New Kitchen Plans

We regularly demolish and create new kitchens as part of our design-build practice, and the majority of them have outlived their usefulness by several years or even several decades. Typical complaints include expired appliances, limited storage, outdated styles, damaged cabinetry, and difficult layouts.

Even kitchens built in the last 15-20 years suffer from a variety of drawbacks, and a fair number of common problems can be traced to the kitchen plans. In the example below, we’ll point out some of the limitations we found in a 20 year old kitchen and our planning process as we worked to improve it.

The completed kitchen with custom cabinetry, new appliances, and an extended footprint. One benefit of good quality cabinetry is that it is easier to repair or refinish than cabinetry made with cheaper materials.

The twenty year old kitchen we replaced. Illuminating the ceiling with lights mounted on top of the wall cabinets was one of several curiosities in this kitchen. A 3” tall backsplash is not as useful as a full height backsplash and creates an artificial break under the wall cabinets. Mediocre quality cabinets do not allow for easy repairs or refinishing. Also, mixing yellow wall paint and multiple brown tones in the same space is likely to create a muddy visual best avoided in the kitchen.

A side-by-side view of the new and old kitchens helps illustrate some of the thinking that goes into a new kitchen plan. We started with the main drawbacks of the existing kitchen to set priorities:

  1. The footprint of the old kitchen was limited by two redundant entryways to the right of the peninsula. This meant that the main workspace area near the ovens, sink, dishwasher, microwave, and cooktop was only large enough for one person to work comfortably. By eliminating one of the two entryways, we gained an extra 28” of valuable wall and floor space to enlarge the work area and peninsula without sacrificing the flow to the adjacent dining room.

  2. The location of the appliances led to obstructions, little prep space, and “appliance overload.” The refrigerator and freezer doors would open frequently to block the main passage to the kitchen, and the area next to the refrigerator was a dumping ground for miscellaneous items because it was too far from the major appliances to be useful prep space. Clustering the ovens, cooktop, microwave, dishwasher and sink to led an imbalanced kitchen that was overweighted on one side. By moving the refrigerator and relocating the cooktop and oven to the opposite wall, we created a more balanced kitchen, removed an obstacle to the main passage, and created more useful prep space.

  3. The peninsula was not deep enough to provide practical seating for casual meals. Adding depth was easy once we extended the length of the kitchen by eliminating one of the two passageways to the dining room.

  4. The number of upper cabinets is worth reviewing in any kitchen re-design. We frequently see efforts to install as many as possible, and this leads to an unnecessary massing of wall cabinetry that adds visual bulk as well as cost to the kitchen budget. Importantly, we believe a kitchen should have well-designed storage which tends to alleviate cabinetry bloat. Think good storage vs. more storage. Wall cabinets are naturally too high for easy access beyond the first or second shelf. We eliminated some wall cabinets and emphasized the storage capacity of the base cabinets, including a pantry with rollout shelves for easy access.

A view of the Berlin honed quartzite countertops and cooktop placement. One key is a hood vent that provides sufficient air movement and exhaust to the exterior of the house. A microwave over the cooking surface is not adequate ventilation for much more than making mac-n-cheese. Quartzite is a durable material for kitchen counters, and Berlin features a charcoal grey color with subtle white veining.

Introducing one bank of open shelving helps limit the visual mass while also providing the owner easy access to everyday dishes.

A view of the cooktop wall. Drawers are preferable to doors in this location for convenient access to pots, pans, and cooking utensils. Although there was enough space for one more wall cabinet on either side of the hood vent, it would have added visual clutter without adding much usable storage.

A good kitchen plan is a highly important part of a kitchen renovation because it accommodates different budgets, multiple styles and family sizes, and it gives the owners the best chance of success in accomplishing their goals. Time spent planning is incredibly valuable. We thank these busy professionals for dedicating the time to work on the plan during evenings and weekends with us, and we hope they enjoy their new kitchen every day!

Shiny New Homes

Three years ago, we summarized the downside of old homes, including poor energy performance, small kitchens, wet basements, outdated mechanical systems, and more. A lucky minority of buyers will find a gem with only a handful of problems to solve.

The majority of old home buyers will face a big undertaking. They will encounter enough flaws to challenge the real estate maxim that prizes location above all else. They might turn a blind eye to the prospect of a major renovation. Or they might take the plunge. The effort, time, and money spent modernizing these old homes can cause a legit freakout, as my daughter would say, no matter how desirable the neighborhood.

