(Updated May 2004 to better reflect the project results)
In fall of 2000, I began a one-year design project for a new kitchen addition to my home. I chose to take my time working on the design and doing all the research I could, so the result would be the best I could achieve.
The discussions in this article are not necessarily in any sensible order.
Why Do The Design Myself?
I've always been good at understanding the myriad tasks and details for a large project. Whether it's a big software system or a kitchen design, a project with hundreds of little tasks doesn't overwhelm me.
I'm a fan of putting everything on a list. Colleagues would say "Oh, that's only a couple of hours' work. You don't have to write it down." But when we have 35 of those forgotten items to finish and there's only a week left in the schedule, it's panic time. No, we'll put them down: when they're done, we'll cross them off.
Point: If you aren't always discovering new details about the project, you're not thinking about it enough.
We had remodeled two baths, one bedroom, and created a walk-in and two linen closets in 2000. I drew up my bath design in MacDraw, a simple but useful drawing program, then went with a local design/build firm to get the work done. As our first remodel ever, it was painless. Messy, yes, but painless. I began the kitchen design and research shortly after completion of the bath project, when I could make use of what I'd learned during that remodel.
Using a design/build firm made sense, because both the architect and general contractor, as partners, work together. When the GC has a question about design or structure, it's easier to get a quick answer.
The kitchen project benefited greatly from my presence on site during the job. Not only did I know what the plans called for, but often I was asked about a change or a detail that wasn't specifically called out on the plans. Typically, when there's a question (e.g. "Do you want the door here, or over six inches?") the carpenter asks the General Contractor, who asks the homeowner. This process takes time: perhaps the GC isn't available to take the message; maybe the contractor has to check with the architect; maybe the homeowner isn't yet home from work. A simple question like the location of the door could take three days to resolve! When the homeowner is at the site, some of these questions get immediate answers. This, of course, depends on the homeowner having taken the time to understand the project — and knowing when he can't — or shouldn't — answer a question. (If the carpenter asks whether he can cut that support beam, you'd better know what you're doing before you tell him to go ahead!)
Point: The extra time you spend during the design phase will pay off handsomely in the construction phase.
I "borrow" ideas from everywhere I can: suggestions of friends, contractors, web sites, books, restaurants, stores, shopping malls. There's no reason not to do this: if an idea will improve the final project, it doesn't matter to me where it came from. I try, of course, to give credit where it's due.
Point: Keep your eyes open wherever you go, and jot down everything you like — or hate. Adopt it as necessary for your project.
Why The Kitchen?
Since November 1998 when I moved to Cambria and began working from home, I got more involved with cooking than I had been when I spent the day at an office. I had more time to prep and plan meals. And, when we moved from the bigger house to this one, we found it difficult to store all our kitchen stuff in the smaller kitchen.
We also toured homes and kitchens during local fund-raising tours. Many of them are beautiful, but their beauty emphasises form over function. They were designed by local designers who in some cases paid more attention to appearance than usability.
We don't consider ourself big entertainers, but I really enjoy inviting a few friends for dinner. They enjoy my cooking (and I enjoy the ego stroke!), and we have a great time. This, however, requires a good-sized dining table, so the kitchen needs room for that. I also find it imperative to have extra counter space for guests who wish to help with the meal, especially those who bring something to serve.
Point: Decide what you want and need. Does your kitchen cause you to dislike cooking there? What could you do with a great kitchen?
Our old kitchen, open to the living room, was about 12x20, with the cooking area 12x12; the other 12x8 section is the dining area. That 12x12 (144sqft) area was nowhere near as usable as it sounds: you have to subtract about 32sqft for countertops, 6sqft for the fridge, and 21sqft for the island & range. So things were pretty tight. With 32" between the island range and the sink, I couldn't open the oven door when someone was at the sink. The dishwasher door would hit the open compactor door. Things like that make it really tough to work.
The 42x60 oval table could squeeze six; we'd foolishly crammed eight there at times. The largest section of open countertop was about 32" square on the island, and that was my only sensible food-prep area.
