Long before the news broke across the country, I already knew there was a serious shortage of trade workers in the home remodeling industry. They agree to show up next week, re-schedule, work a few hours, disappear to another job – they’re juggling dozens of projects all across town. Once in a while we actually finish a room. . . although finished does not necessarily mean done.
Last July when we first started remodeling this house everyone decided the first floor powder room would be the first room to be finished. It was small, only needed the sink and toilet replaced, a new light fixture, and a fresh coat of paint. Then the tile crumbled when the 45-year old vanity was removed. Okay – we’ll replace the floor. Even better.
The sconce was on backorder, the electrician was delayed, other rooms in the house became a higher priority, but finally (and with the help of our contractor’s adorable baby girl) this little powder room was finally finished. Meanwhile, those walls began to look very bland.
After a great deal of research, thousands of photos searched on Pinterest, and a can (or two) of antiquing glaze, I decided to add a ribbon with upholstery tacks just above the tile for a punch of color in this sea of blah (actually, I couldn’t find ribbon in the exact color as the new paint on the doors, so I used a decorative, self-adhesive tape from Michael’s.)
We fell in love with the color of paint on the front doors (more blue than reflected in this photo) so I decided to use it on all the interior doors as well. The doorknobs, by Nostalgic Warehouse, were on Amazon last September at $15/each – 90% off retail. I bought every one available, which was just enough to replace every doorknob in the house.
There are risks to actually finishing a room. For one, my family claims I grow restless when I’ve finished decorating every room in the house, and then it’s only a matter of time before we move on. If you stick around long enough though it’s fun to look back and see how a room evolved over the years. Maybe tweaking a room is the best part of the design process – adding a plant in a found container, changing the pillows, adding fabric to the ceiling.
I was a bit intimidated to put a lovely piece of fabric on the powder room’s ceiling, but it was in my original plan. Let the tweaking begin. . .
There’s a good bit of evidence, aside from my own experience, that suggests home contractors fit nicely into distinct categories. These categories are given affectionate labels: The Dog and Pick-Up Truck, Salt of the Earth, the Professional, the Enterprise.
While one wonderful soul prefers to work alone, others build large companies. Some work six days, and six nights every week; others have employees that keep the work going while they enjoy flex time and vacations.
Dog and Pick-Up Truck: has a heart as big as the outdoors and likes working alone, easy to get to know, probably has a pick-up truck or van with a dog. Takes great pride in their work.
Salt of the Earth: also has a big heart; just not quite as big as all outdoors. They like having employees because they do not want to work alone, and because they like taking vacations.
The Professional: also has a big heart; they just keep it under cover.
The Enterprise: with 100+ employees, the life span of the Enterprise owner may be shorter than any of the other contractors. . . due to enormous stress.
Different situations call for different contractors. The bigger the job, the more I lean toward the Professional. The pressure of regular county inspections seems to keep them on their toes, and juggling more than one job at a time can keep the schedule moving. The best Professionals also seem to attract the best ‘trade’ labor – those folks that are impossible to hire on your own.
Our last Professional employed just two people: a very talented carpenter, and what she called “the clean-up guy” – the one that really kept things running smooth. He made endless trips to the hardware store, finished odd jobs around the house, and cleaned up after the trade. But it was the trade that cycled in and out of our house on a regular and, maybe more importantly, a predictable schedule. Our Professional ran a tight ship.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those contractors who follow a well-known, and highly frustrating schedule. . .
ma·ña·na /mənˈyänə/ adverb 1. in the indefinite future (used to indicate procrastination): Powered by Oxford Dictionaries
With all the best intentions, things happen. Days are missed, hours cut short, schedules fall behind. They play the catch-up game, make excuses, blame it on something, or somebody. They say they’ll show up tomorrow (mañana). They don’t show up. I quietly put them on notice.
