Kate Watson-Smyth on Post-Pandemic Design And Our New Normal

Photo by Rekha Damhar

As we all adjust to a new normal and begin ushering in a new age of post-pandemic design, it’s best to turn to the experts. We wanted to hear directly from inspiring home designers about ways to adjust your space during this time. So we spoke with Kate Watson-Smyth, a renowned home designer and bestselling author who heads Mad About The House, for some essential design insight. 

Q: What are some ways you’re staying sane right now while staying at home?

A: Well in many ways things haven’t changed that much for me as I have always been at home writing, so I’m probably reasonably well placed for a lockdown. That said, I wouldn’t normally have two teenage boys and a husband at home all the time either. I have finally stopped watching the news all the time – even for a trained news journalist that became too much –  and I make sure I get dressed and put makeup on every day. If I didn’t do that then, for me at least, it would be a short slide to staying in pyjamas and bed till lunchtime or beyond. I wish I could say that regular exercise was keeping me sane but sadly I can’t seem to find the motivation to do any!

Q: How can people arrange or design their homes to accommodate staying in for long periods of time?

A: Firstly, you need to work out what you need from your space and remember that it won’t be like that forever. So, if you need to move the coffee table to make room for a YouTube exercise class, or for the kids to build a giant fort from cardboard boxes then do it. Or if you need to make a proper homeworking spot then do that. If at all possible move the sofa so you can put a table next to the window – you might have more room if the coffee table has already gone!

The next really important thing is that you need to be able to make a distinction between the working day and the relaxing evening. Use some of the time you would normally have spent commuting to put the work stuff away – laptop in a drawer, paperwork in a box that can slide under the table or be tucked away at the end of the sofa. Changing your clothes is an effective way to change the mood and then spend the rest of your “commute” having a cocktail or a cold, iced drink to really switch from work to home. We have made a real ritual of this with a tray of drinks, a bowl of (usually tinned) olives and a crisp or seven. We are definitely all eating too many crisps. If you have small kids then they can watch tv while you have your cocktail hour. That way everyone gets a break from everyone else and you can reconvene for dinner.

In the morning take the work stuff out of that box and arrange it on the table with your favourite mug and even a vase of flowers to make your desk environment feel proper rather than makeshift.

Research has also shown that surrounding yourself with family pictures or souvenirs that bring back happy memories is key to being happy yourself so include some of those objects on your new desk.

If at all possible avoid working from the sofa or the bed or they will become bound up in work vibes and it will be difficult to relax in the evening.

Q: What lasting changes from the pandemic do you think we will see in home design? What do you see for the future of design?

A: I think it’s clear that employers will have to accept that working from home is doable, practical and doesn’t have a negative impact on productivity. It’s also possible that people will run screaming back to the offices and refuse to work from home ever again! Joking aside, I think we will finally see a rise in well-designed, beautiful office furniture that looks as happy at home as it does at work. For example, at the moment office chairs are ergonomic and ugly and the best way to get round that is to reupholster one in the fabric of your choice. We might see more dining tables with cable management built-in and desks that can double up as dressing tables. Multi-functional furniture will be key – our homes are already multi-functional; the furniture needs to catch up.

Multi-functional furniture will be key – our homes are already multi-functional; the furniture needs to catch up.

Q: On your blog, you said your philosophy is, “Your home should tell your story. It should make your heart sing when you open the front door.” What story will our homes tell now?

A: Now at the time of writing I suspect a story of chaos and mess as people adjust to having everyone at home at the same time and in for the whole day rather than coming and going. In the future, perhaps new home design will involve more natural light either via skylights or internal windows. As the homes probably won’t get bigger, our lifestyles will have to adapt to living in multi-functional spaces – perhaps we will finally start buying less and buying better. I wonder if open-plan living will fall out of fashion; it’s fine when you want to keep an eye on small kids, but when you have more people living and working in the same space you yearn for walls to divide areas up and mean that one can work while another listens to music.

Q: Can you tell us more about how people can achieve that visual story?

