Friday, July 20, 2012

Sustainable Staging

Now that our old house has sold (hooray!), I thought I'd share some 'before' and 'after' photos of our staged property (which was listed here and here) and talk about my strategies for staging on a tight budget.

A photo from curbside when the mockorange and peonies were in bloom a couple of weeks ago.
We repainted the front porch, replaced the carpet on the steps, and cut down the birch tree (sigh).
The planters and baskets were filled with white violas and Wave petunias.
There are a few good articles that cover basic staging tips: declutter, depersonalize, and so on. I'm also fortunate to have staging training, so I know a few trade secrets that HGTV won't teach you.

Seeing a gap in the information that was available, I wrote an article in 2008 on sustainable staging practices (PDF) that applied what I know about sustainable residential interior design to real estate staging. While the market has changed quite a bit since that time, I think the information in my sustainable staging article is still helpful, and I followed the checklist when I staged my own home. 

(The advice from our realtor was that specifically marketing a property as green actually limits the number of prospective buyers in our city, so I didn't stage the house to highlight the property's sustainable features as advised by these three articles - but I have prepared a list for the buyers of those features plus green upgrades they should consider making as part of any renovations they do when they move in.)

Here's how I did sustainable staging on a tight budget:

- The whole house needed repainting, and I wasn't willing to sacrifice painting with 0-VOC paint, since it dries quickly and has less smell in addition to its environmental attributes. We bought new paint in areas where we needed to match existing paint, but we were able to stretch our paint budget by visiting our local eco-station, where we found mostly-unused cans of premium-brand paint for free, and by grabbing deeply discounted 'oops' cans and on-sale-for-Earth-Day untinted cans from the hardware store. Some of the free paint turned out to be a dud (if it has the texture of chunky guacamole instead of yogourt, you really cannot use it), and some of it was a bargain for a reason - the colour was too dark, or too blue, or too yellow. However, fortune favours the brave. By combining cans, I was able to create a custom-blended greige for the walls of the downstairs family room, and a too-yellow brown became the perfect dark taupe for the laundry room when doctored with a tube of lamp black. You'll see those in the photos below. We also stretched our budget by doing all the painting ourselves instead of hiring someone. (The tradeoff in doing that was that it took more time for the house to be ready to list.)

- I mostly used furniture and accessories that we already owned - which meant, since we were moving into our new house before listing our old one for sale, that I had to have my furniture plan sussed out and mark the pieces of furniture that needed to stay prior to the movers coming. Where new accessories, towels, bedding, or furniture were needed, I either bought things second-hand, or bought simple classics with an eye to using them in my new home's decor after the old house sells. Knowing that I was buying something to use forever allowed me to apply a slow-home filter to the purchase, and also spend a bit more on accessories. Nothing super-aspirational or expensive, mind you, but enough of an upgrade to help the whole house read as more desirable.