They say they feel your pain. They don’t. They go home and use their own bathroom. We have buckets of muddy water sitting in ours, the shower’s a piece of rubble. That’s precisely when they ask for another draw ($$$).
One of our Dog and Pick-Up Truck contractors has been in our house for seven weeks. The first electrician hasn’t been here in six. We hired another one. He was delightful and finished everything, save for one light. The first electrician wrote me this week asking to come back to finish the job. He’ll be here mañana.
To date, we have used one Professional, one Enterprise – who subcontracted to a Dog and Pick-Up Truck, one Salt of the Earth, four Dog and Pick-Up Trucks. . . and we’re not done. It’s fitting that we’ve labeled this our ‘forever’ home because it will take forever to finish it. Mañana!
Merry Christmas from our (unfinished) house to yours.
Renovating a house is the easy part. Moving in is where it gets interesting.
We’ve spent about seven weeks living in our latest renovation. The ‘moving-in’ part happened in July, although that move-in day excluded us. When we made the decision to move ourselves into the house, it wasn’t necessarily because the construction phase had ended, but that it had gotten sufficiently close enough to being finished that we could save time by settling in while the last few projects were wrapped up. I asked my husband what he would say about living here over these past seven weeks. He said, “It’s been a trip.”
We thought the kitchen cabinets would be installed by the first week of November. . . they were late. The stove arrived, but the propane tank sat down by the road for several days – which left the stove looking quite nice, but totally useless.
The cabinets finally arrived, but we had lost our install date for the countertops. When the countertops arrived last week, we discovered the drain didn’t fit our extra deep farm sink – which left it looking quite nice, but totally useless.
We had finally pulled everything together for a proper kitchen, except the kitchen sink.
You may wonder what can be accomplished without a kitchen sink? More than you might imagine. . . although I would tell you the modern kitchen sink is not overrated.
It seems my house is like our American election: endless surprises, mud slung everywhere, and the end result the biggest upset in history.
As for my house, there’s no kitchen, the master bath is still under construction, the attic access has been temporarily closed off, which means the electrical work can’t be finished, the painting was done before the electrical was finished, and now there’s sheetrock repair and re-painting everywhere. . . suffice it to say, not one room in the entire house can be considered finished. And I don’t mean decorated.
Fortunately, on the days I have a meltdown my husband is optimistic, and when he has a meltdown, I’m in good spirits. I couldn’t promise the outcome if we both had a meltdown on the same day.
We moved in about three weeks ago, and ate out for all three meals a day for two days when I declared I couldn’t take it anymore. My husband purchased a small toaster oven, and made it his mission to prepare delightful meals at home, which we ate from plastic plates with plastic utensils (easy cleanup at least).
Finally, the cabinets were installed – oh happy day – except there were issues. Replacement parts have been ordered, countertops measured, and sometime before Christmas we may actually have a complete kitchen.
Although I’ve spent oodles of time studying French Provincial decor, it has not transformed one iota of my belongings into French. And, since I am unwilling to sell off the whole caboodle and start from scratch, a somewhat modified French style has emerged.
The foyer’s coat closet was demolished with the intention of settling this oversized armoire back into its alcove, except the armoire began to look more at home in the living room over time, and I discovered these great columns in the back room of a local antique store that fit nicely into the vacated coat closet alcove. Our next job is to paint the interior doors a beautiful shade of gray, and stain the columns black.
We took the drapes from our little cabin for the Keeping Room – even though I was unsure about mixing their animal print and black velvet with the contemporary blue velvet of the new Ralph Lauren chairs. The electrician will add the swing-arm sconces over the bookshelves. . . soon I hope.
The down side of this home’s mansard roof is that it eliminates the majority of the upstairs walls for artwork leaving me with too many pictures! In a diversion from my original vision, our guest bath was the only place that could support all five of these botanical prints, which led to a predominantly black scheme for our pink bathroom.
All that’s left for this room is a window treatment, and window seat cushion.
