By Nicole Tysvaer
Co-owner of Galaxy Homes
Welcome to the inaugural post of “The Psychology of a Remodel,” my blog series focused on the practical and emotional aspects of home improvement. If you are in the midst of a project or are considering a renovation, then this blog is for you. I recommend tuning in for inspiration, commiseration, and most importantly, helpful tips on how to minimize the discomfort associated with having your life upended in a plume of construction dust. Fellow builders and architects will also appreciate the candid advice and real-life anecdotes rarely seen on home improvement shows.
Those of us who have survived a home renovation know that any remodeling project involves hard work, headaches, and a series of trials and tribulations to get the job done. Home improvement projects are costly, time consuming, and fraught with unknowns. For this reason, in my work as a builder, I never sell hard to potential clients. It’s critically important that our customers appear ready, willing, and eager to take on the challenge presented before them. I know that we’ll be tapping that initial well of enthusiasm over and over through the rough stuff of the construction process.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a licensed nor trained psychologist. I have a doctoral degree in education, where I studied how young people learn and develop, socially and emotionally, in informal settings. I also have extensive experience in remodeling as both the co-owner of Galaxy Homes and as a passionate participant of multiple construction projects on my own homes. In both my academic studies and my work as a builder, I have used concepts from the field of psychology to better understand and appreciate how people come together to share knowledge, collaborate, respond to stressors, provide support, and challenge each other.
In many ways, home renovations are ripe for a mental meltdown, especially if you find yourself living in the construction zone. To be sure, some of the stress of remodeling can be avoided with careful planning, realistic expectations, and the luxury of time and money. However, even in the best-laid plans, there will be days filled with storm clouds. Consider these potential sources of renovation friction:
- The fundamental unsettling effect: Home improvement projects disturb the sanctity of one of our most fundamental human needs, our shelter. Renovations disrupt our daily routines, displace the material comforts of home, and transform our once serene spaces into unrecognizable piles of rubble. Some homeowners weather this part of the storm better than others (children can sometimes appear particularly immune to such tectonic shifts—more on that a future blog post). Yet, even the most adaptable among us may hit the brink of sanity at some point during the remodeling process.
- An inundated to-do list: Home renovations bring a whole host of new demands on already overloaded schedules. Hiring an experienced and professional general contractor (GC) certainly helps ease the project workload, but many tasks will remain the responsibility of homeowners. I use the analogy of film making: imagine the homeowner is the producer making executive decisions about budget and finish materials, while the GC serves as the director, orchestrating a cast and crew of home building professionals. Many homeowners experience decision-making fatigue during the process, as there are so many choices regarding plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, paint colors, cabinets, vanities, tile, etc.
- Physical stressors: Home renovations put stress on the body as well as the mind. Families who live in the construction zone are subjected to dust, fumes, banging, and utility interruptions. Such intrusions can cause sinus or respiratory problems, headaches, sleep deprivation, and exposure to temperature extremes.
- Fear of the unknown: There’s a certain degree of uncertainty imbedded within any renovation process. Unfortunately, architects and builders do not have x-ray vision and often cannot predict the potential problems lurking behind the walls. In addition to these hidden surprises, the very nature of custom construction involves a host of what I call “confounding variables” that can impact both the process and the outcome of a home renovation project. Weather-related issues, problems in procuring materials, miscommunication among the dozens of on-site professionals, homeowner-initiated changes to the scope, and revisions to government codes and regulations are among just a few of the confounding variables that most projects encounter. I’m sorry to say that the control-freaks of the world will find this aspect of remodeling particularly frustrating.
What are the best ways of reducing stress during a home renovation? If you can’t rent the house next door and take a year off work to focus solely on the project, or go on an extended vacation and leave everything in your builder’s hands, or click your heels, say “there’s no place like home,” and whisk all the misery away, then try this:
- Set some boundaries: If you are staying put during construction, then work with your builder to limit the intrusiveness of the project. For example, establish regular work hours for the crew, designate a planned entry/exit pathway to the home, create space for construction materials and equipment, use air scrubbers to ensure a healthy environment, and clean the ducts multiple times throughout the project.
- Clear your calendar: Consider a remodel like a second (or third!) job, which will require several hours of your time every week. For example, one trip to the kitchen cabinet store could take half a day. Figure out how you can clear some space on your calendar for this new venture. Maybe that means cutting back on hosting parties or volunteer activities. Ask for a very realistic timeline from your builder, and assume that it could go over by a month or two.
- Focus on the positives: A massive renovation project is the perfect excuse to explore the great outdoors! Rather than trying to cook dinner every night with a hotplate while washing dishes in the powder room sink, find adventure in exploring the many restaurants that your community has to offer. Find some neighbors who have been through the process—they may show pity and invite you over! Relish in remodeling time as an important opportunity to practice more self-care in the form of a relaxing massage, hiking, or a spa vacation.
- Be prepared financially: Renovations are costly endeavors. From day one of the project, look for ways – big and small – to save money. Finalize your finish and fixture selections early in the process, so you have a sense of the overall budget. And assume a 5-10% contingency, which means having an additional 5-10% cash of the total construction budget set aside for unknowns.
- Join the team: Homeowners are key collaborators in the building process. It takes a village to build a great-room addition! Meet weekly with your builder, keep a list of agenda items to add to the discussion, and be ready to make quick decisions.
The good news is that when it comes to home renovation, the end almost always justifies the means. Enhancing and expanding our space can have a profoundly positive impact on how we live, work, and play. For many of us, the painful memories of a remodeling project will slip away (similar to how many mothers have a selective memory about their childbirth experiences). All is forgiven when snuggling a new baby or sipping your coffee at a brand new kitchen island with a beautiful quartz top!