It’s 8 o’clock on a March morning in 2020 and I’m bracing for the day ahead. The painters and plumber are parked in front of my house, and I just finished a phone call with the project manager to discuss the daily schedule. He is in his truck in the driveway. My husband has been working in the den-turned-home office for two hours already, taking advantage of the early morning quiet. The kids chatter over breakfast before logging in to virtual first grade. I rest my coffee cup on the foyer table, don a face mask, unlock the front door to let the workers in, and make a mad dash behind a plastic curtain so our paths do not cross. We are all becoming aware of the risks of a new invisible enemy. This is remodeling in the time of COVID-19.
When we bought our 1960 ranch-style house in Silver Spring 14 years ago, my husband and I knew that the unfinished attic had potential. We were newlyweds and didn’t need the extra living space, so we used the attic to stash hand-me-down furniture, holiday decorations and boxes of nostalgia. After more than a decade in the house, and with twin boys who were outgrowing the small room they’d shared for seven years, we made a plan to expand.
Architect Shawn Staples of MGD Design/Build in Kensington created a second-floor layout with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a laundry area, and took advantage of eave space for closets and storage. We’d been planning for almost a year when the building permit was approved the day after Christmas in 2019. A giant dumpster arrived on New Year’s Eve, and work started a few days later. 2020 was off to a promising start.
The process went smoothly—at first. My husband was at the office all day, the children were in school, and I was working at home, trying to stay out of the way. The project manager ushered a steady parade of subcontractors through the front door, down the hall and up to the attic. In the first few months they framed the rooms, rerouted plumbing and ductwork, opened up the roof in three places to build large dormers, and installed windows, insulation, drywall and a new staircase.
By mid-March, COVID was spreading down the East Coast, and the whole family had made the move to working and schooling at home. The construction continued, with workers wearing face masks. A floor-to-ceiling plastic tarp protected the office and dining room-turned-classroom, where we were confined most of the day. It wasn’t easy to concentrate on corporate conference calls or first grade math while a crew installed hardwood floors over our heads, but we managed.
On March 30, Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order for the state of Maryland. However, contractors were deemed essential employees, so we kept the project rolling. The news grew worse every day as infection rates rose and information about the virus and how it spread evolved.
The outside world was becoming so scary and uncertain; we wanted our home to be a safe haven. But with strangers coming in and out, and my urge to wipe down every doorknob and light switch constantly, we needed a break. On Wednesday, April 1, we called Shawn and told him that we would like to shut down temporarily, regroup, and talk through our options.
By Monday, he and his team had devised a clever solution that would keep us all separated and the project progressing. They built a sturdy exterior staircase to the second floor and removed the window sash every day to access the work area. The stairs, attached to the front of the house, were awkward looking and became a conversation piece for passersby who were no doubt speculating that they might be a permanent fixture.
As businesses were closing temporarily, we were lucky to get all of the necessary materials. The contractor happened to stop by the tile store to pick up the shower flooring just as they were shutting their doors indefinitely. We’d intended to go on a field trip to a marble warehouse to choose the material for the master bathroom countertop, but the virus eliminated those plans. Instead, I relied on virtual warehouse tours and dimly lit photos of stone slabs to make the important, and expensive, decision.
MGD was used to keeping projects on schedule by having lots of people working at the same time. With tradespeople on staggered schedules, the project took about two months longer than expected. But under the circumstances, we didn’t care. Everyone was relieved that it was finished and we were all healthy.
We aren’t the only ones who found ourselves trying to complete renovations during the pandemic. Here are three families that found ways to get their projects done despite the challenges.
You can go home again (eventually)
Nora Gardner and Matt Kirtland were in the homestretch of an extensive overhaul of their 1907 farmhouse in Chevy Chase’s Drummond neighborhood when the pandemic prevented them from getting across the finish line on time. In June 2019, the couple and their two daughters moved to a two-bedroom rental condo in Friendship Heights. They planned to stay there until the targeted completion date of early spring 2020.
The project, which included reworking the floor plan of the first level and doubling the size of the second floor with a new master suite, had already experienced some delays. When the COVID shutdown arrived, construction stopped. Once the new jobsite safety protocols were instituted, crews trickled back in, working in shifts. There were delays in the delivery of materials, and the regular in-person meetings with Bethesda-based GTM Architects and builder McFarland Woods of Glen Echo were relegated to conference calls.
Before the pandemic, the family was enjoying their temporary digs. “We liked the urban living experience—walking to the shops and restaurants, and the kids liked riding the elevator,” Gardner says of her daughters, 10-year-old Caroline and 7-year-old Evelyn. But the March stay-at-home order closed everything. “It became a lot less fun,” she says. With all four of them either working or doing virtual learning in three rooms—without outdoor space—it was tight. “We put a desk in our bedroom and took turns using it,” Gardner says. “It was crazy.”
