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What They Don’t Tell You About Renovating During a Pandemic

ELLE DECOR executive editor Ingrid Abramovitch navigates supply chain woes—and busted toilets.

the interior of ingrid abramovitchs brooklyn home during renovation
Ingrid Abramovitch

Welcome to the Renovation Chronicles, ELLE DECOR executive editor Ingrid Abramovitch’s real-life tales of her ongoing home renovation in Brooklyn.

Loud honks and sirens were emanating from my iPhone as I strained to understand what the caller was trying to convey in his thick Brooklyn brogue. “Is this Ingrid? I have your toilet on my truck. But I have some bad news for you. Lady, your toilet is in pieces. Do you still want me to deliver it?”

Fuhgeddaboudit! I don’t think so.

As the author of a book on restoring historic townhouses, as well as the executive editor at ELLE DECOR, I thought when it came to my own renovation, I’d have things under control. The improvements were a long time coming: I’d lived in my brownstone apartment in Brooklyn for over 20 years. When you are raising a family, replacing windows isn’t a priority—even when one of them nearly toppled inward onto my child due to a faulty mechanism, and the panes rattled like maracas during summer squalls. With architectural details dating from the 1880s, when my building was constructed, and two decades of wear and tear, it was time for an upgrade. And my younger daughter’s departure for college in fall 2020 provided the perfect timeline.

Suddenly, I was not only a pandemic renovator but also a supply chain commando.

But nothing could have prepared me for the person I have since become: a pandemic renovator. First, my planned empty nest was suddenly full, as, like so many other families, our home became a multitasking melée with four family members jockeying for space for work, studies, and elaborate baking projects (when we could find the ingredients). But even when plans to return to school began to materialize, contractors did not. In an instant, the entire world was stuck at home, doing puzzles and streaming Netflix while noticing their living room’s peeling walls. A series of contractors feigned interest in my project, with its relatively modest budget, then forgot to return my calls.

As we now know, what came next was a perfect storm of pent-up demand and limited supply. Suddenly, I was not only a pandemic renovator but also a supply chain commando. The first lesson was that I couldn’t wait to line up a contractor—I needed to get started. With help from my designer, Jennifer Hanlin, I made lists months in advance of products with the longest lead times.

the interior of ingrid abramovitchs brooklyn home during renovation
Et voila: Abramovitch’s finished bathroom—toilet included. The terrazzo tile is from Artistic Tile, and the lamp is by Lodes.
Ingrid Abramovitch

First up was my long dreamed-of Wolf stove. When I ordered it last summer, the wait for a red-knobbed beauty was four months. Next, the windows—my local dealer for Marvin Windows, Anthony Riccobono of the Lavitt Group, warned it could take several months (they were installed five months later; per Riccobono, the wait time is now 15 to 24 weeks depending on the series ordered).

And then there was the toilet. To save on my budget, I was replacing a toilet but keeping the existing vanity, which had a shelf that restricted the size of the fixture. We found the perfect one—Kohler’s San Souci—but then learned about the toilet crisis. “Toilets are one of the hardest things to get right now,” warned Ericka Sprangers, a designer at Kohler’s Sheboygan, Wisconsin, headquarters, last summer. I placed the order right away.

With appliances, windows, and a toilet coming—if not soon, then eventually—I doubled down on finding a contractor. By fall, contractor Guillermo Grasso of Wilman Custom Design came into my life, and the renovation was underway. A portrait of positivity, he had great references and tons of experience renovating brownstones. Two weeks later he arrived with a crew. But where was the toilet? En route, perfectly on schedule, I told him—making its way from Sheboygan to Brooklyn. What I didn’t know then was that it would break in transit. I panicked when I thought about the great toilet shortage. My dream of a bathroom refresh was going down the drain. But fortunately, it was a Kohler toilet. Alerted to the mistake, the company quickly found a replacement and shipped it at warp speed to my apartment. This time it arrived in one piece.

The Takeaway: Four Lessons for Pandemic Renovating

  1. Plan way, way ahead.
  2. At the same time, be spontaneous (read: realistic and flexible). When the bathroom tile we picked from Artistic Tile wasn’t available, we asked what was in stock and adjusted our design accordingly.
  3. Be patient. With shortages and delays caused by disruption in the supply chain, companies can’t guarantee delivery dates. Know that and prepare. Don’t put yourself in a position where if your renovation isn’t done by a certain date, you are out in the cold.
  4. Sustainability is a renovator’s friend. The quickest solutions are often already on hand, from on-site materials that can be rehabbed or recycled to items that you already own.

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