When improving your home, you might do better by subtracting things rather than adding

Building or renovating a home takes a huge toll on the environment, sometimes unnecessarily. But for every couple who put up an entire outbuilding to keep their unwanted things, we can find a couple who live elegantly in an 18 x 18 foot cottage. Next time we’re yearning to renovate, let’s remember that happy austerity in a cottage.

A family that re-does its floor dumps a huge quantity of rubble and broken tile somewhere. The same goes for replacing wooden cabinets and wardrobes or, worse, discarding synthetic materials that will never degrade.

We’ve all run into “might as well” contractors. While you’re putting in new cabinets, they suggest, you might as well change all the window frames and the floor tiles. At best, the project is much costlier than you estimated, and at worst the contractor gets tired of it and leaves the job half done. If we think carefully and leisurely about what we really need to improve about our homes and plan with everyone in the family about it, we are less likely to be talked into unwanted and expensive complications.

A good place to start is to subtract things rather than adding, especially for older couples who have acquired household goods over decades. Our homes look instantly better when excess furniture is gone, along with all the unwanted clothes, broken suitcases, dusty curios and extra kitchen ware. In giving away things, we must be realistic about expecting money or even gratitude in return. If our watchman is not grateful for the old suitcase we’ve given him, why don’t we be grateful to him for taking it away? In many countries, householders pay to have such items removed.

Many of our home accessories are not in keeping with our present mode of life. We hang curtains at every internal door for privacy though strangers seldom enter the house. We install pelmets everywhere when curtain rods are now pretty enough to be seen. Long after the kids have moved out, we still have their study table, school books and cycle pump. We have gigantic vessels though we mostly cook in our smallest pots. We still have an entire winter wardrobe after we moved back to Kochi.

Once we’ve cleared away the truly unwanted things, let’s clean up what remains. If a chair was too good to discard, isn’t it good enough to restore to its full beauty? An old-fashioned seasonal cleaning makes a painted wall look fresh for another year, keeps varnished furniture shining, and curtains and upholstery looking new. Polish the floor rather than replace it. If you’re “just sick of the look”, rearrange rather than demolish. Good storage improves every home, keeping it visually and actually clean. But it is most efficient to put in new cupboards after we’ve sorted out the old. We may find that all we really need, once the junk is gone, is one shelf near the sink or one row of hooks behind the door. Or we may find that the spare book cabinet can be better put to use in the kitchen. Considering how much we might save, it’s certainly worth a try.

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HOME RULES

* Buy what you need, rather than what someone else tells you to buy

* Recycle or discard what cannot be repaired

* When deciding whether it is cheaper to repair or replace something, count the environmental costs of dumping the old piece in a landfill and manufacturing a new piece

* Think creatively about repurposing furniture. If you clean it, paint it, add a shelf or shorten the legs, can you use it in another room?

* When selling old things, be realistic in your expectations. Remember that sometimes one man’s trash is another man’s trash. If you price it low it will go. Better yet, give it away to someone who needs it

* Clear out unwanted things before you spend money and resources on new storage

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(This is the seventh article in a 10-part series about how to live sustainably every day. It appears on Mondays. The next article is: Shop Talk)

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