I read the advice of a designer long ago who said every room should have a touch of black, advice I have enthusiastically taken to heart. . . although blue has become the surprise companion color, including beautiful blue-green drapes for the living room that will be here – yes, by Christmas.
Our last ever renovation is nearing an end. No one seems to believe it will really be our last one. When I make the proclamation it seems to end with a bit of a question mark while my husband makes his proclamation with an exclamation point, “I’ll never do this again!”
You always hope to end on a high note. Some of our past renovations were clearly more stressful while others more tolerable, but they all seem less horrific as time passes. . . which simply means the latest renovation is always the worst.
My husband hates surprises. To him surprises mean more money, and he’s usually right. His most memorable surprise was at one of our Chicago condo remodels when he discovered the new parquet flooring was lifting – a whole house of floors had to be replaced. I came home during a master bathroom remodel to find water pouring through the chandelier over the dining room table. Then there was the renovation before last when our contractor had to call a bee keeper to relocate thousands of bees from the walls of the third floor.
My greatest angst comes from a project careening off schedule. Despite the catastrophic blunder, that master bath remodel was only 2 days over schedule, although a master bath remodel years earlier went a full 2 months longer than estimated. No two projects are ever alike. Some houses have been stripped down to their bare walls, or just one or two exterior walls, and rebuilt in the same amount of time as other projects involving only ‘cosmetic’ changes.
It seemed poetic when we realized just this week that we have finished, on average, one renovation for every year we’ve been married. We spent a full day cleaning the construction dust from one of the rooms in this last project, and sat down with a glass of wine to discuss what, if anything, we had learned from these 17 projects. . . turns out there’s been a very good education indeed.
1. Be flexible.
There’s rarely more than one or two things in a house that are terribly important to my husband. The location of the TV is one. . . neither of us could think of a close second. For me, I’m quite the opposite and no detail is too small.
In all these projects, I can’t seem to find such a thing as perfect. It’s always a great pleasure to work with contractors that have a ‘can-do’ attitude, but sometimes there’s something that can’t be done, or something that would be a world easier if done some way other than the way you imagined.
The fact is, there’s usually more than one correct answer, and a good deal of heartburn can be avoided if you view these obstacles as a design opportunity rather than one more thing that didn’t go the way you wanted. Some of our favorite designs have come about as a result of something that couldn’t be done the way we first envisioned.
2. Focus on what’s really important.
Being flexible should only go so far. If you want your bedroom light in the center of the ceiling, or the tv exactly center on the fireplace, don’t accept 12 inches right or left. Decisions made during a renovation last many years. It’s good to figure out for yourself what’s important, and stand your ground.
3. Pick your battles carefully.
Inevitably the time comes when the renovation has overstayed its welcome, the contractor is ready to be done with your job, and you’re ready to be done with that renovation. Or, it is possible you’ve found yourself in a remodel that is swarming with issues. If every interaction you have with the workers involves a complaint, those fine workers will shut you down, the relationship becomes adversarial, and it is not a win-win. Lesson No. 2 becomes the guiding rule. . . don’t sweat the small stuff.
4. It always takes longer than you think.
Sometimes I’ve packed up my paper dolls and moved in ‘ready or not.’ Sometimes I send my husband in to be the bad guy and declare the project will be finished or else. I would like to report that any approach whatsoever makes a difference, but the things that caused the project to careen off schedule have probably happened long before you’re disgusted with said project and pitching a tantrum will only destroy whatever can be salvaged at the end of the project. Lesson No. 3 becomes the guiding rule. . . (Side note: it almost always goes over budget too. Be forewarned.)
5. The beauty is in the details.
It is in the quality of the smallest details that make a home truly spectacular. You could spend a million dollars, but if the sheetrock is finished poorly, the tile isn’t straight and level, the crown molding doesn’t match up at the corners, or if any one of a long list of details are flawed, the entire renovation will lack the wow factor that comes with a home where these details have been given the appropriate attention.