A: If we are going to be spending more time in our homes then we need to get the décor right and that means working out what we like and what our personal style is. When it comes to colours always ask yourself how certain shades make you feel and decide if that is the right feeling for the room you are looking to decorate. Vintage always adds character to a room and creates a more bespoke and individual look. But you can also paint cheap pieces of furniture to create something that’s uniquely yours. In my new book. Mad About The House, 101 Interior Design Answers (Pavilion £20) I say that before you start any scheme you should ask yourself six questions: who, what, when, where, why and how? Who is doing what where and when? Why do you want to redo this room? How are you going to pay for it? The answers for a couple with a kid will be very different from a couple of twentysomethings or a pair of pensioners. Work these things out before you go near a paint chip and you will already have some idea of what you are trying to achieve.

Q: What are some tips for balancing functionality and beauty? What pieces can you think of that blend the two?

A: In an ideal world, if we look back to William Morris then everything we have should be both beautiful and useful. To quote another truism, beauty is also in the eye of the beholder so everyone’s idea of that will vary. It’s up to you to work out what function you require from your sofa so that you can buy the right one for you. One person may want a large lounging modular piece where they can stretch out on and watch films while another wants something more upright for conversation and cocktails.

But there are a few pieces that are universal – a console table with drawers can double up as a desk and a dressing table – put the laptop in the drawer at night and take the mirror out. A bookshelf works for both books and displaying happy memories in the form of photos or objects. A coffee table is good for family games and resting your drinks on. A stool can be both side table and extra seating. The Saarinen Tulip table is both a beautiful dining table and a great place to work. The Wegner wishbone chair is comfortable enough for dinner and for wrestling with spreadsheets.

Q: Which two adjectives would you use to describe your interior style now? Have those changed from the two adjectives you’d have chosen when you started out?

A: I always used to describe my style as urban glamour, I’m not sure I’ve strayed too far from that although perhaps now it might be a bit more vintage elegance.

About Kate Watson-Smyth: 
Kate Watson-Smyth founded her multi-award-winning blog madaboutthehouse.com in 2012 and has now written two best-selling books of the same name. She was the first interiors Instagram account in the UK to receive a blue checkmark and has 226K followers. Together with television presenter Sophie Robinson, she hosts the interiors podcast “The Great Indoors” and she is currently working on the next installment of the “Mad About The House” series.

You can find more insight from Kate in her latest book, “Mad About the House: 101 Interior Design Answers,” on her blog and on Instagram.

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Aging in place: Renovating with independence in mind

Getty Images/Mint Images RF

Most Americans settle in a home, envisioning a permanent life refuge. Achieving this vision of aging in place, though, means preparing the home now to anticipate future needs. Doing so successfully can allow older adults to remain independent, autonomous and in charge of their home security as they age.

As many as 94% of today’s older adults (defined as ages 65+) wish to stay in their own homes as long as possible. This group, as of 2010, accounted for 13% of the population (40 million people), and that number is projected to increase to 20% of the population by 2030.

Studies show there are numerous benefits to home-based aging, such as increased life satisfaction, quality of life and self-esteem. Maintaining familiar surroundings and connections is also a benefit, allowing older adults to remain close to friends and neighbors, keep the same doctors and visit favorite coffee shops and grocery stores.

The time is now to start planning for down-the-road needs, like modifying your home to accommodate future accessibility needs, home security and even live-in care. It is important to understand the appropriate renovations that may be required and to equip the home with modifications that are right for you and any caretakers providing attention as you age in place.

What you should know about designing a home while aging in place

Studies confirm there are benefits to keeping older adults in their homes longer, such as maintaining more independence and connection to friends and family, as well as avoiding the high costs of institutional care. Luckily, there are many options, services and helpful solutions available to help us stay independent as we age at home.

Basic home renovations

Improve lighting

Improving the lighting in the home is an inexpensive solution that can provide an increased sense of safety and security for older adults — safeguarding against stumbling and falling, as well as break-ins. Consider adding lighting strips to stairways and other dark areas inside the home, as well as installing exterior lights that can be programmed to turn on and off, creating a pattern to deter break-ins. Nightlights are also a recommended addition — great for hallways, bathrooms and on or near steps.