I began my kitchen design in September 2000, right after one of the kitchen tours. Bolstered by the success of our bath remodel — and having good "contractor chops" from observing and helping with some of the work — I started again with MacDraw. Shortly thereafter, I realized that a true CAD program was the only way to be truly honest with dimensions. I upgraded to DenebaCAD, from Deneba, the folks who make Canvas, for under $400. This was the price of perhaps ten hours of a draftsman's time, about six hours of architect time: a bargain. I considered using VectorWorks, but DenebaCAD includes 3D rendering with surface textures and lighting, which allowed me to produce photo-like views of the design.
I never logged how much time I put into the design, but I know it's much more than I would have been able to pay for. Had I gone around and around with my architect in tow during each version of my design, I'd have blown the entire construction budget paying him for his time! (Besides, my architect, like most architects, doesn't specialize in kitchen design. His expertise is in the design of the building.)
A kitchen designer, on the other hand, would have been a good way to go. A kitchen designer has so much experience with products that you can save time spent doing research. Sure, I'd have to choose colors, materials, and appliances, but the designer would know the right questions to ask. The designer knows various brands of cabinets, what's available, and what will fit. Thankfully, we have the Internet: most of my research was done via the Web, though I ordered a pile of brochures and catalogs along the way. Even ordering printed this material is easy via the Web!
Some kitchen designers, due to their affiliation with retailers or manufacturers, may try to steer you toward certain products, manufacturers, or materials. Remember whose kitchen it is. Others may be more capable as decorators than as cooks: decide about the kitchen's usability and function as well as its appearance.
Point: Research, research, research! This was the most important thing I did to improve my knowledge and understanding of the project.
We ended up with a 17x28 addition, about 475sqft, which is quite a large kitchen. The 17-foot dimension is fixed, because it matches the existing corners of the house. I went through dozens of different room shapes, at one time even drawing a ships-point at the west end of the room, to exploit the ocean view through large windows.
But I enjoy learning new things, so the research and the reading was a welcome task. It took considerable time, but I was willing to do that work to understand what to do. Because I had the time to do the thinking, I could save money.
Point: If you can't spend the necessary time to do the research and design work, hire a professional.
But Mine Was An Easy Design Job
Because the new kitchen is an addition, it's new construction. A big problem, that of fitting new stuff into existing space, didn't exist for me. As a result, I didn't have to sweat that whole issue. If I needed another few inches of space, I could just change the room size! Now, it isn't that much harder to fit a redesign into the existing kitchen space, but it takes more time. One reason is the sheer number of possibilities: "If we move the stove over there, we can get an extra cabinet over here because the space is better used." You can wear out a couple of erasers before you find the best layout.
Scheduling: Be Realistic
The plan was to build in spring 2002, handing all the CAD files to my architect in summer 2001. This would give him time to make the drawings presentable and get permits. My drawings were complete, but they didn't follow his usual style, so I knew he'd have to adapt them as necessary to follow industry conventions. We're right on schedule so far, and I'm counting on building permits soon. As of 1 Mar 2002, the county had cashed the permit check, which was a good sign.
I laid out a detailed timeline (Gantt chart) in Microsoft Project. This schedule allowed me to see, at a glance, which job had to come before another. In addition, you can see where work can be combined to good advantage. For example, rather than have the electrician make two separate one-day visits, it's more efficient to have him come for two days. This way you only have to get on his schedule once.
It's rare for a client to do this type of scheduling, but I had the ability, the software, and the time to do it. A big advantage of the schedule is that I could react to delays creatively, modifying the job sequence where possible to keep things moving.
I did perhaps 20% of the work, handling much of the electrical work, helping with plumbing and radiant floor heat, tackling odd jobs to keep the work moving. I also assisted the floor tilers, did all the lighting work, primed drywall, and painted window and door frames.
We broke ground in late April 2002, had finished framing and exterior walls by July, and drywall primed and outlets & switches by mid-September. Cabinets, which took an agonizing four months to be manufactured, arrived on 4 November. We were 100% operational in the new kitchen on 7 December.
You Can't Eat Out For Months On End!
Even better, we would not have to live without our existing kitchen during the project. The bay window in the existing dining area would be removed and the wall boarded up. All construction work would occur in the new addition; when the new kitchen was done, the barrier would be taken down, we'd move into the new kitchen, then demolish the old one.
The typical kitchen remodel, however, takes place in the same room as the old one. This usually means a complete demolition before installation of the new materials. Living without a kitchen, I'm told, is an experience one never forgets. It isn't like losing one of two bathrooms for a while.
