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Small, Smart Upgrades for a Small Space

TOH editors learn the hard way—by renovating our own homes. Here, multimedia editor Alex Bandon redoes her garden apartment, one affordable DIY project at a time

A Bright, Warm Home

Photo by Bill Mazza

This is my 550-square-foot apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village. I've lived here for three and a half years, and in that time I've done a lot of work on the place. Funny thing, though: I rent. But that doesn't stop me from getting out the tools and making the place work for me.

Because I don't own my home, and because it's a small apartment in a big city, my home projects have to do with making the most of a small space on a limited budget. Here's a look at some of the upgrades I've made over the years. These are solutions that can work for anyone trying to create a home piece by piece over time.

Apartment for Rent: The Living Room

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

Here's what the living room looked like on the day I first saw it. It was nice, with lots of space. But it felt cold. Already my mind was thinking about how I could warm things up.

Refinished Hardwood Floors

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

Before I ever even moved in, I took advantage of the empty space to have the floors refinished. We're not talking about a lot of square footage here, so the total cost to me was not too much. I chose a rich, dark color because I thought it would bring some warmth and a little formality to the rooms, especially contrasted against the white baseboards and trim. It also has the effect of grounding the space; rather than closing things in, it opens them up because the floors recede in their darkness.

Cost to refinish floors: $1,000

Built in Bookcases - During Construction

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

One of my first DIY projects was as practical as it was decorative. I have a lot of books and I needed somewhere to put them. Plus, I hate walking into a room and seeing electronics (TV, stereo, computer, etc.), so I needed some way to hide my equipment.

I had already eyed the recesses around the fireplace as perfect for shelving. Using a This Old House step-by-step project, How to Build a Bookcase, as my guide, I designed and constructed a set of shelves. Everything is made out of birch-veneer plywood, with applied trim to hide the cut edges.

Time for construction: one weekend.

Total cost for materials: $300

Electronics Cabinets

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

The finished bookshelves delight me daily. Recently, TOH features editor Amy Hughes helped me put these doors on the cabinets. (Much to my chagrin, they'd sat open and exposing their electronics to the world for a couple of years.) They're made from salvaged indoor window shutters. I found the pulls in a collection that's been sitting in my closet for at least 5 years.

Cost of shutters: $150 (two pairs).

Re-upholstered Chair

Photo by Bill Mazza

I have a chair obsession. It's not totally without purpose—I like to entertain, so people need a place to sit. Recently I found a set of six dining chairs at the Salvation Army for only $120. Three of them I gave to a friend. One was damaged and had to be tossed. But the remaining two got a second life in my apartment thanks to a little elbow grease and some mod new fabric that has the browns and blues found elsewhere in the room.

After one long evening painstakingly pulling out staples from three layers of upholstery on the seats, I got down to the bare wood. That I padded out with some new foam, then stapled on the updated fabric. I screwed the seats back on the chair, and now I have a comfortable way to sit at my table.

Total cost: about $35 per chair

One Red Wall

One of the easiest ways to change the feeling of a room is with color. I happen to like pops of red, so I often like to paint one wall in a common room in a rich ruby. The area over my fireplace was perfect for that. Warm colors—red, especially—enliven a room, making them good for the areas where you plan to entertain. But sometimes a whole red room is too overwhelming, so confining the color to one wall tones it down while still introducing the desired effect.

Dark-Painted Entry

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

More recently, I painted my front entryway in this deep eggplant color. This is a space that gets no direct sunlight, so trying to keep it bright is not really important. Instead, as people enter the apartment they first experience a dark and cozy cocoon, which makes the transition into the living room's open space and light much more dramatic. The color contrast helps the living room appear larger than it actually is.

An Open Bedroom

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

My bedroom faces an inner shaftway in the building; it doesn't get direct sunlight. Luckily, the living room windows face east. So to capture some of the morning light, the building's owner cut two windows into the wall, flanking the large double doors to the living room.

The only problem with this arrangement is the lack of privacy between the bedroom and living room when guests are over. I'm still trying to devise a way to limit sound but still get light and ventilation. Got any good ideas for me? Please post your ideas here.

Cool-Colored Bedroom

Photo by Bill Mazza

In my last three apartments, I have painted my bedroom periwinkle blue. Blues and greens are cool, calming colors, good for private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms. But to make the room more interesting—since it is visible from the living room and hallway—I hung this dynamic painting, called Off Season Smoothie, by Jim Sperber. It jumps out at visitors who enter the apartment and pass by the hallway door, but it doesn't negate the calm of the room because I can't see it when lying in bed.

Shaftway Curtains

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

The problem with having a window opening onto a shaftway is the utter blackness behind it day and night. Since the window works primarily for ventilation, bringing in a nice cross breeze from the living room, I tried camouflaging it with curtains and blinds. Most people don't realize that the window doesn't face the street.

Goods Under Lock and Key

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

I often have guests or subletters in my apartment, so I needed a way to store my stuff without having to remove it altogether. I'm lucky enough to have a very large closet in my bedroom, so I decided to put a lock on it.

