Renovating for a New Normal

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Kristen Meehan’s home office is often a brown Adirondack chair on her front lawn, with hedges that make a halfway decent Zoom backdrop.

“Every time I’m on a video call, people are like, ‘Are you in a forest?’” said Ms. Meehan, 31, who lives not in the woods, but in a four-bedroom house in Montclair, N.J., with her husband, Mark Meehan, and their three children, all under the age of 4.

Ms. Meehan, a consultant for PwC, has used indoor alternatives in the months since the family has been home during the pandemic — in the living room, at the dining room table or in a bedroom. But none are particularly quiet since the children, ages 3, 2 and 6 months, have claimed a den off the living room as their primary play space.

Mr. Meehan, 34, who works in sales, also needs a place to work, so he and Ms. Meehan often swap spots and parenting duties. They’ve had no consistent child care since February, although family members have helped over the summer. “In practice what that tends to look like is my husband and I running around frantically trying to find a quiet spot for conference calls,” Ms. Meehan said. “Layer in the fact that I’m also nursing a baby every two hours and it makes for a good time.”

Because the game of musical office chairs couldn’t last indefinitely, the couple started work on a $200,000 addition this summer, a project that will add a family room, deck, mudroom and move a bathroom. Once the space is complete in January, Mr. and Ms. Meehan intend to claim the front of the house as the quiet adult work space and relinquish the addition to their children.

“We initially didn’t think we needed all the space and now we’re like, ‘Oh my God, we need more space,’” Ms. Meehan said. “We’re going to be home for the foreseeable future.”

As the country approaches the six-month mark since stay-at-home orders were enacted, and coronavirus cases surge again, millions of Americans are struggling to stay in their homes through a punishing recession. In August, a third of respondents to an Apartment List survey reported failing to make their full rent or mortgage payment on time, the highest nonpayment rate since the rental listings site began conducting the survey in April.

But the pain has not been evenly felt. While many Americans are suffering through a historic economic crisis, those who have not taken a financial hit are focused on ways to make an extended period of isolation more comfortable. Facing additional months of distance learning and working from home, some are making extensive home improvements — permanent alterations that they would not have done absent a pandemic.

As bans on construction have lifted, designers, architects and general contractors have begun fielding calls from homeowners who are looking for ways to improve or expand areas in their home for work, school and exercise. In June 2020, professionals who list their services on the home renovation site Houzz reported a 58 percent increase in requests from homeowners from June 2019, with queries about home extensions and additions up 52 percent. Some homeowners are converting garages into work studios, or adding a shed in the yard for an office. Others are renovating the basement to turn it into a yoga studio or a classroom. Those who may have started projects before the pandemic, are looking at those original design plans and realizing they need an overhaul to work in this new world order.

“People want to be ready. We weren’t ready in March and now we’ve had the summer and we’re able to reflect,” said Alessandra Wood, the vice president of style for Modsy, an online interior design service. “I don’t know if it’s a fear or an expectation that in the fall we’re still going to be living this life.”

Elizabeth Stuart, an interior designer in Charleston, S.C., says her business from residential clients is up 50 percent as homeowners and new buyers rush to redesign their spaces for a new era. Clients are looking for ways to accommodate multiple workstations in a home, expand high speed internet, and improve ventilation and soundproofing. Features like mudrooms have taken on a renewed importance as homeowners look for dedicated spaces to safely remove outerwear and store packages.

“It’s crazy to be thinking like this but that’s the reality of it,” Ms. Stuart said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. You’re figuring out right now what you need and what you wish you had.”

When the Meehans bought their home in 2018, they planned to eventually renovate it, but the pandemic pushed up the timeline and changed their priorities. As interest rates fell, they refinanced their home, taking out cash in the process to supplement their savings so they could start the work immediately.

Before the pandemic, they figured they would renovate the kitchen, which is small, but in good condition. Their architect steered them away from that idea, Ms. Meehan said, suggesting that by expanding the dining and living areas, they could leave the kitchen intact, but it would nonetheless feel larger. By avoiding a kitchen remodel, most of the work can be done outside of the footprint of the existing house, allowing the family to continue to live at home with only minimal contact with the work crew.

“Obviously there’s a different level of concern with Covid, not wanting contractors in your house,” Ms. Meehan said. “That sold us on doing the renovation.”

Some homeowners are looking to their backyards for additional space, adding customizable sheds to use as offices, classrooms or workout studios. Such structures, which can be assembled quickly on site, avoid the stress, time commitment and high cost of an interior renovation. Sales in May 2020 were up 500 percent from May 2019 for Studio Shed, a Colorado-based company that sells customizable backyard shed solutions ranging from simple storage spaces to elaborate tiny cabins with gabled roofs, double-pane windows and sustainable lumber. Most orders, said Studio Shed’s founder, Mike Koenig, are for home office spaces. Man caves and “she sheds” are also popular, as are music studios and so-called flex spaces, which could work as a spare guest room, play space or home gym.

Most of Studio Shed’s modular pods run around 120 square feet, exempting them from permitting and zoning requirements in most American cities. Homeowners can order models that they assemble themselves in the backyard, or add professional design and installation options onto their order. The average cost per unit is around $20,000.

