March 2020 in Paris was disturbingly warm, a detail I know not from memory but from the pictures on my phone. There we are on our wedge of a balcony, splayed out on green metal chairs, my husband, Guillaume, squinting into the late-day sunlight with my daughter, Mimi, rosy-cheeked and just shy of her first birthday. A few photos later, there’s Mimi in front of our tall living room windows, her hands as plump as balloon animals and pressed against the glass, gazing outside. There are just a few pictures from quick walks around our tumbleweed-quiet neighborhood, the sky cobalt blue over the buildings with their charcoal mansard roofs.
The upside to this cruel meteorological joke—homebound and teased by a precocious Paris spring—was the number of home projects we finally got around to. Guillaume does renovations for a living, and for the first time, his skills and know-how were entirely mine to exploit. I have pictures of him building closets from repurposed 8-foot doors; sledgehammering the wall that gave our apartment a dark, labyrinthine feel; securing a new kitchen counter (thankfully, Ikea was still delivering) next to those big living room windows—anything to brighten the space we were confined to 23 hours each day.
I helped when I could, and when I couldn’t, I cooked. Next to the pictures of ladders and demolition rubble, there are snapshots of thick Spanish tortillas and crackly-skinned roast chickens—fuel for the travail.
We weren’t the only ones renovating during a pandemic. Data from 2020 shows that 74.2 million Americans completed a home remodel that year—an increase of nearly 20 percent compared to the previous year. Steve Treacy, Sales Director at Block Renovation, says the boom was in part driven by the housing market: “More transience to suburbs with lower pricing in cities [drove] home purchases in both markets.” He continued, “People wanted to renovate their new space to truly make it feel like theirs. Then you mix that with an overall, newfound desire to love the space you live in.” Both new and longtime homeowners found themselves renovating during a pandemic—despite the difficulties.
As Ronda Kaysen writes for The New York Times, “Few people relish the idea of living through a home renovation. The work is loud, dusty, and completely upends your life. Live through one during a pandemic, though, and you face an additional challenge: There’s no escape.”
It's like being in a cage with a lion and saying, gee, now seems like the perfect time to set free all of these bees.
But we did it anyway, for physical comfort, sprucing up our nests to make them cozier. We quieted our anxiety by clicking through home furnishing websites, which hit new records in visitation and purchases. We designed wishful-thinking tablescapes, buying plates and napkins and place mats, and fantasizing about intimate dinners we’d host someday soon, swapping stories over beautiful centerpieces and moody candlelight.
Needless to say, essential workers did not have the same luxury of time. But for those who did, to be preoccupied with color schemes and light fixtures was both a survival mechanism and just something to do.
According to a recent Houzz survey, time was the leading catalyst for home renovators: 44 percent reported having wanted to remodel their homes all along and finally having the time. A fair share (36 percent) reported finally having the financial means. Somewhat surprisingly, only 18 percent of homeowners said their renovations were inspired by lifestyle changes. Then again, I have to wonder how much weight to give those numbers, seeing as they’re somewhat intertwined—for example, transitioning to WFH is a lifestyle change and a quick way to find a few more hours in the day. But I suppose it’s a matter of perspective, and people reported the change they felt most poignantly.
Many gravitated toward the kitchen, so it’s no surprise that people were eyeing the paint peeling from their old cabinets with fresh concern. Houzz found that kitchen projects were the most popular among renovating homeowners and that investments in major remodels of large kitchens jumped 14 percent in 2020 (to $40,000). And this, despite a gauntlet of obstacles.
Kaysen writes, “A major kitchen renovation is never easy. It’s like assembling a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with the addition of each piece dependent on the one before it. Renovating a kitchen during a pandemic is even trickier. The global supply chain has been upended at nearly every point, leading to delays in everything from refrigerators to lumber.”
For me, the tipping point was natural light. Our former corner-of-a-kitchen was gloomy. As is not uncommon in old Parisian apartments, it felt more like an afterthought than an actual room. Being a corn-fed American raised on the concept of the airy, aspirational home, I wanted an open-concept kitchen drenched (or at least splashed) in sunlight—even if it meant building a minimalist version until I could plan (and finance) the dream one.
For photographer and author Marisa Scheinfeld, the time felt right to finally renovate her 20-year-old kitchen: “many of the cabinets were loose, some drawers not functioning, and overall, the kitchen was dark and not a warm, welcoming space.” They decided on a total remodel, tearing down a wall to add light and create a fluid space with the living room. But breaking and rebuilding the bones of an 1890 home wasn’t without its surprises—they found four subfloors beneath the kitchen floor. Pandemic-related delays in appliances set them back even further. “What should have taken four to six weeks took nine. But it was worth it.”
