480 square foot apartment in Berlin, Germany
Remodel the 36 square foot kitchen
Building in the 36 square feet next to the kitchen
Working in a new country (we don’t even know where to buy a hammer)
Making everything fit
Following German quiet hour laws
Before Shots + Culture Shock
Our kitchen in Berlin, Germany left a lot to be desired when we first saw it. It’s easy to see why. At 36 square feet, there were absolutely no drawers, no counter spaces, no dishwasher, and certainly no places to store the basic kitchen essentials. In fact, the last tenants actually kept a fridge and freezer in the living room with dishes stacked on top of it.
Martin and I thought that there just had to be a better solution.
We began brainstorming a new plan before we even left the United States. We didn’t ship a bunch of supplies overseas. We just had what we could fit into our suitcases. So we were busy figuring out where you’re supposed to buy the basics in Germany – you know: towels, toilet paper, a couch, dishes, a BED to sleep on!
Having a semblance of a plan for how we wanted our kitchen to transform definitely helped our transition to a new country.
There are a lot of things you don’t think about when you think of moving to another country. Where to buy remodeling supplies was definitely one of those long, confusing struggles we had. Our apartment didn’t even come with lights except this one dangling hazard. (When people buy or rent in Germany, their homes don’t come with any light fixtures. People prefer to take their lights with them from home to home.) We were considered lucky, though: most homes also don’t come with kitchens. You’ll just find a line of backsplash tile and a couple of water valves waiting for you.
During the Remodel + Learning German Construction
Germans call American homes “cardboard houses”. I don’t think we truly understood how that term came to be until we started to tear down our kitchen walls:
Wowzers. Do you see that? Those walls are SOLID DRYWALL. The walls aren’t even load-bearing. That’s just how solid German construction is – and we were not expecting that at all. We were totally expecting something like you find in American homes – namely 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick drywall nailed or screwed onto 2×4 inch pieces of lumber (metric: 1.3 to 1.9 cm thick drywall secured to 5×10 cm pieces of lumber) . We had to rent a saws-all just to get that wall down. Then we had to figure out where the heck we were supposed to dispose of our enormous bricks. (You can see the stack of them in front of Martin on the right photo.) Each of those bricks weighed at least 50 pounds. Yowzers, aye?
It was worth it. Suddenly, our entire living space lit up! And all of a sudden, Germans starting referring to our project as “the American kitchen.”
The moment we tore down the walls and opened the space, Germans announced with hearty laughs, “Ahh. Go figure! The Americans are building themselves an American kitchen.” As you can guess from our original kitchen, Germans really like different spaces for different functions of their lives. When a kitchen opens up into a living space, Germans call it an American kitchen.
Once the drywall dust settled, we were far from settling ourselves. Red sawdust soon followed. We divided our tiny living room/kitchen in two with enormous plastic tarps that our mattress came in. We lived on one end.
We worked on the other.
To this day, we continue to receive questions like, “Did you really remodel it yourselves?”
The answer is yes. We tore down everything ourselves. We designed it. Then we built it from sheets of wood. The only time anyone ever helped us was when Martin and the delivery man carried in our countertops together.
Slowly, we progressed without breaking the law… What law? Germany actually enforces strict quiet hours every single day. It makes work for young remodelers like us who prefer late nights over early mornings nearly impossible. We were seriously limited by the number of hours when we could run power tools. We had to finish by 5:00 every day. Power tools were forbidden on Sundays (along with vacuums in apartments and lawnmowers in yards). It was the biggest pain in the neck, watching the clock all the time. I did get really good at hand sanding, though!
We also don’t have neighbors who hate us today. I can’t imagine having someone pounding our door to complain – in German, of course – about how I’m being so disrespectful. We all hate when neighbors have parties late into the night. I imagine a chop saw is just as miserable.
Our space was so cramped. We had the 36 square-foot kitchen space at the 36 feet next to it to work. I often found myself hanging out the window to catch wood as Martin ran the table saw. And if the table saw wasn’t cutting something, it was unplugged and serving as our work bench like it is here:
We gradually got there.
We ate a lot of sawdust along the way, trying to make our kitchen function.
We also sneezed a lot.
And watched the leaves fall and the snow come.