Our dining room, before repainting. As much as I loved this hand-stenciled brocade with a colour wash to make it look like hand-blocked wallpaper, and as long as it took my mum and I to paint, it was (ahem) very specific to my taste, and needed to be repainted. We kept the moldings, which add architecture to the open plan space, and painted the green out using the same colour as the existing offwhite, CIL's Swiss Coffee (50YY 83/057). The main goal of staging is to help potential buyers imagine themselves living in a space from the moment they walk through the door, so brave colour choices and personal items need to be changed as part of the staging process. That doesn't mean the end result has to be bland! It just needs to have broad appeal.  
Our dining room, after staging. Since we needed our dining set at the new house, we showed this room as a sitting room where you could curl up with a good book for some alone time. We've had the leather chair for years, a dead ringer for Restoration Hardware's Churchill chair (which is on our shopping list so we can have a matched pair). The glass and chrome table was a $25 Kijiji find. My purple faux-silk drapes got packed, and their neutral replacements were $15 a panel at Value Village - a steal even with dry cleaning quadrupling that cost. The magnetic floating curtain tie-backs are by Umbra. I dressed the chair with a knitted pillow and throw from Brian Gluckstein's collection for HBC, and the table with a silver-leafed tray with a little jade plant, a couple of books, and a bowl of chocolate-covered almonds. Staging is about selling light and space, so open curtains and transparent furnishings are widely used by pro stagers. Accessories help both to bring a space bang-up-to-date and to aid potential buyers in imagining themselves living in the space.
Our eating nook had its decrepit curtains replaced with second-hand sheers (more light!), and I added a classic linen tablecloth (GlucksteinHome again) to the existing pedestal table and lucite-and-chrome Ikea chairs. The vintage nautical prints in the stairwell were produced by artist Lloyd G. Nowlan for the Nova Scotia tourist trade, and I found them years ago at a flea market. The cherry-stained red oak floor had been a bit scratched up after 12 years of living, but I found that Minwax had an exact match. Two afternoons of careful application of gel stain with a rag and my fingertips, followed by a polyurethane treatment to bring back the shine, had the hardwood floor looking almost good as new. Repair is both greener and more cost effective than renovation!
Cherry-stained oak cabinetry by KitchenCraft in the kitchen with white porcelain knobs and a white Daltile subway tile backsplash. The island's countertop is quartz (Silestone) with a high recycled content. The near-twin stools were found at antique fairs a decade apart from each other. Kitchens need to be sparkling clean and uncluttered, so naturally, the milk glass collection I used to keep on top of the cabinets got packed away. In addition to deep cleaning everything (with eco cleaners, naturally) and treating any wear on the wood floor as described above, I used Method's products for cleaning and polishing wood to make the cabinets look amazing.
I dressed the island with the realtor's flyers describing the property and a Sophie Conran porcelain bowl full of mandarin oranges. I love citrus fruit for staging or styling a space, because the colours are great for drawing the eye to a feature of the home that you want to highlight, they last much longer than floral arrangements, and when the skins start to look wrinkly: fruit salad!
A glass container with dried apricots and a tea towel from Anthro (not shown) subtly repeated the orange colour. This vignette also has one of the porcelain berry bowls from Anthropologie and a no-name cannister from Home Outfitters that echoed the throwing marks on the Sophie Conran bowl.
The loft used to have an enormous heavy mahogany office desk in it, which we let the professionals move for us - so I could use this petite antique Mission-style desk in its place. (Remember, you are selling space, so furniture that's smaller in scale can be used to your advantage!) The floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves could have been shown more empty than they are here; I did significantly declutter and style them. If we were going to be showing the house for much longer I think I'd redo these with a lot less stuff on them...
