When we moved into our home 12 years ago in October 2006, we loved most things about it. When you live in a city where many houses were built in the 1920’s, we were thankful for large bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, and high ceilings in our recently built home. We also loved that the builder had maintained the character of the area with arched doorways, columns, beautiful crown molding and other special touches throughout the home. One area we didn’t love was the kitchen. Despite being just 3 years old, it had dark maple cabinets, dark granite, an oddly shaped island, electric cooktop, and no built-in microwave. We made the necessary adjustments right away such as swapping the electric cooktop for gas and removing some wallpaper, but the rest would have to wait. It just didn’t feel right to rip out a 3-year-old kitchen, not to mention that wasn’t in the budget. So we made the best of it, served many meals in that kitchen, and continued dreaming of “all the things we’d change.” Everyone does that right?
In late 2017 we decided to put those 12 years of dreaming into reality. After months of planning, interviewing contractors and vendors, and making decisions, our dreams started becoming reality in early February 2018. In this article, we will explore our decision-making process, the vendors that we decided to work with and why, the products we selected, and how it all fit together to be the kitchen we’d dreamed of. After school when our kids are doing their homework and enjoying a snack while I prep dinner or we enjoy a meal in our cozy banquette, we sit back and appreciate the hard work and planning that got us here.
The first step in any remodel project should be meeting with an architect. Based on our experience, I’d say the right architect can make or break your project. My husband and I may have had vision, and I definitely had a mean Pinterest game with all sorts of ideas, but putting that into actual plans that can be sent to contractors is a special skill. This is where I think you seperate a “good” project from a phenomenal one. Had I been left to just describe my vision to someone who put that on paper, I would not have ended up with the beautiful, highly functional kitchen I’m now enjoying. When we first sat down with Doug Leahy of GETA Design, he didn’t just collect our ideas and get my Pinterest info to scour my “vision” he asked us questions about how we USE our kitchen. Novel idea right?
Doug asked me to walk through my process of unloading groceries, preparing meals, dish storage, and our kids involvement in the kitchen. He asked where we most often eat, do homework, play games, and have snacks. He asked me to describe the things currently drive me crazy (refrigerator is too small, pantry is too small, no one can sit at the island, the less than functional double sink, and the angled wall in the living room which limits our layout options). He questioned current window and doorwall configuration, storage needs, appliance needs, and design features.
Doug exceeded our expectations with his first proposal. He presented a sketch that addressed every complaint we had and added features we hadn’t even considered. This new design would maximize workflow, space, and functionality, all without relocating any walls or expanding square footage. Doug added a command center (“drop zone”) to address a pet peeve of mine – everyone dropping their papers, keys, wallet, etc on the island. He also addressed the awkward living room layout, relocating the fireplace, squaring off the angled wall, taking the twelve-foot doorwall down to eight feet, and extending another wall to allow for an alternate furniture layout. My two favorite concepts in the design were things I didn’t even realize I wanted, a butler pantry and a banquette area with storage.
The butler pantry solves another pet peeve of mine, kitchen appliances cluttering up the counter. Now we have a separate space for our coffee maker, tea kettle, as well as a place to display our crystal stemware. This area also boasts floor to ceiling cabinets that house other kitchen appliances such as the toaster, mixer, and microwave. The banquette area was the perfect answer to a kitchen table, craft, and game area. With drawers below and floating shelves up the wall, we can store crafts, games, and schoolwork supplies. They are easily accessible when needed, yet out of the way for family meals.
When we first walked into this home twelve years ago we loved the wide open space with the combined living room and kitchen. Years later we’ve realized that this open space can be difficult for entertaining. The volume of voices in the kitchen is always competing with those in the living room or the television. Just picture the guys trying to watch a Big Ten football game, the ladies chatting around the kitchen island, and the kids tearing through the house. No one can hear what is happening in their area, it is just a constant roar of noise wherever you are!
To address this concern, Doug added a header wall between the kitchen and living room. This detail combined with the smaller doorwall on the south end and expanded north wall allowed us to reposition living room furniture, minimizing noise competition while still maintaining the open feel.
To finalize the living room adjustments, we worked with Doug to design a new built in fireplace and surrounding cabinets. Balancing the desire for storage, attractive shelving, a linear fireplace, and a good size TV, all on a blank wall was no easy task. Doug delivered again, and we have a beautiful built-in where we can comfortably watch TV, enjoy our fireplace, and have ample storage and display space.
As you can tell, I’m extremely passionate about the design component of any renovation project. Had we not invested our time in this area, I am certain we would not be as happy with the outcome. With clear plans and direction, we had very few questions or misunderstandings with our contractors, and no surprises throughout the project. It may be difficult to invest time and money into what appears to just be “drawings” but working with the right architect will make the world of difference in your new build or renovation project.