A renovation of a 1926 colonial in which we excavated the basement, added a kitchen and mudroom above it, and built a second-story laundry room with a third floor dormer to accommodate the new stairs to the attic. This is a typical renovation plan to remake an old home so that it “lives new” without tearing it down.

A renovation of a 1926 colonial in which we excavated the basement, added a kitchen and mudroom above it, and built a second-story laundry room with a third floor dormer to accommodate the new stairs to the attic. This is a typical renovation plan to remake an old home so that it “lives new” without tearing it down.

Kate Wagner dissects the “we don’t build ‘em like we used to” claim about old homes in a piece about the evolution of home-building, and if you don’t have time to read it, here’s her key message:

We don’t build houses like we used to because many people no longer need or want exactly the kinds of houses we used to have.

So what kind of houses are being built now in the North suburbs of Chicago? In the new construction market under $2 million, the inventory reflects many of the things people want or need from their homes today. Here are three common elements we see in these shiny new homes:

  1. Jumbo sizes. The typical new construction home is about 4,000-6,000 square feet, or about twice as big or more than average-sized homes fifty years ago. Zoning codes passed years ago, in part to prevent disproportionately large homes from being erected on modest lots, have the perverse effect of ensuring that every new home is as large as allowed by the municipality. Few buyers actually need 5,000 square feet, but many tend to be impressed by generous dimensions, finished basements, numerous closets, guest rooms and movie theaters, etc. Builders have little incentive to build smaller homes because they are competing partly on the basis of square feet, labor costs are high, and the land value is steep. Lenders encourage this practice because underwriting comps are significantly driven by square feet. In general, all of the incentives in the new construction market point towards big homes, whether you need one or not.

  2. Modern materials and systems. New construction invariably features wood flooring, a high-end kitchen, and ensuite bathrooms on the second floor, among other enticing things you can touch and see. The stuff behind the walls is even more important. The codes governing electrical, plumbing, and energy usage have changed significantly in the last dozen or so years. New plumbing, electrical, and insulation is a significant upgrade over older homes because it makes the living environment more comfortable, safer, and less costly to maintain than its predecessors. In fact, we think this is the primary virtue of new construction.

  3. Uniformity. It’s no secret that new construction builders are erecting homes that they think will appeal to a broad audience of potential buyers. This means that builders are often monitoring new home sales activity, re-using construction plans, drawing from a familiar body of Houzz and HGTV content, and “going with what works” based on their own experience. The result is that the new construction inventory looks very similar even when multiple builders are active in the same suburb. Consider these two new homes, for example, only a few blocks apart.

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Notice how the exteriors of these new homes are intended to remind us of older homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. Double hung windows, imitation cedar shingles, a covered porch, and other pieces of the whole evoke a sense of history and place that feels vaguely familiar. It is intended to create the illusion of “old” using new materials and mashing together multiple styles from common sets of construction plans, almost all of them selling for between $1.2-1.8 million depending on the suburb (we usually see architect-driven and luxury custom homes above the $2 million level).

Each exterior element is a fragment of a picture that never existed as a whole, but the builders know it will stir a memory or resonate as something you have seen before. Multiple roof lines and a nestled gable roof is important to lots of buyers? Step right up, replies the builder. It might have little or no basis in traditional home-building, but builders know how powerful your imagination is.

North suburban home buyers are often confronting two realities then. Either purchase an old home that likely requires a significant investment depending on what they want and how it was maintained by previous owners—or pay a premium for new construction. The middle road between these options is surprisingly narrow.

We hope this overview helps answer some of the questions we receive about old vs. new homes, their respective advantages and drawbacks, and why the housing market in the North suburbs looks like it does. Thanks for the inquiries, and good luck to all in their house hunting!

Kitchen Series, 3 of 3

We demolished and rebuilt a small rectangular kitchen in our last installment of the Kitchen Series. Today we have a 1956 galley kitchen that stretches the rectangle—but it is even more narrow than the 1943 version in Kitchen Series, 2 of 3. The evolution of kitchens across the decades shows many developments. Much of the functionality remains the same, but the materials and the idea of the kitchen has undergone major changes.

The new kitchen with sleek grey and white semi-custom cabinets, hardwood floors, and high-end appliances.

The new kitchen with sleek grey and white semi-custom cabinets, hardwood floors, and high-end appliances.

Advice from Mom: if you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. A tall ceiling and adjacent natural light were the best features of this kitchen before we started.

Advice from Mom: if you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. A tall ceiling and adjacent natural light were the best features of this kitchen before we started.