Sales began to jump around March 12, said Mr. Koenig, when many American cities were put under stay-at-home orders. “It’s been meteoric ever since,” he said.

Marlo and Michael Aragon, who live in Malibu, Calif., installed a shed in their yard, not for themselves, but as a classroom for their four teenage children who were suddenly studying at home. They spent about $6,000 on the shed and upgrades. Ms. Aragon, 50, a stay-at-home parent, left the decorating decisions to the children, telling them to measure the windows for blinds and letting them furnish it. Mr. Aragon, 50, works at the Pepperdine University bookstore.

During the school year, the children established a schedule with a spreadsheet. The oldest, Avalon, 19, claimed the space in the early hours because she was tele-schooling from George Washington University, and so needed to keep to an east coast schedule. During the summer, the teens have used it to socialize and as a dance studio.

“We were going to call it the Corona schoolhouse,” Ms. Aragon said of the shed that they erected in a spot on their one-acre property that once housed a large wooden playset. “It made them feel like they were going to class.”

Soon after California enacted stay-at-home orders, Valerie DeLong-Lambert decided she needed a space of her own to work. So, she added a shed to her half-acre lot in Westlake Village in Los Angeles county. She’d run her music consultancy, Moxy Entertainment, out of a home office off the kitchen of her 5,500-square-foot house for years. But with her 17-year-old son, 21-year-old daughter and her husband all at home with her full time, she couldn’t focus. “There was too much activity and energy in the house,” she said.

She bought a 150-square foot customizable shed from Tuff Shed. Working with Heather Trilling, a landscape designer, she added a white facade to match the main house, a deck with stone walls, pergolas over each entry and a cupola. Two French door entryways give the shed two walls of glass.

The family knows that the shed, which cost about $15,000 to buy and upgrade, is Ms. DeLong-Lambert’s private realm in a challenging time. “It now has become my sanctuary. I go and get away from everybody. It’s all mine,” she said.

For families of school-age children, the pandemic has turned their homes into virtual classrooms. Now, with more remote learning on the horizon, many families are grappling with how to accommodate an entire year spent at home. Adam Potter and Tom Wallace, a married couple in Greenwich, Conn., looked at the first floor of their 5,000-square-foot home and saw an opportunity to turn the space into a schoolhouse for their daughters, ages 6 and 7, and both entering second grade in the fall.

“By the beginning of May, I recognized that this could continue for another year,” Mr. Potter, 52, who is a retired entrepreneur in the insurance industry, said of remote learning. “I don’t think that’s the right option for our girls.”

They hired a retired elementary schoolteacher, an aide, and invited six other girls to join them in what they describe as a home-schooling co-op. Mr. Potter and Mr. Wallace, 58, an actor and a director, named the school Willowmere Academy, after the name of their street, and made a school logo of a goose, printed on T-shirts. “We want our kids in a school without social distancing, without wearing masks,” Mr. Potter said. “We want to create this great school environment for them.”

In late July, they finished a $60,000 renovation of the first floor, which already had a family room. They added a half bath and renovated an unfinished room, installing recessed lighting and new flooring. If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, Mr. Potter said he would not have spent the money on the renovations. The other families in the school are not contributing to build-out costs, but each family is paying $16,000 tuition per child.

The house, a waterfront property on Greenwich Cove, is elevated, so the first floor has its own ground level entrance separate from the main entrance to the home. Mr. Potter envisions the teacher taking the children to the beach for marine biology lessons.

They plan to decorate the classroom space with tables, chairs, bookshelves, a white board and a desk for the teacher. “We’re making it fun,” Mr. Potter said. “We’re putting in bean bag chairs. We’ll have an art corner and a reading corner, so it will look like walking into a second-grade classroom.”

For homeowners who had already started a construction project, the monthslong pause at the start of the pandemic gave them the opportunity for a reset. Suddenly, ideas that made perfect sense in February no longer worked so well.

Todd and Heather Wigfield were just beginning to design the interiors of a 4,800-square-foot house they were building in Charleston, S.C., when stay-at-home orders were enacted. Overnight, their needs changed.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Wigfield, 42, who works in real estate development, traveled regularly for work. Now, for the first time in years, he hasn’t traveled in months. Instead, he’s working at home in the Charleston rental where the family is living temporarily. With two school-aged children who also need work space, and an infant who needs room to play and nap, it became clear that the family’s priorities had changed.

“It materially changed the way we thought about setting up the house,” Mr. Wigfield said. “Everybody needed their zone.”

The Wigfields sat down with their interior designer, Ms. Stuart in Charleston, and reconceived the interiors. They added built-in desks to the children’s rooms, an office space in the master suite where Mr. Wigfield could work, and a gym in the basement with a television so Ms. Wigfield, 37, a stay-at-home parent, could take virtual workout classes. They added ample bicycle storage since they bought bikes during the pandemic.

The Wigfields also made sure the house had adequate bandwidth for high speed internet, so everyone could work easily without interruptions in the backyard, basement, living areas or any of the bedrooms. Above all, they wanted a house that would be comfortable and inviting when they move into it in September.

“You’re living in your space differently and we wanted to make sure that ultimately we were really thoughtful,” Mr. Wigfield said. “It had to be comfortable. It had to be something that if you’re going to be spending a lot more time at home, it had to be functional, too.”

Published by The NY Times

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