Welcome to this month’s edition of Dear Urbaneer, where I share my advice to clients seeking counsel on their housing issues, design dilemmas, and real estate endeavours. This month, I'm fielding questions from clients interested in replacing their dated eat-in condo kitchen without over-improving it, as well as whether it's ok to sacrifice the breakfast table for a penninsula that can double as a breakfast bar. In addition to sharing my opinion on kitchen renos and pennisulas, I've expanded my response to include my favourite tips and tricks to elevate my own kitchen transformations.
The kitchen is indeed the heart of our home, and we've heard that kitchen improvements are renovation dollars well spent, in terms of preserving or growing our home's value. We are thinking of renovating the galley kitchen in our condo, including putting in a peninsula with bar stools in lieu of a breakfast table. Is this a sensible decision, and will we get our investment back on resale?
Wishing to Reap Renovation Rewards
Here's my reply:
1) As the shelter industry has increasingly become party to fashion and trends, the longevity of a kitchen is decreasing. Today a kitchen lasts about 10 years max before being ridiculed as 'dated'. This means if you're hoping to garner top dollar when it comes time to sell, it's critical that your kitchen remain appealing. Given that it's such an important status marker of domesticity, for those who are paying attention to a return on investment over personal pleasure, your kitchen should be seven years old or newer when selling your property. For example, if you're planning on selling in ten years the new kitchen you're about to install may already be due for an upgrade depending on your choice of fixtures and fittings.
2) Given the objective of the media is to seduce consumers to want all the latest household contents and fads - constantly promoted in shelter magazines, on-line blogs, and the 24 hour loop of HGTV - it's easy to spend too much on a kitchen relative to your property's potential resale value. Of course, there's nothing wrong if you're indulging your self or someone you love, but if your objective is to provide yourself both a better quality of domesticity while ensuring a return on your investment, it's critical you exercise financial prudence while making intelligent upgrades. The kitchen in the photo above, located in my Movie House Loft, did not represent the wise investment. It was both the most expensive kitchen I had ever created, and it was installed in one of the smallest properties I have ever owned. This culinary confection - part of a comprehensive renovation of a 1000 square foot 3-level loft in a vintage conversion in Toronto's Little Italy - where I replaced every surface of the existing 18 year old builder grade finishes and fittings with custom new everything was undertaken more out of a personal dream to design a bespoke jewel box of domestic bliss than with the objective to profit. This commitment to luxury was present throughout the loft, but was particularly apparent in the tailored kitchen,which featured integrated appliances, an exacting attention to detail, including smooth satin-finished quarter-sawn white oak cabinets stained to look like weathered barn board layered in shades of brown, blue and silver. Sleek yet understated, its clean lines hid storage galore. For example, in the photo above the floor to ceiling cabinets to the right (one of a pair is shown) had hanging space for 20 coats, 6 shoe drawers, plus a pantry and a media centre containing a larger colour printer. Behind the paneled cabinets above the wine fridge is a custom mirrored built-in bar, additional storage above for serving platters and massive bowls, while the drawers to the right of the wine fridge stored entertainment wares, with the top one pulling out as a serving tray for cocktails. By keeping the surfaces free of pull handles, uniformed, and duo-toned, this 11x11 foot space looked sensational and refined (especially with the unexpected thick multi crayon coloured carpet!). The price tag for this kitchen was CDN$60,000 and - truth be told - when in my carelessness I chipped the custom corner cabinet with a frying pan the first week the renovation was complete, from that day forward I would only use the two (of five) burners farthest from the millwork to mitigate the risk I would bash it again. For the rest of my ownership I lived in fear I would scratch or damage the place, because nothing could be easily replicated or repaired. It was with the transformation of this loft that I discovered one can be held hostage to maintaining the high standard which accompanies exacting design executed flawlessly. In my quest to being 'on trend' and fashionable, I swayed from my previous commitment to ensure utility, practicality and efficiency. For example, after falling prey to the visual allure of perfect ebony-stained wood floors - and the subtle 'haus couture' status marker which accompanied it for about 48 months before the pendulum swung to bleached oak - for the following four years after completion until the day I moved out, my life required a daily ten minute commitment to running a Swiffer across the entire entertainment level. Why? Because dark floors show every speck of dust. In my folly to live mise en scene I put aesthetics and materiality over function and utility. The result meant less time living and more time maintaining, which is the ultimate design fail. So while this transformation allowed me to indulge in a no-expense spared exercise in personal design expression while manifesting my dream of living a 'boutique hotel' lifestyle - see the video here - the real gift of this endeavour was learning I am happiest in the spaces I've designed which require minimal maintenance and will weather unapologetically.