Add easy-use fixtures and safety considerations

These simple home modifications are easy to implement and can have a significant impact on improving security and comfort in the home as we age:

  • Install oversized light switches ($6 to $28)
  • Replace faucet knobs with levers ($22 to $400)
  • Use automated garage door openers ($128 to $250)
  • Purchase larger digital display options for remote controls, phones, and screens ($7 to $545)
  • Add grab bars or rails around the home to prevent falls and improve mobility ($14 to $100)
  • Consider chair and toilet lifts ($18 – $100)
  • Use cord covers to prevent tripping and falling ($10 to $50)

Update your flooring

Falls are prevalent as we age in what should be our safest environment: our home. And flooring is often the biggest culprit. Loose rugs, slip-inducing mats, and curly edges on carpets are among the most common dangers. Many preventive measures are easy, DIY and often relatively inexpensive. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Secure rugs throughout the home: Use double-faced, anti-slip rug tape to secure the edges of all area rugs firmly to the floor. Or consider using an underneath rug pad, with options adhering to vinyl, hardwood and other flooring. In the bathroom, use bathmats with a good, surface-gripping backing.
  2. Install anti-slip flooring throughout the home: Ensuring the type of flooring installed in the home (and especially in the bathroom) isn’t slippery is an important consideration for older adults. Some anti-slip flooring options include vinyl, ceramic tiles, and even bamboo.
  3. Contrast for visibility while moving throughout the home: Consider varying the colors and textures of the flooring used throughout the home to provide better visual guidance, especially in transitional areas in the home, such as a sunken living room.

Advanced home renovations

Sophisticated upgrades to help current and future home healthcare needs not only add protections, they often heighten future selling prices. Keep in mind for some of these more advanced home modification tips, outsourcing to a professional may be necessary.

Assistive renovations

Widen your doorways: Even just carrying packages can make doorways impassable, so imagine providing adequate space for assistive devices like wheelchairs. To meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility standards, doorways should be at least 36 inches wide.

Add a stairlift: Unless you’re enjoying single-story living (or unless you have a downstairs bedroom and bath), many people need to navigate stairs in the home. In these cases, stairlifts are a great tool.

Keeping the home secure

Home security systems are an essential tool for being alerted to dangers you may not sense, like fire, carbon monoxide and break-ins. And these tools become even more critical for older adults. According to the National Fire Protection Association, people ages 65+ are twice as likely to be injured or killed by house fires, compared to the rest of the population.

For outside the home, consider installing security cameras, which can allow loved ones to monitor fall-prone areas around the home. 

Assistive technology

There is a lot of assistive technology available today, including devices, software programs and equipment that’s specifically designed to help people work around their challenges — from arthritis-friendly light switches and easier-to-grip drawer pulls, to computer voice recognition programs, entryway ramps and more. Here are a few assistive devices for you to consider when updating your home for current or future assistive needs:

  • Clap-detection lights: Turning on lights with the clap of your hands makes turning lights on/off much easier. Plus, set the device in its “away” mode, and your lights will turn on with the detection of any sound, which can deter break-ins.
  • Smart entryway: Assistive tools like key finders, keyless doors and doorbell cameras make entering the home and monitoring activity at the front door easier. Learning who is at the front door from the safety of your couch reduces the need for unnecessary movement around the home, which can also prevent accidents and falls. 
  • Home hub automation: Smart home options are now available to provide a one-stop solution for controlling your digital life at home, from programmable temperature controls and sophisticated home security systems to playing music and helping you keep track of appointments. For example, Amazon’s Alexa allows users to easily keep track of daily activities, call their doctor and even order food. And home hub security systems can offer older adults a greater sense of control over the safety of their home and valuables, all from the leisure of their couch.

Why designing with in-home care in mind is a good idea

Considering the high costs of long term care options in the U.S., it’s not surprising people are turning to alternative solutions. Although costs vary by state, let’s take a look at the average monthly costs of some of the more common long-term care options available:

  • A private nursing home room: $8,364 per month
  • A semi-private nursing home room: $7,362 per month
  • Assisted living facility: $3,862 per month
  • Adult day health care: $1,562 per month

To avoid these costs, and if in-home care is your goal, it’s important to start making plans now — so you’re not managing last-minute renovations and home modifications to accommodate the needs of caretakers at the same time your health takes a turn. 

Some of the in-home care services you may need to consider planning for include health care aides, registered nurses, physical therapists, social workers and other specialists that make home visits. Your in-home caregiver might also be a companion or a loved one. Regardless of who is providing the care, it’s important to ensure your home is ready, so you can more easily adapt should the need arise.

