Sunday, March 17, 2013

Small changes

Recently, I scored a nearly-free subscription to Better Homes and Gardens. I think it was $2 for six issues, of which I've now received three. Paging through the latest issue, I found myself annoyed, as I so often am when reading magazines of this sort, by the complete disregard for money in most of the articles. Featured stories in this issue discuss:
  • A newlywed couple (with two dogs) who bumped out the entire front of their house by 10 feet to expand their living room, while also adding a full-width screened porch, rearranging their kitchen layout, and moving their laundry room
  • A DIY kitchen remodel that involved removing a huge brick peninsula, adding an island, replacing the cooktop and wall oven with a professional gas range, replacing floor tile with hardwood, replacing all the kitchen cabinets, and adding a new sink, dishwasher, backsplash, lighting, built-in seating, and energy-efficient windows
  • A remodel of an "unimaginative" full bath that involved moving the toilet, tub, and separate shower, as well as replacing the double sink/vanity, adding glass tile to two entire walls, and replacing the non-obstructive swinging door with a pocket door to "open up even more floor space"
  • An conversion of an "uninviting sunroom" to a huge family room with a massive stone fireplace, open to both the family room and the new covered stone patio, as well as French doors on either side of the fireplace, vaulted fir-paneled ceilings, and new hardwood floors
  • A redesigned backyard that includes a "bluestone patio and pergola," linked to the kids' play area by "bluestone steppers" and a "low retaining wall" that also provides seating
Not one of these stories mentions the project's budget. In fact, not one of them even includes the word "budget." If you have to ask, apparently, you don't want to know.

The other thing that's annoying about all these stories is that they all focus on really big projects: knocking out walls, moving plumbing, replacing appliances and fixtures. There is one smaller-scale story about redecorating the master bedroom in a "mountain getaway home"—although even that job was done professionally—but for the most part, the choice of articles seems to imply that the only changes in a home worth talking about are big changes.

Perhaps in a reaction to this, I spent a chunk of my Sunday working on making, or at least completing, a series of really small changes in our house. None of them took more than a few hours or cost more than a few dollars. But each of them will, I think, make a big difference in how well our house looks or functions or both.

Small change #1: This was a completely impromptu move that occurred to me as I was reading the first BHG story listed above. One of the things that bugged me was the way the editors praised the couple's decision to replace some of their upper kitchen cabinets with open shelves, which they called "an inexpensive fix for a dated kitchen." A lot of design magazines lately seem to be recommending this move, blithely ignoring the fact that when you have open shelves, everything you keep on them has to look presentable. They're fine for displaying pretty dishes, but what about the mismatched mugs and miscellaneous appliances that most of us keep tucked neatly behind our cabinet doors? Even if you do have stuff that will look nice on an open shelf, displaying it out in the open means it has to be neatly spaced, so that in effect, you get less usable space than you do with a cabinet.

Brian speculated that the people who do this in their kitchens must all just be leaving their blenders and coffeemakers sitting out on the counter all the time—which isn't terribly practical if your kitchen has a grand total of 8 linear feet of counter space, like ours. In fact, looking around the kitchen, we noted that the only items we have sitting out on our counters are the toaster oven, which gets used daily; a crock full of various cooking utensils, at least one of which is likely to be used on any given day; the cookie jar; and the rolling pin. It occurred to me that the rolling pin, at least, doesn't get used every day, or even every week, and really doesn't need to be kept out. Brian agreed, but said he keeps it out because it looks nice (it's made of green marble) and doesn't fit neatly in any of our drawers or cabinets. On an impulse, I picked it up, along with its wooden stand, and moved it over to the top of the fridge.

Result: In its new home, the rolling pin is actually easier to see and just as easy to access whenever we want to bake a pie, and we now have a whole extra third of a foot of precious counter space. Cost: $0.

Small change #2: Our recycling bins live in our spare bedroom, across the hall from the kitchen. We have two wooden crates, bought unfinished at Michael's, to hold our paper and mixed recyclables (cans, bottles, and all plastics numbered 1 through 7). They just fit side by side on the top shelf of a table that my father-in-law built for us (originally designed to provide much-needed counter and storage space in our old apartment, but it has since made the move with us to our current house). However, until recently, the newspapers, which have to be bundled separately from other paper, were relegated to a cardboard file box on the bottom shelf, while next to them sat an odd assortment of haphazardly piled items: recycling schedules, candles for emergency use, a piece of art that for some reason wasn't filed with the rest of our artwork, and a "how to host a mystery" boxed party game that I've been meaning to host as soon as I can come up with a suitable guest list.


A month ago, while shopping for compost at  Home Depot, we found another crate, similar to the two we already had, for only $6.50 (plus tax). We brought it home and, bit by bit, it went through the stages of rough sanding, fine sanding, and yesterday, finishing with water-based polyurethane. One we got the crate in place, giving the newspapers a decent home, I decided that it looked too nice to have a collection of miscellaneous junk stacked next to it. So I took the game downstairs to live with our other board games and brought up a nice fabric-lined basket, which used to live in our bathroom closet until we replaced it with a much bigger and more functional one, to hold the candles.

Result: The newly tweaked recycling station looks much nicer and will be more functional as well, since our tea lights are no longer at risk of spilling out of their bag and rolling into corners. Cost: $7, since we already had the sandpaper and poly left over from other projects.

Small change #3: As you can see in the picture above, the recycling station also serves as our plant shelf, where we keep our started seedlings under their grow light, along with a few houseplants. For the past few weeks, in a "waste not, want not" move, we've been saving the root ends of our scallions and keeping them in a jar of water on this plant shelf to re-grow into new scallions. This did work—that is, the scallions did grow this way—but they also developed an absolutely awful smell. This was not just an onion-breath smell; this was more like a foul undead zombie onion. My best guess is that, while the inner part of each scallion was sprouting new growth, its outer layers were decaying under the water. I finally got fed up with this and grabbed the jar and a plant pot that was sitting next to it. This pot used to hold a potted basil plant, but over the course of the winter it had gradually lost its leaves until we finally gave up on it and pulled it out, leaving the pot unoccupied. I carried both items downstairs to the workshop, where Brian was mucking about with potting soil, starting a set of tomato seedlings (Sun Golds, the earliest tomato in our lineup for 2013). Not bothering with niceties like tools, Brian simply poked a few holes into the dirt and put the scallions right into them, adding a bit more potting mix to fill in the gaps. The foul-smelling jar got soaked in the utility sink, while the repotted scallions came upstairs to get a good watering.

Result: The scallions may or may not thrive in their new home, but our potting stand no longer stinks, and the pot is no longer sitting there empty and taking up space. Cost: $0.

Small change #4: One of my birthday presents from my mom was an insect house—a container you can hang up in your yard to attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs and lacewings. Since we got it, it's just been sitting in our spare room waiting to be hung. I couldn't hang it without Brian's help, being too short to hang it at a suitable height—and during the weeks that passed, we didn't have a single free and sunny weekend. So today, we finally had a five-minute interval of decent weather during which we could take the house out to the shed, drill a little hole, pound in a large nail, and hang the house. (We took an extra minute or two to bend down the other end of the nail so that it wouldn't be poking straight through the wall inside the shed.)

Result: It's too early to say whether this thing will attract any beneficial bugs, but it looks cute—and the house is no longer taking up space in our spare room. Cost: Don't know what my mom paid for it, but hanging it up cost us nothing.

There. Four small projects, each of which made a significant positive impact, all finished today, and none costing over $7. Top that, BHG!
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