There’s no place like home: Design and build during the age of the coronavirus

Members of the interior design and home building industry have found it necessary to adapt to changing, evolving economies over the years. From bull markets and bear markets to recessions and post-9/11, this group of professionals has had to think creatively in order to persevere.

Now, the virulent novel coronavirus, dubbed Covid-19, has brought the entire world to a screeching halt and has radically affected the way we live, work, play, and learn, and will continue to do so for a long time to come. As various parts of the country begin to reopen, the virus is influencing the creative process. It can no longer be business as usual in this environment. Architects, interior designers, home builders, and contractors are having to think outside the box when interacting with clients, meeting with subcontractors, and presenting and installing projects.

“Our vendors have offered to show their fabric lines to us virtually. They show us all the new fabrics over the computer, and then we order samples,” says Jan Hiltz, an interior designer with more than 25 years’ experience and the owner of Westport-based Jan Hiltz Interiors. “It works for me; I’ve been doing this (type of work) for so long, I’ve found that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“We’re in the midst of preparing for our first Zoom presentation,” adds Christine Hiltz, Jan Hiltz’s daughter-in-law and an interior designer in the firm.

For some firms, virtual presentations will be the preferred procedure, at least for a few weeks or months, or longer. “The virus is going to be guiding the way we do business until we get a vaccine. Things will evolve slowly,” says Dinyar Wadia, principal of Wadia Associates, an award-winning architectural and interior design firm based in New Canaan. “I don’t think this thing is going to go away for a while. We just have to adapt.”

Programs such as Zoom have been a blessing to some, like Wadia, who has noticed an unintended benefit to using the online platform: “It is easier to gauge a client’s or prospective client’s immediate reaction to sour proposals, whereas during in-person meetings, it is rude to stare so you might miss subtle physiological responses or cues,” he explains.

While some designers are choosing the practice of designing at a distance, others are bravely plunging into the fray. Wadia and Jan and Christine Hiltz are doing both, depending on the level of each client’s comfort. Designers conducting in-person consultations and presentations, however, have had to arm themselves, in addition to the usual tools of color wheel, fabric swatches, and measuring tape, with masks, gloves, protective booties, and disinfectant.

Wadia notes that he is also foregoing handshakes. Although he has tested negative for Covid-19, he takes precautions to avoid exposure and prevent him from bringing the virus home to his wife, he says.

Marsha Matto, principal and head designer of Point of View Interiors in Sandy Hook, says she still conducts some in-person meetings, although they are anything but ordinary. For a recent meeting at a plumbing supply store, for example, Matto says she was required to arrive after regular business hours, wear a mask and gloves, have her temperature taken, and sign a waiver disavowing the company of any responsibility if she contracted the virus there. “Business just can’t happen the same way anymore, at least not for now,” Matto says.

She admits, “It’s been difficult.” And not just because some clients have put projects on hold and because of social distancing guidelines, but also because of disruptions in the supply chain. “Upholsterers might still be working with a crew, albeit smaller, but they’re not able to get the cushion fillings or frames, all requisite pieces and parts that go into creating custom furniture,” says Matto, who has more than 20 years of experience in high-end residential and commercial design, and who also serves as chair of the Interior Design Department at the University of Bridgeport.

The New York company she hired to pick up and deliver a furniture order in New Jersey for one of her commercial clients in Connecticut had to decline when that business was deemed nonessential, leaving Matto scrambling to arrange transport herself at a higher cost. “Instead of a simple delivery and installation, it turned into a nightmare,” she recalls. “Frustration sets in from time to time but most people are understanding.”

Robert Berger, a Westport-based architect and builder, notes that many of his clients want renovations that relate directly to the coronavirus. “Homeowners are requesting that we install ‘hands-free’ sinks, operated by foot pedals or a motion sensor, or a second desk or office space, ideally enclosed, as parents are working from home, and their children are distance learning,” he states. “Everyone is thinking about how they will be living in their homes during the age of the coronavirus, and beyond.”

Washers and dryers located inside the home’s point of first contact (such as in a mudroom), so residents can remove and wash their clothes as soon as they come in, are also on the wish lists of today’s homeowners. “Eventually, I predict we’ll be installing exterior entry doorway panels in front of which people can wave a key and the door will open, eliminating any need to touch a doorknob,” Berger explains.

Hard surfaces tend to be easier to keep clean, and design professionals are specifying materials such as stainless steel, which can be cleaned with ammonia- and alcohol-based products (brass and other metals with lacquer finishes cannot), and countertops made from quartz or other hard materials, according to Berger. “Some cabinet manufacturers already carry cabinets that can be opened and closed with either wave in front of the door or a single finger push opening,” he says, “and I think more clients will be requesting options like these now and in the future.”

Some people may think redecorating a house in the midst of a global medical pandemic is frivolous but Jan Hiltz says her work has not decreased. In fact, she has a five-month waiting list, perhaps because people are spending even more time at home than usual — and who knows for how long — and they want their living environments to be beautiful, and to feel safe. “Now, home has become a real sanctuary,” Jan Hiltz states.

She reports that her company has already received several requests for outdoor projects. Many of her clients want to install in-ground swimming pools because they don’t want to go to public facilities anymore, and they also want more backyard amenities that will allow them to invite friends over while still safely socially distancing.

“Life goes on, and it brings joy to people even to just consider the promise of decorating, bringing new ideas into their home, and bringing sunshine and brightness to their home,” she says.

One of her clients sums it up this way: “We really need this.”