Renovating your home for the future

When renovating your home, it’s important to keep future health challenges in mind, and the possibility of needing in-home care. Understanding your needs — and the needs of others potentially sharing your space — will create a more harmonious and comfortable environment while aging in place.

Creating a bedroom on the main floor of the home is ideal — allowing for easier accessibility throughout the home. In addition to reducing the use of stairs, main floors also provide faster exits to safety in case of emergencies — like injuries, break-ins or fires.

To accommodate live-in care, or for having loved ones stay, a separate bedroom is an essential consideration. Make sure the room has easy access to a bathroom, and even consider installing a small kitchen. 

You’ll also want to equip your home for caregiver accessibility, including:

  • Installing smart locks, so people who take care of you always have access to the home.
  • Ensuring caregivers have access to WiFi, so they’re connected in the event of an emergency, or to purchase necessary items online.
  • Providing caregivers access to security systems, so they can help monitor the home in an emergency.
  • Adding more electrical outlets in the home, in case there is medical equipment to set up in the future.
  • Creating wider doorways and entryways for wheelchairs, as well as ramps for wheelchair accessibility.

Financial assistance for home modifications

Paying for Senior Care outlines four sources of assistance available for those needing to make home modifications to accommodate the needs of older adults and of those with disabilities, including financial loans, grants, labor and equipment loans:

Four types of assistance for home modifications

  1. Low-interest loans: Some organizations, mainly governmental, offer low-interest loans for home modifications or guarantee loans so banks are less restrictive with their lending requirements. Since these are loans, they do need to be paid back.
  2. Home improvement grants: These (usually one-time) grants are available for a specific home modification purpose, and do not need to be repaid.
  3. Free labor: Another form of assistance is free labor to make home improvements. This is commonly offered by non-profit organizations or charities. Materials are not covered. The building of a wheelchair ramp is a common example.
  4. Equipment loans: Some organizations make free, long-term loans of home modification materials. As an example, a portable wheelchair ramp that does not need to be returned until the borrower moves from their home or no longer requires the use of it.

Options for financial planning

There are also several programs and other assistance programs available for qualified individuals to take advantage of to help with home modifications for the purpose of keeping older adults at home longer. Some of the most notable options are:

  1. Medicare Advantage: Beginning in 2019, Medicare Advantage (MA) plans now include benefits for home modifications, such as assisting with the addition of grab bars, stairlifts, and wheelchair ramps in the home
  2. Medicaid HCBS Waivers and Home Modifications: Most states have Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Waivers, which help qualified individuals stay at home and receive in-home care and assistance with home modifications. Each state offers different programs with different eligibility requirements and benefits. 
  3. Veterans Programs for Home Modifications: The Veterans Administration (VA) offers grants, including Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) Grants, Special Housing Adaptation (SHA) Grants and Home Improvement and Structural Alteration (HISA) Grants, to help veterans remain in their homes longer.
  4. Non-Medicaid Government Assistance for Home Modification: The Department of Housing and Urban Development offers HUD Home Improvement Loans, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers Rural Repair and Rehabilitation Grants. Additionally, quite a few states offer various assistance programs that are referred to as “nursing home diversion programs,” and some of these programs offer home modification as a benefit. Review this list of state assistance programs that offer home modification benefits to see if there’s a program available for you.
  5. Non-Profit and Foundation Assistance for Home Modifications: Many non-profits and organizations (such as Rebuilding Together) offer financial aid and volunteer labor to help older adults remain in their homes. Another option is finding local, volunteer community resources and projects that may help assist with home modifications.

Set your sights on home sweet home…forever

People are living longer and the percentage of older adults in the U.S. is on the rise. This means there is an increased demand for long-term care solutions. The good news is remaining independent and autonomous in the home you know and love as you age is possible. With the right planning and assistance, older adults can easily make modifications to the home — such as updating the lighting in the home, taking advantage of assistive technologies and even renovating the home to accommodate live-in care. Make these changes now and create a comfortable and safe space that you can continue to call home…forever.

Bio

Wendy Meyeroff, a plain language expert in B2B and B2C health/tech communications, has helped clients across the U.S. for 20+ years with journalism and marketing materials. Wendy has a specialty: writing for and about boomers, and mentoring outreach to ages 50+.

