Home Renovation COVID-19 Edition: How the Pandemic Shifted My Priorities

Waaaay back in March (can you remember what life was like back then?) I was scheduled to kick off a relatively small scale kitchen renovation over here on Oakview Avenue – more like a face lift really. The general plan was to take down a few unnecessary walls in the kitchen, move the back door, and build out a mudroom (OMG). We planned on doing some of the work ourselves and hire a contractor for the more daunting tasks – like installing the door, moving a radiator, and putting up sheetrock (it’s just SO exhausting). We chose a contractor in December, wrote a deposit check to secure our spot, and then went on with life, excited about the changes that were afoot. Then March hit America like a slap to the face and life hasn’t felt “normal” since. 

With the arrival of COVID-19 came the end to business as usual. The shelter in place order was put in place just days before we were supposed to start demolition and, understandably, we had to hold off on any work being done to the house. While delays in a construction schedule are definitely frustrating, the circumstances behind this delay forced us to take a step back and rethink our priorities in regard to our home and how we live in it. We were able to take another look at the plans we had been obsessing over for the last year or so and come up with a different plan. A more flexible plan that, in the end, will serve my family’s needs better as we head into this uncertain future.

To give you a little insight into the evolution of my kitchen let’s first travel back in time to the summer of 2012 when we first moved in… just for fun! Here is what the kitchen looked like when we moved in 8 years ago – it was rough, but a good size and I could see the potential.

The original kitchen was 3 smaller rooms: a pantry (behind louver doors) and an entryway that also housed the fridge. That back door is the most often used door in the house.

The first year we lived in the house we made some immediate changes to the space. We tore down the dropped ceiling and florescent lighting (gag) within 6 months. Next, the appliances were upgraded, the counter top, backsplash, and the sink situation were changed, and I painted the walls and cabinetry. We also bought an island at IKEA which made the room much more functional. These basic upgrades made it feel cleaner, improved the overall feel of the space, and made it much easier to cook in.

My kitchen after a few basic upgrades:. New lighting, countertops, backsplash, sink, faucet, and some paint made this room feel much more comfortable.

It was definitely an improvement and worked pretty well. I could cook! The lighting didn’t make me want to cry! I could clean it! It was just fine and our priorities lay elsewhere. But, over the next 7 years as I made endless lunches and dinners for my little crew, I began to keep a running list in my head of the things that would make life in my kitchen easier. Little things like having more counter space, as well as bigger things like being able to walk through the back door with groceries without wanting to scream. Eventually these mental lists became sketches and Excel spreadsheets.

The planning stage.

After talking to an architect friend and a few contractors I discovered that I have very expensive dreams. Not a shock I guess. It turns out that adding on to the back of my house, expanding the powder room into a full bath, moving a staircase, installing a giant island, and various other bits and bobs would run about one kajillion dollars. Approximately. That sort of spending was definitely not happening in 2020. Or 2025. Or, likely, 2030. So, it was back to the drawing board to see what changes I could make that would allow me to love my kitchen while I waited for the magical time when we would be able to spend a small fortune on my big dreams.

Here is what we came up with… a list of manageable updates that we could mostly tackle ourselves, over a few months, with a little patience. Not a full blown gut job, but sort of a refresh with an eye toward the space of our dreams, waaaay down the line.

  • Remove all interior kitchen walls to create one nice size room. This would give us a little more room to move around and allow for a longer run of cabinetry and countertop.
  • Replace the base cabinets, sink, and counter top. The existing cabinets are likely from the 1960s and were never quality, even when new.
  • Streamline the electrical. It’s clearly been cobbled together over the years and needs to make more sense.
  • Relocate the back door to the neighboring butler’s pantry therefore creating a proper mudroom.
  • Build out the mudroom with storage for coats, hats, shoes and the like.
  • Paint the floor to detract from the fact that it’s a patchy subfloor never meant to see the light of day.

Not a bad plan and sort of within our budget. We planned on using a contractor to get the shell of the room completed (demo, moving the door, sheetrock, exterior patching, HVAC and electrical). I would call in my trusty plumber to help get the sink sorted. The rest – cabinetry and finish work – we would do ourselves. This would save us a bunch of money and, call us crazy, we actually enjoy home improvements. It was a solid plan.

So what changed between December and May when moving forward became a real possibility? Well, to be honest, with all the time spent in the house and the opportunity to really examine how we live, our priorities shifted. Is it wise to spend a small fortune on a kitchen when the economy is so uncertain? What will the world look like in 10 or 15 years? Maybe, just maybe, I could make the space we have within our existing walls work for my family not just now but for the long term. Maybe this could be The Kitchen?

So I revisited the plan, more lists were made, and the budget was tweaked once again. In the end, the things that changed weren’t really big alterations. The basic plan remained the same but, because this was no longer a temporary space, I began to select finishes with my true wishes in mind.

Here are the changes I decided on:

  • Make the base cabinetry layout flexible so that we can add a 36″ range in a few years. Because we are building the IKEA cabinets ourselves, we would have an understanding of their capabilities and how they can be tweaked down the line.
  • Purge all kitchen items, including dishes, so that what we have will fit in the room – no more basement storage except for things like Costco purchases and cleaning supplies.
  • In 2-3 years upgrade the stove and add a fan which will require removing a window.

What we will (hopefully) be left with is a kitchen that we love and that works for the way we live with a mini phase 2 to follow in a few years.

Here is the space after the walls came down. It was an instant improvement!

So off we went! As soon as the halt on non-essential construction was lifted a port-a-potty was placed in our driveway, a dumpster was delivered, and a small crew in masks showed up with sledgehammers to get the show on the road.

This is where the contractor left off… the rest is up to us!

Apparently a global pandemic can really put things in perspective. With a little creativity and a lot of letting go of things (and ideas) we don’t really need, this little kitchen is going to suit my family just fine. Isn’t that the essence of curating, rather than decorating a home?

Sarah Gee is an interior stylist living in Maplewood, NJ.

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