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Couples Learn Remodeling the Abode Can Bring Trying Times

October 17, 1989|J. A. KAYE | J.A. Kaye is a Los Angeles writer.

Pick a marriage, any marriage, and have its partners save an astronomical amount of money or send them to the bank to borrow this sum, creating a very scary family debt. Then force the couple to give the money to an architect.

Immediately after the money changes hands, subject the couple to relentless rounds of "The Newlywed Game" with the architect acting as inquisitor.

In this version of the game, there is no question too humiliating or too revealing. Bathroom behavior, bedtime behavior, favorite colors, habits, idiosyncrasies, all must be explored in detail, together, out loud, to hammer out a remodel design.

Finally, tear up the couple's home, give keys to guys who will show up at 7 every morning and put cigarettes out on the windowsills. Turn off the water. Hang big plastic drapes in the living room and tarp the dining room. Fill the house with dust, noise and fumes. Tell the couple this will last for three months, take six and add some bucks to the original bill.

Ward and June Cleaver would fight. There isn't a couple out there that wouldn't. The fact is that a fair number of the couples who remodel their homes get divorced sometime during or after the work is done. Human nature is violated by the very process, and a modern marriage, already strained by the pressures of two full careers, is highly vulnerable to added stress.

"I burned out one marriage personally," says architect Steven Ball, who put his first wife through four or five renovations before she was defeated and they were so distant they were strangers. "There is only so much dust and debris that anyone can be expected to handle."

These battling couples aren't suffering in silence. They are taking their renovation hassles to marriage counselors and family therapists. "Humans are creatures of habit," explains UCLA professor of psychiatry and family counselor Irene Goldenberg, who sees more and more patients in the grips of remodels. "They can get used to a great many things, but it is difficult when the surroundings are in disarray. Even then, people can learn to live in the most difficult circumstances, provided they're not feeling someone is taking advantage of them or their money is draining away."

Unfortunately, remodeling is almost always tainted by that exact sensation, much like the vulnerability that seizes us when the car is in the shop, only the financial stakes are a lot higher. Before one Mandeville couple went to hear their final construction bids, they joked they were bringing along oxygen to revive each other

Most need the oxygen. If the couple hires an architect, they pay $30,000 to $50,000 for the remodel of a master suite, the most typical renovation. A kitchen costs $20,000 to $40,000. If they can afford to move out for the nine months a typical renovation can last, they can add $20,000 more for rent, storage and school fees to keep children in their own school. By bypassing an architect and going directly to a remodeling construction company, they can cut the fees by half. But cost overruns can be as high as 50%. "It seems $100,000 doesn't go that far any more," says Venice-based architect Tony Watson.

Most couples, of course, survive remodeling. They can emerge from months of silent treatment, pitched battles and crying jags with a marriage that is not only intact but stronger than it was before construction. Many architects use the parallel of pregnancy and birth to describe what their clients endure. "As in pregnancy, there are feelings of loss of control, some incredible high and lows," says Ball, a parent himself. "Then, the minute it is over, you begin the process of healing and forgetting what you went through and marvel at the beauty of your creation."

Some couples experience remodeling as a marital pep rally. They go through it exuding team spirit, singing a fight song and, in some rare cases, planning their next remake. These people are mainly rumored to exist. Architects can rarely name names.

Where they can be acutely specific is in talking about the divorces. One Venice architect witnessed the disintegration of the marriage and the subsequent blossoming of romance that brought more work. "I did one huge remodel and the couple broke up right after it was over," says Watson. "I got two jobs out of it. I designed a new house for him and when she married again, I remodeled the original house again."

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