Home remodeling ramps up during Covid pandemic

By Sarah CR Clark

If our walls could talk, they might recall the quieter pre-pandemic days before we painted, rearranged, knocked out or redecorated them.

During an unprecedented year with scores of people staying indoors due to coronavirus protocols, many homeowners have embarked upon do-it-yourself house projects.

In an informal Facebook survey over the past year, I found neighbors who have created garden offices, installed flooring, insulated garages, repaired and painted windows and refinished decks.

Case in point: Jason Lewis Farris, of St. Anthony Park, who reported taking on “so many” DIY home projects.

“I’ve built three desks and two wooden boxes for storing iPads and their chargers,” he said. “I refinished our dining room table, made Julie (his wife) a stand to hold her vinyl collection, finished building our porch swing and now I’m finishing up some floating walnut shelves in our living room.”

Benjamin Olsen, a St. Anthony Park resident and architectural designer for the Minneapolis-based firm of Lazor/Office, said, “People are doing DIY (projects). They’re thinking really hard about their home and property: their garage, their sauna, their gazebo because they’re just at home all the time.”

Specifically, Olsen noted one popular DIY project is retooling home space into office or work areas.

However, one local family went way beyond doing just a DIY space conversion for a home office.

“We added 576 square feet above ground and 156 square feet below grade (to our house), moved our kitchen, added a half bath on the main floor, a fourth bedroom and an en suite full bath on the second floor, plus our oldest child got her own closet,” said Drew Schmidt.

Since purchasing their St. Anthony Park home (a 1925 Dutch Colonial) in 2016, Schmidt and his wife, Rachelle Hill, knew they would someday expand it.

“I really liked the small house,” Hill recalled. “And we had visions for how it could be updated to better fit our family life.” Schmidt and Hill have two young children.

Schmidt and Hill have undertaken DIY home projects together before. Schmidt explained, “This is the sixth house Rachelle and I have done major work to and it’s the third project where we’ve managed multiple subcontractors.”     Schmidt served as general contractor and also performed all mechanical work and assisted electricians while Hill took on the role of customer.

“I knew what I was looking for in the project as a whole,” said Hill, who spent months thinking about design and finishing materials. Her other role was painter.

The couple also partnered with local firm Terra Firma, which provided excavation, foundation, framing and finishing carpentry work.

While Schmidt and Hill planned their home renovation before the pandemic, all of their construction occurred during the Covid year and, with it, some challenges. For example, only one work crew at a time was on site, in order to allow for social distancing and that led to some minor project delays.

Meanwhile, some crews were more careful about wearing face masks than others. (“Terra Firma in particular was great about following public health guidelines and we appreciated that,” Hill said.)

Another challenge: The cost of building materials has risen appreciably. In response to cost increases, the couple has chosen “to delay a screen porch and finishing of our third bathroom until we save a bit more,” Schmidt said.

Still, despite the challenges, Schmidt and Hill said they are loving their renovated home.

“It’s a much healthier and efficient home!” said Schmidt.

Olsen, the architectural designer, knows well the significant cost increases in building materials and components. For instance, Olsen cited an electrician who recently walked away from one home project because “he couldn’t stand by the (initial) bid he gave just three months ago.”

In December the price for a coil of electrical wire was $200, but in March the cost for that same coil was $417.

For neighbors looking to begin a DIY project, beware: Costs for labor and materials, like wood, remain high.

Olsen said, “The (Minnesota governor’s) stay-at-home order (in response to the coronavirus) in the spring of 2020 created a backlog, and a supply-and-demand equilibrium has yet to be reached.

“Instead of people not buying wood products, the demand for wood surged (last spring) and by the time the sawmills came back on line there was all of this pent-up demand. The surge hasn’t really slowed down,” Olsen noted.

Sarah CR Clark, who lives in St. Anthony Park, is a regular freelance writer for the Bugle.

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