25 August 2010

I'm Dreaming of a White/ Farmhouse/ Mid-Century-Modern Kitchen

When it comes to home improvements, one of the most taxing and substantial projects you can take on outside of a full-on addition is a kitchen renovation.  A kitchen reno poses numerous challenges:
  1. It often tops the list of most expensive projects (particularly for those like me, with champagne tastes on a beer budget)
  2. It's highly inconvenient, if not impossible, to live on-site during the reno process without the basic tools for meal prep (unless you have your local Chinese restaurant on speed dial)
  3. There are a million decisions to make, from the large items (how do you create a functioning work triangle?) to the small (knobs or pulls?) and all points in between, and each one critical to a successful outcome.  And just when you think you've reached your million-question limit, there will be one more
  4. More than any other space in your home, a kitchen reno forces you to think critically about how you currently live and more importantly, how you WANT to live.  Focusing on functionality is detailed and time-consuming work
For those who subscribe to the philosophy that the kitchen is the heart of the home - where not just bellies but relationships are nourished on a daily basis - ripping out and replacing an existing footprint is also challenging on an emotional level.  You might not get worked up to tears over your flooring options in the foyer or whether you should have single- or double-hung windows in your living room, but throwing out bar stools that your son's bum has worn smooth over time, or the counter-top your daughter scarred when helping you make preserves last summer is a loaded experience.

One issue that you rarely hear about, though, is the one I'm struggling with right now: MDP.

MDP, or Multiple Design Personality, is a problem that surfaces when you're looking a huge change straight in the eye, and that change represents a proverbial fork in the road, either of whose options are more than acceptable. 
Here's my situation:

Even though we're not even remotely out of the woods on the bathroom projects yet (yes, project
S), thanks to a carpenter friend of ours I have already started shifting my focus to our next huge reno, the kitchen.  In our preliminary discussions, this friend recommended that I surf through magazines and online to find samples of kitchens that I like, to use as inspiration pieces in our own custom design.  Loving nothing more than spending an evening curled up on the couch with an icy-cold beverage and a stack of shelter mags I've started to do just that, and much to my dismay I've discovered that unlike most people who have one or maybe two kitchen "types", I have no "type" at all!

When I am equally in love with kitchen designs that range from mid-century modern to country farmhouse to bistro chic, how do I determine what I love most?  And more to the point, how do I then make that specific kitchen style work in my house?

As I've mentioned before, our home is a rather small 1950's bungalow that is distinguished more for the architectural interest it
doesn't have rather than any it does.  I won't lie to you, it's bland.  The best we have going for it is a pretty pressed-plaster crown moulding in the office and dining areas (originally the formal living and dining rooms) but even that could be purchased off the shelf nowadays at any big box store.

Our dream is to blow out the wall between existing kitchen and office and create one huge kitchen with centre island, floor-to-ceiling pantry and office workspace.  Doing so will open up the kitchen from it's current dark little nook where it exists in relative obscurity, and expose it to the rest of the house in which each space is decorated (or in the process of being decorated) in different styles.  Ideally our kitchen will become the showpiece of our home but for a room so important, how do I choose a specific style?  If I move one way on the kitchen (say, modern farmhouse, for example) am I then on the hook for redecorating the rest of our spaces to follow suit?

When is a kitchen renovation not just a kitchen renovation, and how does one person consolidate her 19 different design aesthetics into one perfect room?

Is there a cure for MDP?

24 August 2010

There's Always Something

One of the lessons I have learned most thoroughly throughout the renovation process so far is this: there is always "something".  Something difficult, something unexpected, something impossible or something more expensive.  Even in a small project like ours (small on a real estate/floor space scale, not a financial one), we discovered new "somethings" on what felt like a daily basis.  Examples?  Sure, I have a few:

  • Carpenter ants: In hindsight we probably should have known we had them, but who knew that those medium-sized black ants that we would find occasionally sauntering around our kitchen like they owned the place were just the smaller, scrappy carpenter ant scouts?  The exterminator, that's who.  To us they just looked like regular ants, and all the time we thought they were harmless they were eating through our ceiling joists making cosy little nests for themselves.  As a result of their squatting in our walls and attic, we had to replace nearly an entire joist and construction was delayed for slightly less than a week.
  • Asbestos insulation: Yes, asbestos.  From the 1920's through the 1970's, a mineral substance called vermiculite was commonly installed in newly built residential properties as insulation.  Vermiculite was produced in two varieties: one in large, chunky pieces and the other in small granules.  Both were used in conjunction with yellow (or what is now generally pink) fiberglass insulation, and was designed to fill any pockets between the joists and/or framing that the less flexible fiberglass couldn't get into.  Sounds great, right?  Yes, except the smaller of the two varieties - the granular insulation - "decomposes" (for lack of a better term) over time to create dust.  Asbestos dust.  This dust is not an issue or a danger to anyone so long as it's left alone and remains undisturbed, however pulling down the ceiling and yanking out the old insulation does not count as "leaving it alone".  The second our contractor discovered it, work halted for more than a week.  If we wanted our project to move forward AT ALL, EVER, we were now on the hook for an environmental team to tent our property, remove the hazardous materials and completely re-insulate the entire 1100 square foot house to the tune of $10K+.  For a 9x6 foot bathroom.
  • Suppliers: Don't be lulled into thinking that because you're working with a general contractor, you won't have issues with sub-contracted trades or suppliers.  This is not true and knowing/expecting as much may help you maintain perspective and remain calm while putting out similar fires.  It is not a given that your contractor will always see eye-to-eye with his or her tradespeople, and it is not impossible for challenges that develop on other jobs to impact your own.  Our own contractor is currently in the midst of a dispute with his stone supplier.  While it has nothing whatever to do with our job - our slab is still sitting in the stone yard with a sticker on it with our name, waiting for instructions - the dispute has ramifications on our job by preventing us from moving forward.  Until the core dispute is resolved, the stone supplier won't move forward on our work, and this element (and any other elements dependent on this element) of our job is at a complete and utter standstill.

What is especially frustrating about a "something" is that you have very little, if any, control over it.  Had we known about our "somethings", would we have approached the project differently?  Certainly.  More money in the bank, for one, and improved communication with our contractor (who I am sure to this day suspects we deliberately withheld the asbestos information).  That we didn't have a thorough understanding of our house and its potential challenges handicapped us in the long run, but was instrumental in teaching us to take the hits as they come.

I have heard it frequently said that the secret to avoiding disappointment is to keep your expectations low.  The strength of my belief in this sentiment fluctuates on a day-to-day basis but the basic premise is sound advice: hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  Some suggestions to help improve your renovation experience:

  • If you did not have a home inspection done on your property at the time of purchase, do one before starting a major renovation.  This will help identify any major structural issues which may impact your reno.  If you did have an inspection, provide a copy to your contractor in advance
  • Create a photo diary of every area of your house:
    • Climb up into your attic and take digital photos of your insulation and joist-work.  Identify support walls, and where the joists change direction
    • Create a detailed sketch of your floor plan, and mark all support walls, joist directions, venting and/or pipes
    • Shimmy around any crawl spaces or cold cellars you may have.  Take photos of everything, but pay particular attention to water damage or mold
    • Photograph mold in any area(s) of your house and note the color and range (how far it has spread) of each spot
  • If you have insect issues, spend 90 days prior to the start of your reno documenting when you see them, and where.  Try to identify any access points in your home, so that if you do need to call an exterminator throughout the process, you can direct him accordingly.  Small children are especially good at this (not kidding - only a three-year-old has the patience to follow an ant for two hours) so enlist the help of your younger children to source out any insect interlopers
  • Share your photo file with your contractor before the start of your renovation.  Had we been able to provide photos of our insulation before they tore down the ceiling, the removal process could have been managed in a planned, organized fashion versus the frantic evacuation we did experience

Forewarned is forearmed: knowing what to expect before the first hammer flies may not prevent issues from occurring, but will certainly help you manage your response to them.

22 August 2010

Playing Catch-Up

It all started two years ago.  Well, the honest truth is that it started the summer I was fifteen years old, when I had the bright idea that my grandparents should completely remodel their main floor bathroom.  I begged and pleaded, wheedled and whined for them to give me a modest budget, with which I would completely transform their minuscule 9x6 foot bath from slubby and dated to pretty and perfect.

It never happened.  My Nan was completely in love with her bathroom which suited her, and their needs at the time, perfectly.  I was quite frustrated, of course, and more than a little insulted that they felt I couldn't be trusted with a couple of thousand dollars and a can of paint, though with the passing of years I see how ridiculous I must have sounded.  My point in recounting this memory is this: at age fifteen I felt that bathroom was ready for a change and now, seventeen years later, I at last had my chance!

So the beginning of the present project, if not the idea itself, was two years ago.  We had been living in the house for four years and had done very little to change the space to reflect us as a family, besides painting and moving our furniture around on a quarterly basis.  I had been lusting for a significant change somewhere - anywhere - in the house, but Daryn had sidelined his career to stay home with our youngest and we were not flush enough to take on a major renovation.  Couple that with raising two young children and a dog, managing the house in general and commuting to/from work in the city, and home improvements landed, quite frankly, at the bottom of our list of priorities.  My shelter magazines, which I collected religiously and which grew in piles like weeds all over the house, teased me with what "could be" but essentially just gathered dust once I'd read them through.

Then fate stepped in, if you believe in that sort of thing (which I do), in the form of a roof leak.  Shingles and flashing gave way to rain water which streamed into our main floor bathroom.  Already we had been having difficulties with that room: a previous leak had cracked the plaster, which my grandparents cleverly disguised by wallpapering over it.  They only used that bathroom for tub baths - showers were strictly a downstairs bathroom activity - so steam in a vent-less room wasn't an issue for them.  Not so for us.  We showered on the main floor like, we thought, "regular people", and as a result the crack swelled, the plaster crumbled and the wallpaper started peeling off the wall like snake skin.  The roof leak was the nail in the proverbial coffin: we needed to renovate.

So how did we go from a leak in 2008 to a renovation in 2010?  What took so long?  The answer is this: many, many things.  Though we created detailed plans and made many false starts in the manner of hardware purchases, which are now collecting dust in our basement (does anyone need a clear glass vessel sink?  a box of wall tiles imported from Italy?  wall sconces from Restoration Hardware?), other issues surfaced during those two years that bumped the bathroom steadily down the priority list.  Specifically, since 2008 we have:

  • purchased a new car when our old one bit the dust unexpectedly
  • replaced the roof
  • installed a new furnace, and new A/C
  • installed new windows in our sun room, kitchen and half of our basement rec room
These things take a toll on the bank book, I'm sure you'll agree.

However, in January everything came together for us, and 43 days ago the first sledgehammer hit the wall and got this whole ball rolling.  The next few posts will be story of how one tired, dilapidated bathroom (pictured below) got its groove back.

So I had this idea ....

Sitting on the sofa one afternoon and surveying our mid-renovation disaster area (ie. the house), I thought to myself: What if I stopped posting hundreds of photos and lengthy descriptions of our home reno/decorating adventures on Facebook, and just started my own blog?

Impossible, right?  Turns out, not so!  Thanks to the helpful guidance of friend-of-a-friend and seasoned blogger Lindsay at Being Suzy Homemaker
, I was off to the races in less than a day!  Several hours of work later (yes, hours ... I am "tech-challenged") and here we are: my very first post.

I should probably introduce myself, and let you know why you should keep reading and perhaps visit often:

My name is April and I live with my perfectly nuclear family (husband D., son J. and daughter A.) in a relatively small (though on-the-grow) suburb town outside of Toronto in a 1956 bungalow on a quiet court street.  Our house is exactly like all the other houses on our street: single level, orange brick with small rooms, few windows and a myriad of decorating and design challenges.  We love its history: I was raised in this house.  My grandparents purchased it on spec in 1955, moved in in '56, and brought up four kids and a stable of dogs, cats, drop-in friends and grandchildren in it.  They lived here until 2004, when we purchased it and moved in.  We love its location and we also love its potential.  How, then, to take a home with so much history and make it ours?

Over the next two years we have committed to transforming our space into a comfortable, beautiful, functional family home: renovating and beautifying our nest, one twig at a time.  We are like many other people we know: long on dreams and often short on cash.  Some projects - like our current bathroom renovations - are small money pits that require every last cent we have (and some donations!).  Other rooms will be designed and transformed on a shoestring budget.

I am totally confident that I can achieve beauty and function without spending the earth and while we already have a good start on the make-over process (catch-up posts to come!), I am excited to share our experiences past, present and future.  Welcome to Money Pit Love ... I hope you'll stay with me as we navigate the process of making this house a real home!