... although I am pretty happy with how my Poole and McCoy Pottery collections look in vignettes on the shelves. (Using what you have is a great green staging tactic.That's Benjamin Moore paint, Mascarpone for the solid wood shelves, Inspired for the back wall.
Of course the lovingly painted starry nighttime ceiling and walls in the former nursery had to go, too. This was such fun to do in the last week of my first pregnancy - I used a mixture of metallic and pearlescent paints and a range of star shaped stamps, then added a couple of rockets, UFOs, and satellites freehand for a bit of whimsy. The flat ceilings in this house are so great for projects like this. We added the glow-in-the-dark solar system orbiting the central light fixture later on.
This is the same bedroom after repainting with Benjamin Moore's Horizon, a lovely grey with a touch of blue that would be too cool in some spaces but perfect in this sunny west-facing space. We needed the mattress from this room at the new house, so the bunk bed got an inflatable mattress (classic staging trick) dressed with gender-neutral vintage sheets (from Value Village) referencing the hot fur trade blanket trend.
The master bedroom was painted in Benjamin Moore's Pashmina and furnished with our guest bed (a discontinued tubular steel style from Ikea), new side tables and crystal lamps from HomeSense, embroidered lampshades from Anthro, prints by my mum that usually hang above our fireplace, and crisp new white and navy bedding. New paint, bedding & accessories = appealing & on-trend.
Fresh white paint and fresh white towels in the upstairs bathroom send a signal that everything is clean and move-in ready. The sealant on the white grout for the ceramic tile floors had worn off, and the grout was starting to look kind of dingy...
...see? This is before cleaning. It turns out peroxide in a spray bottle and a bathtub scrub brush work brilliantly to lift dirt and re-whiten grout. Spray an area, leave it for a couple of minutes, then scrub with the brush (for this retro tile pattern, I did a circular motion followed by vertically and horizontally). Then wipe it dry with a rag. I only needed to repeat the treatment on a couple of stubborn spots. It didn't fix spots the kids had stained by spilling coloured shampoo, but it left everything else looking brand new. If I had known it was that easy to get the grout white again I would have done it a lot sooner! (Sorry for not having an after photo, the photos I took weren't in focus. I really do need to learn my new camera.)
The upstairs bathroom also has built-in storage shelves behind the door. I dressed them with just enough stuff that they don't look bare, and nothing to make a potential buyer think about other people using the room for its intended purpose. 
The downstairs family room used to be painted a greyed blue, with an acrylic faux 'Venetian Plaster' finish above the fireplace. It was repainted my custom greige, which I dubbed Irish Cream: 3 cans of untinted white + 1 can of Ben Moore's Horizon (blued grey) + 1 can of very peachy beige + 1/2 can of CIL's 50YY43/103 was the formula in the end. Lack of furniture and our tight budget meant we opted to show the house with this room and the third bedroom empty.
In the laundry room / mudroom, the pine beadboard wainscot was painted taupe (the oops can of yellowish brown similar to Bryant Gold, with a tube of lamp black mixed in), and the rest of the wall painted our custom Irish Cream. Both shades are found in the ceramic tile flooring. A couple of years ago, we replaced the solid door with a french door to let natural  light from the back door through into the adjoining family room.
Here is a 'before' pic of the third bedroom, as it was when we redecorated it a few years back for my daughter. The pink is Pink Hawaiian Coral, the blue is Serenata, and she loved it. We let her choose the colours, can you tell?  
Same room, repainted with Benjamin Moore's Storm (one of the freebie cans). It's possibly a smidgen dark for the room, but covered the bright pink brilliantly. Grey is on-trend, works beautifully with the existing carpet, and using a mid-tone instead of a pale paint colour sends a psychological signal that the home is solidly built. I love this paint colour enough that I'm planning to use it again (in a room with more natural light).
The downstairs bathroom with a shower stall next-door to the large third bedroom makes it a perfect house for having long-term guests, for families with a teenager craving privacy, or for a multigenerational family. Again, I used fresh white paint and new white towels, along with green towels that match the carpet in the room nextdoor.