It’s not the kind of thing you can request be done. A person must take pride in their work; to produce a quality product because it’s important to them, not you.
After 17 renovations and 17 years of marriage, I could not necessarily advise which of these lessons are more important for the renovation. . . or for the marriage.
There seems to be two ways to approach remodeling a house: while you live in the house, or while you wait to live in the house. I can’t think at the moment which approach is most preposterous. Nor would I dare offer a recommendation on whether this house of chaos should be visited daily or never, although there is a strong argument for maintaining a minimum one-million mile distance from the rubble.
My husband and I took the approach of “while you live in the house” twice and it was not pretty. During another remodel we lived three stories below, and yet another one we spent a year in the little guest house behind the remodel.
Last year we drove six hours round trip once a week for the remodel, although we drive an hour round trip every day to visit the current one. The value of the weekly visits is that there is almost always clear progress while for the daily visits. . . let’s just say progress can be more difficult to discern.
Take the Floor
This project started with great momentum. The kitchen was demolished the first day – even before the first coffee break. The bathrooms crumbled almost as fast. We’ve learned it is much easier to destroy something than to build it back up.
Every project seemingly comes to a screeching halt, however, when the heavy lifting is over. In our case, new walls have been built, plumbing moved, electricity pulled to new locations, hardwood floors installed. . . and now we wait.
There was linoleum in the kitchen, green shag carpet upstairs, and an assortment of ceramic tile in the bathrooms, but it was the beautiful hardwoods we wanted everywhere.
Our calendars were cleared for this past Friday to move furniture from all corners of the house to its final resting place, and there was a mad dash to install the new hardwood flooring to meet our ‘moving day’ deadline. Then the floor finisher arrived and informed us these new floors would cure for a solid week. Under no circumstance would anyone walk on these new floors, and no furniture would be moved for another whole week. . .
although this has not prevented us from stopping by to admire those new floors.
After measuring the new parquet tiles for the kitchen and master bath, there were tiles left over. We considered addding one or two in the center of the foyer, but just one and even two looked incomplete. Four tiles were situated exactly center and we all studied them for at least a week. I lost a good bit of sleep worrying over cutting into the middle of the foyer’s hardwood floor, and we were still unsure (although totally committed) until we saw the finished product.
This kitchen’s dated past was evident when the cabinets were removed, but all of that is history. Scott, our contractor, laid the parquet to ‘dry fit’ them to the center of the kitchen. We didn’t want the tiles to end up being underneath the cabinetry so they were centered with hardwood planks filling in around the outer edges.
Four houses ago we lived in a townhouse with a three-story spiral staircase that begged for a black & white runner. We sold that house before we ever got around to adding the runner, but when I saw this house I knew the time had come for our black & white runner. Although the white background of my inspiration photo runner (right photo) scares us to death with three dogs, the black bannister is perfect.
We obtained an estimate last week for the black & white runner – it was $1,000 installed ($600 for a 100% polypropylene runner, $400 for installation). Then I happened onto a DIY runner makeover from Target for just $140.
We went back to the drawing board and found a 100% Wool runner from Target that fits our vision perfectly – total $345.
Tahla Dhurry Rug by Safavieh at Target.com $59.59 for a 2’6″ x 12′ runner less 10% during the FALLHOME sale.
Our shopping list has dwindled to mostly kitchen items: the sink, faucet, backsplash tile, and those dreaded drawer pulls. The stove has been picked out and just needs to be ordered, the vent hood has already been delivered, and the last light fixture arrived this week. Hopefully the waiting is almost over. . . we’re ready to go home.
“Shopping“ punctuates every remodeling project, and eventually takes on a life of its own. So far our shopping list has included toilets, sinks & vanities, faucets for the sinks, shower and bath, a kitchen countertop & kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator, stove & vent, dishwasher, washer & dryer, marble for the shower walls, bathroom floors & kitchen backsplash, paint for the walls, ceiling, trim and doors, doorknobs for every door, a heating & cooling system, a fence, propane tank, and light fixtures for nearly every room.
