Welcome to Second Nature, a Q+A series with Jute founder, Ali Davin, that explores all things healthy living, with a fond emphasis on that thing she does best—interior design.
In theory, building a home from scratch sounds like a good idea: every last detail is tailored to your family’s needs, and there are few, if any hidden problems. In reality, it’s a huge financial investment and, in California, typically takes 5–10 years. More often than not, your kids have left the house by the time the build is finished.
Working with a designer or architect, however, you can customize an existing home without spending years chasing permits. Here’s how to renovate a home quickly and healthily.
You want a house that checks all your boxes: big enough, good light, you like the exterior, and the location is great. It’s just a matter of personalizing it. As long as you’re not significantly changing the outside, it won’t have to go to the city or neighbors for approval. When you’re just reworking the inside, you’re looking at a feasible project that will take a year or two, max.
I always start with how to maximize and personalize the space for the family. For my own home renovation, my wish list included a freestanding bathtub, a home gym, and an area for video-editing monitors for my teenage son. So it was a matter of figuring out how to better lay out the rooms without having to add on, which would be a longer project.
We’ve found submitting one room at a time is the best strategy, versus a huge permit package, which can overwhelm the department and takes forever. In this case, we got the kitchen permit within a week, then we went back for a bathroom permit. Once you have the first permit, you can get in there and start the demo.
Before you demo, you need a plan. I always go in with an environmental engineer to test for mold, materials, and toxicity. In my home, we did chamber testing to figure out what was off-gassing and affecting the air quality. Turns out the sellers had recently put in an engineered wood floor and used MDF on interior doors and cabinets, so we opted to take those out so we have a clean slate for air quality.
We always try to repurpose as much as possible and find new homes for the fixtures and cabinets so they can have a lifetime somewhere else, especially if a home has been recently renovated and most of the items are practically new. People fix up their homes just to sell them, but they use builder-grade materials that no one wants, so it all ends up going straight into a landfill. I doubt people think about how wasteful this is and the long-term effects on the environment. That whole mentality is a problem. In a seller’s market, don’t do a cosmetic refresh on the cheap—just save time and money, and leave it alone.
You don’t want to remove anything that’s not causing a problem in terms of air quality. I’ll eventually replace the roof and windows in my house as they wear, but I’m ok with them for now. The fireplace in my great room has a gas insert that I wouldn’t have picked, but I can live with it. Same with the range and hood, which were only two months old. My kitchen also has an exposed wood ceiling that’s structural, so we couldn’t change it, but since it’s solid wood, it’s safe to stay. I was also happy to discover that I have plumbed radiant heating, so once we rip out the engineered wood floors, we’re refinishing the concrete floor and that way we don’t have to use any unnecessary materials.
You want to replace any MDF with solid wood, any engineered stone with natural stone, and any PVC—like blackout roller shades—needs to come out right away. When you are making structural changes, try to keep the sheetrock and taping minimal, because those can be big offenders for off-gassing, and I like solid wool insulation for that reason as well. My favorite addition is a new Dutch door for the entry. It will add additional ventilation, which is key after a renovation.
Buy a home that checks all your boxes, then spend a year personalizing the space.