The materials I favour for entertainment spaces - which you can see in these photos - include natural stone floors (you sweep them after a dinner party for 16 and they look fine), original barn plank floors (the planks are installed already distressed from age, so any future damage becomes part of its patina), and vinyl 'natural wood plank' floors (they don't scratch or mark, the faux wood grain masks dirt, meaning your guests don't have to take off their shoes when they arrive, and any muddy footprints get removed by mopping). I also love butcher block counters (you can sand them periodically to remove marks), caesarstone counters (impenetrable), and stainless steel counters (as they scratch they develop their own patina while demonstrating your love for cooking). I also favour open shelving (your dishes and glassware are in sight, easy to access, and effortless to organize, and they're less likely to get damaged than cabinets with doors), incorporating vintage furniture and finds (the 'unfitted kitchen' approach offers greater flexibility, because you can change or switch out pieces over time as your style evolves, and it's frequently more economical because you require fewer kitchen cabinets), and I sometimes forgo backsplashes in their entirety (a quality semi-gloss paint is budget friendly and easy to wash, whether its on drywall or beadboard) or I install super affordable pieces of stainless steel glue-backed laminate in high use areas.
Generally speaking, the best way to ensure longevity of a kitchen is to use hard-wearing materials that complement a classic contemporary aesthetic. Try bridge traditional and modern kitchen components so that it has broader cross appeal to lover of many styles. For example, flat panel and shaker doors in a neutral colour tend to stand the test of time - keeping in mind they can also be painted or switched out for new doors at a later date too if necessary for a reasonable cost. If your dwelling is older with original details, consider adding vintage cues in your kitchen which will help relate it with your dwelling's overall style and extend its life span. Incidentally, when it comes to choosing lower cabinets, I opt for units which have 3 drawers rather than cupboard doors with shelves inside, as I find one has to bend less to open and it's easier to retrieve items at the back. You can see this in the photo above and below.
3) If your objective is to be economical, buy stock lower cabinets from big box stores and dress them with nice handles, like in my Swell Dwell kitchen above. I prefer the look and easyness of open shelving and I frequently upcycle furniture into a kitchen (like I did with the mid-century shelving in my kitchen above) but it's also a way to keep costs down. And I've embraced the trend in painting lower cabinets a different colour than the uppers duo-tone - which I don't consider 'too trendy' - but a simple way to keep a kitchen visually-interesting without signficant cost, as you can see below. Here's a lesson in being clever while using Ikea cabinets --> I See Ya, Ikea
4) I'll admit, I like a waterfall counter - which is when the countertops wrap the lower cabinets on both the top and the sides - especially in an open concept living space as it gives the ktichen a more custom 'built-in' look. I've used butcherblock (in the photos below), marble and quartz caesarstone for waterfall counters. When I select caesarstone I typically choose one with a fleck or a vein, rather than a more uniform top, as they hide crumbs and stains better. If my kitchen is self-contained - like in my kitchen in the Captain's Quarters in The Black House in PEI, I will forgo the waterfall and keep it more traditional, often using subway tile or penny tile for a vintage nod. If my kitchen is it's own self-contained room I like to incorporate pantries, cafe tables and really infuse a 'kitchen spirit' like hanging dishes on the wall and installing a chalk board.
