Oct 04

Kitchen counter tops: so many choices, so much confusion.

In the beginning there was wood. And it was good for thousands of years and it still is. For some people there’s nothing better than a butcher block counter top in at least part of their kitchen. It’s warm, beautiful, can be used to knead dough or cut meat and vegetables. They do require maintenance. You have to keep them really clean, which might require some scraping or sanding, and you have to season the butcher block with a food safe oil like mineral oil..

And then in 1912, two engineers working for Westinghouse invented laminate. And they named it Formica. They immediately left the company and presumably got very rich. This much maligned material is familiar to everyone and wanted by no one. It’s the least expensive countertop and is easy to clean. Its worst feature is that it is very heat sensitive, so it’s relatively easy to ruin.

Stainless steel made the jump from restaurant kitchens to homes in the 1960s and is again somewhat popular. The good; no need to worry about heat or food stains. The bad; it’s easy to scratch and dent so either you don’t mind that look or you have to be very careful.

Sometimes you will see tile counter tops. I hate these because I think they’re ugly, the tile can chip, and the grout between the tiles easily stains and can mildew, even if it’s sealed.

Starting in the 1960s granite was the most desirable counter top material.. While its reign as the champion of counter tops is over, there’s a lot to like about it. It’s very durable, hard to stain, easy to maintain and can withstand heat.. Nowadays there are signs on the side of the street promoting granite at $24 a square foot (not accurate because they charge extra for every cut), so granite is seen today as a low end commodity by lots of homeowners. But there are good reasons it was the most desired material for fifty years.

About ten years ago designers started using marble in the kitchen . There’s no doubt that there are some stunning marbles. Colors like Calcutta Gold and Statuary, with lots of white and distinctive veining, command premium prices. I’ve used it in four homes that sold for well over a million dollars each. My theory is that the more people pay for a house, the less cooking they do. I say that because marble is soft and permeable, so it’s easy to chip or stain and almost impossible to remove the stains. Don’t put your water glass on your new marble counters!

Of all the choices, people are most confused by quartz. It’s a man made material, but it’s made from 93% quartz, a natural mineral. People who like it praise its low maintenance- it doesn’t require any sealing like natural stone does- and they like the fact that the color usually goes all the way through the material.. Because it’s manmade, what you see is what you get, there’s no variation in the look of the material between the sample you see and the delivery you get. People who don’t like it point out that it can chip more easily than granite and that it doesn’t look natural. To make things more confusing, there are dozens of quartz manufacturers, with conflicting marketing claims. Some of the better known brands are Zodiaq, Cambria, Caesarstone, and Silestone.

Concrete has moved out of your driveway and in to your kitchen. A few years ago there was lots of hype in the trade magazines about concrete counters, but I think it will always have a very limited market. A good installer can dye or texture your counters to give them almost any look. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you are really at the mercy of your installer because everything depends on the quality of your installation. Also, concrete tends to crack over time and it needs to be sealed. The penetrating sealers that are needed to provide heat resistance have to be reapplied regularly. A material that’s not for everyone.

By far the best known solid surface counter top is Corian. This was considered a premium counter top material in the seventies and eighties. I could say enough said, but I won’t. Corian, I think, is really much better in the bathroom than the kitchen because it can be made with a seamless appearance. For kitchens the good news is that, until you get to the wood core, the solid surface material is the same color thoughout and requires no maintenance. The bad news is that it’s not heat resistant and it’s been my experience that it discolors over time.

Porcelain counter tops are quite popular in Europe, but rarely used here. These are basically a very thin layer of porcelain veneer over a sandwich of fiberglass, MDF, and wood. They are lightweight and offer lots of looks and colors. But they are easy to break when installing them and difficult to find. I only know of one distributor in Chicago and they bring them in from Europe.

I didn’t mention glass, bamboo, recycled glass, lava stone, and recycled countertops. These are such a small part of the market that they don’t warrant devoting space to them, but they might appeal to you.