The only problem is that the door is a single sliding closet door. With the help of my favorite hardware store guys, I devised a solution: I took a mailbox lock, which has an arm that flips down, and filed a notch in the arm. Then I installed a strike plate on the jamb with a recess behind it. When you turn the key on the lock, the arm flips down and the notch catches on the strike plate, locking the door from sliding open.

Kitchen Before the Makeover

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

The good news: This apartment had a (relatively) large separate kitchen (seen here on the day I signed the lease). The bad news: Brick orange laminate counters and dreary dark cabinets from the 1960s.

A Fresh, New Kitchen Look

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

Before I even moved in, I painted the cabinets, following a TOH step-by-step, how to paint kitchen cabinets. I changed the hardware to hidden European hinges and modern silver pulls. Over time, I also replaced the old dishwasher with a newer one I got for $20 on eBay, and I picked a fruity green color for the walls and backsplash to play off the orange counters rather than trying to fight them. The result is a brighter, happier kitchen.

Making Room for the Refrigerator

Photo by Bill Mazza

When I moved into the apartment, the rather large kitchen inexplicably had an under-counter refrigerator—certainly not big enough for my cooking habits. So I bought a taller fridge, then had to make a place to put it.

I detached the orange laminate panel that stood at the end of the cabinets then carefully cut off the counter with a circular saw. I finished the job with a handsaw and painted the end of the laminate the same color as the top. To support the ends of the counter, I reattached the vertical panel to the shortened counter. The new refrigerator hides my cuts; from the front, the counter looks as if it had been constructed at this length.

Arched Window in Kitchen

Photo by Bill Mazza

The kitchen window was not only painted but puttied shut when I got the apartment. At one time a first-floor window like this might have been a security risk in New York, but not anymore. So I pried it open.

In removing the putty, I took off multiple layers of paint, uncovering the lovely galvanized metal underneath. I decided it looked better raw, especially with the pot rack mounted over it. A deeper shade of green on the wall highlights the arch and adds architectural depth.

Salvaged Stone Countertop

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

As big as my kitchen is, it lacks the counter space I need to do some of my cooking and baking. At some point, I acquired several pieces of marble from a friend. So I took one to a stone yard and had it cut to size, then epoxied some brushed metal legs on it. I mounted it on a cleat under the windowsill, and now I have a little baking station.

Total cost: $140 for stone cuts and table legs

"Built-in" Kitchen Cabinets

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

I have a lot of cabinet space, but there's still never enough. So I took advantage of a little recess in one corner of the kitchen to create a unique storage unit. I piled six IKEA Varde cabinets, which have flip-up doors, to fill the space.

I turned the first three upside down and bolted them together, then put legs on them; they sit against the wall as a freestanding piece of furniture, and their doors flip down. Then I mounted the other three to the wall directly above them, so their doors flip up. The result is one tall cabinet that fits perfectly in its little space—room for serving dishes, wine glasses, and a bar. A combination of glass and wood doors breaks up the solid front.

A Ragged Garden Before

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

The feature that sold me on the apartment was its 20-by-22-foot east-facing garden. It was a bit messy and overgrown, but I saw potential.

Garden Under Construction

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

In the first year I had the apartment, I devoted a lot of time to the interior, neglecting the garden. But by the second summer, it was time to conquer the outdoors.

The previous tenant had thrown down some gravel right on the soil, creating a scraggly mess. There were also some narrow plant beds with brick borders around the perimeter—not wide enough for any lush plantings. I dug down 4 inches to add new topsoil and used metal edging to create a curved border for wider plant beds. Then I dug out the entire center of the garden 2 inches, tamped down the soil, laid landscape fabric, and poured new gravel.

Total cost: $200, not including plants

Urban Garden Oasis

Photo by Jill Slater

The finished garden, two years later: Perennials, such as hydrangeas, astilbe, and roses, line the edges; annuals fill the curved beds with bright color, and ivy, euonymus, and yew provide winter green.

Furnishing the garden has been a flea-market affair. I acquired the chairs and the cast-iron table over several seasons, but the low tables I made from broken pieces of marble epoxied onto inexpensive plant stands salvaged from a friend's basement. The broken edges on the marble complement the Secret Garden feel of the overgrown space. For a final touch, TOH features editor Amy Hughes built the fountain from a salvaged urn.

Overflowing Garden Beds

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

My philosophy on weeding and pruning: Don't. That's easy enough because weeds aren't such a problem in this lawnless space. So, I choose to let my garden go wild.

The Herb Garden

Photo by Alexandra Bandon

One of my issues, in dealing with limited space, was where to put the kitchen garden. I didn't want to give up valuable plant-bed real estate, so I decided containers were the way to go. Plus, the sunniest spot in the garden is here in this corner of the patio, just outside the kitchen door. I potted mint, basil, cilantro, nasturtiums, parsley, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, chives, and heirloom tomatoes.

The mint, which is perennial, would otherwise grow like crazy and take over everything else. Even though it's limited to two large pots, it still comes back strong every year. At the end of the season, I just cut it back, dry some, and make a big batch of mint chocolate chip ice cream from the rest. Who says you can't have a This Old House lifestyle in the big city?