If you expect to lose the kitchen during the remodel, then it's of the utmost importance that every detail be worked out in advance. Any surprise during the construction phase may cause delays. In many cases, throwing money at the problem won't speed it up.
Point: Everything should be double- and triple-checked. Don't skip anything when checking the design.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
Several times during the design phase, I stopped, stepped back, and gave serious thought to buildability. How difficult would this be to actually build? Would it involve more artistry than craft? Would I have to supervise the tradesperson to ensure that the job got done to my specifications?
This only applies if you're adding on to an existing home as I was. In order to maximize the view from the west end of the room, I wanted large view windows. At one point, I even drew that end of the room as in a ship's point style, where that wall, instead of simply being a straight wall, bowed out in a V-shape. This would certainly be more difficult to build than a simple rectangular room. Some additional thought led to a rectangular shape with large corner windows. Time and money saved.
I worried that adding an extension would require that my home be upgraded to current California earthquake codes. The house was built about 1978, and its walls certainly don't meet current standards. But I dreaded the prospect of shoring up foundations and structure in the main house. This work would take lots of time, both in design, structural analysis, and construction. But I saw no way to avoid this mess.
Then I realized if we were to build a four-sided room and attach it to the existing house wall, we could build the new room to current specs without requiring the house to be part of the support for the new room. In fact, the new room would help stiffen the house! The compromise was having a double-thick archway between the old and the new sections of the house. This was a small price to pay for piece of mind, lower cost, fewer inspections, and faster construction. (During our bath/bedroom remodel, my architect suggested a new overhead support beam. I didn't like the appearance of that, and I suggested keeping part of a bearing wall that had been scheduled for demolition. Besides, I argued, there would be no place for a light switch if that wall were removed completely. It turned out to be the best idea: he hadn't thought about the light switch. Of course, he didn't have the advantage of knowing the room.)
Point: Examine all the alternatives and you might be the one who comes up with the best idea.
In my design, I wanted some seating at the island: two stools would do it. But some of the designs I came up with had fancy multi-level counters, and some of those included a curved riser from the lower to the upper section. The riser even held the electrical outlets.
This isn't impossible to manufacture from solid-surface countertop materials, but it is certainly more difficult to make than something simpler. Anything rectangular, or at least with straight lines, is easier and faster to fabricate than something with free-form curves. At the very least, you'd have to provide details of the curve shape to ensure that what you got was what you envisioned. If you can afford the extra time and cost, then it won't be a big issue. But if you're waiting for the kitchen to be finisned, it'll become painful.
Another problem with a multi-level island is the structural support for the raised, overhanging seating portion of the countertop. This has to be completely thought out, designed, and drawn before you can even think of asking the countertop installer to build it!
In the end, I simplified the island to the most basic style, going for function before form: a rectangle. A single surface, 40" high, with a large cook's/cleanup sink. There's an overhanging section with room for two stools, but no artistry involved. This is, of course, a personal design and appearance decision. For my needs, taste, and home style, simple lines work well.
Point: If you don't need the Taj Mahal, don't try to build it.
One buildability issue is what I call "cross-discipline" or "mixed-trade" jobs, work that requires two different tradespeople to complete. One unavoidable mixed-trade job is the installation of plumbing and cabinets. Both the plumber and cabinetmaker must agree on the location of the rough plumbing; later, the plumber must do the finish plumbing of the sink and faucets after the cabinet and counter work is complete.
Point: Any time you have a mixed-trade job, it will take longer, and cost more, to complete.
The tradespeople may have to be called to the job out of sequence (i.e. they don't have any other work to do at that point in the project), so you have to get onto their schedule when they aren't expecting to spend any time working on your project. Some trades may charge a per-visit fee in addition to an hourly rate. On some occasions, the trades may disagree about how to accomplish the task, waiting for the GC, designer, or architect to resolve the issue.
Some examples of mixed-trade jobs:
Tiled backsplashes: These require coordination between the tilesetter and the electrician: the electrician needs to know the final depth of the finished tile in order to set the electrical boxes at the proper depth. Setting of the boxes happens during framing, but the tilesetter typically isn't involved in the project until later. In some cases, the countertop installer has to answer questions for the tilesetter.