Not shown in the photos is the unfinished basement and half-story crawl space, which we showed as empty as possible, with only a workbench and a couple of utility shelves of paint still in the space.

Here's the back yard, with the detached garage, Trex deck with cedar pergola, and garden:

Unfortunately, I had to take these photos after several days of rain including a severe hailstorm that none of the blooms survived. We found that weed cloth and pea gravel make an affordable and attractive cover for an unplanted vegetable garden, and a propane torch works better than any chemicals for clearing weeds from brick paths. 

As you can see, staging your house for sale while keeping sustainability in mind does not have to be expensive or have a crunchy-granola look. 

PS: if you are the lucky new owner of our old home: Congratulations! 
It's a wonderful house with terrific neighbors in a great neighborhood. 
We hope you will be as happy in it as we were.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Suburban Slow Home Case Study

Exactly a year ago tomorrow, I wrote a long post about living slowly and sustainably in the suburbs that I'd like to revisit. (Go reread it and meet me back here, mmmkay?)

The approximate floorplan of our new home, not to scale.
As I've been showing friends our new home, I've noticed that I'm a bit embarrassed by it. It's bigger than I feel like we need. It's one street over from million-dollar mansions with ravine access, whose property values we might be lowering by parking our dinged-up 12-year-old Toyota in our driveway. The master bedroom and ensuite all by themselves have more square footage than my first apartment. Almost every surface finish is some variant of builder beige.

So far, not so slow, right? But that's actually part of the plan. We wanted a house with great bones, good solar orientation, and a big enough lot for a large garden, in or near the new-urbanist neighborhood where we were already living, where we can live for the next couple of decades. We got all of those things with this house, plus a great location that's well-connected to recreational walking paths and the bike trail network, and good proximity to amenities (a yoga studio two blocks away! close enough to school and groceries that we can theoretically live car-light!). Unfortunately, there aren't many houses available in our neighborhood that meet our criteria, so we compromised on getting a bigger house than we were looking for in order to get a bigger yard; our other choice to get a bigger yard involved moving neighborhoods and living through a stressful renovation of an older home. Our new home will be a case study in gradually customizing a fairly typical builder-basic suburban move-up house to make it a slow home. I hope documenting it here will be helpful, given that about half of North Americans live in suburbs. All those houses and the infrastructure that serves them are already built, so discussing ways to slow them down and make them more sustainable is worthwhile. You'll be able to follow our progress on this blog using the tag 'slow home case study'.

Here's our to-do list, in no particular order:

- When we took possession, we did a little painting and moved in, then held off unpacking all the boxes while we worked on repainting and staging our old house for sale (watch for a post about that soon!).

- Now that our old house has sold, we will move our remaining furniture, then gradually invest in a mix of antique and new furniture to fill the obvious gaps in the new house. Right now I know those gaps include a sofa bed for the 'bonus room' to allow family movie nights and accommodate visitors, and book storage to replace the built-ins we left behind.

- The next step in personalizing our home will be to add architectural moldings, paint walls, hang artwork and family photos, and unpack the rest of our things (and purging more things we don't need or use as we unpack).

- Obviously, since this is a slow home makeover, I'll be looking to incorporate ideas from Slow Home Studio's courses and Slow Your Home's bootcamp as I fine-tune our floorplan and work out what else we need to do. I'll also be following my own advice and bringing local materials, the work of local artisans, a sense of place, and a timeless design aesthetic to the decorating scheme.

- A big goal for this summer is to get the kitchen organized for efficiency, to allow home baking and canning to happen, and make it easy for us to make more of our own food from scratch. (My daughter has asked me to start teaching her how to cook. I am so excited about this! Especially since the disruption of moving is the perfect time to incorporate healthier eating and exercise habits into our daily lives, and switching from processed to homemade will help us accomplish that. Slow food FTW!) We also will consider adding cold cellar storage and/or extra pantry space in the basement. 

- We also need to get the garden in the back yard properly set up with a play area for the kids, raised beds for planting veg next year (so the dog doesn't play on top of the seedlings, like she's prone to doing now), and the perennials (divided from the mature garden at the old house) and fruit trees (including a seedling Evans Cherry transplanted from the old garden) planted; this will include removal of a fungus-infected hawthorne tree and replacement with another fruit tree. Oh, and we should arrange outdoor furniture on the back deck for eating al fresco and entertaining, and add a shade structure since it's currently only useable in the evening. Someday I'd like to have hens, too, but since (a) they're not legal in my city yet and (b) sharing a yard with our bird-dog might be stressful for them, that will have to wait.

- Meanwhile in the front yard, the door and porch need paint, and we need a pair of chairs and the existing minimal landscaping (and dead tree) replanted to make the front of our home more inviting. Right away, we will set up a bin or two of outdoor toys and bubbles and chalk so our children play with other neighborhood kids on the sidewalk, and I'd eventually like the sod pulled up and the area relandscaped as a Japanese garden with a small kid-friendly bamboo fountain, some boulders the kids can play around, and a stepping-stone path through the plantings - so it would double as a decorative space and a place neighbors would actually enjoy hanging out and building community. I need to think about whether the front garden would be xeriscaped with a high proportion of native plants, or whether my concerns about urban food security will mean I choose edible landscaping - both approaches have merit. I also need to consider the neighborhood rules with respect to landscaping (which are mostly written to prevent people from creating no-maintenance gravel 'gardens', W00T).