This is another area where time and diligence will make an impact on your project. We interviewed at least 5 general contractors and discussed the pros and cons of subcontracting the project ourselves. We ultimately determined that subcontracting everything ourselves was too aggressive, however, there were a few areas we decided to bring in our own vendors. Our general contractor managed demo, electrical, plumbing, finish carpentry, cabinet installation, painting and overseeing the project. We managed the floor refinishing, cabinet selection, countertop selection and installation, and some painting. Taking on those components of the project ourselves meant that we needed to closely coordinate the schedule with our general and subcontractors.
Of the 5 general contractors we met with, we received proposals from only four. Of those four, one company was such a financial outlier we excluded them. Of the remaining three, we’d worked with one before ( with great satisfaction), one was referred by a friend, and one was referred by a cabinet vendor.
Here is where the real work comes in, I created a spreadsheet where I had all of the components of the project down one column, the general contractors across the top row and then filled in the table with project components and if they were included, excluded, or given an allowance. If you conduct this exercise, my bet is that you will be surprised to see the discrepancies in the proposals as far as what is included and what is your responsibility. Without this step, I would not have been comparing “apples to apples” so to speak. What appeared to be large price deltas ended up actually being quite close when you normalized the components.
We are including a download to the spreadsheet I completed with some examples for context. When you are reviewing proposals, it is extremely important to read the details and clarify components like allowance, customer supplied, and all nuances that vary from quote to quote.
After reviewing our spreadsheet in detail, we narrowed it down to two finalists and scheduled meetings to clarify outstanding questions, discuss scope and timeline. Turnkey Construction had been referred by a friend, were competitive in price, and I had a gut feeling that I would be able to work well with them. Quite honestly if someone is going to be in your house every day for 8-10 weeks, you better like them and feel comfortable with them!
Jerrett Lowell from Turnkey Construction was excellent to work with. His communication style and timing were among the best I’ve experienced. The key factors that set Jerrett and Turnkey apart from other contractors we’ve used included:
The subcontractors selected by Turnkey Construction included:
In tandem to making our general contractor selection, we were selecting our kitchen cabinets.
We evaluated at four options overall, two companies that were more traditional kitchen design firms, and two that were proposed by the general contractors we were interviewing.
My interaction with Lori Albrecht from Great Lakes Cabinetry and Design set her apart from the other options immediately. She spent over two hours with me in that first meeting, mainly gathering information on how we used our kitchen space, the current issues or concerns I had with the existing space, and what we envisioned for the new space. She shared pictures and tips from other projects, had samples of her product offerings, reviewed the drawings Doug Leahy had prepared and discussed a budget. Within one week, we received an extremely detailed plan from Lori including sketches and detailed drawings of her design proposal, cabinet, and drawer layout. A few of the design details that stood out to us included:
In short, Lori went above and beyond our expectations or anyone else’s proposal. When reviewing her proposal, my husband asked what she had charged for her extensive design package. Again, setting Lori apart, she had not charged for her extensive design package, it was simply part of her proposal presentation. I knew that if Lori put this much time and detail into the proposal, she would be an absolute pleasure to work with.
Cost was a factor in our decisions as well, and Great Lakes was not the least expensive of the proposals. However, with the additional features we were getting in Lori’s design, and the professionalism and effort put forth we determined this was a good use of our financial resources.
Now that our kitchen is complete I can say with utmost confidence that we more than made up any delta in cost. A few highlights of our experience with Lori Albrecht included:
In addition, Lori was more than gracious with her design expertise and spent time answering questions about countertops, backsplash, lighting and more. When it comes to customer service and client relationships, Lori Albrecht from Great Lakes Cabinetry and Design takes the cake!
I think of countertops as the artwork of the kitchen. With white shaker style cabinets, stainless steel appliances, and a dark floor, the countertops were the focal point of the space. We are fortunate to know the owner of Great Lakes Granite and Marble, Rich Booms, and enjoy both a friendship and professional relationship with him. Rich and I set out to explore the Great Lakes Granite and Marble warehouse looking at granite and quartzite in the color scheme we were focused on (greys, neutrals, white). It was helpful to have already narrowed down my selection to the type of stone we wanted, as well as the color family. Even with those decisions made, this is an overwhelming task, and definitely, one where you want to enlist a project manager to walk the rows of stone with you. My key areas of advice when selecting your countertop are:
Great Lakes Granite and Marble knocked it out of the park as far as delivering on an exquisite piece of art for our kitchen. We absolutely love our Fantasy Brown quartzite and our experience with GLGM was excellent. Once we finally settled on the Fantasy Brown, we selected our actual slabs (another benefit of working with someone who has an extensive warehouse with ample supply). We worked with our project manager to template our slabs, determine sink and cooktop layout, highlighting the areas of pattern and color in the stone that we liked, and minimizing the areas that were less appealing to us. We chose two bookmatched slabs enabling complementary flow and pattern on our island and back countertop. With an 8 foot island, we were able to do one slab with no seams. We were also able to get away without any seams on the back countertop since the cooktop intersects that area. This is not often the case in a good size kitchen. Read for more information on countertop seams.
