This Old House TV: Manchester house project
To say the least, designing a new kitchen for your home isn't always easy. Among other things, you have to weigh what you want against what you need, and weigh it all against what you can afford both in terms of time and cost. These can often be painful choices to make. In many cases, hiring a custom kitchen design contractor will prove a tremendous help in driving and expediting the process. And whereas most do-it-yourself renovation retailers offer limited services, a custom designer will have the expertise and experience to provide you with a complete design package for your kitchen.

On my initial visit to the McCues' house in Manchester, I could see that it had gone through a number of renovations over the years, not all for the better. The kitchen was still too small. And stuck at the far end of the east wing, it was disconnected from the rest of the house. Without moving the kitchen entirely, it would never really be able to fulfill its role as the heart and soul of the modern family home. It was clear something major had to be done.

In collaborating with David and Janet and their architect, the goal then was to design a new and improved kitchen, located in a more central spot in the house — all in order to better meet the lifestyle needs of the McCues' modern family of four.

Planning: The Power of 10
I like to say that good up-front planning is the power of 10. By that I mean, if it costs a dollar to plan your kitchen well on the drawing, it will cost $10 to fix it in the shop if you don't — and it will cost $100 to fix your kitchen if you don't make the changes until you're on the job site. This is a good mantra to keep in mind when embarking on virtually any kitchen project.

We began the process on the Manchester project in early June by having a meeting with the homeowners. Architect Stephen Holt had come up with a space plan, anchoring the kitchen in the center of the house, and somehow we had to fit everything that the McCues wanted into it. After several meetings with them and with Stephen, taking them to projects in the area my company had done before — and a half dozen different floor plans later — we finally hit on a plan that we could further refine, which we definitely did. In the end, even the new location itself was revised a little.

Homework: Wants vs. Needs
Throughout the process, it is also important as a homeowner to be cognizant of those things you need and those you want, and the difference between the two. Fortunately for us as kitchen designers, the McCues are educated consumers. They had done five other renovations before and had a definite idea of what they liked and disliked about their former kitchens.

Both of them being rather tall, for instance, David and Janet requested higher-than-standard counters. They paid special attention to how they lived in their kitchens, what worked and what didn't. They listed all the meals and functions for their kitchen, as well as what activities were encompassed in each. How they unloaded the dishwasher, how they served dinner and how they entertained, just to name a few. They actually had four pages worth of notes to capture all their ideas — certainly more homework than most clients give us to start with.

An Open Mind: No Absolutes
In all, we produced six different kitchen floor plans, and although this may seem excessive, it is important to realize all the competing interests that need to be brought into the plan. There are the owners' needs, the architect's concept, and the physical limitations of the space. And there are always the challenges of fitting in the desired appliances. All of these things must be balanced delicately in order to achieve a plan that all will be satisfied with. It's therefore important to realize that there are no absolutes in kitchen design. Staying open-minded to new ideas is essential.

The McCues had definite ideas as to how their kitchen should function, but still left themselves open to other ideas for making their kitchen better. If they felt strongly enough on a certain detail, we would discuss their reasons and ours, then make a decision. For example, David and Janet wanted to be able to face their guests in the kitchen both during cooking and cleaning up, without any visual obstructions. This meant utilizing a downdraft vent for the cook-top on the outer island, and moving the main sink from the rear of the kitchen and putting it on the backside of the center prep island. Although these solutions wouldn't ordinarily be the best choices for a kitchen, they did turn out to be the best choices for this particular kitchen.

The Final Mock-up
Once we had a plan, we went through the exercise of mocking up the space to full size. Using the plan, Tom Silva took a couple of hours to set up some tables and hang plywood from the walls to rough in the counters and cabinets. This gave the McCues a better sense of the space, and actually gave rise to a few additional revisions, including shortening the cooking island. This final plan is also essential for locating all the information the general contractor will need to be aware of to proceed, such as electrical locations and requirements for the appliances, as well as plumbing locations and structural implications. It was also around this time in the process that the McCues had decided on materials they wanted to use for their kitchen, including mahogany and honed granite for the countertops. A good kitchen design will take all these things into consideration. Of course, in the "real world" outside of This Old House a homeowner won't typically have Tom Silva to do a full kitchen mock-up for them. Tom says the mock-up he did for the McCues represented about $250 worth of work. But Tom emphasizes there are a number of easy and inexpensive ways to do the same thing yourself, including tacking up bed sheets and positioning other ordinary household items, such as chairs —anything to give you a concrete sense of the flow and layout of your new kitchen. People often think you can visualize the way the new space will be based on the design drawings, but drawings simply cannot substitute for the value of actually roughing in the elements of the room. Obviously, the more complex your renovation, the more complicated a job it is to make a full mock-up. But considering how quickly you can run through $20,000 and upwards redoing a kitchen, even if you do spend a couple of hundred dollars having your contractor build a mock-up, you'll be making sure you've got it right, and that is definitely an excellent investment.

Hard Work but Worth It
When all is said and done, the McCues will have the kitchen they always dreamed of. It will exude the warmth and simplicity of the period of the house, as well as offer a host of modern conveniences. What's more, This Old House viewers will get a glimpse of all the work that goes into designing a kitchen before a single piece is cut.

For your own kitchen project, the key lessons to remember are 1) Make sure you've done your homework ahead of time, determining and separating your wants and your needs; and 2) Keep your mind open to new ideas that may present themselves during the all-important planning stage.

Collaborating on such a big renovation can be an arduous process for everyone — the homeowners especially — but it will all be worth it when you settle in to your great new kitchen.

Ted Goodnow is president of Woodmeister Corporation, the kitchen design contractor for the Manchester project.
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