After a month in the close quarters, Kirtland decided to rent a room at a nearby Courtyard Marriott and set up a virtual office where he could work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. That created space for the nanny to come to the rental condo during the day and help with the children while Gardner worked. The arrangement lasted four more weeks, at which point they decamped to their house in Maine for the summer. “We figured we could get away, and also take the pressure off the renovation,” Kirtland says.
With padding already added to the construction schedule, the couple took the opportunity to expand the scope of the project. The only caveat was that they needed to move back by the time school started in late August. They had always considered finishing the lower level beneath the original part of the house, and because it would be a loud and dusty job, the builder recommended that they do it while the house was empty.
Digging out the basement floor and lowering it increased the ceiling height from 6½ feet to 8 feet. The addition of HVAC and new lighting created a usable recreation room. “Having the extra time turned out to be a silver lining because we were able to get these cool extra things done,” Kirtland says.
Another late-in-the-game bonus space was a roof deck above the master suite, accessed by a narrow staircase and hatch door. “I was inspired by the admiral in Mary Poppins,” Kirtland jokes. They can see for miles in every direction from the new outdoor perch, and they are looking forward to taking in Fourth of July fireworks.
Rec room redo
Tom Gilday of Gilday Renovations in Silver Spring had his crew poised to start on the basement renovation of a 9-year-old duplex in Friendship Heights on Monday, March 16, 2020. But with coronavirus fears growing, he knew that his clients, Jim and Kate Garland, would have concerns about how the job would be handled. So, over the weekend, he and his project manager wrote up new operating procedures and bought supplies to make hand-washing stations. By the time he spoke with the Garlands on Sunday evening, he was able to reassure them, and work started the next morning as planned.
“We almost canceled,” says Kate, who was nervous about having a lot of people in her house. “For our health and safety, and theirs.” There is no exterior access to the lower level, so the project manager removed a basement window and replaced it with a temporary door.That enabled the workers to avoid going through the house and risk coming in contact with the family. The crew also secured the interior staircase with heavy plastic to limit airflow between the levels.
Once they were set up, workers started converting the children’s playroom into a recreation space for the entire family. The Garlands wanted to upgrade the room and make it a place where their children—ages 10, 12 and 14—would want to hang out and entertain friends for years to come.
Northwest D.C.-based interior designer Annie Elliott’s plan divided the room into zones—a media area with a sectional sofa and a large television, a built-in desk for school projects, a space for game tables, and a wet bar. “It’s a multipurpose room that appeals to all ages,” Elliott says.
Converting a basement closet into wine storage for 1,000 bottles was always part of the plan, and it turned out to be handy as the pandemic dragged on. “Who knew that the importance of wine would reach such a high level?” Jim says with a laugh.
Since the project’s completion last May, the family has been using the recreation room all the time. They hang out, have movie nights and challenge each other to pingpong and air hockey matches. “It’s a fun place to escape within the house,” Jim says.
A kitchen tale
Justin and Breeana Shields loved everything about the spacious brick colonial in Gaithersburg’s Lakelands community that they purchased in the summer of 2019, except the kitchen—the layout was awkward, the cabinets and counters weren’t their style, and the island had sharp corners and an odd arrowlike shape.
The pair wasted no time researching remodelers and selected Case Architects & Remodelers in Bethesda. By early 2020, they were ready to begin. “I remember that we measured in February, but by the time they signed the contract we had to do it remotely,” says Christine King, an interior designer at Case. The pandemic had started, and Case was taking steps to keep its employees and clients safe by checking the temperatures of workers in the field, using air purifiers, installing sanitizing stations and making masks mandatory.
“We had already chosen the materials when they gave us the option to postpone,” Breeana says. “With the protocols they put in place, we felt comfortable starting.” The crew used the attached garage adjacent to the kitchen as a staging area, and isolated the kitchen from the rest of the home with heavy plastic.
Two of the Shields’ children had already transitioned to middle school and high school online when their older son was sent home from college. “I work from home, so I knew that the renovation would be somewhat disruptive for me, but I wasn’t anticipating that the kids would be there, too,” Breeana says. For the most part, the kids studied in their rooms, and the family made meals in the basement kitchenette. “We also got a lot of takeout,” she says.
The stairway to the basement is in the kitchen, and the workers started early, so getting to the kitchenette for breakfast meant going out the front door and around to the basement entrance at the back of the house. Breeana and the kids tried to time their lunch breaks for when the workers were out, so they could dash into the garage and grab things from the fridge, which the workers had relocated temporarily.
With the family still spending lots of time at home, they are glad they went forward with the renovation. “As the pandemic stretched on, it was nice to have something to look forward to,” Breeana says.