An Architect's Top 5 Renovation Secrets

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We all know the basic plot of most HGTV renovation shows: client envisions lofty, ambitious project for their property; client hires contractor; contractor finds unexpected site condition; contractor asks for more money, and then the renovation proceeds smoothly, as if nothing happened, and the result is a beautiful space that is, for all the viewer knows, completed on time and on budget.


But if you've gone through a renovation project, you may have felt like you could star in your own renovation drama full of stress, suspense, and unexpectedly high price tags. As an architect — and one in the process of doing some work on my own home — here are a few tricks of the trade that I'd recommend to any friend, family member, or potential client before they embark on their own rehab journey.

1. When possible, try living and using the space before starting a major renovation project.

It's easy to walk into a home and imagine how you're going to use it; in fact, that may be why you decided to move there in the first place! But the truth of the matter is that it's hard to know what your new routine will be in a new home. Will enlarging the bathroom and relocating the closet in the hall really be a benefit for you, or will that end up being an inconvenience? Will you want to move the kitchen sink from its current location under the window, or does it really belong on the other side of the room? These are the kinds of questions that you won't know the answer to unless you live in your new home and understand your habits. Knowing your patterns and needs will help you infinitely as you make decisions for changing your home.

Of course, it's not always possible to live in a space before altering it, and it's entirely possible for habits to change once a space has been modified. But we're not all fortune tellers who can read the future, so I always recommend seeing this as part of the research and analysis phase!

2. Don't be afraid to do a little bit of digging to better understand what you're working with.

Speaking of research, I always recommend that anyone, whether they're hiring an architect, interior designer, contractor, or executing the work themselves, that they gather as much information about the existing building as possible. This doesn't mean you need to do an invasive investigation like opening holes up in your walls. But there's a lot to learn from small removals, like removing an outlet cover to understand how thick your wall might be (and if there's maybe some brick under there, waiting to be exposed), or taking a peek behind an outlet to see if you're dealing with old, crumbling wiring. This will better prepare you for surprises that might occur once a wall is opened up or you're trying to replace a light fixture, and will reduce the headache of unforeseen circumstances.


3. Visit showrooms and online shops for price comparison and availability.

There are few things I enjoy more than comparison shopping for items like bathroom faucets, shelving, flooring, tile ... I could go on. And while I realize that this might not be the case for everyone, it's an important way to ensure that your renovation runs smoothly and on budget. You know what's more frustrating than finding the perfect stone for a new kitchen counter, only to find out that it won't be in stock for another eight weeks after you thought your renovation would be complete? Ordering the stone without knowing that it's going to be late, and then not being able to cook anything in your kitchen for two extra months. It's always good to know this information in advance rather than after you've already committed, so shopping around, learning more about pricing for different products, and when they'll be available in relation to when you'd need them is nothing short of critical.

4. Ask for quotes from multiple contractors.

Anytime you're considering spending a big chunk of money, you should consider multiple opinions, and generating quotes from multiple contractors is no different. Regardless of the scope of work — from something as small as refinishing 600 square feet of wood flooring in a few rooms to redoing your entire home — you should ask for several companies to bid on your project; I usually recommend no fewer than three, but no more than four or five (talking to all these different contractors can get time-consuming too!).

Doing so will allow you to learn about what different contractors have to offer, get a sense of what is the most expensive part of your project, see how each contractor plans on addressing it, and ultimately allows you to make an educated decision based on hard numbers rather than simply who has a nice website or who worked on your neighbor's home.

5. Consider using apps and technology to your benefit.

Finally, I understand that not everyone understands a floor plan or can visualize a space on their own. One of the most exciting ways that technology can help DIYers, home renovators, or even someone considering purchasing a piece of furniture is through virtual tours, visualizations, and renderings. Doing these from scratch can be time-consuming and usually needs to be done by a professional, but there are tons of free or low-cost apps and services that are making this quick and easy. IKEA, for example, has a helpful planning tool for designing your kitchen in 3D; Modsy is great for quick renderings of different furniture options for a space; Amikasa 3D Room Designer lets you build, restyle, and redecorate your rooms using furniture, flooring, and wall colors from real brands.


Kate Reggev, AIA, is New York-based architect, design writer, architectural historian, and educator with a love for buildings — old, new, and everything in between.

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