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Are kitchen remodeling plans on your horizon this year? If you share that kitchen, chances are you’ll also be sharing some of the decision-making that comes with a renovation.
And believe me, kitchens are a high-stakes game.
I’m midway through a full house renovation of a Victorian in Beechmont with my best friend and business partner, Mike, as well as four renovations into an eventual full building overhaul of a small apartment building we recently purchased in Old Louisville. We probably have more, shall we say, heated discussions about the design of the kitchens than the rest of the spaces put together.
We’ve managed to work through all of our differences (with concerted effort!), but it made me wonder: what are some best practices for any two or more people renovating a kitchen together? That could be married or cohabitating partners, housemates, a multi-generational family situation, or other duos like Mike and I that aren’t related but share responsibility for the design.
Luckily, Louisville is home to the perfect person to talk with on the topic.TK Wismer of the Department of the Interiors is an interior designer who initially went to school for communication and jokes that she’s actually an interior mediator.
Does that sound dramatic? Then you must not have ever stood in the aisle at a home improvement store wondering how on earth your co-renovator could possibly like that hideous (to you) tile. And simply put, renovations are stressful.
They “stir up feelings that have nothing to do with a renovation at times,” Wismer says.
Whether between couples, friends, business partners, or family members, “it’s about our communication, about our power dynamic, about our approach to finances, and all these things are gonna come out … you think of a home renovation like it’s just ‘OK, we'll pick the tile and the colors,’ but there's going to be some other emotions that are stirred up when you get into it.”
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I found right out of the gate in launching this venture with my friend that we would quickly learn each other’s triggers, whether in how we interact with tradespeople or each other. An exchange about whether we go with a white single basin farm sink or a stainless double tub is much less about the material in question but in how we both feel when our recommendation isn’t just automatically agreed to.
So how can you make it through a kitchen renovation and keep the relationship afloat? Wismer shares some wisdom.
In a lot of instances, “one party would say, ‘oh, it's completely up to [the other person], I don't really have a say,’ Wismer says. “But usually you'll find that people's opinions start to come out regardless of the level of participation.”
Also, remember that decision fatigue is real. So even though it may sound nice to an admitted control freak like myself to say I get to be in charge of making all the decisions, it's really exhausting to make every last decision on your own.
That can leave the decision-maker hyper-sensitive to even a ”little piece of criticism as you get further in the process," she added.
“I like to tell people to work independently at first and come up with a list of their desires,” especially when one personality may be the stronger one. “It's good to get that list of what are your top priorities and then compare those, see where there's crossover, see where you need to kind of negotiate, and balance out different desires.”
This may sound obvious, but given what a hot-button topic money is for pretty much all of us, it’s essential to get budget talks in the open right up front, Wismer says. And definitely build a “nice big contingency because there are always things that are going to happen."
Plan for the timing, as well, Wismer adds, also knowing that a project that should take weeks could take months (or more!).
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If you live in the home you’re working on, plan for how you’re going to handle cooking. And maybe decide if you want to move out for part of it during peak work time because that’s when tempers can flare, she says.
Even though in my case it’s literally a business, because it’s with such a good friend, we can forget to treat it like that. But we should all be approaching decision-making and communication like it’s any other business, Wismer says.
Carve out a specific time to talk about decisions or problems, she suggests. Otherwise, one person might be trickling things into conversations here and there when the other may not be in the best headspace to discuss it.
Do your homework ahead of time so you’re prepared. “And if you don't come to an agreement,” she says, “set the next meeting just like you would in a corporate setting.”
Sometimes you can arrive at a decision on your own. Mike and I went round after round debating appliances, specifically colors. I desperately wanted a matte white Bertazzoni range and he wanted stainless, preferably a less costly option. I made my case (a few times) and won him over. But we couldn’t come to an agreement on whether or not to have upper cabinets.
So we escalated to what Wismer calls arbitration by bringing in interior designer Laura McGarity (who helped with my home kitchen reno) to consult.
That’s the role designers have to play sometimes, Wismer says. They’re “not there not to just completely bend to every whim, because you have more knowledge of what's trending, what's going to be a good decision. So really, designers have to put their foot down sometimes. … And when you're at an impasse and you're losing time, money — all of those things are impacted by the amount of time that it takes you to come to an agreement.”
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We couldn’t order cabinets until we resolved this so we agreed to accept Laura’s decision. In this case, her call was aligned with Mike’s preference so I accepted defeat (hopefully gracefully, although I fear probably not).
With so much strife possible along the way; and with the stress that comes with decision fatigue, missed deadlines, contrary contractors, blown budgets, and other disasters large and small, it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re doing this.
But “it's never too late to reset,” says Wismer. That might be admitting you need help and bringing in a designer or contractor. Or re-opening lines of communication and getting everyone back to the table. “Get everybody back in the positive headspace and finish out your common goal.”
While renovations have the ability to push people away from each other, “they have a great ability to bring people together as well,” she says.
Ask yourselves the question, she says, “what is our idea of happiness at the end of this?”
And keep that vision in your mind. Maybe “you’re together sitting at your new island having a cup of coffee. It's all good.”
“There's nothing more fulfilling than standing in a space that you created together,” she says. “You got through the project. You collaborated. It was a rocky road, but now you're reaping all the benefits of the hard work.”
Tell Dana! Send your restaurant “Dish” to Dana McMahan at email@example.com and follow @bourbonbarbarella on Instagram.