Recession Put Your Dreams on Hold?

Think of it as an opportunity: have a little fun… infill with an interim project


“How much of human life is lost in waiting.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

The interim renovation: beat recession blahs with an inexpensive but fun fix-up!
The gloom and doom of recession talk has cast a sobering shadow across the world of home building. Of course if you are a homeowner with financing already lined up, you may actually benefit from the building slowdown: increased access to good builders, and reductions in labor and material costs can mean, if you are lucky, lower than expected construction bids. But if you are not in a position where you can take advantage of these potential benefits—or, because of the current economic situation you are reluctant to start up a large-scale project—there’s still no reason to suffer while you wait out the storm.


Original kitchen: that “dismal project-in waiting”

Concealed within any obstacle are positive opportunities. So rather than dwelling on misfortune, a project-in-waiting presents a chance to experiment, to test out some part of the real deal, or to temporarily trade-in something old and weathered for a simple, yet respectable upgrade. An interim renovation is a quick and inexpensive makeover that injects a final breath of life back into a distressed space, to keep it alive just long enough to get it through the tough times, and on the path to a full and proper renovation. The increase in quality of life, experienced day-to-day by the family, and anyone else who regularly comes and goes from the home, easily justifies a temporary transformation of space in the home slated for demolition. All that is required is a minimal monetary investment, plus a vision or an open mind, and the creative energy and will to pull it off.

Nearly any aspect of a home’s dated identity—the 70’s faux butcher block kitchen or pink and black bathroom—can assume a fresh image through the application of architectural masks. A mask differs from a traditional home renovation in the extent of its alterations—an interim improvement makes no other claim than simply camouflaging aesthetic and functional problems, and determining the best use of limited resources to enhance spatial character and organization of existing spaces.

The obviously superficial nature of this kind of project leaves the door open for all kinds of style trends, fashion statements, masquerades, and role-playing available to the process of character development. Simple enhancements might include skillful application of color—from soft to bold to exotic; ingenious space modeling using light and shadow; artistic maneuvering of circulation flow; overlaying, superimposing and wrapping of select surfaces; embellishing flaws with whimsical details; contrasting planes with bold forms; ordinary materials used in unique ways; together or individually, they present a new face to the world.

5 year temporary kitchen renovation

What does an “interim renovation project” look like? Typically it involves small changes that generate big impacts: paint color, light fixtures, floor coverings, or ceiling treatments are the most common. They can either be done inexpensively, and with minimal impact on the environment, or they might require a greater initial expense, but with the idea that they can be reinstalled later into the new construction (light fixtures, hardware, appliances are all fairly readily moved or reinstalled…). Plywood—stained or painted—is an especially accommodating material and can be put to a variety of uses: bent into a curved ceiling, applied to the face of unsightly cabinet doors, mounted in strips over a tile backsplash, or cut into squares and applied as a temporary flooring. Bold wallpapers can be used in traditional and innovative locations, and cover over a multitude of sins—ugly wallpaper, cracked plaster or dark paneling. And of course a bright colored paint can smooth over mismatched details, small cracks and blemishes, and for those larger design faux pas not easily concealed, a strong color presents a good distraction.

Treat the project like a temporary tattoo—confuse, shock or surprise your friends and neighbors! A short-term project, like the henna tattoo you let your kids talk you into at the carnival, is like an outline sketch of the final project. A loose interpretation, like a cartoon, can stir the imagination of kids and adults alike. Because it eventually “washes off”, a temporary fix-up presents an opportunity to be bold, try different or new ideas that might be too radical to attain permanent status.

Take advantage of the chance to test out a different look for your home, or experiment with a new image or character. And it is possible for a situation specific design to be appropriate for current conditions, but not be the best long-term solution. A simple Zen-like interior—where a calm and soothing atmosphere is provided by soft sage walls, deep walnut-stained wood and a small trickle fountain—might be just the remedy for the frustrations, tension and irritability associated with the deeper causes of a delayed project. But the same mellow, calming atmosphere might not be at all suitable for a permanent design, if under normal conditions the family lives an extroverted, festive lifestyle, in which case the ideal backdrop might be more tropical, casual or bright.

Experimenting with a “mod” look, using a bold color or a 60s Marimekko-type print, might intrigue your teenagers enough to get them to agree to a DIY project like creating an artsy mosaic backsplash for the kitchen, or a black and white checkerboard vinyl tile floor in the mudroom. Or you might even get the younger kids to do some painting (remember, it is temporary) if you agreed to paint the wall a lime green or sunny yellow!

Or keep it simple, but at least sample a taste of what is to come. If the idea of a radical style change induces panic in you or your spouse, it is also possible to simply get a taste of things to come. By purchasing and installing a few key items, things that you are fairly certain will become a part of the future construction project, and installing them now, it acts to liven up the old space. Particularly if the stove that you fell in love with is on sale, or being discontinued, you can buy it now and swap it out with your old stove, and then later, reinstall it into the final kitchen.

