Apr 14, 2020 6 min read

A Rapid-Prototyping Approach to Remodeling My House

After having our third child, my wife and I ran experiments to create more space at home

  • Design
Jon Berbaum

Jon Berbaum

Aa product strategist at Highland, I work with our clients to build digital products that make people’s lives meaningfully better.

Last year, I found myself applying my product strategy skills to new territory: my home life. In July of 2018, my wife and I had our third child, Daphne. A little while after she was born, we were starting to feel like we could use a bit more space. So we decided to start searching for a slightly larger house.

Our House-Buying Acceptance Criteria

As we started to look into the prospect of moving, I quickly realized we had what looked like a near-impossible set of criteria:

  1. We didn’t want to move to a new town. We have a great church community and live within walking distance of other families. We had grown to love our kids’ school community.

  2. We wanted to remain within walking distance of the train station for my job in downtown Chicago.

  3. We wanted the house to be a smaller four-bedroom. We recognized that we could keep our mortgage and property taxes lower than if we bought any of the massive 4–5 bedroom houses being built as teardowns in our community.

Armed with our very specific set of criteria (features and cost constraints), we started looking at options.

For many months, we watched the market and went to see anything that met our criteria. It was pretty slow-going with such strict constraints. (Sound familiar, product people?)

After months of searching, we narrowly dodged a bullet. We almost bought a house that pushed our financial comfort level, and likely would have had some big repair costs coming up. After that, we decided to stay put for a while.

Running Some Experiments

We decided to consider remodeling our current house to get what we wanted in a new place. We looked at everything from finishing our basement to adding a full second story.

In order to see what would work best for us, we ran a few experiments. (We also missed the opportunity to run an important experiment that I wish we did.)

Experiment 1: Bedroom Swap

The first experiment was to move our kids upstairs into the finished attic space. My wife and I would then move downstairs into the small room they had been sharing. The kids’ old room was right off the kitchen. Any time we had guests over and wanted to release the children to go play, they didn’t really have any place to go. They couldn’t play in the unfinished basement, and their bedroom was too close to where we wanted to talk with our adult friends without interruption. By switching bedrooms, we were essentially doing an early user test that allowed us to see if some different living arrangements could pay off if we decided to stay in our current home.

This first experiment worked well. The kids had more room to play upstairs and took advantage of that space more often. Having a designated place for the kids to go made our house feel bigger—we didn’t all have to hang out in the same room. The other great thing about this move is that it was almost no risk. It didn’t cost any money. If it didn’t work out we could always swap our rooms back the other way. It also forced a little necessary refactoring because my wife and I needed to get rid of a bunch of things we didn’t really need in order to move into the smaller bedroom downstairs.

Experiment 2: Risk-Free Remodel

The next thing we decided to do was more costly, but still a lot cheaper than buying a new house. We did a limited remodel of the basement and opened up the wall between our kitchen and dining room for more entertaining space. These were both lower cost and we figured they’d return most of their value anyway in case we ever wanted to sell (again, minimizing risk). This experiment also worked well. By finishing out the basement, we opened up more room for the kids to go and play as well as some space for guests.

Missed Opportunity: Basement Office Experiment

There was one other experiment I wish we would have run. One of the things that I wanted in all this was a reliable, quiet place to work from home. I turned the spare room in the basement into a guest room/office so I could finally have a decent work-from-home space. Unfortunately, I didn’t do anything to test this particular hypothesis. After all the construction was done, I started working in the basement during my days at home. Which is when I learned an unpleasant fact…when kids are playing above you, working in the basement is like living inside a snare drum. 😩

Because of our low basement ceilings, we opted to save headspace and didn’t finish them, leaving the joists exposed. This has acoustical ramifications. All of the children’s playing, fighting, etc., is amplified, right overhead, making it completely unsuitable for any working from home when they are around.

Home Remodel Retro

In retrospect, I wish I would have run the very low-cost experiment of trying to work from home in the basement before we started remodeling it. I would have learned that the plan I assumed would be fine wouldn’t work.

Fortunately, having space for me to work was not the key benefit we had in mind to justify the cost of remodeling the basement. In the end, doing the work was well worth it for us. We were able to maximize the near-term benefits and spent much less than we would have on moving, all while still keeping our options open. It also helps that I could still go back and sound-treat a portion of the basement ceiling if I really wanted it to be suitably quiet down there.

Whether you’re thinking about buying a new home or developing a new digital product, running a few experiments can save you a ton of headaches (and a bunch of money) in the long-run. Even a small amount of research and testing can help you minimize the risk of making a big investment that might fail to accomplish your goals.