 
 
 
 
 

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How I Renovated My Kitchen – Reader Story

Did you update your bathroom? Revamp your kitchen? Install new flooring? We would love to share your project, big or small! Send us what you did and our editorial team will consider it for our “My Fresh Home” series, which will be published every Thursday. Check out our submission instructions at the bottom of the page.

Today we want to share a story from Freshome reader Patrick’s, who completed a Kitchen Renovation:

Over the last few years, I’ve been slowly renovating my small kitchen. I really enjoy doing DIY home renovations, and my kitchen desperately needed the update, because the space felt very outdated and dysfunctional. 

These updates range from small, quick fixes, too much more involved projects. Here are a few:

Cabinet Handles: 

Cabinet handles are pretty straightforward to install – you just screw them in. The tricky part is making sure that they’re centered and level with each other. When measuring, you need to take into consideration the size and shape of your handles. 

Cabinet handles usually come with either one or two screws. One-screw handles are pretty straightforward – just mark where you want it and drill. But if you’re installing handles that have two screws, I recommend creating a template on a piece of paper that measures the difference between the holes. Then you can simply hold the template up to the cabinet and drill, so you don’t have to worry about measuring and re-measuring. I used tape to make sure the paper didn’t shift.

Appliances:

This was one of the first things I wanted to get done. I really didn’t like the appearance of the existing appliances, and I wanted to make the room look and feel modern. Not to mention, all of the old appliances came with the property when I bought it and were probably purchased second-hand. They were on their last legs, so choosing to invest in new appliances ensured that I had reliable equipment.

I purchased all of my new appliances – a microwave, dishwasher, and refrigerator – from Lowes, which included professional installation, so I didn’t have to put in anything myself, except for the microwave. If you’re getting an over-the-range microwave, definitely ask someone for help! Mounting a microwave is awkward, and having an extra set of hands is incredibly helpful.

Sink:

If you’re not comfortable with plumbing, this is where I would recommend you use a professional. If not, you need to always make sure you turn off your main water line before you begin, or you’re going to get soaked. 

Installing the sink itself was pretty easy if you go with a top-mounted configuration. I say it took some trial and error when getting all of the piping set up, to make sure everything was connected and neatly positioned under the sink. I would highly recommend watching a couple of YouTube videos if you’re nervous – there are plenty of great resources out there.

Flooring:

When I bought the house, it had low-quality laminate flooring. I have dogs, and water spills are a common occurrence, so I really wanted a waterproof solution. The new flooring I installed is a luxury vinyl plank and claims that it is 100% waterproof. 

Installing flooring can feel like a daunting task, and it does take some time, but overall, it isn’t overly complicated. It all boils down to measuring (and re-measuring), cutting, and locking each piece in place. 

I used three different power saws to complete this project – a miter saw, jigsaw and table saw. As I am someone who really enjoys DIY projects, I decided to invest and purchase my own saws, because I can use them for multiple projects.

Painting: 

I painted over my tan walls with a bright, light blue, to add some brightness and color to the kitchen, and make everything look a little less brown (I had brown floors, brown walls, and brown backsplash with white cabinets). 

If you’re new to painting walls, I would just recommend that you take your time and try to cover everything you can with canvas tarps or old sheets or blankets, to protect your furniture or appliances from accidental drips. Use a flat, wide brush to create a border around your room in more detailed areas, like near cabinets and backsplash, the ceiling, molding, etc., then use a roller to fill in the larger areas.

Overall, I feel like these updates make my kitchen both more visually appealing and functional. The larger refrigerator has given me tons more room, I have a much quieter (almost silent) dishwasher, and my microwave actually works! I also love the additional depth the new sink provides, and the new faucet helps a lot when it comes time to do the dishes. The light blue paint color really opens up the room and adds a pop of color, the space definitely needed. I’m happy with what I’ve completed so far, and I’m excited to take on more projects in the future.

What do you think? Do you want to remodel your kitchen?

How to Submit User Stories

1: Include “My Fresh Home Project” in the subject line. Then, in the body of the email, please provide an explanation of why you chose to do the project, an outline of steps you took to get it done, and any advice for readers considering similar projects. Make sure to include your name and any before/after images you have! 

2: Email your story to [email protected].

And that’s it! Easy, right? If selected, your story will be shared as an article on Freshome!

