My Apartment: The Renovation

I started this post with the intention of giving you a home tour. I was going to take you through the kitchen, and then in the next post chat about my living room. But as I got writing, I realized that there were so many other things that happened before I got into the design phase of creating my apartment. So first, the prelude to my home design, is the purchase and renovation of my apartment, which was perhaps the biggest undertaking of my life! So, here’s the background on my apartment’s design – the struggles of buying a house in Amsterdam, the logistics of moving in Holland, scraping out an entire run down apartment, and starting anew. And spoiler alert :) it ends like this:On March 1st, 2017, I got the keys to my new apartment. Well, my old-new apartment I should say, as by the time I got the keys, the space had already been well-lived in for more than 70 years. The apartment was a ‘new build’ (which in Amsterdam basically means anything built in the past century) with huge windows in every room, high ceilings, a small front balcony, and lots of potential . . . which is a nice way of saying . . . . it was bad! The previous owner had purchased the apartment 70 years ago when it was brand new, and he lived in the apartment, smoking what had to have been a pack of cigarettes a day, until the ripe old age of 95. When he died (not in the apartment – I asked!) his family stripped out the furniture, lamps, and floors, and put the apartment on the market. When I first saw the space, it was bleak. In fact, despite the fact that the apartment was in the canals, within my budget, part of a wealthy owner’s association, and on owned land (which is rare in Amsterdam) my estate agent didn’t even bother to flag the apartment with me. Due to the state, she figured it would be an absolute no-go. Thankfully, I found the listing myself, was brave enough to set up a viewing appointment, and was perplexed to find that, despite the competitive housing market in Amsterdam, no one else was there. This was a vast change of pace, as most other viewings I had attended were crammed with potential buyers. Finding the right apartment in Amsterdam had been a big point of stress – over 6 months, I had seen about 30 apartments and had bid on 5 (in one instance €80k over the asking price) with no luck. The market in Amsterdam was hot, especially for first time buyers, so the lack of viewers at this potential space was foretelling. Not one appliance had been updated in 70 years, the toilet had to be flushed by a pull-string suspended from the ceiling, the bathroom only had a tub with cold water, there were heavy smoke stains above all of the windows, the kitchen had no working appliances to speak of, and the walls depicted dark outlines of where furniture had sat dormant for decades. It was bad, and I think I spent all of 10 minutes in the cold space before quickly heading out of there. These are some photos I took when I first went to look at the apartment.

I was really hoping to find an old Dutch apartment with character (my dream was a top floor canal house apartment with high, beamed ceilings) but this space felt like an outdated shell with no Amsterdam charm or appeal. That said, it was super central, in a beautiful neighborhood, on a very quiet street, close to tram stops and the new north-south metro line, and the size was just right. It also had really high ceilings, huge windows in every room, a private front balcony, and a back shared balcony. And most importantly, it had the potential to meet my three ‘musts’ – an open kitchen and living room space, a bathroom that could fit a bathtub, and a second bedroom that could hold a double bed. And so I bid on it, but not with the vigor that one bids on their dream apartment. It had potential, but it was currently no where close. I was nervous and unsure, and three days later, when I found out I was the top bidder (having bid only €10k over the asking price) I was both surprised and scared – this space would require a LOT of work. The first thing I did was start to play with the floor plan. This was the initial floor plan: The apartment had the space for two bedrooms, but currently, the second could only be accessed by going through the first. This was not ideal for guests or kids in the future. Also, the kitchen was a slim hallway in the back of the apartment – very dark and anti-social with no room for a dining table (not to mention nothing in the current kitchen was salvageable). And lastly, the bedrooms were in the front of the house, which was OK, but ideally I wanted the master in the back. So I did some photoshop magic, moved around the walls, doors and windows, until I had a floor plan I was happy with. It looked like this:I knocked down the old kitchen wall and extended it out to make the back room big enough for a king-sized bed. I opened up the entry hallway and the space between the two front rooms (new living room and kitchen), moving the kitchen to the front of the house. And I sealed off the double doors to the second bedroom, giving the future living room more space.

Once I knew the major structural updates I wanted to make, I had a contractor come to the apartment with me and look at the space and the new floor plan. He then gave me an estimate for all of the updates, including a new bathroom, a new kitchen, new electricity, a new water heater and radiators, painting, wallpaper removal, floors – the works. I met with two other contractors who bid on the project, and I then used the knowledge from these bids to challenge them. Why was painting €2,000 on one bid and only €1,400 on another? Why was the cost of a radiator not included for this room? In the end, I selected the contractor who’d first looked at the apartment with me for the job, as he had a competitive price, spoke impeccable English, and was ready to start as soon as possible.

