Houzz, a website for remodelers to scour for ideas
MOST people who undertake a home renovation will endure varying degrees of financial strain, not to mention the twisting of the stomach that happens when their dreams are slowly crushed by reality.
Adi Tatarko, 39, and her husband, Alon Cohen, 40, experienced all of that, as well as the usual “War of the Roses”-type discord.
But for them, the most difficult thing was communicating their ideas to an architect.
After struggling to describe their vision, they were told to buy books and shelter magazines, and to clip photos. But “that wasn’t efficient at all,” Tatarko said, because “we couldn’t find enough images to show them what we wanted.” Cohen, then a technology director at eBay, and Tatarko created an online platform to solve their problem – a site called Houzz, that would showcase the work of architects and other design professionals, so that home renovators would have access to lots of images from which to draw inspiration.
They asked a few Bay Area architects they knew to upload their portfolios; soon designers in other cities were following suit.
Now, Houzz has a website and iPad app that connects architects, contractors and interior designers with homeowners renovating or building a house.
More than 65,000 design professionals across the country have uploaded 365,000 photos and counting, creating an almost endless flip book of English country kitchens and Mediterranean bathrooms, organised into a database searchable by filters like style, colour, materials and geographic area.
Houzz’s founders, sat in the backyard of their airy, almost fully remodelled home one sunny day in February, and explained how it all began a little more than five years ago, with their move to Palo Alto.
“I wanted to move to the Bay Area,” Cohen said.
“I wanted to stay in New York because I wanted to work on Wall Street,” Tatarko said. “You see who wins.” Cohen smiled. “Ask everyone else, they’ll tell you a different story.” What neither disputes is that not long after moving, in 2006, they bought a 1950s-style ranch house that needed major work.
“What we got was a house from 1955 – period,” said Tatarko, a no-nonsense businesswoman who previously worked for several tech companies, both with her husband in their native Israel and in New York. “The kitchen, the bathroom – nothing had been updated.” They may speak the language of home renovation now, but initially Tatarko and Cohen struggled. For three years after moving in to their Palo Alto home they barely changed a bulb, making do with the small, dark rooms, an ugly dropped ceiling and a pink bathroom to save money.
“Budgets are very important in a renovation,” Cohen said.
During that time, the couple searched for an architect sympathetic to their vision and tried to clarify just what that vision was, because Cohen likes stark, modern spaces, while Tatarko favours more fanciful interiors.
“We thought it would be fun,” Tatarko said of the renovation process. “Then we faced reality.” Eventually, they found an architect they liked and settled on a plan. Then, for three months, while the main living spaces were being done, they lived in the bedroom wing with their sons and went without a working kitchen.
“People ask us if it’s hard to work together,” Cohen said. “We tell them it’s nothing compared to remodelling.” Now, of course, they have the resources of their website to draw on. Like other Houzz users, they can create “idea books” with photos that designers have uploaded and email their “design dilemmas” to the Houzz community to get advice from professionals and homeowners.
Leading a visitor through their home, with its big, open living area and walllength sliding-glass doors, Tatarko and Cohen pointed out ideas that came from Houzz, like the ebonised floors in the living room and the bubble chandelier above the dining room table.
When their 9-year-old son decided he no longer wanted to share a bedroom with his younger brother, Tatarko told the boys to look at Houzz and choose the colours they wanted for their new rooms. And for the master bathroom, they hired a local designer they found through the site to consult on the fixtures and colours.
“This house is an ongoing project,” Tatarko said, explaining that the bathroom was finished only the week before.
“Because we run Houzz, we don’t have time to deal with it.” The company now has a staff of 26 who work from a small office in downtown Palo Alto, in a space that was once a server room for Google. In D e c e m b e r , Houzz secured $11.6 million in additional funding, and it recently partnered with Lowe’s to provide content for its website and on a kitchen giveaway sweepstakes.
Some have complained that the Houzz site is visually cluttered and hard to search, and that it’s geographically limited.
Still, the Houzz iPad app, which has been downloaded more than 1 million times, is a thing of beauty – a streamlined, highly addictive delivery system for design addicts.
“Whenever we have a rough day, we just look at the reviews of the app,” Cohen said, adding that the goal is to make the Web version just as user-friendly.
Despite Houzz’s increased exposure, however, its founders have largely stayed in the background: There are no “Tips from Adi and Alon” or photos of their home on the site.
“It’s not about us,” Tatarko said. “We wanted to create the right platform for everyone to mingle, no matter what their style, their budget.” Cynthia Oviatt is one of those users. She stumbled on Houzz two years ago through a Google search, while building a four-bedroom Craftsman-style house.
“My idea book probably has 300 or 400 photos,” Oviatt said. “I’m on there every day. It’s ridiculous.” Scrolling through so many images helped her figure out exactly what she wanted her kitchen to look like, she said. “I was able to pick out why I liked certain layouts. For instance, I liked when the fridge was off to the side, not the focal point.” She also found her interior designer, Garrison Hullinger, through the contact information listed on the site.
Like many design professionals, Hullinger sees Houzz as a valuable marketing tool. It has allowed his firm to reach prospective clients beyond his city, and to see which of his designs people like – something that frequently surprises him.
He mentioned a photo he uploaded of a simple floating shelf with books stacked on a chair below. “I never would’ve thought people would respond to it,” he said. “But it already has 10,000 idea book clicks.” As for Tatarko and Cohen, the site seems to be encouraging them to take on additional renovation projects rather than bringing an end to the work – something other Houzz users have experienced. On the short list is an update of their home’s 1950s-era exterior, new landscaping and the construction of a guest bedroom.
“We have over 800 options to find an architect in the Bay Area now,” Tatarko said.
She and her husband are also creating idea books on Houzz, presumably making it easier to agree on a plan and communicate with whomever they hire.
It was suggested that the renovation process might have been smoother had Cohen been the type of husband who defers to his wife on design matters.
“Adi wasn’t that lucky,” Cohen teased.
“That’s true,” Tatarko said. “But I’d rather live with somebody who cares than somebody who doesn’t care.” Cohen laughed. “Now she’s saying that.”