26 May 2009

Banquette Cushions

(click on photo to enlarge and see the stripe colors up close)

Today, our banquette cushions arrived. I'm quite happy with them! Two motivated blog posts in two days -- progress is clearly trending up.

We will have an L-shaped banquette in the new kitchen, as suggested by the layout in the photo above. I toyed around with a u-shaped banquette but it just didn't feel right, despite the symmetry of the nook. I can't articulate why -- wish I could -- I just know that it had the wrong vibe when I tried to make it a three sided seating area. I passed the challenge off to an interior decorator at the cabinetry firm, and she also felt the urge to make it a U-shaped. She tried a few different things, and then ultimately came back to me and said she really felt the L-shape was better.

Getting banquette cushions was a lot harder than I expected. My first plan was to have a straight wood back fronted with a sloped back cushion, on top of 5" thick seat cushions (using dacron-wrapped high density foam, with sunbrella fabric). This desire was influenced in part by reading a couple blog posts by Susan Serra at The Kitchen Designer blog. I got a couple cushion quotes for this configuration, however, that were literally OVER $3,000. Seriously?? I knew I could shop around to get the figure down, as well as buy the foam from a different supplier, but this would not be enough to change the number of relevant digits from 4 to 3.

I thought my desires through and realized I was just as happy with a slanted wood back, as an upholstered back, so that cut out half of the cost for my cushions right there. I figure I can add some strategic pillows to make it look cozy and inviting. Then I decided to try a google search and see what I could find for cushions. I found an ebayer who sells dacron-wrapped high-density foam cushions using sunbrella fabric for a mere fraction - truly - of the quotes I was getting. The only catch is that it's only 3.5" thick and that dimension can't be easily changed. Another minor point is that I prefer a welted box cushion, but she doesn't do welts except at the center front (not what I want). I decided that these cushions needed to be inexpensive, given the abuse they will undoubtedly receive from our kids over the next few years. So I gave away an inch of cushion, raised the height of my wood benches by an inch, and decided to use the less expensive 3.5" cushions.

I was advised consistently by everyone I talked to, to use a sunbrella indoor fabric for my upholstery, for its stain resistance. Since my nook is directly underneath a window, I also wanted a fabric that wouldn't fade quickly. Sunbrella has quite a loyal following for its easy clean easy care fabrics. I wonder about the chemicals that go into the fabric to make it so stain resistant -- it's easy to get a list of the chemical names but harder to find out if they're particularly worrisome. I decided that we weren't going to EAT the fabric, by any means, and the square footage of fabric was small, so on balance, the chemicals in this fabric are probably negligible. The sunbrella stripe pattern that I chose is called "Brannan Redwood." It contains red, gray, medium brown, dark brown, and cream. This is a scary match for my kitchen which will have gray walls, a red accent cabinet, medium brown cabinets, and a few sections of dark brown walnut counter. The pattern is almost TOO matchy matchy.

Anyways, I put in my order with the ebay seller for these 3.5" cushions. The cost was $300 -- SO much less than the initial sticker shock quotes of $3,000. She provided great customer service too. She requested my actual nook drawings and dimensions to ensure the cushions fit. She suggested that we create a diagonal cut at the back corner (a free customization from her off-the-shelf product with rectangular cushions). She attached sew-on velcro to the bottom of the cushions in preparation for me attaching them to the benches, also at no extra cost. She shipped her custom made cushions within two weeks of my placing the order. Ebay is always a gamble, but I'm pretty happy with these results. The cushions in the picture, by the way, are just a minute or two after unwrapping them from their compressed plastic bag prisons -- so they should fluff up a little bit more (perhaps another half-inch).

Now I just need my actual benches, to see if the cushions are actually comfortable! Minor detail... :)

25 May 2009

Refinished Oak Floors

One of the first "finish" steps in the remodel has been completed. It is so motivating! We have been living in plastic, construction paper, and dust for so very long. With all of that removed and our floors in a final finish state, it feels like such a milestone.

We had originally wanted to install entirely new hardwood flooring, using wide plank local Oregon myrtlewood. Although it is not FSC-certified wood, it is a very green option in terms of being local and relatively quickly renewable. More so, it's just a beautiful wood with ashy and olive-y undertones. With budgetary constraints, however, we instead opted to refinish our existing (and fairly new) narrow plank oak flooring.

