Whether you're designing a brand new kitchen or renovating what you have, be flexible.
In more than 20 years of doing This Old House, we've worked on a whole range of kitchens, from small ones in which space and budget were tight, to grand dream kitchens. In each project we've tried to learn new things about materials, products, installation and building procedures, layouts and aesthetic considerations. In working with a succession of homeowners, each with his or her own agendas and goals, we've learned to have a flexible attitude toward this most important room of the house.
There is No Perfect Kitchen
The biggest challenge we've faced is finding the solution that fits the house, the budget and the homeowners' way of living. There is no one best counter material, no best flooring, no one best kind of cabinetry or appliance. The diverse way in which we all use our kitchens, and the amount of space and money we can allocate to them, make it impossible to cast a set of rules for creating the ultimate kitchen. What's best is the kitchen that works for you. In remodeling an old kitchen or designing a new one, you have an opportunity to accommodate your family's way of doing things.
My first word of advice is: Step back from the warm images of your future kitchen now swirling in your head and be coldly realistic about what you want your renovation to achieve. The first question to ask yourself is how long you plan to stay in your house. Answer realistically, because it is your first major decision. If your answer is three years or less, do the minimum in your kitchen. While a poor kitchen is often the biggest negative to prospective homebuyers, you can only realistically hope to recover 80 to 90 percent of the cost of a full renovation. So defer that dream kitchen until you're settled somewhere else, and make do for the time being with new paint or wallpaper, lighting, a refinished floor or new appliances-small changes that can have a big impact.
Take Time for Design
The design phase of a successful kitchen takes at least as long as the construction phase. This adds to the cost, but paying a design professional to help you develop and build the right design for your house and family is far cheaper than building the wrong kitchen. Paper and pencils are cheap; cabinets, plaster and plumbing are dear. However, there are three exercises that I do even before I call an architect or designer. The first is simply critiquing your existing kitchen. Try to identify what bothers you about the room and what, if anything, you could do to change it. Often I have found that what bothers me is not one major flaw, but many small things that cumulatively ruin the feeling or the function of the room. You might wonder why you should bother with this exercise if you're already sure you will renovate the kitchen. But you can only know if your new design will work if you can pinpoint why your current design doesn't.
To Cook, Perchance to Dream
Once I've determined what's wrong with my kitchen, I jump to the other extreme and visualize what I would do if I could do anything, cost no object. The point here is to find out what you most love. Dream big now; you can always scale back later. You may find that you can have your dream kitchen, but phased in over several years. Whatever it takes to organize the space for a sound design that will last-knocking down walls, putting on an addition, rearranging doors and windows-is money well spent. People tend to think that major restructuring of space is prohibitively expensive but it might not be, depending on your house's structure. The lion's share of kitchen renovation cost is the finishes: cabinets, floors, lighting, appliances and the labor to install them.
To feed your dreams, page through design magazines and books and visit (or, better yet, cook in) other kitchens. Talk to people about what they did right and what they would change. Browse kitchen showrooms to see what kinds of cabinets, faucets, appliances and special features you might want in your kitchen. The whole point of this phase is to gather ideas so that you can make the best use of your time with an architect or designer.
Next, make a wish list of features you'd like to have in your new kitchen. You might want a kitchen with a comfortable place for guests to sit and talk while you're preparing dinner. Or your list might be very specific, down to the type of flooring or the features of the range. Think about the style of kitchen you want and how you plan to use that kitchen. How many members of your family cook? What non-cooking activities, such as homework or bill paying, take place in the kitchen? When compiled and prioritized, this kind of information will help you see more clearly what you want your kitchen project to accomplish.
At this point you can start conceptualizing the design yourself, before consulting an architect or designer. Get some graph paper and, using a scale of 6 inches to the square, draw the outline of the kitchen. Pencil in walls, doors and windows in their current locations. Cut out pieces of paper or cardboard to scale to represent the refrigerator, sink and cook top, and begin arranging them into a work triangle that meets your needs. Locate the rest of the major kitchen elements-counters, cabinets, tables, islands and whatever else you think your kitchen should have. Then place a sheet of tracing paper over the graph and draw the floor plan in bold lines so that you can see it. (You might also try this using kitchen design software.)
Most likely, as you work on this floor plan you'll start to see alternatives. Draw each variation on tracing paper and number them. To help free up your thinking, try developing a radically different floor plan, and explore its variations as you did with your initial floor plan. Frequent This Old House architect Jock Gifford habitually draws three or four plans, the first being the most conservative and the last being the most daring.
At This Old House we would not consider doing a renovation without an architect or design professional whose work we know and trust. We like the fact that architects work directly for the client, either for a flat fee or at an hourly rate, and earn no commissions by selling particular products. This gives architects the freedom to recommend whatever they think best suits the project's needs. You can bring them the design you've worked out yourself, or rely on them to come up with the ideas.
Finding the right architect or designer is a bit like finding the right barber or psychiatrist. The one that's right for you is the one that's right for you. Peruse books and periodicals for designs that catch your eye. Architects who are just beginning to win recognition are not necessarily more expensive than those who are little known. But the best method is word of mouth. Ask friends, business associates and neighbors who have recently undergone kitchen renovations.
Kitchen design stores, cabinet shops, contractors and carpenters can also be good people to talk to during the design phase of your project. But be sure to get only the information they're best able to provide. A carpenter is an excellent person to ask about construction possibilities such as removing bearing walls, but may not be the person to ask about the actual kitchen layout. A contractor can organize the job and quote a price, but for designing the room you are better off with an architect.
Successful renovations are inspired by limitations?of budget, space, design and construction timetables. These constraints inspire the architect, contractor and client to focus on the essentials and disregard the superfluous. Good design is also the best way to control renovation costs up front. I've seen basic, cost-effective materials turned into wonderful kitchens through elegant, inspired design.