Managing Expectations With A Home Remodeling Project



A road map for putting your remodeling project on a solid foundation.

Renovation’s no “walk in the park,” as anyone who’s remodeled an older house will attest. And when we live with disabilities, little inconvenience can loom large. Yet renovate we must, to have a home that’s wheelchair accessible, or where our children can gain a degree of independence. The homes we live in today were built in a different time, with different values.

Even at it its best, renovation is expensive, complicated, noisy, and messy. Friends share stories of projects run amok. Strangers field you questions before you’ve had your morning coffee, and cars block the driveway as you’re heading off to work. You reconsider habits that once made sense, like toileting your son in the powder room, then carrying him, bottom-exposed, to a larger bathroom for bathing. You and your spouse will disagree on questions like whether the laundry belongs near the kitchen or the bedrooms, and what color tile to use. At times you will doubt the wisdom that led you to reach out and seek help in the first place.

Relax – this is all perfectly normal! Like any complex endeavor, each construction project has its ups and downs. It can be useful to realize that anxiety feels a lot like excitement – butterflies in the stomach, lying awake at 3 AM obsessing over details. As the homeowner, each new challenge feels daunting until the matter is resolved. Then another situation arises and you’re back on that roller coaster.

Remodeling is actually a kind of alchemy – out of the mud, gravel, sawdust, and sweat, something of great value and beauty is created. It pays to remember this when you get discouraged. If the project has been well planned, and if you have a competent team of designers and builders, then you will reduce anxiety levels greatly.

For over 30 years I’ve been remodeling homes, serving as architect, homeowner, and general contractor. These experiences have given me a good overview of the remodeling process. One clear trend is towards greater accessibility. Features like zero-step entrances and curb-less showers, multi-height countertops and lever-handle hardware are becoming commonplace. For people who have both an urgent need and high hopes for a more userfriendly home, this is good news. The stakes are especially high, and the margin for error low, when disabilities are present. Today many architects and builders are familiar with the principles of Universal Design, or “design for all.” You want a house that works for your family, though – not “for all” – so even if your architect is fluent in accessible design, you’ll still need to be a strong advocate for a home that’s tailored to your family’s requirements.

Another trend is towards greater homeowner comfort with design issues. Today many people start their projects carrying images from TV shows, books, magazines, and websites dedicated to home improvement. They’re knowledgeable about net-zero design and sustainable products, and have strong preferences for materials like honed granite and bamboo. This can make for a productive collaboration, but it also leaves fundamental issues open just when closure is needed. Since having a family member with disabilities accentuates the stress of a remodeling project, it’s especially important to prepare well. After all, no one knows your family’s needs like you do!


As you prepare to begin your project, certain tasks will put you on solid footing. Knowing what you want to accomplish, and what you can spend, will focus everyone’s attention on realistic options, and save you time and money over the long run.

What follows is a road map for putting your remodeling project on a solid foundation.

1. Make a wish-list. Every building project starts with a clear set of objectives, so take some time to assess your space-needs and wants. Observe each activity of daily living and each area of the home with a critical eye. Restate problems as goals, such as “my daughter wants to bathe herself” or “we need a suite for a live-in caregiver.” Establish priorities in case your budget, the town’s zoning, or the house’s layout can’t accommodate every wish. Resist the urge to try and solve problems. Design comes later, and will be easier with help.

2. Describe special coping mechanisms. Most able-bodied individuals brush their teeth in the same way, but when disabilities are present there are few standard procedures. One family I’ve worked with shares bath-time between three children, so the child with CP has siblings nearby. I gave them an extra-large soaking tub. Another family takes weekly deliveries of medical products, so I incorporated a shipping-receiving room in their renovation. Another child is on an all-liquids diet, so we devoted a special area of the kitchen to her needs, with its own sink, microwave, and dishwasher. What special medical or mobility devices need to be accommodated? Do not assume your architect knows how you do things – everybody is unique.

3. Identify your resources. Review your finances carefully and seek out opportunities to increase available funds. Speak with a banker about refinancing or getting a home equity loan. Ask your accountant about tax ramifications of investing in the property, and talk with your portfolio manager about shifting funds for greater liquidity. If access upgrades are medically prescribed, you’ll need to have your designer and builder itemize deductible expenses. Research possible grant sources, such as catastrophic illness funds or state and local financing assistance. In Massachusetts, the Home Modification Loan Program makes zero-interest loans to income qualified households, with the pay-back deferrable to when the property is sold. You’ll need to be honest with your architect about spending limits – both for ideal and deal-breaker budgets.

4. Consider a move. Many people investigate relocating to a home that’s a better match before committing to “stay put.” Attend open-houses to get a sense of what’s available. Ask a realtor to assess your house’s value now, along with the increased appeal that various upgrades can offer. This information will help you decide whether to proceed with remodeling or to move. It will also give you confidence when a relative suggests, over Thanksgiving dinner, that you’re wasting your money with renovations.

5. Assemble your team. Home improvement is a big industry, with a variety of designers, builders, and salespeople eager to help you, not to mention 3D software that can make building professionals seem irrelevant. And there are often many routes that will lead to a successful outcome on your project, as long as you comply with zoning requirements and building codes. Knowing what you can expect of others, and what they’ll expect of you, will go a long ways towards producing a happy project. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel – the building industry has already done that. You only need to understand how best to use it.


Architects are the go-to professionals for complex renovations and new construction. They work closely with specialists, engineers, product representatives, and the homeowner to develop the drawings and specs that describe a project, and that will form the basis for your contract with a builder. Architects take projects from initial planning through completion, helping you find a builder and oversee construction so that your project is built as intended. Most architects specialize in certain building types such as residential, commercial, or institutional, or projects of a certain size, although many have several areas of expertise.