Typical galley kitchens are out of favor because they are often outdated and too cramped for entertaining. Open kitchen plans are more popular than ever. However, any kitchen footprint can work well if other requirements are met—including galley kitchens. One valuable guideline is to avoid overwhelming the space with materials. Focus on the essentials and apply the editor’s maxim: have “the guts to cut” anything unnecessary. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner, in small kitchen design.

A view of the Wolf dual-fuel range and backsplash to the ceiling with undulated tile. No upper cabinets clutter the space. Generous organized storage under the counter was sufficient for these clients.

A view of the Wolf dual-fuel range and backsplash to the ceiling with undulated tile. No upper cabinets clutter the space. Generous organized storage under the counter was sufficient for these clients.

These clients subscribe to the “less is more” approach to kitchen design, and we agree. Numerous kitchens suffer from too many ornamental details (intricate cabinet doors, for example, to create the illusion of something “historic” or fancy) or over-styled finishes (hand-painted Italianate tile was popular at one time). Excess competes for your attention and ages quickly, too. Simplicity is not the same as plain.

Wolf drawer microwave under white quartz countertops, Franke water filter, and Sub-Zero refrigerator shown above.

Wolf drawer microwave under white quartz countertops, Franke water filter, and Sub-Zero refrigerator shown above.

This kitchen reminds us of the contemporary master bathroom we completed with the emphasis on uncluttered design, high-quality materials, and our focus on the short list of essentials for our clients. Do you know that feeling when you (pardon the expression) hit the nail on the head at work? We did here. It was a pleasure working with these clients, and it means a lot to us that they are thrilled with their new kitchen.


Kitchen Series, 2 of 3

We’ve defrosted after the bitterly cold temperatures, and we’re returning to kitchens we recently completed. You can catch up on part 1 of the series which included a mid-sized new kitchen as part of a two-story addition in Wilmette.

Now we find a smaller footprint in a Highland Park home. Our working dimensions are 9 x 15 feet. There is no good ability to expand without a costly addition to the house. Below is a picture of the renovated kitchen, followed by the “before” pictures.

The new kitchen features Thermador appliances , a multi-function sink, and honed granite countertops.

The new kitchen features Thermador appliances , a multi-function sink, and honed granite countertops.

A prep sink does not fit in a compact kitchen, and a double-bowl sink is not as efficient as a single-bowl option. The client opted for a Julien Smartstation with included accessories (integrated cutting board, colander, and drying rack) for greater utility.

The original kitchen was poorly designed with an “L” shape peninsula stub to hold the dishwasher.

The original kitchen was poorly designed with an “L” shape peninsula stub to hold the dishwasher.

The original kitchen had tile flooring, basic appliances and cabinetry, and soffits that reduced the ceiling height for no obvious reason. One major design penalty arises from attempting to fit a peninsula or island in dimensions that do not support it. The owner ends up with a passage that is too tight for seating, and impractical storage or dead space are the result. Useful kitchen space is a top priority in general, and even more so in a compact footprint—rather than forcing a peninsula or island into a small kitchen design, it’s better to maximize the useful prep space and storage by eliminating one window in this example.

Another view of the offending peninsula stub. We replaced the tile floor in the kitchen for red oak to match the rest of the flooring.

Another view of the offending peninsula stub. We replaced the tile floor in the kitchen for red oak to match the rest of the flooring.

The original cooking appliances opposite the sink wall. One disadvantage of stock cabinetry is that it can lead to odd configurations if the wall dimensions are not a good fit for the stock cabinetry dimensions.

The original cooking appliances opposite the sink wall. One disadvantage of stock cabinetry is that it can lead to odd configurations if the wall dimensions are not a good fit for the stock cabinetry dimensions.

Semi-custom or custom cabinetry is a good choice for many kitchens.It allowed us to center the range on the wall and add valuable storage and prep space on both sides.

Semi-custom or custom cabinetry is a good choice for many kitchens.It allowed us to center the range on the wall and add valuable storage and prep space on both sides.

A counter-depth refrigerator is preferable despite the additional cost, especially in a small kitchen.

A counter-depth refrigerator is preferable despite the additional cost, especially in a small kitchen.

Like many of our clients, this homeowner has a full schedule with little time to spare for renovation plans. She was prepared to make a significant change to her home, and we are glad she entrusted us with this project—from initial consultation to completion. It’s satisfying to see a good plan come to fruition. We hope she enjoys her kitchen for many years!


Remodeling and Home Design