We know, we know – you’re probably keenly aware that the past year has been, well, different. While we could start counting off the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has changed society, potentially forever, we’re going to cut to the chase. Over the past 12 months, the general population has spent more time at home than ever before in our lifetimes. In the interior design world, that single pandemic-induced behavioral change is dramatically impacting the industry. More specifically, it’s created a laser focus on wellness and sustainability.
In March 2020, before we had any idea just how long we’d be in lockdown, everything froze. People froze their assets, their social lives, their office lives – really, just anything and everything stopped. And that included design businesses.
“At the beginning of the pandemic with the stay-at-home orders, we saw a dramatic decrease in business,” says Tisha Leung, editor at home renovation company Sweeten, a service that connects homeowners and contractors. “We are an online platform that facilitates an offline transaction, and so when general contractors were not able to actually be in spaces to renovate, they were dramatically impacted.”
But when the dust settled and people realized we’d be in this – this being not only the pandemic, but literally our homes – for the long haul, perspectives changed, and actions were taken. Namely, people took note of their immediate surroundings and went to work improving them.
Renovating in the wake of a major crisis isn’t a new phenomenon. “What happened after 9/11 was cocooning. People were trying to get out of the city, and they were buying homes, figuring how to telecommute, which started to become possible then, and really focusing on their spaces,” says Steve Feldman, founder of Renovation Angel, a non-profit that recycles luxury kitchens. “That was when the kitchen industry really started to gain steam. Everybody wanted stone countertops, custom cabinetry, nicer stainless appliances and nicer finishes.”
The same effect is happening during the pandemic. Rather than spending money on travel, shopping or dining out, people are investing in home renovations – particularly in high-quality ones that impart a sense of wellness into their lives. As it pertains to the home, wellness is traditionally found in the creation of sanctuary-like spaces, often in bedrooms or bathrooms. But during the pandemic, renovators are taking the concept of wellness even further.
“There are studies that say surrounding yourself in nature creates a calming effect,” says John Dupra, co-founder of flooring company Revel Woods**. “And there are some studies that show that in having natural products in your home, in indoor spaces, some of that still translates. It can reduce stress levels.”
That’s one of the reasons why Dupra has seen such an increase in demand for natural wood flooring over the past year. “We just can’t meet the demand. It’s unbelievable,” he says.
But people aren’t only installing wood floors for their aesthetic. “I would say that this demand for authentic materials and is not just because of physical health benefits or mental health benefits, but also its environmental benefits,” says Dupra. “It’s actually a carbon-negative building product, not just carbon-neutral.”
Beyond incorporating natural materials into their spaces, homeowners are also finding a sense of wellness in creating efficient and effective organization systems – something that’s crucial as rooms become multi-purpose to accommodate work-from-home and learn-from-home culture.
“In L.A., we’re remodeling a lot of ADUs [accessory dwelling units], where people are turning their garage into a home office that is also a studio apartment that could be rented when they go back to the office,” says Leung. “We’re seeing attics turn into places for children. Basements are mostly getting turned into gyms.”
To facilitate more creative utilization of space, homeowners have had to get crafty with their renovation ideas. Cabinetry company Semihandmade, which was initially founded to provide custom doors for IKEA cabinet systems, has benefitted from this need for organization. “Now we’re not just selling kitchen cabinets,” says Semihandmade CEO and founder John McDonald. “We’re selling the cabinets that work in the bathroom, in the closets, in the laundry room, in the mudroom.”
Semihandmade, which saw 20% growth in 2020, has even expanded its offerings to meet high demand, launching its BOXI offshoot. BOXI is a direct-to-consumer cabinetry company designed to help take the stress out of big home renovation projects – and lower costs as compared to traditional custom cabinetry.
Even though consumers are willing to spend on high-quality, modern renovations these days, they’re still quite conscious of budget, particularly as the economy is less-than-stellar right now. “There’s something that happens when you go through something like the Great Depression, or, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dupra. “It rewires your brain a little bit, and you don’t approach things the exact same way ever again.”
In the current day, that translates to consumers focusing on the intersection of affordable yet high-quality options for home renovations. “There’s a home movement around green renovating, repurposing, and architectural salvage,” says Leung. “It’s a trick to save so much money.”
That’s where Feldman’s Renovation Angel comes in. The company takes gently used high-end kitchens that are slated for demolition or dumping (their former owners get to claim a pretty hefty tax write-off for donating), then sells them at a friendlier price point to homeowners who might not otherwise have been able to afford custom kitchen pieces and top-of-the-line appliances. In doing so, the 16-year-old company has saved 43 million pounds of waste from entering landfills, allowing customers to feel extra good about their purchase.
These kinds of home trends, both in wellness and sustainability, aren’t likely just a pandemic fad. There’s a good chance they’re here for the foreseeable future.
“I can see that buying trends are gravitating towards higher quality, longer-lasting, more sustainable materials,” says Dupra. “People are no longer seeing their house as a place to crash and keep their stuff. They’re seeing it as an extension of themselves. What they’re putting around their bodies is becoming just as important as what they put in their bodies.”
Stefanie Waldek is a writer covering architecture, design, and travel. You can find her words in Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, House Beautiful, Business Insider, The Washington Post, and more.
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