 

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Reclaimed Resources: 8 Ways to Score Recycled Materials

Building with recycled materials offers two-fold benefits. Not only are you building with cheaper materials that come with a story, but you’re also helping to offset some of your carbon building footprint. It’s no secret that building materials can really eat into your building budget. Just like the housing market, material prices can ebb and flow. By searching for recycled materials whenever possible, you can save more of your money. Not sure where to start? If you know where to look, you’ll find an abundance of reclaimed materials at your fingertips. Here are some of the best places to score free and low-cost materials.

Reclaimed wood kitchen

Reclaimed material adds extra character to your home. Image: Pillar & Peacock

Social media and online classifieds

The best place to start is by putting out the call to your friends and family on social media. Chances are someone on your friend list has something you need sitting in their garage right now. Post a message on your page and then post messages on indoor swap meet and online classified sites. There are entire websites, like Freecycle, devoted to exchanging used goods for free. You can find wood, tile and counter remnants and even tools there.

Building reuse stores

Habitat for Humanity Restores are outlets that accept building material donations like fixtures, cabinets and even tools. They then resell them to the general public for pennies on the dollar. You can check if there’s a Restore near you, but if you’re not lucky enough to have one, try thrift stores.

Industrial style bedroom

Check out demo sites for reclaimed stone and metal, too. Image: Barker and Stonehouse

Bartering and trading

Hey, you’re not looking for a handout, just recycled materials! Trading some of the extra materials you have on hand can be a win-win situation. Don’t have anything extra? Offer to lend a hand for a builder or a neighbor who has materials you need. Or, take a look through your garage and post some of the tools or toys you don’t use on trade or sell sites. It’s a great way to get to know your community and help offload some of your extra stuff, too.

Scratch and dent centers

When floor models or packaging becomes damaged, it’s usually unsellable for retailers. While some stores might write damaged items off at a loss, others send the damaged things to scratch and dent outlets. There, you can find screaming deals on materials that have minor cosmetic issues, were returned by customers or were ordered incorrectly. Check out these outlets for things like carpeting, lighting fixtures, plumbing fixtures, flooring and even appliances. If you’re willing to overlook cosmetic issues or are less picky about color and finish, you can outfit your home on the cheap.

Barnwood home exterior

Make contact with local builders for first dibs on scraps. Image: Appalachian Antique Hardwood

Building sites

Here’s the thing: building sites almost always have remnants and leftovers in their garbage bins. Before you dumpster dive for scraps, however, check to make sure it’s kosher with the builder. In fact, calling a builder to see if they have extras of your bathroom tile or an incorrectly ordered chandelier can help you connect with contractors who are happy to give you scraps they would have thrown out otherwise.

Demolition sites

Demolition sites are the real motherlode for recycled materials because in most cases, the materials are headed to the dump. When you think about how many homes are renovated while still in technically good condition, it’s a no-brainer. Cabinetry, for example, is updated frequently, even when there’s nothing wrong cosmetically or functionally. Keep an eye out for demolition sites to score reclaimed wood, brick, cabinets and even tile and flooring.

Salvage yards

Salvage yards are usually run by individuals who can see the potential in just about anything. Even the pallets used in shipping can become reclaimed wood if you can find them in good condition. Take a Saturday afternoon and head over to your local salvage yard. Let the owner or manager know some of the things on your wishlist and, more often than not, you’ll find someone happy to help you on your treasure hunt. Salvage yards are great for upcycling metal and reclaimed wood and finding replacement parts for pricey tools.

Industrial style kitchen

Reclaimed materials make for great architectural features. Image: Jane Kim Design

Advertising

Hey, no one can give you their recycled stuff if you don’t ask, right? Simply putting the word out in your neighborhood can give you a huge return on your time. Printing a flyer that lets your neighbors know what you’re working on and some of the materials you’d like to recycle can help you reclaim things practically from your own backyard. Put a few flyers up around town or post them on community bulletin boards to make sure you get the word out.

Whether you’re renovating your home or building from scratch, your local hardware store isn’t the be-all, end-all for materials. Getting creative about sourcing and looking beyond the usual avenues can help you save money, plus it adds more to your story. Give materials new life by committing to recycle and reuse whenever you can and you’ll appreciate your finished project even more than before.

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