Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and “sheltering in place,” we are finding out more about our houses than we could have ever learned in normal times.
I am more than satisfied with my suburban bungalow, which served me well seven years ago when I severed the quadriceps tendon in my left leg and spent about six months in rehab. The house accommodated single-floor living, and my basement office was easy to reach, thanks to earlier planning to deal with aging in place.
One of my colleagues shared “If you don’t like where you’re sheltering in place, call your local Realtor” on his Facebook page – dark humor in an even-darker time – but from my conversations with socially distanced neighbors and friends on Zoom, most have gained a greater appreciation of their homes in the nearly nine weeks since we were told to put safety first.
What I have been thinking, and what my friends and neighbors have been suggesting, is that we should consider how our houses can be even better places in which to live and work during what could be the “new normal” of the next several months or years.
Massachusetts homeowner Lori Day’s attic is partially finished, and is heated and cooled, “but it needs light,” she said, “so I would do dormers.”
The Costas have had issues with their foundation, which is made of concrete aggregates with traces of pyrrhotite that have caused it to crumble over time. It is a widespread problem in Northern Connecticut, traced to a single quarry, that is being addressed by a state-sponsored bailout program for affected homeowners.
Once the problem is corrected, “we will finish our basement,” Liz Costa, an entrepreneur who worked at home before the start of the pandemic, said. “That way, it will give the kids places to separate themselves besides just ‘your bedroom,’ and the kitchen and living room.”
Her husband, Mike, an engineer for a utility, uses the dining room and the office, which Liz shares.
Fortunately, with the weather warming, the Costas will be able to escape to the pool house or the deck for more open space.
Floridian Deborah Shor Jervis wants “built-in bookcases for all the books I found when I cleaned out the storage closet – seriously, this was on the top of my list after the pandemic hit.”
Changing home to accommodate sheltering in place is not just an American problem.
Anne-Marie Sims and her husband, John, a teacher, live in the west of Ireland, and had started on the outside of their house as the pandemic began.
“We had help lined up, but we are doing it ourselves now,” she said. The work is designed to create an outdoor place to relax as well as picnic, and workshop for John, “to get all that stuff out of that house and into the shed.”
With increased reliance on technology to communicate with the outside world, the need for highest-speed Internet connections is on many minds.
“I need a household ethernet so I can connect via cable rather than depend on Wi-Fi bandwidth anywhere in the house,” said Mark Sofman, who lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Californian Vicki Valerio “completely revamped my ethernet system in early February so that it is 220-plus megabits per second,” and “cut the cord and signed up with Spectrum TV. Now, I can stream anything all over the house, including the TV and sound system in the backyard pergola.”
What else is on the wish list? Pennsylvania Realtor Linda McKissick “always wanted a family room” in her Delaware County home. Amy Placentra in Collingswood wants a dishwasher. Jill Minick, of Philadelphia, is “staying where I am and throwing out more stuff.”
In the mountains of western Maryland, Margaret Calvert Avery “would have gotten the fireplace insert,” would have “chosen a bigger freezer,” and “I’d have a plumber come and beef up our water pressure. I’d also have a deep cleaning done.”
“Thank God [and the previous owner] for the hot tub,” Margaret said.
Pamela Edwards wants a new flooring in the dining room, kitchen and spare room of her Southern Connecticut house. She and her family have been working on a barroom, and the flooring would facilitate completion.
Different states have different positions on what constitutes “essential businesses.” My friend, the photographer Rebecca Barger, said that a friend of hers who owns a flooring business in Southern Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia, had been “swamped at the beginning.”
“Then his store was shut down,” because the state did not consider it essential, she said.
Philadelphia artist Denise Fike has lived in her Philadelphia rowhouse for 42 years.
“I started the changes three weeks ago,” she said, because she “needed something big to focus on.” She copper-leafed the stairwell, and is “painting flowers in line, then painting the background color, then painting the stairs.”