Great Lakes does all fabrication in their own facility in Redford, MI, which was another benefit in my opinion. Many other granite providers outsource their fabrication to 3rd parties. We templated with our project manager, who was then able to relay the design preferences to the fabricator directly. Our stone was cut and fabricated then ready to be delivered.
In every project I think there is one wildcard, the one thing that threatens to ruin your overall project. For us, it was the floor. We have a brazilian cherry floor, durable and easy to maintain, in a color we don’t love. For 12 years, we’ve wished it wasn’t so red. It covers our entire first floor, stairs and upstairs landing, making it quite the project to tackle. We had four different professionals recommend that we either tear it out and start over (cost prohibitive and a waste of resources), paint it black, or live with it as it is very difficult to deviate from the natural “red” cherry color.
Doug Leahy of GETA Design recommended I contact Del Tanner to get his opinion. I hit it off with Del instantly, he dispelled previous naysayers and felt he could sand the floor and stain it Ebony with a “water-pop” finish. We didn’t have a clue what a “water-pop” finish was, but he promised it would be the dark color I was looking for with a matte finish. Not only did he deliver, the floor is one of our favorite parts of the home now. To highlight a few of the key reasons we enjoyed working with Del:
While Turnkey Construction handled the painting in the newly remodeled areas of the home, it was quickly obvious that we needed to freshen up the pain in other areas of the main level for a cohesive look. It had been 10 years and 2 kids since our foyer had a fresh coat of paint. The colors no longer matched the updated style and it was looking pretty tired. We have used Renato and his team from Paint Pro on numerous occasions and knew we wanted to have them paint our foyer and dining room. The foyer included the stairway which has white risers and spindles, and our dining room has wainscoting, crown molding, and columns. In all of our experiences with Renato we have been extremely satisfied. His team is extraordinarily skilled, I’m not sure how anyone can paint with that detail not using reams of tape. They are respectful of our home and family, are reliable, and a pleasure to work with.
One of my favorite features in the new kitchen is the banquette area. We have storage drawers underneath as well as floating shelves on the end, both perfect for storing craft supplies, homework tools and games. To finish off this area we needed a custom-made cushion as well as the perfect table. After searching at the usual furniture shops and online retailers, I decided the route to go would be a custom table with bench. This way, I could match the dimensions and color I wanted. I posted a picture of a table I liked on Facebook asking for recommendations on a custom woodworker and this is how I found Jordan. Jordan came to our home, took dimensions, and discussed overall style and function with me. We had our custom table in a matter of weeks. It perfectly fits our space and is beautifully well made. Going this route was definitely a better solution than purchasing a ready-made table, with a comparable cost. I would highly suggest finding a local, skilled work worker who can custom build furniture to fit your space.
Turnkey Construction brought in their electrical subcontractor for our job. This was one area I didn’t think I needed to have much input, but quickly realized how much a lighting scheme means in your everyday life. Switch placement, dimmers, and multi-switch decisions were quickly of utmost importance. As with other aspects of the project, we strove to think about how we actually live and function in our home, determining where to switch lights based on room entry and exit and flow in the home. John was also extremely helpful when it came to fixture placement and height, discussing the pros and cons for items such as viewing of the foyer fixture from downstairs, upstairs, outside, and inside. These are areas where the professional opinion of someone who does this every day is invaluable.
We worked hard to select our materials well in advance so we weren’t held up waiting for something to arrive. We selected our appliances, fireplace stone, backsplash, plumbing and lighting fixtures, as well as our couch early on in the project. For 99% of the items we had no issue and we received the items well before they were needed. This was my one lesson learned though…ensure all of your items are in stock or have a hard delivery date well before they are needed. I selected a beautiful granite composite single bowl sink in a slate gray color that looked divine with my Fantasy Brown granite. I needed a large sink for the kitchen island and then a small bar sink for the butler pantry. The sink that I wanted was being introduced in a new size that would work well with the cabinet size. It was supposed to be manufactured and delivered well within our timeframe, so I placed the order. Unfortunately, the manufacturing schedule was pushed out, and since my butler pantry sink was already installed in the matching color, I was stuck. This meant moving into our new kitchen without a working sink or dishwasher for over 2 months. Ultimately we found a solution by ordering a slightly larger sink and notching out the underneath cabinets so the sink could fit. This set off a domino effect where our granite had to be recut, our granite provider had to make multiple trips, and our general contractor and plumber had to return well after the project had been mostly completed. Learn from my mistake, make sure you can get your hands on your selected items and they are in your possession before having your granite cut. Also, don’t believe that something will come in when promised, it is best to find an agreeable alternative that is available now.
You can have a vision and you can have an adequate budget, but without the right team, your project may not have the desired outcome. It is so important to spend the time interviewing, researching, and validating the team that you work with. Ask for references, see their work, ask questions about their timeliness and cleanliness. These are things that will either make your experience pleasurable or a possible nightmare. For a concise list of things to consider when tackling your home renovation project see below.
Photos: MAK Photography © All Rights reserved.