Is the wrought iron hardware on the cabinets driving you crazy? Quality cabinet hardware can be pricey, but if you plan to reuse it on new cabinetry, spend the money now and enjoy them on your old cabinets in the meantime. (You may need to drill new holes and patch old ones, but wood filler and a coat of paint will cover the marred surface for now.) Lights too can be reinstalled in a future addition or renovation; a couple pendant fixtures might be worth buying and installing now to brighten up a poorly lit island, even if the island or entire kitchen will eventually be torn out. Any of these installations will give the current living space a taste of the future, and can make even a “disaster zone” a little more pleasant to live in.

If the effect is so great, and the costs minimal, why don’t more people make temporary improvements when their projects are stalled? There are several reasons people are afraid of doing anything at all to a space they will ultimately be modifying or destroying, even if it means living for years in a miserable environment. First, there is a fear of being economically wasteful—throwing away money and resources on something transient—and for others there are related concerns about ecological responsibility. A few thousand, or even a few hundred dollars may seem extravagant for a temporary improvement that will be dismantled in a couple years. But that is in part because culturally we have learned to focus our attentions and resources on the future, and so we tend to forget the value of the present, here and now. (Yet a simple shift in perspective regarding our view of life—if we suddenly found out that we only had a couple more years to live—would definitely redirect our focus to living in the present!)

To look at the interim project from a quality of life perspective, costs become relative. Let’s say you were planning to commit upwards of $400,000 to a major home improvement project (for some that figure might sound high, but it is a fairly average cost for many renovation and addition projects in this area), but now with the current state of the economy, your grand plans are hovering in an indefinite holding pattern—it could be anywhere from a few months to a couple years before a groundbreaking is possible. For an investment of just one percent of that total project cost you could spend as much as $4,000 on a temporary renovation project that could make the interim period of waiting not only tolerable, maybe even a little intriguing!

To put a figure like $4000 into perspective, $5 a day, when spread over a couple years of use of the space (less than a couple of lattes a day), isn’t that much to spend relative to the ultimate goal of creating a home you can look forward coming home to now, not someday in the future. Even if they are only surface improvements, having a place to hang out comfortably and feel happy about fulfills a basic human need. No, you won’t achieve fantastic results with that kind of budget—otherwise you could skip the big project altogether—but neutralizing the negatives at home can reduce recession based tension, and alleviate concerns over its potential duration.

Temporary solutions don’t have to be wasteful. A new home or a major renovation/ addition project is an expensive proposition no matter what the economy is doing. By taking a slow approach to construction, there may be hidden benefits including better plans with less potential of wasted space, more time to research sustainable material and energy options, and more time given to builders to prepare detailed estimates allows clients to better budget and manage project costs.

And, while maximizing planning time on a big project impacts both economics and construction efficiencies, minimizing material waste is key to the success of any interim renovation. Many materials used to spruce a place up temporarily can be reused in future renovations and new construction: painted cabinets can be utilized in a basement or garage workshop area; used plywood can be often be installed behind wallboard or paneling, or under new flooring; new fixtures, appliances and hardware can easily be reinstalled into new construction. With proper planning doors and windows can also be removed, and later incorporated into walls of new construction. Loose laid brick or bluestone, used in a temporary path or patio, can be collected up and stored for use later in a permanent landscape feature.

Need creative inspirations, help finding resources or materials, or builders who will take on a small project? Alongside fear of waste, homeowners often fear the unknown. How exactly do you approach a small-scale temporary renovation? Where do you find design assistance or creative solutions? Many people are not aware that an interim solution is even possible or feasible. During high production periods (when the economy is strong), it is true that it is very difficult to find help with a small-scale project. But, when the economy—and construction—slows down, many architects and builders are freed up to take on smaller projects. When projects are limited and competition is high, most architects and builders tend to turn their focus on maintaining their workload, and are less concerned with project size.

Architects are artists, and as a rule feel driven to put their creative talents to good use. As long as they are being compensated fairly—which may simply mean payment for actual hours spent—they will take on a variety of projects. For architects who are generally involved in a project for months or years at a time, a short-term consultation may have the appeal of immediacy, especially if the project looks exciting, or poses a challenging or unusual design opportunity. Similarly, in a down market, builders with loyal and talented crews will often do whatever is necessary to hang on to their best people—including taking on smaller or unusual filler projects—particularly if an architect or designer has already given the project a focus, or outlined a scope of work.

For a few hundred dollars and the talent and skills for a DIY project, or a few thousand dollars and some professional assistance, it is feasible to achieve a quality “ temporary make-over” that transforms at least some area of refuge within your home into a supportive, livable environment. It may seem extravagant, but housing is a primal human need and it is actually vital to the health and wellbeing of the entire family to find comfort in their home. A limited improvement is certainly better than no improvement at all, and if the changes help minimize pessimism, and the feelings of deprivation and doubt many people experience when they walk in the door of their house every night, you might even considered the expense as a form of mental health insurance.

If we look at the current economic situation like a Chinese yin/yang symbol, we see a seed of light (light is the yang, the creative principle) in the greatest area of darkness (dark is the yin, the receptive principle). According to ancient belief, that small seed of light is forever drawn toward the larger mass of light, in hopes of one day rejoining its original source. Using similar reasoning, a temporary disruption of a positive creative nature, especially during a dark period, has the potential of drawing your ultimate plans closer.

Plus, who knows, in the process you may learn something new about yourself, your family or your home that could influence the final design of your new home, addition or renovation.

New kitchen addition, 5 years later, worth the wait!