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Ask a Designer: Tips to plan an interior home remodel

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Courtesy of Sherry Scott Design
Breaking a major remodeling project, such as a kitchen renovation, into a series of smaller steps can make it easier to get your arms around.

During the past eight months, as people have been spending more time at home, it’s been easier to notice things that could be improved to better suit the ways we are now using our spaces. I frequently get questions about remodels and aim to answer two common ones below.

Q: What do I need to know before starting an interior remodel?

A: In California, obtaining a building permit is required for almost all projects. The reason for the permit is to engage an impartial and qualified building inspector to provide assurance that current minimum building standards are adhered to.

To begin the process, the first consideration should be matching the team to the scope of work. For example, structural work such as enlarging an opening in a wall – which may need a new header to carry a weight-bearing load – requires a licensed professional to determine the correct support needed. This person is usually an architect, engineer or general contractor. They have individual requirements for licensing.

If the work is purely cosmetic or only encompasses changes in surfaces, such as flooring or wallcovering, light fixture replacement or painting, it is unlikely that a structural professional will be needed. While an interior designer – who can be certified as an interior designer in California to submit nonstructural plans – or a decorator can be part of the team in either case, he or she is sometimes the only professional needed to guide a cosmetic remodel to completion.

Here are some best practices, in sequential order:

  1. Make a short list of the professional(s) you think you might need.
  2. Interview them briefly via phone, then follow up with a video or in-person meeting, if the phone conversation went well.
  3. Ask for at least five references from those you think might be a fit. Be brief on the call, but ask open-ended questions such as, “What problems came up during your project, and how did this person resolve them?”
  4. Prior to making your final selection, discuss what will be included in the scope of work, the timeline and cost structure. Once in a contract, there should be no surprises.
  5. Ask when items need to be ordered, to ensure they will arrive in time to be installed.
  6. Create a list of outstanding items, known as a “punch list,” near the end of the project and share it with all relevant team members.

Q: We are planning a major kitchen remodel, however, there are so many things we want to change. Should we tackle a single, small project first before we embark on the larger one? How do we make an impact in each case?

A: It is understandable that a larger project might seem difficult to start and then to execute through to completion. However, if it were broken down into a series of smaller steps, such as what choices to make for each item or element, it will be easier to get your arms around.

An example of a fairly simple small project is replacing a light fixture that is either the wrong size for the space, not providing the proper amount and type of light, or both. There may be something bothersome about the existing fixture, even if it is not apparent. Imagine it in a different shape or a different size. Perhaps the material can be more harmonious with the space or create a juxtaposition in the room? Once a few options seem promising, cardboard mock ups can help to visualize the new fixture before a purchase is made.

Similarly, parts of a kitchen can be addressed one at a time, to fulfill a new objective. Is the older kitchen too dark or does it feel closed off from the rest of the living space? The appliances may be able to remain in the same place, yet a wall can be opened up behind a cooktop or sink for a dramatic shift in the apparent size of the space. There could be the option to move base cabinets around to remove a bottleneck and create an open flow through the space. Try a lighter paint color on the ceiling to make it appear higher.

Each step along the way is a solution to a problem. Be brave and embrace change for the best outcome.

Sherry Scott is a Certified Interior Designer in California, professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers and the proprietor of Sherry Scott Design in downtown Los Altos, 169 Main St. To submit questions and for more information, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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