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updated: 1/13/2014 8:00 AM

National Geographic show takes building to extremes

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  • Crews create ?the ultimate escape? out of whatever they find on the land in the new National Geographic Channel reality show ?Building Wild.?

    Crews create ?the ultimate escape? out of whatever they find on the land in the new National Geographic Channel reality show ?Building Wild.?
    Courtesy of National Geographic Channel

  • Creativity and hard work go a long way in the new National Geographic Channel show ?Building Wild.?

    Creativity and hard work go a long way in the new National Geographic Channel show ?Building Wild.?
    Courtesy of National Geographic Channel

By George Dickie, Zap2it

A four-seat ATV shimmies, sways and weaves its way up a mountainside path, at one point nearly depositing a passenger into the sea of mud it's navigating. All on board can see their breath.

It's a cold, clammy, bumpy ride to the top of the former Timber Ridge Ski Resort in Windham, Vt., where a crew of builders is laboring mightily to finish up a project for the new National Geographic Channel series "Building Wild," premiering Tuesday, Jan. 14.

On this day, the project in question is a 400-square-foot cabin built around a 20-foot-high concrete pier that used to hold the return pulley for the ski lift. It comes outfitted with a bar and a snowboard ramp for its father/son owners, a wood stove tied into the pier to radiate heat throughout, and a makeshift windmill on the roof fashioned from beer kegs. Underpinned by steel I-beams that once were part of the lift, it's an overbuilt, unique structure.

And that's pretty emblematic of what this series is about: builders taking a parcel of land in either Vermont or upstate New York and using what's on it -- be it woods, apparent junk or, in this case, remnants of an old ski lift -- to create what the show's makers call "the ultimate escape," a cabin in the wild where one can get away from it all. And it all happens in the span of five days.

It's that kind of outside-the-box thinking that is the bread and butter of the show's resident designer, Paul DiMeo, who for nine seasons lent his expertise to ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

"Yeah, Dumpster diving, I always called it," says DiMeo. "I made a career of it (as a set builder) in New York, and working for theater as a young man you learn that you're straightening nails and you're finding pallets, you're finding old lumber, you're going through job sites and pulling stuff out of Dumpsters, and it's amazing what you can find.

"My partner, Tuffy, does that to a much more extreme because he has the land to put it there. So ... there are 50 500-gallon old propane tanks that we're able to use for fire pits. There are thousands of feet of well casing that we're able to use for setting our piers. So having more land enables you to keep a lot more stuff."

Tuffy, whose real name is Pat Bakaitis, is the crusty yin to DiMeo's polished yang, a rough-hewn woodsman who takes DiMeo's abstract ideas and makes them happen. A logistics man who does a lot of head shaking.

"We're kind of like opposites, and opposites attract," Tuffy says. "He's a city boy, I'm a country boy."

But that is not to say that Tuffy doesn't have ideas of his own. Take, for instance, the camp he and DiMeo built on an excavator bearing, allowing the structure to pivot a full 360 degrees so its occupants can enjoy sunrise and sunset.

"I've always wanted to do that," says Tuffy, who owns an excavation company in nearby Hoosick Falls, N.Y., where he has built five cabins for himself. "I've got a hundred ideas for an old excavator because of the fact that it's got such a super-duper bearing underneath it. ... I told them, 'You gotta go in search of and find me an excavator.' 'Well, what if we do?' 'Then I'll build you a house that'll spin on it.' And nobody believed me. Everyone was against me. And they had to pay some good money to purchase it, and then we had to dismantle it, and there's quite a steel detail underneath. So they believed in me, that I could get it done. So now the next time they won't doubt me as much."

As for whether this is the idea he's proudest of, he says, "I've got some better ideas. I haven't peaked out yet."

Unlike other construction or renovation series, there are no sponsors supplying building materials in return for exposure. Every landowner has, as executive producer George Verschoor puts it, "skin in the game": They're furnishing the land, most of the materials -- be they odd and disparate -- and labor in the form of friends and family. The show provides the ideas, the design expertise and some materials.

"This is not a giveaway type of show," explains Verschoor, also a Hoosick Falls native who once served as executive producer on "Extreme Makeover." "I always joke that we're going to climb Everest with you this week. We're going to take you to the top, and we're going to challenge you like you've never been before. And everyone who's done it has come out the other end saying, 'Holy cow! That was one of the best weeks of my life.'

"... You know, you think you're beaten almost every day and you think, 'All right, the trailer broke, this broke. We know the welder's down. We don't have electricity. The wind's blowing the roofing off.' Every single day there's a new challenge, but we figured it out. We made it where it's that can-do attitude."

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