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Homeowners continue to adapt their space as pandemic restrictions come and go

Whether carving out a classroom for online learning, turning a bedroom into a home gym, or creating outdoor space to socialize safely, homeowners have adapted to the times.

What was once a breakfast nook became a classroom for virtual learning. Now that they've returned to school, Owen, 8, and his sisters Caitlin, 6, and Courtney, 8, do their homework there.
What was once a breakfast nook became a classroom for virtual learning. Now that they've returned to school, Owen, 8, and his sisters Caitlin, 6, and Courtney, 8, do their homework there.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

When the pandemic hit a year ago and learning became virtual, Tracy Burzycki quickly realized that the dining room table wasn’t a long-term solution for her three children to do their schoolwork. She immediately set out to find a better plan, so they could each have a dedicated space to work independently.

“It was a nightmare,” recalled the mother of twins Owen and Courtney, 8, and Caitlin, 6.

One room in their Fort Washington house was intended to be a breakfast room, but the kids had taken it over as their playroom. Making that space more functional had been on the family’s to-do list anyway, and the pandemic was the perfect time to check it off. With the help of designer Amy Cuker of down2earth interior design, Burzycki transformed the roughly 100-square-foot room into an at-home classroom.

“My ultimate goal was to get all three kids into the room with enough space to spread out and functionally be able to work with virtual school,” Burzycki recalled. “I didn’t just want it to be functional but also aesthetically pleasing.”

She painted the room’s built-in cabinets white and blue and added baskets to house (and hide) school supplies. She bought two desks, one wooden and handmade by Flourtown craftsman John Duffy of Stable Tables and another one long enough to accommodate two kids at the same time.

Burzycki added three matching chairs and turned an existing window bench into more seating on the far side of the long desk. On a side wall, she had a black mountain scene painted with chalkboard paint.

“During the first few months of the fall, when we were virtual, they were using that space with their headsets on, all in the room together,” Burzycki said. “Now that they are back in school full time, they will do some of their homework there, but the running joke is that the fourth kid who is also using the room is my husband, Steve.”

That kind of ingenuity — creating new solutions to a stay-at-home life — has transformed many homes during this year of pandemic.

One in five homeowners turned a home into multi-use spaces for exercising and working at home, according to a Houzz study last spring. Professionals working on outdoor spaces saw the greatest increase in demand last summer. Swimming pool design and installation projects more than quadrupled; deck, patio and porch project inquiries nearly tripled, and home extensions and additions grew by 52%, compared with the same period in 2019.

“Insights on the types of projects homeowners pursued in June speaks to a need for more usable space both inside and outside of the home,” said Liza Hausman, vice president of Industry Marketing at Houzz, an online home improvement community.

When gyms were shut down, Mary O’Brien, a fitness educator who taught at several area gyms, began teaching clients over Zoom.

“I had been teaching in various cramped pockets in my house, and I decided enough was enough,” recalled O’Brien, who lives in South Philadelphia. “I needed an actual space — I couldn’t conduct classes in front of my dog’s crate for much longer.”

Turning her guest bedroom into a studio made sense because she wasn’t having guests during the pandemic anyway. She moved the bed into another room and pushed the desk against the wall, carving out a space for her exercise mat and equipment.

Though O’Brien’s rearrangement was initially temporary, she’s now rethinking her plan to restore the space as a guest room again.

“Even when this is all over, no one knows what normal is going to look like anymore,” she said. “I’ve found so much joy doing this, why stop? If this has taught us anything, it’s that you have to adapt.”

Robin Komita found several creative ways to use her home’s outdoor space when COVID-19 hit, including creating a socially distanced backyard, sitting in folding chairs on the front stoop with neighbors, and gardening on her roof deck. Although she isn’t new to gardening, this year she upped her game.

“Planting herbs and flowers was a huge part of how to deal with spring and summer,” said Komita, a Society Hill resident. “I got a seed starter kit from Greensgrow with eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, radishes and arugula. We had cauliflower and broccoli that was amazing.”

Komita is busy now, getting her garden set for this spring and summer, with plans to modify the roof deck to include a flexible source of shade. As farmers’ markets return, her garden will focus more on herbs and lettuce greens to supplement the fresh produce she can purchase once again.

She’ll also continue to enjoy the space she created for friends and family to meet safely outdoors. Two tables sit at a comfortable distance apart so families can socially distance. Heaters and a chiminea kept the space warm during the winter.

They have been using the space at least once a week. It’s been especially helpful when their adult son, who works in a grocery store, comes over for dinner. Although Komita admits that it’s not perfect, it has been a reasonable solution during an imperfect time.

“You’re always far apart — you’re not touching,” she said. “You have to have willingness on the part of friends or family to be able to stay outside and be a little cold or uncomfortable for an hour. It’s different, but I feel really lucky we have outdoor space to be in. As people get vaccinated, hopefully we can be seated more closely.””