- Bikes are already taking over the garage, so we need to get a compact bicycle storage arrangement in place. My youngest won't tolerate riding in a rear seat instead of pedaling for much longer, so we also need a bicycle setup that allows easy bike rides for me and the kids to school and grocery stores to minimize our car use (although the kids can also take the yellow bus starting in autumn). I already have a pretty sweet vintage 3-speed roadster with front and rear baskets that I use for shopping trips.

- Obviously we will also want to do an energy audit (probably through new local nonprofit eco-retrofit specialists C Returns) and start making improvements to our home's energy and water efficiency - this process will definitely get a separate post or five. The house already is relatively efficient, being only four years old, so I predict that the energy audit will suggest a lot of little things that can add up to make a difference, like repairing gaps in insulation and adding caulk. Our budget won't allow us to strive for net zero any time soon, but I also think replacement toilets (TOTO dual-flush) and a solar installation (possibly via Enmax's new Generate Choice program) will be happening at some point, and I'd love to install a sun tunnel into the windowless laundry room.

- An easy and obvious green project will be to set up an air drying area in the laundry room, and install an unobtrusive (retractable?) clothesline in the back yard.

- To add character and useful features to the house, we'd like to add built-in bookshelves and window seats, and add trim to make the interior architecture more authentic to the period it's attempting to reproduce. I suspect that the Not So Big House book series will be consulted alongside the Arts-and-Crafts/Craftsman/Mission/Prairie reference images for ideas.

- A practical way I can make a difference will be to make a point of riding my bike to shop at neighborhood businesses (especially the mom-and-pops) and the local farmers' market, and requesting bicycle parking where racks haven't been installed yet by developers. Both the Mary Poppins Effect of seeing a mom running errands in street clothes on an upright bike and the presence of more bike racks should encourage other people to use their bicycles (and I can vouch that there are plenty of families riding for fun and errands in the more mature New Urbanist neighborhood next door where our old house is).

- We are aiming to do nightly rides and walks with my family to explore all the local paths, to increase our familiarity with the neighborhood and get more exercise - and, when we are in the ravine proper, to get the kids exploring nature and seeing the animals and birds that live down there. My husband is actually using the GPS features of his phone to map all the unmarked trails through the sanctuary while he is walking our dog, which he then plans to annotate and add photos to before making it public on GoogleMaps. I'll let you know when that project is posted.

- We will also eventually finish the basement to make the house useable as a multigenerational family home, so that the square footage per person ratio becomes more appropriate. For now it will just stay unfinished playroom and crafting space, but there is room for another large bedroom, living area, and plumbing roughed-in for a bathroom, so adding a kitchenette to make it an in-law suite would be a relatively simple proposition. If we will be doing this, we'll need to also apply aging-in-place criteria to our design decisions throughout the house, such as ensuring that doors and hallways are wide enough, lighting is bright enough, flooring has enough cushion (cork?), and larger rooms have enough soft furnishings to prevent echoes (although we can't do much about the multi-level floor plan).

- Setting up the room closest to the front entry as a studio and home office appropriate for client meetings will facilitate both a home-based business and a telecommuting work arrangement - and will be crucial for supporting my goals of finishing rewriting my business plan and relaunching my career once both the kids are in school full-time.

- Since the choices made for a slow home should last forever, we will also need to keep the likely long-term effects of global economic crises, disruptive technologies, and climate change in mind as we make each decision - and we will need to do all this frugally (so we can pay down our debts as quickly as possible). This will involve a lot of time, research, creativity, and willingness to make things ourselves.