The renovation was scary not only because I’d never done this before, but because all costs were at the risk of the buyer. So if I found asbestos in all of the walls and needed it professionally removed for €10k, there was no financial responsibility to the seller. I had to manage my budget very carefully, and planned a lot of the ‘extras’ and ‘nice to haves’ for the end of the project just in case an emergency popped up and the budget was needed elsewhere.

The last thing I did before we got started was map out my furniture within the floor plan and make a few mood boards. This might seem a bit early, but I did this for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to make sure my floor plan was realistic. I wanted a big closet and a king-sized bed, a kitchen with a full fridge and freezer, a sink and lots of counter space, a guest room that could fit a double bed, a living room that could fit a pull out couch, a utility closet that could hold a washer dryer, and a bathroom that could house a tub – there’s nothing worse than getting started on a renovation only to find that 85% of the way through, you don’t have enough kitchen storage, or your bedroom can only fit a single closet, which is not enough for two people. So I built the apartment to scale in a free floor plan maker (here) that allowed furnishings to be dropped in, and went on websites like Ikea to find out the measurements of beds, closets, etc so I could build everything to scale and make sure the items I had in mind fit in the space I had allotted. With furniture, the space looked like this:And so I felt confident that the space would be big enough for my needs, although there were a few roadblocks along the way that changed the layout slightly (more on this later).

As mentioned, I also made mood boards for each room at this point, so as we started to get into the renovation it would be easy to make decisions on furnishings such as knobs, cabinets, and doors. Overall I knew I wanted to space to be white, earthy, and relaxing. My job is fast-paced and I spend a lot of time in a corporate office, so at home I wanted clutter free rooms with lots of storage, where the mind could easily rest, or kick off a new creative endeavor. And although I could fit everything I wanted into the space, the apartment was small, so I needed to think of design elements that wouldn’t make the space feel cramped – white walls with yellow undertones so white light could easily bounce around, mirrors, bare walls, natural colored doors, fitted furniture, and design elements that brought the indoors outside and vise versa.

