Renovating with Kids: A Cautionary Tale

Friends and colleagues often ask how we’ve been living through our renovation, especially with two children under 5. In short, it’s not easy. It sometimes sucks quite a bit more than I let on. 

But over the last six years (I’m including a pregnancy here), I’ve arrived at a few truths—things I’ve learned the hard way, and that I’d like to share with anyone who’s considering doing the crazy and starting a project with little ones around. Here are 6 things everyone with kids should know before applying for that building permit.

1. Dust is your greatest enemy.

Every project creates dust—demolition, for sure, but also carpentry, painting and wall repairs, tiling, et cetera. And that dust will quickly get airborne, blown around, and tracked from space to space on the soles of your shoes. It’ll end up in rooms you’re not even working on. This is a guarantee.

Several years ago—I think it was when we demolished the basement—we went away for a long weekend to escape the chaos of construction. When we came back, I immediately noticed a thin layer of dust coating everything in the house, from the mantels and the stair rails to the third-floor furniture. A subcontractor had neglected to cover the air vents in the space where he was working, and the dust he produced was sucked into the ducts, blowing it across every square inch of the house.

Anyone who has toddlers knows that any unpalatable substance in your home, be it dirt, glitter, or pet hair, will inevitably end up on their hands, in their eyes, and in their mouths. And since we had no way of knowing what was in the dust (Paint? Lead? Plaster?) that had blanketed our belongings, we had no choice but to clean everything we owned. With the help of a cleaning crew and a few hundred microfiber rags, we washed and wiped everything not enclosed in a box or cabinet. Buckets of blocks, balls and plastic toys went into tubs of soapy water; every item and every surface had to be wiped with a damp rag. Every piece of furniture had to be vacuumed three times with a HEPA filter, every bed stripped, and all of our towels turbo-washed. I threw out our toothbrushes. It was the worst.

The lesson: Renovation projects become much less impactful once you learn how to manage the dust. We now use zip walls, these amazing inventions that let you seal off areas with plastic and enter and exit via a zipper system. We sometimes even build semi-permanent walls that divide the work zone from the living zone. We also triple-check to ensure the HVAC system is turned off in the work zones, and we cover and tape the vents so there’s no path for dust to travel. We place rugs or drop cloths at the entrance to the work zone, so dust won’t get tracked through the hallways. And we always keep plastic dropcloths around to keep dishes and toys dust-free.

2. You can never have enough rags.

See above. Microfiber towels, terrycloth rags, flour-sack towels, dish rags: You need them all. 

3. Insulation products look like snack food.

Ever see those huge rolls of Owens-Corning insulation in Home Depot? Yeah. Your kids will point at it and say “cotton candy,” and you will have to physically restrain them as they barrel toward the aisle with their mouths open. And when your son walks up to a recently framed-up windowsill and shouts “Pirate’s Booty,” know that he is about to pull a piece of spray foam out of the wall, and that you will intercept it two inches from his mouth.

On the left, spray insulation. On the right, delicious Booty. The confusion is understandable.

On the left, spray insulation. On the right, delicious Booty. The confusion is understandable.

Be vigilant, mamas. Which leads me to…

4. Contractors aren’t mothers.

Even the best, most considerate contractors on the planet can’t keep an under-construction home truly safe for kids. That’s your job. You can ask electricians and plumbers to pick up after themselves, and to use the Shop-Vac at the end of each work day, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to keep everything baby-proof while also doing everything they need to get your electrical, plumbing, and other systems working. So as long as there’s construction in your home, and probably for six months after each project, be aware that there may be rogue staples on the floor, nail heads peeking out of new carpentry, bits of copper wire in the carpet, outlet covers that were removed, and more. Scan a room for hazards before letting your kids play there unattended, and sweep and vacuum whenever you have the chance.

5. You need to plan for the process, not just the end result.

Assume your project is going to take longer and be far messier than you originally plan, and find ways to make your situation sustainable for longer than you’d like. That might mean creating a temporary cooking station in the living room, buying a portable dishwasher that hooks up to the bathroom sink, converting a living room to a bedroom, or hell, even getting kitting out your backyard with an outdoor shower. (I have done three out of these four things.) This is especially important with kids, who can’t just go without bathing for a few days, crash on a friend’s sofa, or go out to restaurants for every meal. 

When renovating our current kitchen, for instance, we found a friend willing to let us cook at her house for a week and a neighbor who’d let us use their grill, and Dave used that time to build a temporary kitchen in our mudroom downstairs. Here's a pic.

Our “crazy kitchen,” as the kids called it, made from the cheapest Home Depot cabinets and counters we could get, the old sink and faucet from our previous kitchen, a compact Craigslist fridge, and a $100 convection toaster oven. It occupies what will eventually become our mudroom on the garden level. My husband installed it in three days, because apparently men from Ohio just know how to do things like that.

Our “crazy kitchen,” as the kids called it, made from the cheapest Home Depot cabinets and counters we could get, the old sink and faucet from our previous kitchen, a compact Craigslist fridge, and a $100 convection toaster oven. It occupies what will eventually become our mudroom on the garden level. My husband installed it in three days, because apparently men from Ohio just know how to do things like that.

Sometimes it's even more complicated. Two years ago, when we ran all-new heating, electric, and plumbing, added one bathroom, and renovated another, we knew that the project was going to be too invasive to live with. For three months that turned into nearly five, we rented a nearby apartment in a high-rise. Our toddler slept in a windowless "office," our mattress was on the floor, and I was 4 months pregnant. It was noisy, inconvenient, and far from lovely, but it made our situation sustainable so that we could get the work done right, and not cut corners because we got tired of huddling in a corner of our home.

It’s all about creating interim comfort, and it's always worth it. If all goes quickly and cleanly, you can take down the interim solution earlier, move back into your finished spaces, and pat yourself on the back. But if sh*t hits the box fan and your project plan gets extended by a month, you’ll be able to chug along just fine.

6. Kids like to be involved.

All of my advice thus far has sounded pretty grim, hasn’t it? But the truth is, renovations can be a whole lot of fun for kids. A few years back, I interviewed Dana over at the amazing blog House*Tweaking about her own renovation experiences, and she told me about handing her tots a sledgehammer on demolition day. Why not? 

During this last project, after we built a temporary wall between our in-progress kitchen and the rest of the house for dust reasons, we noted that our kids liked to yell their morning “hellos” to our GC, Jimmy, through the plywood. So Dave went to the hardware store, bought a piece of Plexiglass, and had Jimmy saw a hole in the door.

Watching the new walls go up in the kitchen. 

Watching the new walls go up in the kitchen. 

Through this “aquarium” window, our kids watched the entire progress of the redo, stopping by a few times a day to make piggy-noses on the window and oink at the carpenters. And when it was time to place the countertops, Jimmy took down the wall and called my daughter over to write her name on the cabinetry before they glued down the marble, preserving it for posterity.

She loved it—and so did we. At the end of the day, I want my kids to know this is their home as much as ours, and the project is for them, too.  I’ve never wanted a “do not touch” home—so I’ll let them draw, hammer, and watch. 

I just won’t let them taste the insulation.