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‘Dream Builders’: gutting and renovating from the heart

The amiable Nate Berkus returns to home improvement TV with NBC’s “American Dream Builders” at 8 tonight.

This show sets an ambitious goal: Two teams renovate two houses of the same architectural style in the same neighborhood – in a week. As executive producer, host and one of the judges, Berkus selected the 12 designers, who must work together.

“The decision was made that they would all be professionals and very established in their own communities and local markets,” Berkus said. “They weren’t fighting to become the next anything. They already have very successful businesses and clients, and some of them had worked 20 years to build that. And this show is not about discovering new talent. It is about bringing established talent into everyone’s home. Every week two homes are renovated from wall studs up and re-created and reimagined. That will give lots of people ideas.”

The homes in the pilot are crowded with too many people and too much stuff, a lack of storage space, dated kitchens and bathrooms, and neglected yards. Designers look critically at the houses.

In one, they create a bedroom from a walk-in closet. At that point, it would seem easiest to just hit Ikea and buy a ready-made room, but Berkus wants the furnishings to be as select as the foundations are strong.

“Even though we worked very rapidly, we gave designers access to everything they would have in normal practices: antiques, salvaged wood, vintage furniture, great construction pieces, etc. Whatever they could dream up, we were prepared to have done,” Berkus said.

The families move out, and the teams descend. Some of these designers would never so much as voluntarily share an elevator, much less the spotlight. One designer goes around bragging that her taste is better than everyone else’s and says she’s doing it because obnoxious behavior is expected on unscripted shows.

“The 12 are used to be being the bosses,” Berkus said. “The way some of them can’t communicate and the way some choose to communicate – you can’t make this up. You can’t script it. It was fascinating to watch the dynamics between them.”

Houses cannot be enlarged, though walls can be knocked down, closets expanded and rooms created from dead space.

Judges Eddie George, a former NFL running back and now a landscape architect, and Monica Pedersen, an interior designer, look for what everyone wants in a home: functionality, ease and style. In the pilot, one team installs a bathroom vanity, but the drawers do not open. Exactly how that is supposed to be useful is also lost on the judges.

Some of the homes chosen are old and have been renovated poorly over the years. Berkus aims to show viewers how to breathe new possibilities into old houses.

And as seems to be mandatory for shows when crummy houses are transformed into beauties, it ends in tears. Berkus, who has been doing home makeovers on TV for 15 years, has a theory as to why.

“Universally, no matter who you are or where you live, everybody wants to live better,” he said. “We are taking what they own and what they have worked really hard to own and making it beautiful. They see their space redone, reimagined and fully redesigned for the first time.”

Recognizing that not everyone can gut, redesign and refurnish, Berkus said, “The point of this show is to show what they can do with what they have.”