The centerpiece of the room — the disco ball-shaped light fixture — was a big sign to Nedra Pickler that her kitchen was past its prime. But it hardly was the only one.
“The floor tiles were coming up, there was a hole in the ceiling from a leak that had been repaired, the dishwasher was broken and, probably the worst, there were sliding glass doors to nowhere” opening to a one-story drop to the yard at the base of the sloped site, she said.
Similar evidence mounted about her shabby “Brady Bunch”-era bathroom off the basement family room in her Northwest Washington home.
It was indisputable: time for kitchen and bathroom makeovers.
In the 1970s, noted architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith designed a contemporary kitchen and adjacent pantry/breakfast nook for the 1930s house and added a basement area. To prepare the house for sale, the most recent owners had installed stainless-steel appliances. Otherwise, no modernizations had been made in decades, and the house — especially the kitchen — showed its age.
Since buying the four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in 2010, Nedra — along with her sons, now 6 and 9, and her mother, Marcy Pickler — had made do with its shortcomings and deterioration.
Like most homeowners going through an extensive renovation, the Picklers had to decide between two difficult choices: Endure the noise and inconvenience and remain in their home during construction or endure the expense of moving into a temporary rental.
They opted to stay.
The four-month project from June to September 2017 included remodeling and expanding the 84-square-foot kitchen and refreshing the 8-by-9-foot bathroom. Construction also consisted of refinishing the first-floor wood floors and upgrading wiring. The kitchen would be nonfunctional most of that time; the bathroom would be unusable for the last five weeks or so. Cost for the entire project: about $207,000.
When she first opted to move forward with the project, Nedra said just about all her friends advised her against staying in the house during the project.
To her surprise, it was her remodeler who convinced her it could work.
“Most of our clients tend to be fairly comfortable” staying in their homes,” said David Vogt, who designed the project along with Mary Englert of Case Design/Remodeling in Bethesda, Md. “Some even enjoy it.”
When he likened it to a camping trip, Nedra shot back: “I hate camping!” But she laughed and agreed to do it. “I don’t love camping but I do love saving money,” she said.
Vogt said he sometimes tells clients, “You can give it a try for the first week,” and see how you are managing. Most, he said, stick it out.
In fact, it’s common for people to live in their homes during a remodel, even without a usable kitchen or bathroom.
Andrew Schroeder, general manager of Schroeder Design/Build in Fairfax, Va., said his company does about 45 home remodels a year that require taking a kitchen and/or bathroom out of service and 90 percent of the clients remain in the house the whole time.
Nader Momeni, owner of Ultimate Home in Bethesda, said every year dozens of his kitchen remodeling clients stay in their homes. Justin Cunningham, sales designer at Stuart Kitchens with locations in Maryland and Virginia, said “more often than not” his clients stay put during kitchen remodels done within the walls of the house. However, “for larger, whole-house renovations, I advise them to head for the hills,” he said.
For homeowners, the key is to understand what to expect and to be flexible. “Stuff happens,” Marcy said. For remodelers, the key is to keep the homeowners informed and as comfortable as possible throughout the project.
Which explains Vogt’s second surprise recommendation. Though her family would be down to one bathroom during the basement bathroom remodel, Nedra figured the workers would use it, too.
Vogt said absolutely not.
No way, he said, would he agree to “Marcy, Nedra and the two kids sharing a bathroom with seven or eight guys a day. Renting a porta-potty is not that expensive,” and doing so to avoid having workers coming in and out and using the family bathroom “keeps that high frustration level out of the mix.”
Senior project manager Kevin Morrissey said Case aims to keep living in a house during construction “as normal as possible on the other side of the dust wall” that seals the work area from the living area.
To control dust and isolate the kitchen construction zone and staging area, “we had a bubble in Nedra’s space,” Morrissey said. Case enclosed the area with stud-framed plastic walls, placed a plastic top over the loft-style breakfast area and open stairway, and used heavy-duty floor covering. A vinyl zipper door provided access. Air scrubber equipment cleaned and recirculated the air. The company covered the first-floor furniture, too, as some dust is unavoidable.
