Of Renovations New And Old

This is not the first time that the kitchen of Boo Manor has been renovated. It is not even, in fact, the first time that the kitchen of Boo Manor has been renovated by Gene, our designer/contractor/awesome-wood-working guy. The current kitchen was actually his first project on the house. It was also not his last.

Boo Manor, pre-addition. Or renovation. Or any attempt at beautification whatsoever. (Photo Credit: Gene Martin Design)

The owners that built the current addition approached the project in phases. First was the kitchen, back in somewhere in the mid-to-late 1980s. Then came the garage and coach house, which was built in about 1992. The final addition, which added the great room and master bedroom, was constructed in 1996.

The kitchen, however, was an interesting case. The overall structure was itself an addition, although one that goes back to the 1880s. The walls, built in the style of the original house, are substantial. Because it is an addition, however, there was no basement – its foundation is at ground level.

I have already discussed the problems in the current kitchen: it lacks natural light, it has less storage than we would like and doesn’t make full and effective use of the room. Dianne is also not particularly taken with the colour of the cabinets or the countertops. All that makes a pretty strong case for renovating.

That said, there are also some definite positives to the kitchen. For starters, it was built by Gene. And by that, I mean that he physically built the whole thing. By hand. Himself. Gene is a woodworker, and in a previous incarnation of his business also did custom cabinet-making. Every box, every door, every drawer was hand-framed and built by him. And the result, 25 years on, is pretty damned impressive. The doors are all inset into the cabinet frames, and every single door and drawer still closes with precision.

That said, it is a beautifully built set of cabinets for a less-than-optimal room layout. Which means, sadly, replacing them with something else. Although we have been able to make use of a separate free-standing cabinet that Gene also built, which will now be refinished and take pride of place in the dining room as a china cabinet. The island will make its way to the office, where it will be an awesome working space. And the rest of the kitchen has found a new lease on life courtesy of Kijiji.

One of the most interesting thing about how the kitchen was renovated last, however, was its timing. As I have already noted, the kitchen was completed before the new addition was constructed. During the later renovation, the current owners wanted to (very reasonably) keep their new kitchen intact. This was easier said then done, however. Because the kitchen was a later bolt-on to the original structure, and because the addition was designed to integrate fully into the old house, the renovation needed to be done around the old kitchen. And by around, I mean around: beside, above, and below. It was a box that needed to be kept, without being obvious that it was a different box.

Excavations for the new basement. Love the drainspout on the old house; functional AND stylish. (Photo Credit: Gene Martin Design)

That meant a number of logistical challenges had to be addressed. The addition was being built with a new basement, which was excavated around the kitchen, leaving it floating in space above the new foundation. Until the addition was completed, it was wrapped in steel sheets that had previously been the roof of a lean-to garage, in an effort to keep the water out. And throughout the entire renovation, the tenants lived in the house, happily making breakfast mere feet from an open pit.

Watch that last step. It’s a doozy. (Photo Credit: Gene Martin Design)

Gene recently found some pictures from the time of the original excavation for the addition that illustrates exactly what they are dealing with. And impressively, the kitchen didn’t shift an inch through the entire process. It has good bones, this house. Really good bones.

To Ikea or Not to Ikea? That Really Is A Question

So we’re building a kitchen. A very big kitchen. A very big kitchen with lots of cabinets.

Having already built a house once, Dianne and I both know full well that one of the largest expenses in a kitchen is cabinetry. Our previous kitchen was built from custom cabinetry, and the price tag was impressive. So we already had some idea of what we were getting into as we considered taking on a brand new kitchen project, especially one that will now require as much cabinetry as is now being planned.

Many people swear by custom cabinetry, of course. Partly that’s practical: when you are dealing with a design that needs to fit within pre-existing walls, especially walls that are not necessarily completely square, fitting perfectly uniform boxes can be extremely awkward. Custom means that the cabinet will be tailored to fit regardless of the realities of the room. At the same time, some people insist on custom cabinets for the simple reason that they can.

Others will tell you that going the custom cabinetry route is a waste, and that you can get perfectly viable options much more cost effectively. What is considered one of the highest quality options, at a much more affordable price, is Ikea. Yes, that Ikea. The home of flat pack, Swedish meatballs and do-it-yourself hernias.

Ikea – Home of flat-pack, meatballs and do-it-yourself hernias (Photo Credit: North America Retail Architects Inc.)

While frequently snubbed as down-market, many renovators and designers have positive things to say about the quality of Ikea kitchen materials. Extremely positive things. One designer and renovator provides a detailed deconstruction of their kitchen materials, and why he has used them in more than 20 renovations to date. Another designer extols her love of Ikea kitchens, and explains why they are her preferred go to option.

The points they make are significant. The quality of their boxes are good, and often as good as you will get from a semi-custom kitchen manufacturer. Go to an Ikea showroom and open one of their cabinets, and you are faced with extremely solid 5/8″ thick MDF. Their hardware is also (mostly) excellent, and on par with custom installs, right down to soft-close drawers and doors. Their options in terms of drawer and door designs aren’t stellar, but are certainly competent. And if you do it right, and particularly if you install it yourself, you can get the same quality kitchen for as much as half the price. All of which are compelling arguments in favour of Ikea.

