Problems Plague 'Extreme Makeover' House

by Cindy Yurth, Tsyi' Bureau
The Navajo Times
25 September 2008

PION, AZ--There is reality TV, and then there is reality. The difference is, reality keeps going after the cameras stop rolling.

The "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" episode featuring the Georgia Yazzie family of Pion ended happily.

 (Times photo - Cindy Yurth)   At Georgia Yazzie's 
 "Extreme Makeover" home in Pion, Ariz., much of 
 the home's landscaping has died due to problems 
 with the greywater irrigation system.

The family oohed and aahed as they were led through their new hogan-style home, and rejoiced at the thought of never having to pay another electric bill, thanks to the home's solar collectors and wind generator.

But even as the show aired last October, five months after the home was completed, reality was seeping through the cracks.

Problems had started to surface with the air conditioner, water was draining from the roof right into the foundation, and the greywater irrigation system was malfunctioning, creating a stinky cesspool in the yard.

Without water, the landscaping was dying.

By midwinter it was evident this extreme makeover had some extreme glitches. The house was freezing. For days on end, the Yazzies could not get the indoor temperature above 40 degrees, even with the thermostats cranked all the way up.

Georgia's daughter Geralene and her children, who live in an attached smaller hogan, moved into the main hogan because their side was even colder.

In their brand-new solar-heated house, the Yazzies lived like traditional Navajos, huddling around a decorative wood-burning fireplace to keep warm.

ABC, which airs "Extreme Makeover," installed electric baseboard heaters, shooting the family's electric bills up to $400 a month.

The wind turbine, which was supposed to supplement the solar collectors, especially during the winter, stopped working after the first few months.

Desperate for help, the Yazzies called Mark Snyder, the electrician who had installed the solar collectors and heating system. Snyder made a trip from his home in Los Angeles and found his system was working fine.

However, when the drywall was peeled back, the problem became clear: the insulation in the home's walls had settled, leaving the upper third of the walls completely without insulation. The thermal wrap that was supposed to help seal the house had huge gaps in the corners.

"Our systems are designed to work with houses that are like a Thermos," Snyder explained. "That house is more like a barn."

On hot days, in contrast, the house is uncomfortably warm. It had been designed in traditional Navajo style, with an east-facing door. The problem is, the door is made of black metal.

"That morning sun would hit it and the whole front entrance would be like a furnace," Snyder said.

That problem was alleviated somewhat by painting the door white, but it still transmits a lot of heat.

Beams may fall

Meanwhile, there were cosmetic problems: the cork flooring was peeling up, tiles were falling off the shower walls, and two huge pine beams were pulling away from the walls.

"I'm afraid to have someone sit under them in the living room," Yazzie said. "I keep thinking one of these days one of them is going to fall."

A light fixture did fall.

"It could have hit one of the grandkids,'" Yazzie said.

This spring, a water pipe burst, flooding the crawl space. At 3 a.m., the family was desperately searching for the main water valve so they could shut it off - "Nobody ever gave me a blueprint to the house," she said.

Now winter is coming again, and Yazzie is hoping the situation won't repeat itself. ABC did send someone to blow foam insulation into the floor and attic, but Snyder said that without insulating the walls, it won't be much help.

ABC commissioned an energy audit by a Flagstaff firm, which shows huge heat leaks at various places in the home.

According to E3 Energy, the company that performed the audit, "This leakage is equivalent to over an 18-inch (by) 18-inch hole in the envelope of the home."

Meanwhile, Snyder had to hire a local handyman to carve the foam insulation out of the night ventilation system his company had installed in the attic.

"ABC is trying to cheap it, and it's not going to work," he said. "They need to send someone in here and get this taken care of."

Not ungrateful

Yazzie said she's been reluctant to complain for fear of looking ungrateful.

"When you look at where we were a year ago and where we are now, it's much better," she said. "I have a house with running water and electricity and a room for everyone."

But "happily ever after" is still in the works.

"Now winter's around the corner again, and I'm worried," Yazzie said. "I don't want my grandkids getting sick from living in a cold house."

Yazzie is also worried for her youngest daughter Gwen, who has asthma. Gwen's health had improved considerably after the family moved into the home, thanks to a state-of-the-art air filtration system, but that was removed along with the malfunctioning air conditioner.

Kirk Sullivan of IQAir, the system's manufacturer, said his company will be glad to reinstall the filter if someone will just tell him where it is. Yazzie says she has no idea.

Yazzie said she and her son Garrett Yazzie, whose award-winning science project was the impetus for the green-built house, have fixed some of the defects with the help of Snyder, local handyman Danny Begay, and donations from Garrett's friends in Orchard Lake, Mich., where he attends a college prep school.

ABC replaced the cork floor with a wood floor that seems to be holding up.

"Most of the stuff I can deal with if I have to, but I want the house to be warm," Yazzie said. "If they would just fix the insulation I would be happy."

Yazzie has been battling illness and mobility problems stemming from an automobile crash two years ago, and hasn't been able to go back to her job as a heavy equipment operator.

She's living on her disability check, and says if she has another winter of $400-a-month electric bills, it's going to break her.

In a previous interview, Garrett said his main motivation in accepting the house was so he wouldn't have to worry about his family while he was away at school.

"Now I worry about them more than I did when they were in the trailer" that was torn down to make way for the house, he said.

The warranty on the house is up, but Georgia said she brought most of the problems to ABC's attention before it expired.

Lance Guest of HomeLife Communities, which built the house, said he has been apprised of the problems and was told by ABC that the corporation would take care of them.

"For a while they were calling me to consult about various problems with the house, but I haven't heard from them in three or four months," Guest said.

Extreme quiet

"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" executive producer Diane Korman referred this reporter to ABC's public relations department.

An employee there requested an e-mailed list of the problems at the house. As of Monday there had been no reply to that e-mail.

Lindsey Burgess, a spokeswoman for Flagstaff-based Southwest Windpower, which manufactured the wind turbine, said the company was unaware the windmill is malfunctioning and would send someone to look at it.

Yazzie said she's a traditional Navajo and tries to maintain hzh, so she's keeping a positive attitude and trusting ABC to come through.

"I don't want this to come out negative," she said. "They've done a lot for us."

But Snyder, who has made several trips to the home and spent thousands of dollars helping the Yazzies correct its defects, said he's angry with the broadcasting company for capitalizing on the Yazzies' story without giving them the happy ending they were promised.

"They Cinderella someone and then abandon them," he said. "How mean is that?"







Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.