Designer is a broad term applying to a range of skills in the building industry, including interiors, kitchens, bathrooms, lighting, landscape, and other specializations. Design is about how something works, not simply what it looks like, and so the creative problem-solving work of architects and engineers is also called design. If your project is focused on certain rooms (kitchen, bath) or systems (lighting, site grading), then seek out designers in these fields.

General contractors (GCs) are builders who coordinate a team of subcontractors (framers, plumbers, roofers, etc) to carry out the work. Design/build contractors may have in-house design staff, or simply believe that they can help homeowners choose what products to use. Homeowner-GC contracts are either Lump-Sum (a fixed amount) or Cost-Plus (labor, materials, plus markups for coordination). The more information you can give your builder before dust starts flying, the more accurately he/she can estimate project costs and duration. This is why it’s essential to have drawings before you start construction – they provide a graphic record of design intent, they’re the basis of your contract, and they provide instructions to everyone who works on the job-site.

What will make this a successful project for you? Affordable Cost, a high Quality of Work, and a timely Schedule are surely important, but you can’t have it all. Controlling for costs usually means cutting corners on quality, or delaying start-up until the low-ball contractor is available. And how do you rank process-issues like the quality of relationships, or your own participation in decision-making? Giving some thought to these questions will help you align your own values and work-style with those of the people you hire.

So make a list of the firms and individuals you’d like to consider. Seek referrals from neighbors, home improvement agencies like Home Advisors or Angie’s List, and your state’s branch of the American Institute of Architects. Check out websites to narrow the list, then reach out through email and phone calls. Narrow your choices to a short list of three names, then set up face-to-face interviews. Ask whatever’s on your mind at each stage as you build up your knowledge base – there are no dumb questions! You’ll be working closely together for weeks, if not months, so you’ll have a happier project if you’re generally compatible.

As the homeowner, the more you know your own needs and abilities, the better you can participate in the design process. Like any worthwhile endeavor, remodeling is a journey, and you will face choices along the way. You don’t need to have all the answers, only to ask the questions that arise, and surround yourself with people with the techniques and experience to navigate what, for you, will be uncharted waters. With a capable team, the answers will come clear as you go forward. Design is a fluid process, a balancing act between your house’s condition, your family’s needs, and your project’s budget and deadlines. You may not have the space for a kitchen island, or funds for a large addition, but you can surely add some wonderful features that make the whole project worthwhile.

I always like my clients to be full partners in the decision-making. Whenever we have a stake in the process, we own the outcome. There is a lot that only the homeowner can do during design phase. Plan to spend time shopping, online and in person, to “test-drive” appliances – only you can know if the controls are user-friendly. Measure the use- and reach-ranges for family members. What’s a comfortable work surface height? How much space do the knees and feet take up under a table or countertop? How high, or low, or deep, can people reach to retrieve items in  storage? Where should light switches, outlets, and thermostats be located for easy use? What’s standard practice for builders may not work for you, so to be the best advocate for your family, it’s essential to check critical dimensions and make sure that everyone on the job – from designers through construction – understands your requirements, and that the drawings record them accurately.

One of the most frequently-asked questions I hear from homeowners is “what will it cost?” The truth is, you won’t know until the job is completed. Surprises occur along the way in nearly every project, and these generate “change orders” – contract amendments that track changes in scope, schedule, and cost. You may find insect damage or fire-damaged framing, or hidden wires and piping, once old walls are opened up. The sink you want may be out of stock and you’ll need to decide whether to put that area of the work on hold or find a substitute. Prepare for scope-creep – that urge to expand the work “just because you have the painter/tile-setter/carpenter on the job.” Sometimes you really do need to spend money now to save some later, such as when fixing a leak before structural damage sets in. A successful project is not problem-free, but it’s one where problems are solved quickly and responsibly. It helps to have some wiggle-room in your expectations, your budget, and your timetable. It’s called “planning for contingencies.”

There are also many opportunities to save money, if you’re willing to spend time treasure-hunting. A used fridge on Craigslist can save significantly over the cost of a new one. Shop for overstock materials like carpet, tile, or flooring. ReStore is a non-profit donation and home improvement center operated by Habitat for Humanity, where you can find gently-used building items like kitchen and medicine cabinets, furniture, and light fixtures. Your town’s land-fill may have buckets of barely-used paints for the taking. Ask a lift manufacturer if they would sell refurbished equipment rather than new items. These tasks may seem onerous, but it’s important to know that there are ways to keep your project costs to a minimum.

And if you need to cut corners to compensate for change orders once the job has started, you can scale-back some of the details. Eliminate some light fixtures by capping-off the junction boxes – fixtures can be added later. Substitute less-costly plumbing fixtures – again, these can be changed-out later. Simplify carpentry trim, substitute vinyl flooring for tile, or use cellulose instead of foam insulation. Engage your builder and architect in a conversation about where savings might be obtained to offset extra costs. Most projects have a little wiggle-room, even if it’s painful for all involved to make these cuts.

The best way to manage expectations in a remodeling project is to have realistic expectations. Inform yourself, communicate with your team, and be prepared to participate in decision-making. You may feel overwhelmed and inconvenienced along the way, but you’ll also be rewarded with a home that makes life easier for everyone in the family. And when life is easier, we can worry about each other less and enjoy each other more. Good luck with your project! •

0016Deborah Pierce is an award-winning architect and one of our nation’s foremost experts on universal design. For the past three decades she has focused on creating homes in the Boston area that serve the unique activities of daily living for each family. Deb’s book The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities, showcases homes around the country designed for and with people living with disabilities. In the book’s foreword, world-renowned architect Michael Graves, FAIA, says, “Deborah Pierce tackles the small problems along with the large in her quest to make wonderful places where people with disabilities can live comfortably
and safely.”