Breaking New Ground

Men laying new hardwood flooring

Over the course of his nearly 20 years in Atlanta, Joe Washington has been a news anchor and reporter, sports anchor, television show host, corporate spokesman and professional speaker. But the role he enjoys most might be that of do-it-yourselfer.

From adding on a sunroom and building a fence, arbor and pool cabana in the backyard to his most recent projecta patio underneath the deck that overlooks the hilly landscapeJoe tackles project after project with gusto.

I enjoy the idea of working on something and seeing a tangible resultthe idea that youve done it yourself, made it look good, and perhaps you can do things that you couldnt afford to pay someone else to do, he says. Its good to know you can do something just as nice with some time, with some good planning, with less money and you also gain the satisfaction of saying, Hey, I did this myself or I played a pretty big part in it. For me, its the total package: building it, maintaining it and being able to just come out every once in a while and play with itthats the fun of it.

“I have a lasting vision of my father at a table saw and a planer. I was always in the mode of handing him things and helping him.”

As host of HGTVs landscape makeover show Ground Breakers, Joe gets the chance to share his passion with homeowners. He calls the show a tremendous extension of what I love to do, since for him, a day is not good unless he can do some work on his projects at home.

Joes love of home improvement is rooted in his childhood in Port Orchard, Wash., where he used to watch his father build cabinets and do other carpentry work. I have a lasting vision of my father at a table saw and a planer. I was always in the mode of handing him things and helping him, he remembers.

A few years after he moved to Atlanta and bought a contemporary-style home on a tree-filled, half-acre lot in East Cobb, his fathers carpentry skills began to grow in him. All of that really started to come back, he says. I really got excited about doing things and realized that I could, with the help of a few books and looking at the way other people did it, he says.

Joe even studies houses under construction to develop techniques for his own projects. Im a good observer. If I see something Im interested in, Ill ask questions and learn how to do it. He says that willingness to learn and confidence in ones own abilities are the only things any homeowner needs to become a do-it-yourselfer and enjoy the sense of empowerment that comes with it.

Just as Joe watched and learned from his father, his two sons, Cameron, 10, Matthew, 7, are now learning from him. Joe says he strives to teach them pride in homeownership through chores like raking leaves. I stress that this is [their] home, too, he says.

Joe is taking more pride of ownership in his show, as well. The current season of Ground Breakers is noticeably different than the previous seven seasons of the show. In the past, Joe narrated while viewers were introduced to the featured homeowners and yard; he now talks with the homeowners about their plans and explores the landscape with them. Im able to interact with them; its fun. Now, were drawing out their personalities.

Each episode of Ground Breakers follows a landscaping project through every stage of the processfrom planning to digging to completion. And that includes the inevitable frustrating bumps in the road, like sinkholes or flood plains, Joe says. But once the project is finished, you see the homeowners at their best. I like seeing the satisfaction there.

Things you might not know about Joe:

He was host of the WTBS Superstation show interact.Atlanta, winner of the 1997 National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs Award.

He has been awarded three Emmys for his on-camera work.

He appeared in the movies Forrest Gump and Scream 2, as well as in the television series Savannah and In the Heat of the Night.

His voice can be heard on commercial videos for companies including The Home Depot, IBM, Ford, Dent Wizard, Norfolk Southern Railway, Am South Bank, DeKalb Medical Center and the National Centers for Disease Control.

He has been honored by the Associated Press and the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists.

The homeowners, not the show, pay for the landscaping projects featured, which are from throughout Georgia. They range in cost from $50,000 to $250,000, with most of them averaging about $100,000. The crew of Ground Breakers is always working on around a dozen projects at once, with some taking just a couple of weeks to complete and others stretching out over a year or more. The average job takes about six months to complete. People are as meticulous about [the process of improving] the outside of their home as they are about the inside, Joe says.

When theyre searching for subjects, Joe and the shows producers look for a combination of great ideas and interesting stories. One family, for example, who had taken in several children of a family member in crisis, was able to buy the house of their dreams at auction. Because of the deal they got on the house, they were able to afford to put in a swimming pond with a waterfall, and a play area for the children. Another woman, having grown up in a military family and married a military man, was creating the yard of her dreams for the first house shed ever owned.

Sometimes its the homeowners ideas that make the shows interesting, like one couple who had collected metal sculptures for years and wanted to design their landscape to showcase them. Joe says he loves getting a chance to meet [the homeowners] and share their dream.

Ground Breakers Executive Producer Hildreth Stafford, who has worked with Joe since the show started five years ago, says Joes well-honed interviewing skills and engaging style help the homeowners open up and share their stories on camera. He brings to the show his humor and warmth and his ability to connect with homeowners and architects, she says. She adds the show also benefits greatly from Joes landscaping expertise.

But Joe doesnt consider himself a gardening expert. He considers his area of expertise the skeleton of a yardthe retaining walls, stone and other materials that create structuremore than planting. Im not a plant guy. But Ive had the opportunity to see things that the average homeowner doesnt in terms of the way things are builtthe different elements of creativity out thereand Im able to pass that along. Thats the fun part.

“People are wanting to spend more time at home. Parents want to create
an environment where they can keep a closer watch on their children.”

One of the biggest trends Joe has seen developing is the concept of creating an outdoor living spacea sort of outdoor extension of the inside of the house.

Outdoor fireplaces, kitchens and water features are wildly popular choices among homeowners he meets through the show. New options in materials and concrete techniques like stamping and coloring mean homeowners can create any look they want.

People are wanting to spend more time at home, Joe says. Parents want to create an environment where they can keep a closer watch on their children. They feel a lot more comfortable if they know theyre in the backyard with their friends.

Although Ground Breakers is his biggest project right now, its not the only place youll find Joe in home-improvement circles. Joe is the voice of Bob, the main character in The Home Depots animated employee training videos. Employees of the chain often approach Joe when they recognize his trademark deep voice. And I say, Yeah, Im Bob, he laughs.

And when his distinctive, deep, baritone voice isnt recognized, his face is. Atlantans have seen Joe on TV for two decades. In 1976, the then-23-year-old took a job as weekend anchor and reporter for the Channel 11 news. He spent 11 years reporting news, then nine years reporting sports before going part-time and freelancing in the early 1990s. In 1999, HGTV producers called him and asked him to host Ground Breakers.

In addition to being the ideal outlet for his passion for home improvement, the show has become a great source of ideas for his own projects. More times than not, Im the one who comes away with an idea, he says. And for Joe, thats when the real fun begins.

New episodes of Ground Breakers air
Saturdays at 10 a.m. on HGTV,
with encore episodes airing Sundays at 10 a.m.

Meet Joe Washington at the
Atlanta Garden & Patio Show.
He will be on stage, Friday, Feb. 11 at 11 a.m.
and Saturday, Feb. 12 at 3 p.m.

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