Cooktops, built-in ovens, and drop-in ranges: These require coordination between cabinetmaker, countertop installer, electrician and plumber (if there's a gas appliance). The cabinetry and cutouts can't be made without the appliance specifications, and, even better, the installation instructions. If you already have copies of these documents, you'll speed up the process. Naturally, you'd have to make your appliance choices before getting to this point!
Consider the construction of under-cooktop pot drawers. The cabinetmaker can't finalize the depth of the drawers (front-to-back) until he knows whether you're going to have a gas pipe coming up from the floor to the cooktop.
The counterop installer naturally needs the appliance installation instructions in order to make the cutout. But beware that the real instructions are the ones packed with the appliance, no matter who tells you "these are the right ones." For best results, the cooktop should be available for him to measure. (You're going to buy it anyway, so why not have it delivered a bit early?)
A freestanding range, on the other hand, eliminates dependency on the cabinetmaker and countertop installer. Once wiring and plumbing are done, the range just gets plopped into place without any tradespeople being involved. Typically the appliance installer will hook up the gas and electric supplies.
Fitting It In
A common problem that arises during construction is the simple failure of things to fit where they're supposed to go. Though this is occasionally caused by incorrect manufacturing (e.g. a cabinet that got built wrong), the most likely cause is a lack of detailed thought during the design process.
Cabinets, for example, are measured at their outside sizes: a 24-inch cabinet is 24 inches wide; if it's constructed of 3/4" plywood, then its interior width measures 22-1/2 inches. Why is this important? Well, if you don't consider the thickness of the cabinet box, you might specify something that doesn't fit inside. A 21-inch-wide undermount sink may not fit into a 24-inch cabinet, even though at first glance the numbers seem right. If that sink needs about 1-1/2 inches on each end for mounting clips, it will need a full 24 inches inside the cabinet, meaning you have to specify a 27-inch cabinet.
What about faucets? Sometimes they won't fit between the back of the sink and the back of the cabinet. This is especially true for undermount sinks, where the faucet mounts into the counter behind the sink rather than through a hole in the sink itself. Will you have additional dispensers for hot water, filtered water, soap and detergent? These all take additional space in the countertop. Soap pumps need room for their supply bottles below the counter!
Some faucets and dispensers cannot mount into thick countertops. Some may require additional adapters to handle the thickness; these should naturally be on hand when the plumber is ready to install them.
Having the real item on hand is a great way to see whether it will fit. I had my sinks, faucets, and dispensers on hand a month after we broke ground — about six months before we installed them! This was, perhaps, a bit early, but I had plenty of time to look, think, and be sure of the final adjustments to the design.
Always keep in mind that appliance brochures and data sheets are not the installation instructions. The installation instructions ship with the appliance, which means that you won't have them till you take delivery. You might consider getting a copy from the dealer or manufacturer, but use caution: these details can change at any time. More than one person has been shocked to discover an unexpected change in mounting requirements upon delivery of the appliance.
Even with the proper installation instructions, it's always nice to look at the actual appliance when considering how it is to be installed. This is more important for a cooktop or built-in oven than, say, a fridge.
Point: Measure, draw, measure, check, check again. Ensure that the installer understands the drawing and the measurements. And don't let down your guard: the job isn't done till everything is installed!
Living In Darkness?
I'm a fan of halogen task lighting, especially suspended flexible track. So that's what I have in the new kitchen over the work areas. Over the dining table, we installed a ceiling box and hung an interesting halogen fixture to spotlight the table area.
I've installed various types of halogen track lighting systems in my kitchens, bedroom, and dressing/sink area, so I was comfortable doing the job in the new kitchen. But the big motivation for doing the job myself was that this is one area where there is some artistry involved. I used flexible monorail track from TechLighting, having used the product for a bedroom wall. I like the appearance and styling, and the curved installation will soften the rectilinear lines of the kitchen. My ceiling is an open-beam one about 11 feet high over the island, so the track will be suspended by cables from above, rather than via short rigid supports. I didn't use pendant fixtures, preferring instead to use small fixtures mounted close to the track to keep things open.
But this installation will take some time to prepare and install, and time is something that I can offer. Since I can spend weekends working on the project, I don't even have to stay out of anyone's way! Besides, most of the installation only needs one person.
There was no room for can lighting in the open-beam ceiling due to its design. Besides, I was concerned that it would be difficult to decide on proper placement of the cans. Do you put 'em over the counter? Over the person standing? What about shadows? How much fluorescent light from a compact fixture when it's 11 feet up? No, I didn't miss having cans.
