Theater alum Aaron Jackson makes dreams come true on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"

Aaron Jackson
Aaron Jackson

Aaron Jackson suspects this week could be his toughest yet.

The Mason Gross Theater alum is about to embark on an enervating, three-week adventure that will culminate in building seven houses in seven days for families who have lost homes to the tornado that ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo., in May 2011.

As design producer on the three-hanky ABC television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Jackson, 35, crisscrosses the country with host Ty Pennington and a massive construction crew, concocting fantastical interiors for families who are often in dire straits. There’s the New York family of a girl with dwarfism whose home serves as a facility for a chapter of Little People of America, Inc.; or the man in Pennsylvania who quit his job to care for his paralyzed adult son. Each story is more heart-wrenching than the next.

“It is emotional, to a point,” says a weary-sounding Jackson, who lives in Los Angeles when he’s not on the road with the show. “You get involved in their stories. Some of them are definitely more heartbreaking than others. This one [in Joplin] will be one of the harder ones. We’re working with families who’ve lost people in the tornado.”

The pace is relentless: Jackson says each project spans three weeks, from conception to unveiling. The final week is devoted to demolition and construction, beginning with what Jackson calls “door-knock day,” when the crew surprises the family, and concluding with the “reveal,” when the family tours the new structure.

Jackson says he puts in 14- to-17-hour days, collaborating with the architect, dreaming up and pitching room themes inspired by family interviews, selecting paint colors, cabinetry, flooring—“everything down to lighting fixtures”—and convincing businesses to donate services and materials to the effort.

Jackson just completed his own home renovation and says he’s long had an affinity for designing and renovating interiors. Joining the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew means Jackson now enjoys, “a hobby that turned into a job. This sounded like an adventure . . . You just never know where you’ll end up. You definitely get to meet a lot of cool people” and indulge in radical design concepts.

“They’re always pushing us to be more and more extreme,” says Jackson, who designed a bedroom with a carousel and outfitted another with a tree that the children could climb. “We’re doing things you wouldn’t normally see inside a house.”

And the designs aren’t merely fanciful; plenty of the Extreme Makeover projects are complex undertakings meant to maximize a home’s functionality. For instance, the team installed a therapy room inside the home of the quadriplegic Pennsylvania man and equipped the entire structure with fixtures that allow him to navigate the space more easily.

Jackson’s wildest design to date: a zoo-themed bedroom for a little girl in Georgia named Camry who hopes to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Camry’s big sister, Anaiah, had her leg amputated after shoving Camry out of the path of an oncoming truck. The room features a tree-house/jungle-hut bed, carved rock desk, hammock reading nook, a coterie of oversized stuffed animals and a wraparound, hand-painted mural by artist Jason Hulfish.

Jackson, a longtime scenic designer for the stage, says his work on television isn’t merely about creating attractive environments; often, he says, the show provides families with a fresh start.

“We’re giving them a whole new life sometimes,” Jackson says. “College scholarships, a new car: There are all kinds of amazing things that happen here.”

Catch Jackson’s work on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition 8 p.m. EST Fridays on ABC. Go behind the scenes with Jackson in these images and descriptions of his work: