Jun 3

How to hire a general contractor (in Chicago) and anywhere

You’re finally ready to start your kitchen and bath renovation project! You’ve been studying Houzz for six months and have compiled a big ideabook. Maybe you’ve hired a designer so all your plans are set. The next step is to hire a general contractor. Your choice can either make your project go as smoothly as possible and give you a wonderful finished space or can lead to lots of delays and bad work. How do you make the right choice? The collaboration with your contractor is a marriage; hopefully, a short term one that will result in each of you happily going your separate ways feeling fulfilled. Here are some tips to ensure a successful collaboration.

  • Call the references you’re given and ask questions. Most important, what was the quality of the work? Obviously, no contractor is going to give you references of unhappy clients, but there are some questions you can ask to gain insight. How often was the owner or supervisor at the job site? How was the communication between the contractor and client? If there were problems, and there often are, did the contractor follow up and take care of them? Was the work done in the timeframe promised? Was the job site clean?
  • Every contractor should have pictures of their work. Look at their website. If they don’t have one, ask them to bring pictures of their work.
  • Ask them what they anticipate to be technical challenges in your job and how they will handle them. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know whether their answer is correct. If someone knows what they’re talking about they can explain it to you in a way you can understand. If you interview two or three people you’ll have a good feel for who is competent.
  • Here’s an intangible; how comfortable are you with their communication skills. If you don’t feel you understand them easily and well during your courtship, things will get worse when there are problems later in the marriage.
  • Call them a few times. See if they answer their phone or return your call promptly. This can be misleading because lots of guys are great on this during the courtship and not so good once you’ve signed the marriage papers, but it’s worth a try. One of the worst traits I see in my own subcontractors is a tendency to not answer the phone if they have bad news for you.
  • Not to sound petty, but you can somewhat judge a book by its cover. You’re expecting a contractor to have good taste and make sound design decisions when building your home. Even if you have an architect or designer, there are dozens of decisions made on the spot as a buildout progresses. Do you trust your contractor to have good taste?

Unfortunately, you’re going to know a lot more about your contractor after you’re married, but if you pay attention to the cues you get early in the relationship, your chances of a happy relationship later are much greater.

Apr 13

All about shower remodeling in Chicago

In the eighties and nineties, it was considered the height of luxury in the master bathroom to build in a large whirlpool tub. Over the years people have come to realize that they are almost never used and they take up an awful lot of space. Now that we’re moving from the decadent nineties to the practical teens, there’s a surge in people interested in turning their tubs into showers. It’s certainly makes sense. Most people shower every day and take a bath two or three times a year.

Before you start there are some serious considerations to think about. The best place to start is with space planning. When you look at all the pictures in magazines or websites, the master bath is the size of your whole apartment. Many of us who live in a city use a bathroom that is about six feet by ten feet or smaller. So you’re not adding a massive shower to your bath. You’re taking out the tub and converting the space to a shower. In order to be comfortable in the new space, you should have at least thirty inches of width in your shower. Any narrower and it will be uncomfortable. Fortunately, standard tubs are thirty inches wide, so most baths have the space. You also should have at least eighty inches of ceiling height. That’s less than seven feet, and you can’t get by with less than that. If you’re putting a door in the shower, measure the space between your toilet or vanity and where the shower will go and make sure you have enough space to place a door. The minimum width door you will want is about twenty four inches wide, so if you have only a four foot tub (which is rare but I’ve seen many of them in old buildings), you won’t have room to open the door. You should thoroughly think about how the new space will look and what’s important to you in the shower. Is it critical to have lots of shelf space so there’s plenty of room for shampoo and soap? Would you like a bench so you can put your legs up on it to shave? Do you want to install a steam shower because you feel chilled to the bone all the time during Chicago winters?

The next step is to call in a pro. In this case I’d recommend a general contractor because this is definitely not a do it yourself project. You will need carpentry, drywall or cement board installation, waterproofing expertise, tile installation, new plumbing, and possibly electric work. First, we are going to double check your measurements and make sure that everything fits. Once that’s done, the fun starts. Everything must go, and the room will be stripped to the studs. The next few steps no one sees but they are most critical. When you read a Houzz or House Beautiful article about shower remodels, they’ll talk about picking tiles and fixtures. Those things are important, but what really counts is building the new shower properly from the ground up. I’ve been involved in six or seven shower disasters when I was called in by people whose issues ranged from leaking showers to the supporting frames underneath rotting away and the shower starting to collapse. Fixing an improperly installed shower costs more than building it right in the first place.

In a nutshell, here’s what now goes into the shower. We either frame out a custom size base, line it with a rubber membrane and fill it with cement or purchase a premade vinyl base that can be your floor or can be tiled (your choice based on esthetics and cost). The plumbing is changed from the tub and shower configuration to shower only. The drain is reworked to function in the space. The most important step in the whole process is to make sure that there is a continuous waterproof barrier from the floor to the ceiling. Expert tile installers do this by using a combination of waterproof boards, rubber membrane and waterproof epoxies. If this step is not done right, you will eventually have leaks. Next we tile and put on the shower fixtures. Finally the glass goes on and you have a new shower.

Your esthetic choices are important. I want you to pick beautiful fixtures, have a great rain shower head, select gorgeous tile, and have storage space for all your stuff. But even more I don’t want you to have nightmares after you build your new shower. Have fun!

Apr 1

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.