Apr 01

Most everything you need to know about kitchen cabinets


Kitchen cabinets are complicated. Whether you go to Home Depot or Christopher Peacock, when the sales associate starts telling you stuff that you can’t understand, it seems impossible to make an informed decision. So here are seven things you need to know before you walk in to look at cabinets.
  • Box construction.  This is the heart of the cabinet. Most cabinets are made from particle board.  The best cabinets are made from thick, furniture grade plywood.  When someone tells you the cabinets are solid wood, they mean plywood.  But the critical element is not which material is used.  It’s what quality of the material is chosen and, most important, how well made the box is.  Very few of the least expensive cabinets have all four sides aligned properly.  The carpenter has to make them look right when installing them.  In most cases, the difference in cost between different cabinet manufacturers is based more on the features offered than any cost difference in box materials.
  • Framed versus frameless cabinets.  Framed just means that there is a frame that outlines the cabinet box and divides the cabinet  If the box is wide enough for two doors, the frame will divide the two doors.  Frameless construction, as the name implies, doesn’t frame the door.  Frameless cabinets offer a more contemporary look and it’s a little easier to put dishes away in frameless cabinets, but one style is not inherently superior to the other.
  • Frame styles with doors.  Full overlay doors cover the entire face frame -- or the entire box front on frameless cabinetry -- leaving only a sliver of space between doors and drawers.  With partial-overlay cabinets, the doors cover the face frame by half an inch, and the frame shows all the way around the door.  Full-inset cabinets have drawers and doors that fit flush with the face frame. Because this technique requires patience and precision during construction, full inset is usually available only in custom cabinetry.
  • The hinges that hold the doors to the cabinet should not matter to you.  The manufacturer is going to use the appropriate hinge for the cabinet and door style.  Make sure you get a soft close hinge because they protect the doors from slamming and they are kind of cool.
  • Drawers.    The best quality drawers are solid wood, dovetail (joined with overlapping, interlocked tenons) construction with full extension, undermount glides. They use either a nylon or metal ball bearing to control the glide. High-quality drawers also close softly like cabinet doors.
  • Cabinet finishes can be natural, stained, painted or glazed (first painted then stained to add highlights and soften the color).  The price goes up in the order of the options I just listed.
  • Doors are the most confusing.  They can be described as slab, mitred, solid panel, veneered panel, plank, raised panel, frame only, inset, rabbeted, overlay.  To make matters worse, doors can have two or three of these features.  The terminology is so confusing that pictures work best to show you the different kinds of doors.  
 
A plank door 
 

 A slab door
   

A frame only, mitred door (there is a 45 degree angle
 where the corners meet).
   

A flat panel veneer door. The panel is a quarter of an inch thick, so it’s considered veneer. The panel is recessed in from the exterior frame. Notice that this door has the stiles, the vertical pieces on the sides, laid next to each other, not mitred at 90 degree angles.
   

A raised panel door. The panel in the center of the door is raised and it’s the same thickness as the stiles (the side panels).
   

A louvered door. The louvers allow air into the cabinet.

Mar 14

A creative kitchen

    

A few months ago I got a call from a potential client. They took a truly creative approach to buying and installing a new kitchen for their north side condominium. This couple bought an entire kitchen, including the granite and appliances from a house in Winnetka that was being remodeled. When I arrived at their house to talk to them, their original kitchen had been removed and their kitchen and living room were filled with cabinets and appliances. We quickly agreed to work together and the real fun began.


The salvage company that sold them the kitchen assured them that the most important parts of the kitchen; the refrigerator, sink and dishwasher would all fit in the existing wall space. As soon as I took measurements, I realized they wouldn’t. So we removed a wall to give ourselves an extra eight inches of wall space for cabinets and appliances.

We started with the base cabinets and appliances because those had to fit in a specific way. There were way more upper cabinets than we could ever use, so we waited to figure out what to use and where to put them until after everything was installed on the floor.

The walls and floors of this building were completely cockeyed. The ceiling height varied in a nine foot span by three inches. Notice that the crown molding does not go to the ceiling.

This approach is not for everyone. My clients took the opposite approach of most people. They bought everything before they even knew whether it was going to work. They ripped out their whole kitchen and lived without one for a few weeks. They were willing to be creative and flexible, and to figure out with me how to make the space a success.

 

Feb 28

Why I’m writing a kitchen bath design build renovation blog about building (or, how I’m learning not to be afraid of social media).

Buildings are something that we all use every day. We live in them, work in them, and play in them. We take all those buildings completely for granted unless something’s not working for us in them. It might be something functional that’s not functioning. When your air conditioning stops working and its 95 degrees outside, you stop taking it for granted. It might be something emotional or aesthetically that’s jarring. If you hate your kitchen, you don’t take it for granted. It bothers you every time you walk in there.

Since we spend most of our lives in them, buildings impact us in every way. They can make us healthier or less healthy, happier or more depressed, bring families together if the design is good or separate them if the design is bad, help or hurt our productivity at work. Few things impact our lives as much as our environment. In a way, the buildings where we live and work have as much emotional and physical influence on us as the people with whom we spend time.

I have a passion for design and construction. I believe strongly that my work makes people’s lives better by making their home or work environment a better place for them to live in. I get just as much psychic satisfaction from fixing a flawed bathroom as in building a multi unit condominium. And the gratification is much more immediate! The best thing for me about my business is that pretty much every job involves improving someone’s life.

I see buildings (and rooms) as living things that have a life cycle. We can extend their lives by surgically intervening and resuscitating their essence. When we make their lives better and longer, we do the same to ours.

I think a lot about all this stuff and I have a lot to say about it. It might interest you. If it does, read my posts and pass them on to your friends and colleagues. You can always write or call me. I enjoy talking about construction and design. I’m happy to look at building problems and design opportunities and give you my thoughts. You can go to my website at www.m5chicago.com to see my work or my Facebook page to send me a message. If you’re not interested in this stuff, just unsubscribe. My feelings won’t be hurt. We’re all bombarded with more information than we can absorb.