Food52 contributor and NYC-based food writer Justine Lee says that her kitchen updates began with a few pain points in need of some TLC. “Our main focal points were to change the cabinets and counter space that felt a tad out of style and to get a larger refrigerator capable of accommodating our relentless home cooking (and my recipe development) needs.” They ended up doing a total remodel.
But, says Justine, there were a handful of roadblocks, “Our building management had some pretty strict mandates on how and when construction could take place. Plus, there was a definite shortage in the supply chain. We had to either wait for materials to be available or look for alternatives. Our kitchen has now been completed, but suffice it to say, it was no easy feat.”
And kitchens weren't the sole target of our nesting frenzy; other rooms saw a surge in renovations, too. “Bathrooms are by far the most requested room to renovate,” wrote Steve of Block Renovation. “They are most commonly neglected due to the fact that they can be complex and labor-intensive to overhaul.”
Erin Contino, an interior designer based in New York's Hudson Valley, wrote by email, “Things like designated spaces for remote learning, home offices, and even outdoor living spaces have been most desired. I’ve also seen a renewed interest in entryways and mudrooms since they create a barrier from the germs of the outside world to the safety of your interior living space.”
With so many people clocking in remotely, home offices were naturally a popular room renovation. According to Houzz, they saw a jump of 4 percent in 2020, and people spent 10 percent more on them compared with 2019. Explained Erin, “Something as silly as wanting a good background for a Zoom meeting has made a lot of people reconsider how their rooms are styled.” Point in case: credibility bookshelves.
We reconsidered our backdrops and observed other peoples’ with sleuth-like attention to detail. After seeing an article about Ronan Farrow, featuring a photograph of him in his home office (displaying not one but two copies of French translations of the author’s book), I found myself maniacally googling faux-bookshelf wallpaper—so bookish and ironic! Starved for the chance to peek inside others' homes, I suppose I scraped for inspiration where I could.
People didn’t stop at the four corners of their homes either. The Financial Times reports that the pandemic cultivated a new wave of gardening enthusiasts: “Gardening was listed as the second most popular lockdown activity,” according to a survey by GlobalData market research in May 2020, “ahead of cooking, reading and exercising.”
Like toilet paper and AP flour, vegetable seeds experienced first-time-ever shortages. Professional landscapers found themselves busier than ever. NPR reports “an almost threefold increase in building decks, and the number of people putting up fences is up sharply as well.” It seems that people were set on maximizing every inch, inside and out.
Even sheds, once considered a musty catchall for tools and gardening equipment, emerged as another potential for functional, design-forward living space.
I consider myself ridiculously lucky to have a personal carpenter who I can pay with thoughtful sandwiches. But if I didn’t, I’d like to believe I’d take matters into my own hands, which is exactly what many renovators did—DIY. According to U.K.-based MyToolShed, “DIY” and “How-To” related searches increased over 40 percent during the 2020 lockdown.
Danie Berger, a Toronto-based YouTuber and design consultant known best by her social media alias DIY Danie, saw people flocking toward DIY solutions. She wrote by email, “We looked for reasons to love our home again,” and to do so, people sought out “simple refresh projects like painting or adding new storage solutions that made our lives better.”
There’s something uniquely satisfying about tackling a home improvement project yourself. Wrote Danie, “Picking up a tool and building something for your home not only takes your mind off the day-to-day issues, but it provides you with such a rush of self-gratitude.”
Not to mention, a little DIY-ing supplied an antidote to one of the most seemingly benign yet insidious symptoms of confinement: the monotony. “Our need to change up routines and use our hands adds a sense of therapy for our creative soul,” wrote Danie.
Today, the home renovation trend has tapered off slightly, but it is still going strong and will probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. Many of us are continuing to spend time at home, leaning into our introverted tendencies and channeling our inner housecats. We’re embracing low-key pleasures like dining in with friends.
If any silver lining is to be found from this past year and a half, maybe it’s that we discovered a little more about ourselves and how to live better—on our own terms.
As for my apartment, there are still a dozen projects that I’d like to complete. Sometimes I’m impatient and fed up with living in a perpetual construction zone. But usually, I tell myself we’ll get to them someday. As I’ve come to learn: It wouldn’t be much fun to live in a home that was already finished.