a lot of money making that beautiful picture of my master bedroom, where if you close your eyes and you envision what the perfect master bedroom looks like, with high ceilings and ceiling treatments and beautiful bed, a sitting room, you know, all these beautiful things, a fireplace, that’s what it looks like, and it’s been on the cover of big magazines. Then I started living in it, and then I realized, you know what? This is just a beautiful space that does not function at all like I want, and it’s not just unfortunate—it’s just bad design. And I think a lot of people don’t ever experience that until it’s too late.

What tips do you have for those doing DIY projects and renovations?

I have always believed in pressing yourself to the edge of your capacity. Not going over, but always to the edge. I feel as though I’ve gotten 25 years of experience, just with the rigor that I’ve put myself through, and my team through, with every single project. We are always pressing ourselves to the very nth degree, and it’s very difficult and it’s very taxing and tiring, but that’s how I’ve learned. It was not always easy at the beginning, but now with just the perspective that you have, the instinct that you have, and… the skill that you have just to execute at a very high level. As a DIY-er, that is something to aspire to.

Are you planning any future renovations?

Absolutely. Always! I always have a project going on. We’re always doing things. I already have our next home project, which will probably be a pool. It’s all designed; it’s just we like to practice what we preach with stewardship and financial planning. It’s all ready to go. As soon as we have the funds saved up to do it, it will be there.

At Make It Better, we like to talk philanthropy. Do you have any philanthropies or charities that you care greatly about or volunteer with?

There are several. I do a lot of stuff with Habitat [for Humanity]. My son is on the autism spectrum, so there are a number of different charities that focus on autism that we volunteer at and we participate in regularly. I also, in the position that I’m in, have the opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different charities through speaking engagements and, really, I focus on people’s fundamental needs. A beautiful home is way less important than actually having shelter. So starting with those fundamental needs, those are the things that I resonate the most with.

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