I kept the entry way light with the intention of mixing various wood textures. I also knew I wanted a big round, gold mirror to reflect light and add a pop of elegance into the entry way. Otherwise I wanted my home to immediately feel earthy and welcoming.I had planned for the kitchen to be the biggest room in the house as I knew I would spend the most time there – cooking meals with friends, working at the table, eating with Kai, sipping tea in the morning, baking into the evening. And while I love the white subway tile look, I didn’t want to the room to feel like a splash proof kitchen – I wanted to be able to sit at the table and feel surrounded by warmth and design rather than a strictly utilitarian space. So I planned to keep the walls and cabinets white, and bring in pops of leather, wood, wicker, and linen to give the room a clean and earthy vibe. I also knew I wanted to bring in one or two design elements that felt a bit more modern, and a bit more me :)While some people spend the majority of their time in the living room, Kai and I don’t own a TV and we rarely watch movies or streaming content. So when we’re together in the house, we’re usually cooking in the kitchen, eating, or engaging in various bedroom activities (aka looking at our individual iPhones while laying in bed next to each other ;) So I really had a hard think about what I wanted the living room to be used for before planning out the look and feel. I knew the space would be used on occasion when friends came over, so I wanted seating that was conducive of good conversation – a soft space with warm light, a circle of comfortable seating spots, pillows, blankets, and the ability to easily play tunes. I wanted a lot of storage – some easily accessible (books) and some for those once a year items (sleeping bags, spare quilts) that could be tucked out of sight. Also, I still had a projector from my previous apartment, so on the rare occasion when Kai and I did want to have a lazy Sunday, I wanted maximum comfort for movie viewing. And lastly, we wanted a double pull out couch, so if we had four guests at the same time, everyone would have a bed. For the colors of the room, I decided to add some pops of green. This is the only room where I moved away from earth tones – I wanted to bring a bit of whimsy and fun into the living room, perhaps even adding some mid-century modern furniture. That said, I also planned to keep the walls white, the big, expensive pieces of furniture timeless, and the colors welcoming.I do most of my primping in the bathroom, so the sole purpose of the new bedroom would be for cuddles and sleep. It was very important for me to have a master bed that was not against a wall – I did this for several years in my old place and I would often wake up with cramped joints from being pushed up against a wall during the night, or I would wake up, either too hot or too cold, due to the temperature of the wall. A few times I woke up with a spider on the wall in front of me (AHHH!) and always climbing over someone to pee in the night sucked (in my old age, this is like, an every night occurrence). So my new bed had to be free on three sides and ultra cozy. I don’t like ornate headboards, jazzy art, or colorful pillows. I literally just wanted to wake up every morning in a soft cloud – and so I designed my bedroom to feel like a snuggle den, inviting at any hour of the day. I knew I wanted to invest in blackout curtains, and an ultra light grey paint that could make the walls feel slightly cooler than the rest of the house. The rest of the space would be filled with puffy white bed linens, white furniture, and light wooden accents.To be honest, the guest bedroom is still taking shape even now, as it was a bit lower on the priority list. That said, I wanted this space to feel clean and welcoming to anyone who might stay, regardless of personal taste or style. So I went with all white and wood, and instead of filling the room with art, I decided to invest in quality linens for my guests, big pillows, and a comfortable mattress. I also chose a bed with lots of storage space for extra blankets and towels.Lastly was my bathroom. The bottom left photos below were my key inspiration for the walls and floor. I went with over sized white tiles on the walls, with hexagon slate-grey tiles on the floor. For the vanity, I wanted a cabinet like the image on the far right – wooden, light, and simple. I’ll go more into my bathroom in a later post, but it required the most amount of work, and honestly I could easily spend another €2-3 grand on the room to help it feel a bit more cohesive. Going into the renovation, I wanted to combine clean, natural, and design elements to make the space feel relaxing for long baths and reliable for quick showers.Once the designs were done, I anxiously awaited to close on the apartment and get my keys. My contractor did a few asbestos tests that came back negative (thank goodness) and I got permitting into motion to have a dumpster down on the street and for parking. In that time I also packed up my old place, moved the majority of my things into a storage unit, and brought a suitcase of personal items to Kai’s house. The renovation would last for five weeks, and by chance I would be out of town for work for two of them. So I planned to stay with Kai for a week, travel for two weeks, and then stay with Kai again for another two (which turned into three due to delays) while the renovations were underway. By the time I got the keys on March 1st, I’d already moved once, the plans were drawn up, and my contractor was ready to go on the first day!

That said, Kai and I kicked off the work, as to save on costs, we elected to remove the wallpaper and paint ourselves (well, I elected and Kai being a wonderful boyfriend agreed to help :) Removing all of the wallpaper took two days and lots of hard work, but in the end it was worth the savings. That said, instead of getting more beautiful, the apartment looked even scarier underneath the disgusting, smoke stained wallpaper.I remember the first time I showed the apartment to Kai – I got the keys and we went over together shortly after I signed the sale contract. He was quiet the whole time we were in the apartment together, and after, he was equally mute. He was very unsure about the space, because he could not visualize the outcome in the same way I could – he did not have the imagination. And I think his horror continued well through the renovation process ;)To be fair, at this point I was also pretty scared – what I bought felt like a cold jail cell versus the warm and welcoming apartment I had envisioned.That said, over the next few days, the demolition kicked off and I could slowly start to see what the future space might look like. Even though these are the worst pictures (below), this was my favorite part – the layout I had designed was coming to life, and I could start to visualize how it would all come together!