Any other ideas for things I should add to our to-do list for the Suburban Slow Home case study?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Passport To Summer Fun: DIY summer camp ideas

Last summer, some friends and I had standing playdates to do a sort of DIY Summer Camp, trying to knock as many activities around our city as we could off the bucket list below. However, we did it with a twist, inspired by the Nova Scotia Museum passports I remembered from my childhood - we got small inexpensive journals for each child, and every activity got a page or two of the book, with ticket stubs or other memorabilia and a printed photo from the event and a written date. If we had an opportunity to do something separately as a family, that went into the Summer Fun Passport too. We called it a scavenger hunt, but there was no prize for who completed the most tasks off the list, just the fun of seeing how full the passports were by the end of the summer.

I kept a kit with the passport notebooks, a pen and a gluestick, the bucket list of ideas, and a book journaling notepad in a large ziplock bag in my summer go bag all summer long. As we did stuff, I'd put ticket stubs or other mementoes into the bag and snap some photos, and once every couple of weeks I'd print out photos and glue things into the passport. We'll do a similar kit for the go-bag this summer, with the printables I mention below, an actual date stamp, and our updated bucket list.

* = indoor activity for rainy days or once the weather turns cold

playground playdates - a stamp for each new playground you try
electric tram from Whyte Ave to Downtown

*Royal Alberta Museum bug room

*Art Gallery of Alberta
Edmonton Zoo visit including pony ride

Fort Edmonton Park visit including train ride
John Jantzen Nature Centre (has both outdoor activities and indoor ones)

*Muttart Conservatory
*a movie in the theatre
Edmonton Fringe Festival play
*West Edmonton Mall aquarium and wave pool
*Terwillegar Rec Centre
*Airplane Museum
road trip: Calgary Zoo
road trip: train museum
road trip: machine museum in Wetaskiwin
Devonian Botanic Garden butterflies and Japanese Garden giant bell
road trip: Elk Island National Park and Ukrainian Village
road trip: Jasper National Park
*kitchen chemistry day: volcanoes, bottle rockets, and making slime
*math and spelling fun day
building a cardboard space ship or club house
*reading three books borrowed from Edmonton Public Library
*chef school day
berry picking and corn maze
decorate bikes then go for bike ride and picnic
*yarn craft day: learning to crochet / knit / braid / weave / make tassels
make stepping stones
mystery day (using your sleuthing kits)
composting and gardening day
painting self portraits
*music making day (with homemade instruments)
*puppet making and puppet show
hula hooping camp
take a hike in the River Valley
*Tour de Value Village
*Telus World of Science

This summer, to encourage unstructured outdoor play in front of our house so we meet our new neighbors and make friends, do some community building on a street where some houses are newly built, and spend some time exploring the natural world at our doorstep in the Whitemud Creek ravine, we're adding these activities to our list. (For more ideas along these lines, check out the fantastic blog and new book from Playborhood.)

bike ride (a new stamp for each path explored)
nature explorer (a new stamp for each path hiked and each new animal sighted)
skipping games (to be played on the sidewalk in front of our house)
sidewalk chalk art creation
sprinkler day (set up sprinkler, small water pistols, spray bottles, bucket of ice in front yard)
lemonade stand
made a new friend (a new stamp for each playdate)
block party
gardening (our front yard is a blank slate so the kids will get a stamp for a garden centre trip followed by helping me plant some perennials and containers)
exterior decorator certification (painting our front porch and setting it up with seating for resting and snacking, and a couple of summer activity buckets full of outdoor play toys, water toys, sidewalk chalk - I have a good idea how this will look but the kids will get to provide lots of input so it's an area where they want to hang out)

We're also travelling to Nova Scotia for three weeks, so we'll also add stamps for

trip to the beach
trip to a museum
visit to a historic site
going for a hike
lessons from the kids' cousin who teaches swimming
day at the cottage

Here are some more posts to give you ideas for your own DIY summer camp or passport project:
What's on your bucket list this summer?