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Updated: Apr 14, 2021

Residents take on projects to make their homes work better

Here we are, spending way too much time lusting after the perfect rooms on Zillow and Houzz. Daydreaming about that fixer upper in Georgia we would never actually move into, versus that new kitchen renovation that most architects are too busy to take on. Saturday Night Live captured just this cultural zeitgeist when it shined a spotlight on our obsession with Zillow surfing in a February skit.

It’s no wonder. We have, after all, spent almost an entire year trying to make our homes work for us in ways we never imagined. While many of us once yearned for the aesthetic of “open concept” spaces, we now find ourselves seeking the opposite. Cozy nooks and rooms that are singular in use offer practicality. And when it comes to current home organization and space design, COVID-19 has taught us, is teaching us still, that function is foremost.

Our homes used to be jumping off points from which we launched our days. Today they are more like trampolines, accommodating the demands of a career and online school and basic psychological needs, like personal privacy and security. Architects will likely study and discuss how to create these post-pandemic spaces for years to come. After all, the “vanity room,” the first iteration of the powder room, came about in the wake of the Spanish Flu as a place to wash your hands when entering the home; it’s sort of like our present-day mudrooms, but with a sink.

But that’s a topic for another time. With the help of one very creative family, two talented home stylists, and a professional organizer, I explore what we can do now with limited budgets to make our homes work for us right where we are.

Garage School University

Like many garages, Aimee and Peter Ryan’s was similar to most of ours: a bit messy. But, their son Sander’s school pod needed a safe space to meet and suddenly it was time to move a garage renovation off the long to-do list. Without that motivation, Aimee says, “I would have put it off another year...or 10.” That’s when they realized they had uncovered a hidden gem: extra space.

The need for a safe space to host their son's school pod gave Aimee and Peter Ryan the motivation to renovate their garage. They've dubbed it "Garage University."

Ultimately, Garage School University, as it has been lovingly dubbed, was established in the Ryan’s garage for one simple reason: It has electricity.

So how did they do it? After they stashed or donated their stuff, they gave their garage a good power wash and patched up all the gaps and holes to keep the critters out. They had the floor and ceiling painted, and added beadboard to cover the raw walls around the perimeter. Closing the kids in wasn’t a possibility due to their strict COVID-19 protocols, so they installed a large 16-foot sliding glass door. They set up Dyson heaters with air filters and keep the windows cracked as well as the sliding doors.

To keep water from pooling in front of the garage, they had gutters installed along with a french drain. Says Aimee, “The space actually looked much bigger once we removed the garage door, as we can now see the ceiling. The renovation has really been a game-changer for us. It has been great to have another safe space to gather with our pod friends!”

This reclaimed space has given the Ryans a new set of goals on how to use it. Aimee predicts that it will be great for the kids to watch movies and do art projects together, and a good space for them to hang out when they get to high school. But it’s not just for the kids. Aimee is a very talented photographer and so perhaps a photo studio....Peter loves to paint and make pottery so maybe they’ll install a kiln…the list goes on. One of the kids in their pod said, “If you had running water in here, we could just move right in!”

The Ryans envision this space evolving with their needs. Perhaps it will be used as a photo studio, for watching movies, even for installing a kiln.

Who would have thought that the unassuming garage meant to house our garden tools, random junk, and cars could help a bunch of kids find what is most elusive these days – human connection? The community fostered here has given them a place to create. They wrote, directed, filmed, and made props for a movie last fall. The film was shot in the Ryans’ garden and in the garage on hot days. They also learned how to transfer a small photo onto a mural sized painting. Now they are working on a Garage School newspaper.

Function Over Fantasy

Maybe a garage clean out isn’t something you can tackle right now. There are other small projects you may want to consider, such as organization, touted as the “perfect pandemic project.” But between the laundry piling up or the kitchen sink that seems to manufacture dirty dishes all on its own, it’s daunting – only to be made doubly so when we’re bombarded with all the pretty images on our Facebook and Instagram feeds. (Stop the madness, we know that’s not real life!)

For organization, Greene recommends using the eight-cubed Kallax Shelving Unit set up horizontally.

Enter the logic and reason of Frances Greene, founder and owner of IrieDesign Home & Graphics. As a specialist in residential organizing, Greene helps her clients reestablish the flow in their homes by making them functional for each inhabitant. She says, “Marie Kondo and the Home Edit are a beautiful inspiration and a joy to look at, but think of them as art. In reality, they are expensive, they are high-maintenance, and these systems don’t work for everyone. It’s important to live in your home organically, in a manner that works for your family.”

Greene shares a few no-stress organizational tips with an eye to prioritizing function over fantasy, while finding an aesthetic balance.

Do It Yourself

Once you have reclaimed your space, perhaps it’s time to elevate your creative expression and style with projects to beautify your home. Nureed Saeed, owner of Nu Interiors, a bicoastal interior design firm with roots in South Orange, is a self-described “roll-up-your-sleeves” kind of woman. She knows firsthand how important it is to style personal space for each member of the family.

From her home base in Berkeley, California, Saeed relates that “[p]rior to COVID-19, personal space has had an emotional focus framed around our space related to other people. This last year has brought to light that personal space is also a reflection of the physical space we live in and how that can bring us emotional stability or well-being. This is a pivotal connection for me as a designer because it brings to light the important need for a space to function in both physical and mental terms.”

Now may be the perfect time to elevate your creative expression and style with projects to beautify your home.

Rest assured that no matter what projects you take on this year, you’ll do fine. Neither Sarah Gee, owner of Sarah Gee Interiors, nor her husband are afraid of taking on small and large projects. Their most recent is a minor kitchen renovation. And while their skill set is pretty advanced, Gee says, “For any unknowns, and there are a lot of them, we simply turn to YouTube. You can learn anything on YouTube! We also aren’t afraid of trial and error. It’s good to go into any project with the knowledge that you may have to tear something apart and redo it. We have never regretted redoing something.”

Good luck! We are all rooting for you and your family.

Carla Labianca is a founder and producer of the annual Resource Home Show for homeowners and home-improvement professionals, and one half of Danbrot+Labianca Partnership. Read more of her writings on the home at her blog, Inhabit Your Home.

Dreaming of Some Personal Space.

How to Design It into Your Life

Carving a Nook:

Find a small, under-utilized space in your child’s room and carve out a hiding or reading nook for him or her.


Take a “night away” in your guest room. Saeed writes, “Once a month since lockdown began, I pretend I’m away from the family for a night. I watch TV alone. I eat snacks like it’s room service and my husband takes care of the kids while I sleep in and ‘travel back home.’”

Personal Space:

Designate a space that is only yours. Whether it is not sharing your bathroom with the kids for a month, or saying, “This chair is my reading spot,” having a space that is ours alone is a cherished thing these days.

Create zones:

Convert a living room into a lounge and game room using a sofa and a game table. Or create a quiet sanctuary in your bedroom with a seating area. “We all have rooms that are doing double duty these days, but by creating zones you are creating a physical and mental boundary that gives the feeling of more space,” explains Saeed.


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