It took a week to connect with the nearly lost art of do-self renovation in the kitchen of our almost century home. Our goal was to save money, not expand but improve. And as the incoming president of the board of Home Repair Resource Center, I wanted to see if I could walk the talk on the do-self empowerment model.
First, a good-looking DIY kitchen is possible. I’ll even go so far as to say, it is satisfying work. In a way, placing a tool in hand is a call to action (good for someone who spends their day sitting in front of a computer). In a week, I taught myself how to cut and hang drywall and mortar in ceramic tile and in the process saved hundreds of dollars (some of that savings will be used to pay a contractor to rip out very worn vinyl tile and 20s linoleum and restore the hardwood floors underneath).
DIY is inherently green.
I think that’s because it forces a focus on what’s really important. When you know that your time and skill set is limited, it helps to shed light on the things that bug you the most about that space. After living in a home for a decade, as we have, you have a pretty good idea of what you hate most. I suggest picking two or three if you have a week of paid time off like we did.
We started with, what do we need to make this space work? Like a lot of older Cleveland homes, we have a wall that separates the kitchen from the “formal” dining room. If money was not limited, would I knock that down and create the open concept floor plan? Maybe. The open concept is more in keeping with the way we live today. After all, why do we have to slavishly follow the 1920s layout even if we want to keep to the traditional style of finishes? Creating more natural light in an open concept may satisfy the inherent urge to be closer to the outdoors, but I wonder about the cost of heating and cooling a big room versus a series of smaller rooms?
I take this question seriously.
There is a lot of merit in questioning the mode of living that produced so much space to air condition. Obviously, the paradigm that we inherited from our European ancestors is ripe for reexamination. It’s the reason we have the tiny house experiments—like the first tiny home being built in the Cleveland EcoVillage. Living smaller and lighter on the planet is a positive trend away from the McMansion and super sizing of American living space that really started in Cleveland in the early 20th century. (Accessory dwelling units, i.e. converting a detached garage into a second home is another interesting trend toward reimagining the problem of too many big houses on large lots. But, that's a story for another time).
DIY also affords you a lot of time to think.
I wonder what the home remodeling industry is telling us when it sells the glamour kitchen (or bath) with its granite/stainless/factory finish veneer of perfection. Because, there is a steep environmental cost to the constant cycle of updating our homes. A remodeling project can generate between 70 and 115 pounds of waste per square foot.
That is a lot of embedded energy in the materials we’re told are this season’s “must haves.” HGTV—as guilty as any of the merchants of what’s cool—has a handy blog post that lists the most and least environmentally impactful countertop materials. Quarrying and transport of granite, for example, a material that can be recycled but often ends up in a landfill requires a lot of energy. Wood, on the other hand can be made from recycled materials. Sourcing recyclable materials for a renovation project is much easier these days. Since 80-90 percent of what is taken out of a kitchen renovation ends in a landfill, it may be possible to find a place to recycle some of the larger pieces of “old” but still durable and valuable materials like granite. It not only prevents waste, it saves money from disposal (it might even make you money to help pay for the project if you or your contractor can plan ahead and find a salvage or resale company to buy it. This stuff is built to last a lot longer than the 10 years it takes for it to go out of fashion).
In the end, we kept our 10 year old laminate countertops and worked around them. Yes, our ceramic “subway” tile has a lot of embedded energy, too. But, we hope in keeping with a more “timeless” look that, in another ten years, we’ll think more not less of it.
If you want to build some character and help resist the urge to make a bold statement that you may regret later, try a DIY project. To make it a little greener, check out the EPA's kitchen renovation resource.
Thanks to family and friends—like fellow board member at HRRC, Carl Goldstein (big shout out), who lent me his drywall t-square, tile saw and a bucket full of advice and help (don’t be afraid to ask for help, or turn to HRRC—it’s a great resource for any homeowner in Cuyahoga County).