Although the pandemic has delayed their wedding from May 2020 to April 2021, Laura Sims and Matt Chubb have been looking for a house in London, and “a garden is a must, no exception. Having no outdoor space is a killer,” Laura said, adding that her flat has a kitchen and dining room, which is critical “because we have too many meetings to work in the same room.”
The first thing on my list is to replace the first-floor toilet with a low flow. The current toilet needs 3.6 gallons to flush. During a day of normal use, the toilet uses 18.8 gallons of water for flushing. With three of us home 24/7, the amount of water used has more than doubled – triple on some days.
I held on to that toilet much longer than I should have, but the original low-flow models were problematic, to say the least. I wrote endlessly about them in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it took several years of use of the new-model low-flow in the second-floor master bath to convince me.
That, and an increasing water bill over the last two months.
My wife suggests zoning the HVAC system to eliminate the need for supplemental heating and cooling on the second floor. Although the situation does not bother me, we install a small air conditioning unit in the bedroom window during the summer and turn on an electric fireplace a couple of hours before going to bed on really cold winter nights.
It is not efficient and should be taken care of. I am not sure that zoning would be the solution, however, because the problem stems from the fact that the second floor is actually the former attic, and there was not enough room between the ceiling and the roof to accommodate an acceptable amount of insulation.
The answer, I think, would be bumping up the roof, which, unfortunately, would probably alter the roofline and, in effect, “de-bungalow” the house. A nearby effort to do just that resulted in what one neighbor commented looked as if a “tractor-trailer truck collided with the second floor to no one’s satisfaction.”
I would like to find a way to screen my front porch so we could use it during the height of summer mosquito season or build something similar in the courtyard off the kitchen – a screened-in version of Vicki Valerio’s pergola, for example.
We could probably think of a lot of changes based on the needs created by sheltering in place during a pandemic with no predictable end. Among them would be more storage, and not just for Debbie Shor’s book collection, since the unnecessary hoarding of the early, panicky days of the pandemic created need for someplace to put all that extra toilet paper.
Even in the days before the COVID-19, the chief complaint of most homeowners was lack of adequate storage. The pandemic just compounded the problem.
Another change would provide separate work areas for parents and children, which is an idea that appeared in building-industry model homes from the late 1990s to mid-2000s. The idea succeeded only if the floor plan opened the kitchen to the dining room and then living room. The children’s work area would be on the kitchen side; the parents’ office area on the living room side, but with an open layout, one group would be in constant view, and maybe out of earshot, of the other.
Better indoor spaces, better outdoor spaces. Home offices, laundry rooms, playrooms, school rooms. Insulation to cut energy costs. Low-flow toilets to save water.
“I’ve never seen so many home-improvement projects going on around here,” said Susan Young, a contributor to People magazine, of her neighborhood in Livermore, Calif., outside of San Francisco.
The obvious question is how to get this work done, and safely. Many remodeling contractors already have established safety procedures for construction projects, and those whose businesses were not considered “essential” in the early days of the pandemic are being required to develop such procedures in order to reopen.
These procedures should be designed to protect not only the occupants of the house in which the work will be performed, but the workers as well. For example, lunches for workers should be staggered to reduce the size of the group to 10 or less.
Access to water to wash will be limited, so hand washing will be impractical. Instead, alcohol-based hand sanitizers and/or wipes should be provided. Tool use will also be limited and must be properly cleaned and sanitized after use.
The Associated General Contractors has a downloadable PDF on its website, “Keeping Construction Workers Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” at www.agc.org, which will give you an idea of what you should expect from your remodeling professional, no matter how big or small your job will be.
Make sure you ask the contractor to explain his or her safety procedures. These days, this is as important as price or timetable, and probably more. If the contractor has no safety procedures in place, find one who does.
Many contractors are using Zoom and Facebook Live for appointments and keeping touch during construction. Check into it carefully.
Your health, and that of your family and the contractor’s employees, should be your No. 1 concern.
If you have any questions or wish to talk about home-improvement issues or projects, contact me at email@example.com.