But, in the effort to do complete research, I looked at shallow halogen cans, both with and without adjustable lamps. We could have gone with those, but they'd be very expensive and require considerable wiring above the ceiling boards.
California Title-24 energy code (see how smart you can sound when you do a little reading?) requires fluorescent general lighting in kitchens and bathrooms. (Technically, the code doesn't specify fluorescent, but its mandated 40-lumens-per-watt of light output can't be achieved by other lamp types, except perhaps LEDs.)
I didn't want fluorescent lights hanging from my open-beam celing, so I went off in search of some fixtures that would be acceptable. (My architect simply drew in the electrical supply for unspecified ceiling fixtures on the plans. These plans would suffice for the county to issue building permits, but I wasn't going to wait till construction to decide how to solve this problem!)
Three things drove my fluorescent fixture selection:
Virtually all fluorescent fixtures will satisfy the mandated light output and power consumption specification.
The building inspector will not be checking whether the fixtures actually put out enough light to cook in the kitchen. After all, he's inspecting during the day, when the windows and skylights will be doing their best to flood the room with natural light. So, aside from verifying that they turn on, he won't really pay much attention to their actual light output. This allowed me to consider smaller fixtures, or at least to not worry about their locations.
Style. I have an open-beam, high-ceiling room with four skylights and lots of window area. Counters and cabinets have simple, square, clean lines. Nothing sticks out to distract the viewer from the predominant feature: the ocean view through the larger corner windows. I want my visitors to walk into the kitchen, see the ocean through the large corner windows, and walk right past everything else, right up to the windows. Only after experiencing that view will the viewer turn around and take in the details of the kitchen. Even the hanging halogen tracks are unobtrusive. Only after you see them do you take note of their whimsical curves.
So where does this leave us? Nothing hanging down into the field of view. The next logical place for fluorescent is atop the upper wall cabinets. But I only have about five feet of these, on one wall of the room. The floor is out, (or is it? hmmm..), so this leaves the walls. The search was on to find attractive, efficient wall-mounted fluorescent fixtures. I finally decided to install Verve II wall-mounted fluorescent fixtures from Focal Point. My original plan was to put 16 feet of them on one wall, but due to the architect's window design we split them up, putting one four-foot fixture on each of the walls. This actually helped to spread the light around. It improved buildability! It wasn't necessary to handle a 16-foot-long fixture (four fixtures attached together in a single line). I was able to hang each of the separate fixtures myself, without getting one or two helpers and extra ladders for them.
Point: Lighting fixtures are an important element of style. Invest your time and energy to choose carefully and express yourself.
In order to learn how to design my kitchen, I read a lot. I'd been an avid reader and contributor to two online forums: ImproveNet and That Home Site. On ImproveNet, I followed several different topics, from bath designs to plumbing, appliances to electrical questions. On THS, it was only the Kitchen and Appliance forums.
Books. Two of my favorites are:
• Joanne Kellar Bouknight, AIA, The Kitchen Idea Book. Taunton Press, Newtown, CT, 1999. ISBN 1-56158-161-5. This large-format book has plenty of great ideas and hundreds of photos of kitchens of all styles. My main complaint is that there's no index of photos. Some kitchens show up in several photos in different places, each highlighting a different design detail. Since I like to see the kitchens from different angles — and therefore view all photos of the same kitchen — I had to pencil-in all the other page numbers on each photo.
• Donald E. Silvers, CKD, The Complete Guide to Kitchen Design With Cooking In Mind. NMI Publishers, Tarzana, CA, 1994. ISBN 0-932767-04-4. While this book by "Dr. Don" Silvers has all the charm of a textbook or computer manual, it's a gold mine of sensible kitchen-design knowledge. Silvers, a former institutional cook, knows how important it is that your kitchen be a good workplace. He's the voice of reason among all the appearance-designers of the world, a great balance. I'm a big fan. Silvers even has a "plan-check" service, where he will critique your design. This service is no doubt cheaper than his full-design service. Even though I'm with four hours of Silvers' workplace, I didn't choose to use his design services. I was vain (or crazy) enough to think that I've learned enough from his book to do the right job myself. I was lucky enough to have done so, but his book was indispensable.
Point: You can never know too much.