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.

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?