Photo by Grant Kessler
Kris Boyaris didn't hesitate for a second when asked what the greatest challenge of the Lake Forest Dream Kitchen was. "Time!" she exclaimed. Not the small space, not the frigid Chicago winter, not even the This Old House crew looking over her shoulder? Boyaris, the design half of the husband-and-wife Lake Forest Landmark Development Company, shrugged it all off — except the schedule.

"We condensed a month of design into a week," she said, a trace of disbelief still in her voice. "We spent one day on cabinets — one meeting! There's usually a lot more back and forth with the homeowner."

That back and forth, she said, had as much to do with building trust as it did with approving designs and choosing products. A remodeling project calls for a blizzard of choices, so it's a good idea to let decisions percolate a bit before calling them final. Clients need to check and double-check that the professionals to whom they've entrusted their home are really on the same page with them. That's a process that takes some time, and time was the one thing this project didn't have.

"Our clients have to trust us, but Heidi [homeowner Heidi Smith] had to develop that trust in a very short time — just a few days," said Boyaris. "That was luck — we clicked. We had similar ideas and a vision of what the end product had to be. We always had that vision in mind, and we stayed very focused."

The mission was as clear as the vision: Create a room for cooking, entertaining, doing homework, bill-paying, and half a dozen other activities demanded by a young family of five. Fill it with an abundance of storage space and modern appliances, with beautiful yet functional flooring, counters, and lighting. Design it so that it seems at home in the Smiths' 1928 Tudor — not slavishly period, but not jarringly modern. Enlarge the space by incorporating an old greenhouse, eliminating in the process a tiny powder room that separated the greenhouse from the existing kitchen. Find room elsewhere on the main floor for a powder room. Create a mud room where 5-year-old triplets could shed outdoor gear on their way in.

And do it all in 12 weeks. On television, as the featured project of the best-known home improvement show around.

"Before we even started I spent two hours on the phone with Bruce [This Old House senior producer Bruce Irving] to see if we could really do the work on that timetable," said Boyaris. "Don't forget it was winter, a terrible winter at that, and within those twelve weeks we had three holidays!"

"Knowing that we'd need to jump — and jump fast — after the winner was chosen on the Today show, I'd checked in with a few contractors in each of the finalists' towns, just to gauge their availability and interest level," recalled Irving. "Kris was cool as a cucumber, in the best possible way. She immediately wanted to know about schedule and materials. She was so focused on the correct execution of the project that, afterwards, I wasn't really sure if she was even excited. Six minutes after the Smiths were announced as winners, I had her on the phone. 'Told you I might call again.' This time, after I heard the phone thud, I knew she was psyched."

Like many top-notch architects and contractors, Lake Forest Landmark Development Company is always busy — so much so that they'd already had to turn down Mike and Heidi's project. Boyaris and architect husband John Krasnodebski had talked with the Smiths several times, but they simply didn't have room in their schedule to take on the project. But in November, when the Smiths learned that their project was to be the Dream Kitchen, Lake Forest Landmark Development was on board.

As Bruce Irving had predicted, the project began so fast that everyone involved with it had to hit the ground running.

"The foundation under the old greenhouse was key," said Boyaris. "It was a huge break that it was able to support the construction. It was the first thing we did — the first day of the project we went out and dug a hole to check the foundation. We just couldn't have made the timetable otherwise. There's just no way we could have poured a new foundation, in the winter — in this winter — on that schedule."

"Every so often," said Irving, "we get a lucky break."

Next was the matter of designing a layout. At less than 150 square feet, the existing kitchen was fairly modest in size for all the roles it needed to play. Incorporating the greenhouse doubled the amount of space overall, but the workspace was still limited to a narrow galley.

"You have to be extremely efficient with a small kitchen," said Boyaris. "In a bigger kitchen you'd start with design first, but in a small space you need to start with storage requirements. And with a small kitchen it's really important to design an efficient work triangle."

Since storage would be critical to the design, the Smiths had to choose cabinets carefully — and quickly. Cabinets take several weeks to build, so selecting a style and deciding what would go where were some of the earliest decisions Heidi and Mike had to make. Boyaris credited kitchen designer Eileen Thurnauer for her quick work; Thurnauer got the floor plans from Boyaris and did the elevation drawings in record time. With placement and style approved, the order for painted wood cabinets was placed.

The rest of the design flowed from there: All the subsequent colors, textures, and designs had to work with that one early decision that could not be undone. The Smiths and Lake Forest Landmark Development forged ahead. Then they hit the wall.

The brick wall. The one in the former greenhouse, soon to be breakfast room. The exterior wall, with the family on one side and a bitter winter on the other.

"We were concerned about it when we heard they were thinking of leaving it exposed," said Irving. "Norm immediately pointed out the amount of cold air that would flow off such a surface. We knew they liked the look, but some of us thought they'd be happier insulating it and drywalling over it."

"It was all about the esthetics," said Boyaris. "The brick tells a story about what the room was. It adds texture, and it's perfect for giving you that feeling of being in both an inside and an outside space. And it drove a lot of decisions on design — the fabrics, the colors. Frankly, by the time This Old House suggested covering it over it was too late. It had inspired too much of the design already."

"And every so often," said Irving with a smile, "we lose the argument."

Another area where the show and the home team diverged was the new powder room. "We came up with a list of ways for Mike and Heidi to narrow the gap between their budget and the projected construction cost," said Irving. "Making the existing first-floor bathroom do double duty as both a powder room for visitors and a bathroom for overnight guests was one of the bigger savers we could think of."

"It was a clever idea that Steve and Norm had," Boyaris admitted. "But a separate powder room allowed us to leave the guest quarters private. And I just knew we could get it in there! It's very small, but it's beautiful. For the pocket door we reused an existing door from the bedroom and replaced that with a French door. So the powder room looks like it's always been there."

Boyaris came back to the question of trust again and again: between her firm and the Smiths, between This Old House and the Smiths, and between her firm and This Old House. "There's a lot of psychology in this business," she said. "You're in the middle of everything, and you really need a team you can trust. Clients need us to kind of hold their hand through all the decisions. We're calm, we know what has to be ordered early and what can wait, and we help manage the bombardment of decisions."

"Bombardment? What bombardment? " laughed Irving. "Just another mellow This Old House job. Thank goodness everyone was so cool under fire."

Ask TOH users about Small Kitchens

Contribute to This Story Below