5) One of my tricks to maximize space is that I move my standard 24" deep cabinets a few inches forward from the wall. This makes rerouting plumbing (like when installing plumbing to add a dishwasher to an older kitchen) easier, and it also allows for extra deeper counters. In my Button Factory Loft kitchen I had the stainless steel counter bent to include a raised ledge which allowed me to put seasonings behind the cook top within easy reach, and install electrical outlets in the countertop rather than wall outlets for a cleaner line. By the way, stainless steel is an amazing counter surface as it looks more beautiful as it gets scratched, developing its own patina and becoming a testament to a cook's love for his kitchen. Sometimes I've forgone the ledge and made the counters 28" deep - which creates a larger counter surface that allows me to put out more plates when serving a meal, for example. I now live by this design program, as it truly adds more counter space without much more cost.
6) For a more streamlined custom look, I like to buy a slide-in range rather than the stoves where the operating system is on a back panel above the cooker. In the Attic Atelier Kitchen (photo below) we already owned the stove with the back panel controls, so we installed the open shelving in line with it to try keep the horizontal line continuous. I prefer to enclose my microwave out of sight but if I have limited space I'll install it over the stove with the exhaust hood. I always invest the necessary funds to ensure the fridge is concealed with gables so only the front panel is visible. I either leave a space over the fridge to hold big platters and cooking pots, or I'll install deep cabinets to make the fridge appear more integrated (see 6 photos above in Captain's Quarters).
7) If I'm installing an exhaust hood (without a microwave) I always choose a classic chimney to make it more timeless. I find modern versions are often too taste specific and can quickly date.
8) When it comes to backsplashes, I like all different types depending on the setting. When my kitchens are polished and streamlined, I used mirror for its 'reflectiveness (below), white painted beadboard when I want a space which is relaxed and rustic, (above), subway or penny tile when I'm respecting tradition and referencing a vintage vibe, and stainless steel laminate when I'm going modern. Stainless steel is the most affordable, easiest to execute and looks expensive, so it guarantees your biggest bang for your buck.
9) If your kitchen can accommodate a small wine fridge, install one as it's a coveted status marker right now - keeping in mind it also holds sodas and juices for kids.
10) I like to install undercounter lighting, as well as spotlights at the top of my open glass shelving so lights travels through the shelves. You can see it in my Movie House (photo above) and The Captain's Quarters kitchen below, where I had a cabinet made inset with custom-made antique leaded glass doors and capped in crown molding to give the illusion of age, even though it was newly built with its open interior shelving downlit by LED lighting.
11) In every kitchen I renovate, I always install a deep stainless steel sink with rounded corners (which is easier to clean). You can scrub big pots easier, wash and scrub veggies without too much water spray, and one can stack more dirty pots and dishes in it when hosting a big group.
12) On those occasions when I've installed an island in my kitchen, I always have the side facing the kitchen cabinetry be two side-by-side drawers across the top with open shelving below, which is enclosed on the other three sides. I always I put cutlery and utensils in these two drawers, while the open shelving holds dishes, often the microwave, the toaster and other small appliances which are easily accessible. This is the case in the Garden Suite at The Black House in PEI, below. Being opposite the dishwasher, it makes putting away cutlery easy when unloading.
You asked my thoughts about a peninsula with bar stools in lieu of a breakfast table in the galley kitchen of your condo. I see merit in this solution, as the peninsula can extend off one row of lower cabinets close to the sliding doors to your second balcony. I recommend you make it semi-circular so you avoid accidental hip-checking when walking by, and ensure it can fit two or three bar stools. After all, friends and family prefer to congregate in the kitchen to help celebrate the culinary efforts of the resident chef, and having everyone perched at counter height is more inclusive than sitting at a table off to the side.
Thanks for reading!
These kitchens can be found in these renovation and design blogs here on Urbaneer.com:
Renovating or putting on an addition or extension? These post will offer you some guidance:
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