The demolition only took a week (is that normal? I have no idea how long these things should take!) followed by a week of repairing the electricity and building walls, followed by a week of specialists coming in and out for plastering, tiling, and installing the new water heater. At this point, a few unforeseen issues popped up – some of the existing heating pipes broke while radiators were being removed, and needed to be replaced, and there was a leak in the bathroom from the upstairs neighbor’s toilet (disgusting) which had to be repaired, and ultimately my bathroom wall had to be extended to fit the pipe from my neighbor’s toilet. Also, the water heater, which I had wanted to case in the wall by the head of my bed, could only be placed in the middle of the bedroom wall as there was a chimney running through the middle of the wall and the heater’s vent could not go around or through the chimney (picture below – the heater had to be to the left of the chimney). But all in all, these extras came to less than €2k which meant that I was still within a healthy budget :) Now, it was time to start ordering the appliances! I went to Ikea and designed a kitchen, which was pretty easy as I could tell you the measurements for each room while sleeping ;) and I knew exactly what I wanted appliance wise! I’ll go into more detail on the design elements of my kitchen in a later post, but in the meantime, this was the technical drawing of my kitchen from Ikea: Which got me so excited about the space! In the meantime, the apartment was prepped and ready to go with the kitchen install (water and electric lines ready!) and the plaster and tiles were finally done throughout. Next came the hard part – the part when it felt like everything took forever. I was told the kitchen install would take two days. And then three days. And then a cabinet door broke and needed to be re-ordered. And then the sink install in the bathroom was more time-consuming than anticipated. My kitchen looked like various states of this (below) for a week and a half, and it felt like various things throughout the apartment kept getting hung up.Things seemed to drag on and on (and I wound up paying a bit extra because of this) and suddenly it was floor installation day, and the contractors said no way was the apartment in any shape for the floor to be installed. So the wood was delivered but I had to push everything back a few days – the install and my move in (yikes). In the meantime, we started painting – at least in the rooms that were accessible (the kitchen was a mess!) but we managed to get the guest room and living room done before the kitchen was finished being installed :) Kai’s brother came to town that weekend, and his whole visit was spent in the apartment, covered in paint, eating pizza. We owe him a normal visit and a big THANK YOU next time he’s in Amsterdam :)At this point, the guest room start to look . . . dare I say . . . livable?! :)Finally it was time – we couldn’t delay the floor anymore, and so the carpenter came over the weekend to install the floor while the builders were off on Saturday and Sunday (which I am sure my new neighbors loved – so sorry!!)
It was still a mess, and nowhere near livable, but at this point I started swooning SO HARD over the space. I had saved up a lot and paid for this floor completely out-of-pocket, and I would do it again a thousand times, it was SO BEAUTIFUL and just what I wanted!After the floor was installed, the contractors had 24 hours to wrap up the essentials in the kitchen and bathroom as quickly as possible, because we had re-scheduled our movers for the next day. And while they didn’t finish everything (they still had to come back almost every day for the next two weeks) the toilet worked, the kitchen appliances were running, and my friend Chloe lent me her keys so I could shower at her place down the street while she was away and my shower was still MIA.Kai and I spent that weekend painting the kitchen, unpacking our things, and building our bed, closet, couch and chairs.In the Netherlands, you also get an extra vacation day for moving, so I gobbled up this time and spent my free day in the trenches, covered in paint ;)
At this point, two months had passed since we kicked off the renovation, and I had friends coming to town to stay with me for King’s Day. Their tickets had been booked months in advance – way before I knew I was moving, or embarking on a huge renovation project! The renovation was supposed to last for five weeks, but wound up being closer to eight with all of the lingering things to be fixed on a rolling basis. While my friends were in town, contractors were still in the house every day (sorry guys!!) and the front hallway and bathroom weren’t painted . . . in addition to a zillion other things that still had to be done! My friends Jess and Andy arrived first (read more about our adventures here) and they helped me assemble the guest room bed because Amie was arriving the next day and wouldn’t have had anywhere to sleep! Seriously, guys, I wouldn’t have made it through this crazy project without friends, or Kai! And that is how this (below) beautiful space was born!Once we were in, the walls were painted, and the furniture was built, it took another six months for the space to start to feel like home. We shopped for art, looked for furniture that would fit our space, built custom cabinets, and had our builders come back a few times to fix additional things around the apartment (they are still continuing to come now, almost a year later, to help out with random bits and bobs!) While the project was draining, and there’s still quite a way to go until the place is exactly as I had envisioned it, I am incredibly lucky to live in a stunning, central apartment that’s exactly as I had dreamed it. I’m also so, so lucky to have not only a fantastic boyfriend and roommate, but also someone who has been so supportive of such a tiring and time-consuming project. Kai did not have to stay up late with me to build furniture or paint walls, or spend weekends removing wallpaper and driving me to Ikea, but he has done so, time and time again, with minimal grumbling. My friends also played a hugely pivotal role in the renovation – from stopping by to help paint, to letting me shower at theirs (when I was covered in paint and needed it the most!) Seriously, so many amazing people helped this apartment come to life, and I am excited to share it with my family, friends, and lover for the years to come :)

In the coming weeks, I will give you a tour of each room in my house. I’ll start with the kitchen (my favorite room!) and will go into more detail on where I bought everything, and how I designed the space. Until then!

xx Ali

15 Replies to “My Apartment: The Renovation”

  1. absolutely stunning, you decorate the space beautifully. seems like a lot of work. If you wouldn’t mind sharing the total cost of the project, because I am looking to do the same if I found a good property in Amsterdam as well.

    Like

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