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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Five Optimistic Thoughts on the Future of Remodeling Research

As the new Director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies, I step into the formidable shoes of Kermit Baker—a scholar who has contributed to our understanding about how integral homes are to our lives and livelihoods and how central the existing housing stock is to our communities and nation.

Kermit made us peek behind the wall, literally and figuratively. He shed light on the complexity of the home improvement and repair sector, its organization, and its project specializations. He documented the agents of remodeling change from the regional remodelers to the local handyman (and handywoman!) as well as DIY homeowners. And, perhaps most critically, Kermit reminded us that facts must be as solid as foundations. Without accuracy and credibility, our industry and policymakers would be on shaky ground.

I now pick up Kermit’s hammer, and I join the crew of the Remodeling Futures team: my new colleagues, Abbe Will and Sophia Weeden, the industry pioneers in the Steering Committee, and the scholarly and professional wealth across the Center and Harvard University. I bring a focus on the physical quality of our homes through years of research, public service, and work with builders and remodelers. As Kermit did in his blog last week, I would like to reflect on the remodeling industry, but from the perspective of where we are today and where the future of residential remodeling research might take us.

1. There is no “typical” remodeling project.

The housing industry is rightfully concerned with building new homes to address the always growing demand for affordable, quality housing. But the million or so new housing units built each year add to an inventory of over 140 million existing homes. What’s behind the walls is the sum of many tradespersons’ hands, an owner’s financial wherewithal, and an occupant’s routines among so many other actors and actions. This combination produces a unique and personal product—a home—that changes over time and tenant.

Remodeling projects are as personal to the families who live in the homes as they are technically complex for the workers who design and construct them. Every remodeler and product manufacturer responds to the unique motivations and requirements of each project. In doing so, they must design, alter, and carry out technically complex remodeling plans daily.

At the end of the day, remodelers are these homes’ fixers. Fortunately, everyone along the supply chain brings a set of skills and knowledge honed across years of experience. Though there is some standardization in means and methods, remodeling researchers need to be attuned to the uniqueness of remodeling project types, their construction specifications, how the homes got to their current condition, how homeowners feel about projects, and what affects decisions about repairs and purchases.  

2. Remodeling projects—housing maintenance, repair, and retrofits of all kinds—are an economic powerhouse, which means that the sector is a major employer and material marketplace.

My Center colleagues have gone to great pains to document just how important home remodeling is to our national economy. The $420 billion spent last year on home improvements and repairs now rivals the value of the new residential construction market. That magnitude of economic production translates into hundreds of thousands of jobs for self-employed remodelers, specialty trades and repair people, and the larger remodeling establishments that make up the industry. It also means that the materials, building products, and appliances needed must be accessible and affordable.

The ability to produce this level of activity depends on all firms’ capacity to find workers and materials. Changes in the remodeling workforce increasingly reflect national demographic patterns, with women, people of color, and immigrants filling jobs at all levels while the construction supply chain continues to rely on global sources for raw materials. The Center is committed to tracking these inputs, despite national data gaps, as well as understanding the range of remodeling firms and their operations.

3. The performance of our homes is not static. It never was.

Houses reflect the design and technology moment in which they are built or remodeled. Most of the existing stock (about two thirds) was built before modern building codes and reflect the physical expectations of their time. In all cases, though, homes need to be maintained and kept up. The apartment building collapse this summer in Surfside, Florida tragically illustrates what can happen when we don’t keep up with basic repair needs or implement standards that integrate contemporary building science. Today we are more aware of the ways in which our home’s energy and water use can be reduced to save natural resources and the planet. We are learning to rebuild our homes after severe disasters and we’re understanding how homes can either contribute to health hazards, or make healthy housing a priority for our families, especially older adults.

Fortunately, residential remodeling is an innovative and responsive industry. Where there are home improvement needs and resources, the remodeling sector has shown itself more than capable of developing new techniques and areas of specialty, training its workforce, and pushing the boundaries of how our homes can and should operate regardless of when they were built. The Center will continue studying what the industry needs to further modernize our housing stock.

4. Remodeling is a policy issue.

US housing policy delivers federal housing finance and local housing assistance. Remodeling is shaped by these efforts and beyond. Energy policies that fund home weatherization also require utilities to conduct energy-efficient retrofits. Public programs give homeowners resources to elevate and fortify their homes against disasters. Local governments support retrofits for the health and safety of residents. Even debates about climate risks to the national system of housing finance will almost certainly result in retrofitting against future exposures.

The remodeling industry will benefit from the expansion of these retrofit resource carrots. It will also gain from the growing conversation about the sticks for improving housing, including increasing regulations on the existing stock. The quality of our homes is of national, state, and local importance. And the people who live in existing homes vote. Along with tracking the industry itself, remodeling researchers must pay keen attention to the changing nature of policy at all levels of government that will shape the industry’s growth—and weigh in on policy debates with rigorous evidence.

5. Existing homes are central to communities.

Just as each home is unique, each community is different in its mix of homes. The makeup of people who live and thrive in communities varies. In most cases, access to resources to improve one’s living environment is determined by many characteristics: income, wealth, age, race, ethnicity, gender, nativity, physical ability, and other traits that make each family in the US as different as the homes we occupy. For example, an affordable apartment building’s energy retrofit requires a qualitatively different strategy than a single-family bathroom remodel not just because they are architecturally distinct. Their respective occupants have different resources. The communities in which they reside value each housing asset in locally specific ways. Consequently, the Center’s research has shown that all segments of society remodel, some at rates beyond expectations.

Housing researchers are also increasingly aware that the physical quality of homes play a hand in families’ and children’s life outcomes. The inequitable playing field in our country manifests physically in our housing. I begin my new role at the Center in awe of what the housing industry has produced, knowing that our research will continue to document remodeling’s size and operations. But I am also aware of the enormous national challenges ahead that require us to re-form (literally) our existing homes and reform the policies and programs that shape them.

I challenge our research to further show how home improvement contributes to improvements for all families and all communities. It is a lofty mission. Fortunately, remodelers have never been afraid of looking behind the wall.