Ikea kitchens can indeed be funky, well designed and appealing spaces (Photo Credit: Carol Reed Designs)

So, to Ikea or not to Ikea? That is the question. For us, there are some drawbacks, and they are worth taking into consideration. For starters, the door styles tend towards the more modern. Based upon their catalogue, we thought they had a more traditional bead-board styling, which is what we are looking for, but it turns out to be a high gloss door with two inch strips of laminate positioned closely together to suggest bead-board. In the catalogue, it looked promising; in real life, sadly, it looks cheap. Their drawers have also changed since the two articles above; they are now exclusively plastic frames inside. I have no idea what their wear will be, but I’m enough of a snob to want real wood in my drawers, thank you very much.

We thought Ikea did bead-board. Less bead, more board, and not liking the final result (Photo Credit: Ikea)

The largest argument against, however, has to do with the size of the boxes. They are only sold in standard widths, meaning that if you are running the full length between two walls, there is a very good likelihood of leaving gaps at the end. More importantly, however, the height of all their cabinet boxes are standard, and designed to result in a uniform 36″ cabinet height once a counter is added. For my height, a counter of at least 39″ is a minimum; any shorter, and I can’t work for more than a half-an-hour in the kitchen without massive lower back pain. Meaning that our out-of-the-box Ikea kitchen would need about 35 linear feet of custom footings to raise the standard boxes to an appropriate height. The possible savings quickly start to disappear.

If you are trying to save money on your renovation, and in particular if you are going for a more modern look and feel to your kitchen, Ikea is certainly going to save you some money without sacrificing too much on quality. When it comes time to renovate the kitchen in the condo (and that day is certainly out there somewhere in the future) we full expect that Ikea will be our source of supply. For Boo Manor, however, we’re going the custom route. It will cost us more, certainly, but we get exactly the cabinets we need, at exactly the height we need them at. That is an investment that will quickly pay off.

Let The Renovations Commence!

We have finally taken possession of the house. Which means that the renovation plans can now proceed in earnest. And an hour after picking up the keys to the house, we were well into discussions on what to do and how to do it.

The plotting begins. Meeting at the house with Gene & Seren.

Since our initial meeting with Gene, he had been working on some conceptual options for how we could approach the renovation. In particular, a big question was what to do with the kitchen. Kitchens play a major role in any house. They are its centre, its gathering point, and the place every party migrates to. It is important, then, for the kitchen to be a place that you want to hang out in.

This creates a particular challenge in Boo Manor. The kitchen is truly the centre of the house – it is the dividing line, in fact, between the old house and the new house. Not just a place to wind up, it is in fact a thoroughfare, and one that is quite well travelled. On one side is the formal dining room, a gorgeous wood-panelled room in the original farmhouse. On the other side is the great room, the central living room with open windows, warm hearth and welcoming light. In between these two entertainment spaces, and central to both, is the kitchen.

The current kitchen has a number of problems. For starters, it is dark. It is an addition to the original house, but likely a very early one, and the walls are the same 18-inch-thick masonry featured in the rest of the farmhouse. Two narrow windows are the only source of light, and two doorways carve a path from old to new. The layout of the kitchen does what it can within this space; the cupboards and counter line one corner, and an island is an anchor in the middle of the room. Around the perimeter, however, is dead space. The previous owners had a table in the far corner, and a cabinet on one wall, but the result is a dark room that productively uses only a fraction of the space that is truly available.

Faced with this challenge, Gene came up with some options. The first was simply a refresh of what was there now; the same layout, just more modern and with new appliances. The challenge is that it solves none of the current problems, it merely gives them a new veneer.

Thinking inside the box only gets you so far…

His second option, though, revisited the room from the outside in. To be functional, kitchens need a workable triangle between fridge, stove and sink. The sink is in many ways the anchor, and ideally is below a window, to give you something to look at while otherwise up to your arms in soapsuds. Given that the windows that exist are both narrow and in opposite corners of the kitchen, immediately adjacent to each doorway, they didn’t afford much in the way of an option. Gene’s solution? Let’s move the window.

And so began a design that envisioned a good 10 feet of window, lightening up the room considerably and providing a suitable anchor for the rest of the room. A counter could now line the outside wall, along with fridge, dishwasher and cupboard space. Across the room, more space for pantry, ovens, microwave and appliance storage. An island with cooktop becomes a central focal point for a completely revitalized kitchen that becomes somewhere you want to stop and spend time in, rather than something you want to pass through as quickly as possible on the way to somewhere else.

On the other hand, we could just completely rebuild the box…

The new design solves a number of problems with an otherwise difficult room. It becomes much lighter, makes far better use of space and provides considerably more storage. And all we need to do is carve a brand new window out of a hundred-year-old wall. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it?