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Biggest Lessons from 11 Personal Renovations & 20 Years as an Interior Designer

There is always more than meets the eye to any profession. Lawyers know far more about the law than we will ever see on The Good Wife. Doctors make daily life-altering decisions that the rest of us can only imagine from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. What is your area of expertise? What intricacies are there to your industry that outsiders might never guess? I’ll bet there are many.

In my case, I have spent the last 20 years decorating and renovating homes. I have seen the design industry from both inside and out — as a professional with two decades of experience and as a homeowner (aka “survivor”) of 11 personal home renovations.

What surprises our clients most about the process? What have I learned? Here are the 9 biggest lessons I’ve gathered over the years.

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1. Renovations can be hard on a marriage.

Renovations can be hard on a marriage, and yes, I’m speaking from personal experience. There are countless decisions to make, and I like to be in control — the trouble is, so does my husband! Living through a renovation is stressful by nature, and as with any enduring stressor, tensions start to rise, patience decreases, and… you get the idea.

As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and adjusting your expectations can go a long way. Fortunately, we lived to tell the tale and so can you. (You can tour our 1950s home renovation here.) 

My advice? Pick your battles and remember that compromise is key. You can also opt for a professional mediator to keep things calm (no, not a marriage counselor), which brings me to my next point…

2. Involve an impartial voice of reason.

Yes, I’m often that professional mediator. (Surprised?) Sometimes I really do feel like a marriage counselor navigating disagreements between spouses. It doesn’t happen with every project, but it’s not as rare as you might think. It’s only natural for everyone to want a say in how their home looks, feels, and functions. 

Sometimes hearing an informed opinion from an impartial voice of reason can help resolve disputes. We can also help you find creative solutions that you might not come up with on your own. I sure wish I had that benefit when working on my own home!

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For example, this living room strikes a beautiful compromise between our clients’ differing preferences for colour. A monochromatic foundation becomes lively and interesting with patterns, natural textures, and earthy shades of orange.

3. You will want to quit… and you will still have months to go. 

At a certain point, you will hit the wall. “Not me, Lori. I have the endurance of an ultra-marathoner.” Even you. There will come a time when you will feel like you just can’t endure one more person in your house, one more meal out, or one more trip to the laundromat… and then you will have to keep going for at least another few months. 

Lessons 5-9 below will help you when the going gets tough, as will having a professional like SHD to manage all the details for you. But first…

4. Know that kids and pets make renovations harder.

I bet you already knew this, right? The renovation process is stressful, but that stress is magnified when you add kids and pets to the mix. I have lived through renovations both with and without a child and a dog. It is so much harder when your loved ones are stressed out over their surroundings being disrupted.

Of course, it’s not their fault. It’s simply that in addition to managing your own expectations, emotions, and altered lifestyle, you have to manage theirs, too. 

That said, there is no question that it is a worthwhile endeavor. Many of our clients have children and pets, and designing a home where kids and pets will thrive can create closeness, daily joy, and lifelong memories.  

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5. Your sanity is worth the cost.

Let me paint the picture of a renovation in progress: bandsaws whirring, hammers hammering, crews trekking through your home, dust and debris flying, paint fumes wafting through air. These are the sights, sounds, and smells of design magic happening… but if you are living in the space while it’s happening, it feels more like mayhem than magic. 

My advice? Move out! At least for the highest impact weeks, like when the space is down to the studs and it is too noisy to take a phone call indoors. Book a vacation rental or stay with family. Yes, while there may be a cost — financial or otherwise — your sanity will be well worth it. Worst case scenario, you can relocate to an untouched area of the house and set up a temporary kitchen and/or living space there. 

Whatever it takes, removing yourself from the renovation zone will help increase your endurance and decrease stress, making for a much more bearable experience. 

6. Lengthen your timeline for the best results.

Whatever you do, don’t rush into a renovation. You will need to start with a very detailed, concrete plan, even if it means that your renovation start date is 6 months to a year from now. In fact, that is a good timeline for planning a major renovation. Give yourself 6-12 months to plan your renovation and work with a designer to map it all out and order materials before demolishing anything.

I share more about design and renovation timelines here, which is a good place to start familiarizing yourself with the process. Look at the anticipated timeline, calculate 6 months backward on the calendar, and that’s when you will want to get started. 

“But Lori, what if that means my home won’t be finished for another YEAR?” Trust me, waiting for the home you really want and deserve is better than rushing it and missing the mark. Speaking of rushing it…

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Getting from here to there takes thoughtful design and time.

7. Don’t let anyone into your home until you have a design plan.

DON’T let anyone into your house with a hammer until you have a detailed, finalized plan and all materials and items have been selected and ordered. You have no idea how many times I get a call from someone whose renovation is in progress, and they need help selecting their finishes or finalizing the layout of their kitchen. By then, it’s woefully late.

If you conduct your renovation in this order, you will likely be faced with several less-than-ideal scenarios:

  • Last-minute design decisions based on what is available now, rather than the right choice that results in the look, feel, and function that you really want for your family home
  • Additional costs (and the possible regret) associated with the scenario described above
  • Having to live in a construction zone for several extra months as you wait for your materials to arrive
  • Your construction team moving on to other projects for an undefined length of time — if your project is stalled, off they go to the next one

Design first, then renovate. Better yet, hire a designer first. They will often bring in a talented general contractor they already know, work well with, and trust. This makes your life easier across the board.

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8. Divide the labour for the best results.

Depending on the size of your project, you may require an architect, an interior designer, a general contractor, and/or a project manager. We recommend that the general contractor and project manager be different people, especially if this is your first renovation or you are a busy professional yourself. Whatever your team looks like, having a very clear division of labour keeps everyone on track and accountable. It also takes a lot of the stress off you!

In our projects, we act as the project manager and hire the contractor and/or subtrades on behalf of our clients. We are in charge of general oversight and inspection of the finished work, client communications, schedule coordination, ordering of all non-building materials, and invoicing. (You can read more about our design process here.) Meanwhile, the contractor can focus on managing their trades and their schedules, as well as handling the engineering and permits as required. 

If you have a solid plan, a good team in place, and you don’t rush to get started before everything is ready, there is no reason that things shouldn’t work out beautifully.  

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“Lori’s creative vision, perfectionism, communication skills and ability to harness trades is UNPARALLELED. I couldn’t be happier in my new home — it has the ‘modern high-end hotel’ feel I was after but is also practical enough to house our 2 golden retrievers.”

— P. Cyr, North Vancouver

 

9. Remember that renovations are worth it.

If I have made renovating sound difficult, that’s because it is… but it is worth every second of planning and waiting. There’s a reason I’m up to eleven personal home renovations, and no, I’m not just a sucker for punishment! Each time we finish another project, it changes our lives for the better in some significant way… Like our backyard renovation that was completed the same week that the pandemic hit. Thanks to that project, we enjoyed a fabulous summer at home in our own resort-style backyard.  

A well-designed space creates daily ease. It brings us closer. It helps us live more fully. It removes daily stressors and makes room for family memories, entertaining guests or hitting the trails without “another project” waiting for us when we get home.

Each time I help a client renovate, I see the way their faces light up at the finished result. I read their emails, months or even years later, telling us how happy they are every day.

It’s always worth it.

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Those are the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the years, and with them, a sound approach to planning, managing, and surviving a renovation that changes your life for the better. 

Considering a renovation or design project yourself? Why not start the conversation early? Reach out to me here, and let’s see what we can create together.

Cheers,
Lori

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