Doing everything ourselves really allowed us to save money. We also went to the same Mom and Pop stores every time, so they were more than happy to knock of 10%. We’ve been so blessed in this project. In the end, we were able to afford a big splurge (but only because our kitchen is just so tiny!). We got a granite countertop.
We’d always wanted to have a countertop made of recycled products such as glass. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a single supplier. Our only major hiccup happened when our countertops didn’t fit right. That was a really rough day. I went to German class. And meanwhile, Martin spent well over ten hours twisting and tweaking until he finally got it right.
Then we took everything apart. Yep! We actually disassembled the kitchen. After all, we still had to sand and varnish everything. It’s much more practical to build everything and be sure it fits, then polish it all up. We actually found an environmentally friendly building shop that sold stuff like grout and varnish. Their natural, environmentally friendly varnish was love at first sight. We’re still loving it today.
Using natural varnish does cost more than the “standard” stuff filled with toxins. However standard varnish releases a serious amount of toxins. There’s absolutely no way we could have lived in our little apartment. Oh it’s heaven when going green saves you a load of cash (like nights and nights at a nearby hotel). I sanded with three different types of sandpaper and varnished two to three coats on everything (with a few sanding jobs in between that, too). I guess you could call me the sanding master. Or at least Martin does – see that photo down there of me working? He couldn’t even get a clear shot of my hand. It’s just a big blur of me working. What can I say? I really, really wanted to stop cutting vegetables in the bathroom on the washing machine.
Psst… here’s a simple varnishing tutorial right here if you’ve got a project in mind.
Afterwards + A Truly “American Kitchen”, We’re Told
And then finally, we were done. We tore down the tarp. We packed up the tools. And we scrubbed everything in the entire house (sawdust-colored ceiling included). We almost felt lost, and I still remember sitting down on the couch together. We had taken the sawdusty sheet off of it, and we just stared over at our kitchen four feet away. Was it true? Had we finished our goal in a foreign country?
For several weeks, I stumbled every time I walked into the living room. I could actually see all the way across. No tarp was blocking my view from the windows. The leaves were gone. I didn’t have to put shoes on just to walk to the other end of the room (we have a no-shoes policy with the exception of construction zones). The sawdust was finally gone. Hooray!
Well mostly gone. Sawdust is sort of like Easter grass or pine needles at Christmas. You keep finding it months later.
So are you ready for the big reveal? Our little kitchen went from this:
to (oh sigh!) this:
And one year later with handmade and personal touches:
8 Ways We Make This New Space Functional
|1. You can build out… or you can build up. In this case, we utilized every inch of vertical space in the back of the kitchen. Our cabinets extend all the way to the ceiling.|
|2. We picked out a small oven. And by small, I mean no American Thanksgiving turkey dinner, which is fine with us. (We’re vegetarians.) Our oven also happens to be our microwave, too; we picked an oven/microwave combo unit.|
|3. We had to question a lot about what society generally thinks a kitchen versus what we actually needed in this space. Turns out we hardly ever use more than two or three burners. So why fill the entire counter with stovetop? We picked a two-burner stove. Using a two-burner stove happened to equal a lower price than a full-sized one, too. Yeah!|
|4. Our dishwasher is half-sized. Using a smaller dishwasher really feels like just the right size for a family of two. No crusty dishes left at our house each night – which was a huge problem when the two of us were using a full-sized dishwasher in the United States.|
|5. Our fridge is a standard German fridge… which happens to be the same tiny size Americans have in college dorms. Our fridge (to the right of the oven/microwave) is covered by wooden panels, which is traditional in German kitchens.|
|6. Our recycling system is super compact and still manages to provide us with an efficient way to sort our recycling, which in Germany means TEN separate recycling piles required by law.|
|7. We keep our dishes in a drawer. Cupboards aren’t very efficient; you can’t stack things very high and still get them out with ease. Storing our dishes in a drawer means we can stack more in less vertical space this way, and it’s a whole lot easier to access things in the back.|
|8. Our food is kept in drawers, too. We have one little cupboard with three drawers in it, which is an incredibly efficient way to store food. The drawers can be long, and we can still see everything we have. Our inspiration came from American kitchens that keep pots and pans stored in large pull-out shelves.|
We like to think that good living can come in any size. And so far, so good!