And with every project, there’s something on my shopping list that proves totally elusive. . . wearing my patience thin. In our last project it was the drawer pulls for the kitchen cabinets. This time it was the sconce for the powder room, although I haven’t gotten to the drawer pulls yet.
With this many things to buy at once, the name of the game becomes budget.
We’ve driven to the other side of town to plunder marble remnants, made a trip to the appliance clearance corner at Lowe’s every week (we found our washer for $300 – a savings of $700!), and waited for the deal of the day to pop up everywhere and anywhere. The biggest impact to the budget, however, can be made with the one item that shows up most often on my shopping list: light fixtures.
This house had just three original fixtures that could be kept, which meant we needed 14 new fixtures. Ten choices have been made. . . four to go.
We bought the chandelier for the kitchen before we had officially bought the house (I wish I could say this was an unusual thing for us to do). Now this chandelier is in one of the many boxes stuffed between the remodeling debris, and I can only describe that it has beautifully colored crystals of clear, pink, red and purple (as best I remember).
The upper cabinets have been removed above the sink, which overlooks the keeping room. Then the price dropped on these Pottery Barn crystal pendants (from $299 to $103) and a pair of them will hang over the sink cabinet.
Gray cabinets were spot checked to be sure they wouldn’t clash with the cobalt blue of the refrigerator. Red velvet drapes match the red velvet bar stools, which I hope will also match the new chandelier, and the table and chairs we used in our previous kitchen.
The Keeping Room
Several months ago E.J. Victor held a warehouse sale at a non-descript warehouse in Morganton, N.C. We wouldn’t dare miss it. . .
Two upholstered chairs sat in a separate room from the case goods typical of these sales. Although we noticed them immediately, they were blue. . . not our go-to color. Nonetheless, they were shockingly beautiful and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
I’ve tried not to let the chairs dictate the light fixture for this room – it is possible the chairs could wear out before the fixture needs to be replaced some dozen odd years down the road – but I can’t help but see the chairs and the room as one.
We’ve blown our budget a bit to secure fixtures that would help make the old paneling in this room sing (my husband hated the paneling). Swing-arm lights will be added over each of the three bookshelves, along with one somewhat modern yet stunning flush mount.
The master closet (shown at the far end of the photo) has been demolished with that space being added to the master shower (on the other side of the wall). Both windows include window seats, and an opportunity for seat cushions with fabulous fabric.
Rosie 5 Light Crystal Pendant by OK Lighting (Wayfair: $118) Anichini Tapestry Linens (The Red Collection $200)
A full set of Anichini’s tapestry linens showed up at my favorite consignment store in Greensboro, N.C. (The Red Collection) for just $200 (retail value: $1000+). The perfect chandelier showed up on Wayfair’s clearance rack for $118 (retail: $195) where the copper finish and smokey grey crystals will compliment the linens and new wall color (Sherwin Williams Buff). Hardwood floors will replace the green shag carpet.
I found the large gold chandelier for the dining room at a consignment store for just $45. From top to bottom left, fixtures for the guest bath, upstairs office, and guest room – each one $100 or less.
We had intended to add can lights to the barren living room ceiling until we met with the electrician who enlightened us to the consequences of those can lights – he would have to drill into the lovely crown molding. Our fallback plan is to add several well-placed sconces, although we don’t know that any one of the six light switches along the interior wall will actually control anything we add to this room.
Not every room can support my idea of the perfect light, my own design decisions have put restrictions on the perfect choice for some rooms, and the very fact that the price has dropped significantly is what makes other fixtures perfect.
In the ideal renovation where we have stripped the walls down to the bare studs, there are few compromises. Every fixture contributes to the ideal plan. Sometimes life isn’t ideal though, and in those cases isn’t it nice to know we can still find the light of our life.