Story and Photos By Katherine Nettles
Remodeling your kitchen is a daunting task, to say the least. It’s the sort of upheaval that’s best done before you move into a place, or at least while you are temporarily living somewhere else. But when you start with a sink the size of a dinner plate and you want to say goodbye to marbled brown Formica countertops and a broken gas cooktop, sometimes you have to take the plunge.
And by taking the plunge, I mean having your kitchen ripped out and then slowly reassembled while you are living there. In my case, with two cats, two kids on summer break and a husband who works from home. And coincidentally, a garage being relocated to our property at the exact same time, with excavators and work crews pouring a foundation, which meant mud taking over most of the yard. And house.
Still, we took the plunge during the summer of 2022, and I am so happy we did. We learned a lot from our first-ever remodeling project that will be useful for any future plans we make, and most importantly I got a kitchen I am happy with.
We knew we wanted to make a few changes to the kitchen for functionality, and started planning (and saving) as soon as we bought the house a few years prior. But remodeling our kitchen was a gradual decision we came to. It started with us just wanting the bigger sink, but a bigger sink meant a bigger cabinet base. And that’s how we came to realize, as contractor after contractor informed us, how unrealistic our hopes for a minor “tweak” really were.
So, we settled on some new cabinets. At least new bases, if not uppers. But then we started thinking about a new layout, with more room to work. The old kitchen did not meet modern codes, for example, and we had to bump elbows to share the space at all. A new, more open layout and a bigger, more usable island sounded swell.
In my naivete I didn’t realize how many little decisions were about to become months of research, since we were not using the full-service plan from our contractor in the interest of stretching the budget further. In hindsight I am glad, but I wish I had been prepared for how each item would send me into a rabbit hole of hours upon hours of website browsing, cost comparisons, agonizing over colors, styles, sizes and materials to choose. Who knew a faucet could take me five weeks of research? Or that tile can either cost $2.50 per square foot, or $250?
And then when we were ready to order cabinetry, we learned that first we needed to have every single appliance ordered. That set us back another month, as supply chains changed our options and I found more rabbit holes.
When we finally had everything ordered though, we had a tentative start date.
So, I planned to move into my parent’s place for a few weeks, and then we added on a family vacation. But of course that is not quite enough time for a full remodel, especially since we got complicated by capping an old gas line in favor of an electric induction stove, and we were moving plumbing and electrical around.
When we returned from our other stays, the kitchen had been gutted and a lot of the behind-the-walls work was in process.
We’ve got this, I said. We promptly created an “outdoor kitchen” with a plastic table and our camping gear set up by the hose and the grill.
We’ve got this, I figured, as I stepped through plastic tarps and carried dishwater across the house and refilled cooler ice and recalled how lucky we are to live with running water and electricity and shelter in the first place. We’ve got this. I even salvaged an electric griddle from a free pile in town and plugged it in on my desk.
But within a week, a tile saw for the contractors had to be moved into that “outdoor kitchen” space, along with a large, clay-caked tarp and boxes of screws and buckets of tile and shards of leftover lumber pieces.
And the tile saw stayed until October.
After a few weeks I abandoned my outdoor kitchen efforts, and used a couple Tupperware bins to store our essentials by my husband’s desk, moving them in and out of the kitchen cabinet frames in between contractor shifts. We set up a pair of sawhorses with two-by-fours and a bit of plywood as a rickety countertop. The routine became: get up, set up a cutting board station, rummage in the cooler and snack bins, bring in the microwave, make breakfast and lunch before contractors arrive, and move it all back out before they get there. At the end of the day, clean up the dust and tarps, move back in for dinner. Wash dishes in the bathroom sink. Repeat.
After a few more weeks, I caved in and bought paper plates and compostable flatware. My resolve to avoid disposables had vaporized with 100 tiny betrayals of time and space. And I missed riding my bike.
By September my resolve to avoid processed, prepackaged foods had also reduced itself to appreciation for modern processing technology. And when the backordered oven arrived seven months after purchase, it didn’t work. Then one particularly cold and windy week, the burners in our grill kept blowing out and the open lid caught a current and the whole operation blew off the deck.
We started eating out as much as possible.
But we learned some things. We learned that these things take time – more time than you want them to. We learned about how to navigate miscommunications, add-ons, occasional re-dos and be nice to the people doing the work. Sometimes they are working late and you’ve grilled a bunch of salmon burgers and yes, they would love for you to make them one too. But they won’t ask, so just offer. Remember they are solving your problem.
Factor in Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and the plans you won’t know about needing until they happen. The first plan we didn’t know we needed was humor, but it was essential to survival, and it helped our kids to deal with the mayhem to see us all joking about it.
Factor in the very real costs of dining out more.
Realize you will probably not eat the healthiest. So maybe have a goal in mind that helps you get back in shape again after you reclaim your cooking space.
And when the kitchen project was finished and I had moved my dishes back in and tested out my new triangles of efficiency (it’s a thing), it was all worthwhile. We gradually gained a space that we can all use more easily, a space that makes me smile when I take it in, and a large, open sink to wash the largest pot I own. We had a fully functional kitchen by Christmas (who’s counting), and I was giddy baking and cooking everything I could on Christmas weekend in my new, fully functional kitchen.
The last thing I learned more about was what to do with our old stuff. We are total scavengers, so we knew we didn’t want to send this stuff to the landfill. The old kitchen’s beautiful, custom made cabinets I had loved but couldn’t use with a larger sink now sit in our newly placed garage, where we hope to install them someday. We saved a large wooden slab countertop for some future project. And the appliances that couldn’t be donated were recycled. This felt important. According to Visual Capitalist, home renovations can generate 60 pounds of waste per square foot on average. And construction and demolition debris make up almost a quarter of all waste the U.S generates each year. So I think it’s worth scrapping the old stuff to sell, donate or reuse instead of putting it all in a roll-off dumpster if possible.
My sense of environmental responsibility took me in some noble directions, even if they were not successful. Lessons learned: you will not be able to cook very easily when the contractors are putting in a new kitchen. You might break down and use disposable stuff (and it goes so quickly!). But you may be able to use an electric griddle teetering on a two-by-four. And it will all be worth it.