Although the “bubble” separated the construction zone from the living area, sealing off part of the house and moving its furnishings into the remaining space compromises comfort in other ways. “As you seal off space, you compress your house,” Morrissey said.
Remodelers usually squeeze a makeshift kitchen into a compressed space, typically including the old refrigerator and perhaps a countertop section and a couple of cabinets pulled out of the old kitchen. Often the dining room houses the “kitchen;” sometimes it goes into an enclosed porch, where homeowners can supplement it by using the backyard grill.
Cunningham suggests buying a nice-looking countertop oven for the kitchenette. They are “big enough to cook a chicken,” he said, use less energy than a standard oven and can be installed in the new kitchen.
Case has a few portable kitchens on wheels, featuring a small cooktop and a sink with hoses for hookup. For Nedra, they set up a basement kitchenette near the laundry sink, incorporating the old refrigerator. Her microwave, toaster oven and coffee pot and a two-burner hot plate on loan from Case sat on a folding table.
“Picture a family room; now double the furniture and add a kitchen and dining table,” Marcy said.
Before work began, Case delivered a bin full of paper plates and plasticware, and handed Nedra a gift card for carryout pizza. “We used up the paper products in no time,” she said, and bought more. “I didn’t want to use paper, but I had to give that up.”
“Nedra is a tree hugger,” Marcy said, “so this was the worst part of the project for her.”
Preparing to be kitchenless, the family “cleaned out the refrigerator and freezer,” said Nedra, eating what was there and “making smoothies out of everything,” Once the job started, they had dinner most nights at the pool where they are members — grilling or getting food delivered and sitting at picnic tables.
“It’s a little harder to eat healthy” when relying on carryout and convenience food, said Nedra, “but you have to realize it is temporary.” She added: Don’t be shy about accepting dinner invitations from friends and neighbors.
Mike Whealon, a Case senior lead craftsman, was on the Pickler job daily. “We bend over backward to make clients comfortable,” he said. Most of the noisiest and messiest work — the demolition — was done the first week. During construction, the nail gun compressor stayed outside to reduce noise in the house. When the water needed to be turned off for a while or something noisy was scheduled, Whealon worked out the timing with Marcy and Nedra to reduce inconvenience. He cleaned the job site daily.
One of the first steps in the job was to empty the kitchen. Nedra cleared the shelves and cabinets, packing things — including newspaper-wrapped breakables — into labeled, well-sealed boxes. During the remodel, “a humongous pile of boxes” sat on the far side of the dining room, she said, under big “Do Not Move” signs.
There would have been even more boxes, but Nedra used this as an opportunity to get rid of a lot. She donated mismatched cups, duplicate utensils and table linens, tossing what was broken or worn out. (Case helped her donate the cabinets and some appliances, too.) “The upgraded kitchen had a different look, so I wanted new things” that would fit in, Nedra said. “It would feel good moving into the space” with fresh contents neatly organized in new cabinets.
During the basement bathroom upgrade, the family shared the second-floor bath. Marcy said they had a rule: “A closed door equals a locked door.”
The Picklers reached a new state of displacement when the floors were being refinished. Now the neighbors saw not only the porta-potty in the front yard but Nedra’s son practicing piano on the front porch where the piano had been moved.
Next up is phase two of the home improvement: a three-story addition with an extended basement and first-floor and second-floor master suite. Case is ready: “The plumbing is in the floor for the future master bedroom and bath suite,” Morrissey said.
Being ready may take a little longer for Nedra. Looking back on the four-month kitchen and bath remodel, Nedra said, “I’m glad we did stay. It was a much better experience than I imagined.”
Still, “it’s like having a baby,” she said. “You need a few years to forget the pain before doing it again.”
Momeni tells his clients the same thing: “Construction is like having kids — painful but with very good results.”