Before (red floors) and After (nutmeg/medium brown floors):

Our previous floor had a very red, artificial looking appearance. Some people actually wondered if it was Pergo even though it was a real solid hardwood. Since it was prefinished flooring, it also had very deep grooves between boards. The grooves actually do not bother me like they bother some people. I really hated the color of the floors though, as well as the high gloss finish which showed every smudge, smear, and bit of dirt. I also dislike the narrow strips of 2 1/4" width.

Most remodeling projects involve compromises and ours has been no different. Though my heart was set on using myrtlewood, I decided I could still love our new kitchen with refinished oak flooring even with the thin strip widths. I couldn't love it with the same color, though. So, we elected to save some money, skip the myrtlewood, and restain/refinish the floors with a matte finish. The new color is a combination stain of "nutmeg" and "medium brown." The grooves are now sanded down smoothly as well which is a nice bonus as far as cleaning the floors go (less chance of trapping crumbs and the like).

I am liking our new floors way more than I thought I would! I am now actually relieved we didn't choose to spend the money on myrtlewood. Although I love myrtlewood in and of itself, the olivey/ashey hints of color were actually becoming problematic to design with as I was searching for other finishes -- so many stains and colors were too yellow, too red, etc, all clashing heavily with the myrtlewood. Finding things to "go with" this new floor stain has been considerably easier than the way my luck was running with myrtlewood.

And while myrtlewood is a good green "conscious" option... the best green option, of course, is usually to just reuse what you already have.

Almost full-length photo of great room in natural light at 4pm:
On a non-flooring note, you can see in the above picture that the stair wall has been cut down to a pony wall. Also the two cutouts in the stair wall are for the recessed speedcook oven, which fits just under the stair landing, as well as the recessed easel that we added to the kitchen design as one of our last steps. I had wanted iron or wood balusters with a rail for hardwood stairs. Again, budgetary constraints dictated compromises so I had to stick with my carpeted stairs and use a pony wall. We turned lemons into lemonade by recessing a cute little easel into the stair wall where the balusters would have been.

For now, our project is on hold for two weeks as the new floor topcoat cures. We are supposed to have no heavy-footed contractors with tools in the house, risking damage to our floors while everything sets. At the end of two weeks, we will have some painting done, baseboards put back in place, and furniture moved back into a couple rooms of the house. Then flooring protection will be reinstalled in the kitchen area, and work will proceed to actually installing cabinets in the kitchen!
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20 May 2009


The new kitchen layout and function is so very improved over the old layout, for our needs, but it's certainly not ideal. As always, you have to weigh the pros and cons of different alternatives and make some difficult choices. Here are some of the bigger decisions, or trade-offs, for our new kitchen:

(1) Chose to use lots of cabinetry that comes all the way down to the counter, despite losing some flexible counter space.

From Kitchen - Gorsegner

We chose cabinetry that comes all the way to the counter top as follows:
- dish hutch to left of sink
- wall oven in corner
- two appliance garages in the butler's pantry, meant to hide coffee maker, toaster, etc

We still have a reasonable amount of open counter space with the island, but very little open counter space against the walls.

Pros: I am short and can have a bad back at times, so I wanted to minimize bending or reaching for frequent use items. Thus, dish storage for us starts at a low 42" and goes up from there. Also, I chose a wall oven instead of an undercounter oven to eliminate bending.

Clearly the main pro of appliance garages is the ability to hide cord-bound clutter.

Cons: I'm definitely wary about losing the landing space to the left of the sink, to the dish hutch. Our family habitually leaves dirty dishes on the counter. We do have some landing area (8" on one side, 26" on the other -- more than the illustration shows), but it's definitely not a lot. Hopefully the smaller landing areas around the sink will help us develop habits to put dirty dishes into the dishwasher(s) sooner rather than later.

I'm not too concerned about losing the corner counter space to the oven, because corners are not valuable work areas to me. A lot of people do like to store stuff like blenders in the corner, though.

I did think about one day selling the house, having prospective buyers come in, and having them not like appliance garages in the butler's pantry. Many homeowners prefer to have things out in the open in the main kitchen for easy access. After living in our old kitchen for a year, we found it was an easy pattern for us to walk to the butler's pantry to use our small appliances, so I'm sure the garages in the pantry will work for us.

We hope to be in this house for a very long time, so we made design choices for ourselves, not resale value.

(2) Chose wider aisles and wider work island, despite needing to sacrifice a lot of our prior pantry storage capacity.

From Why Remodel The Kitchen?

In general, we tend to eat lots of fresh items and fewer packaged foods. We literally used only 40% of this old pantry space. The remainder of the old pantry space was storage for items that would typically go in a garage (e.g. excess paper goods). So, we went with much less pantry space this time around.

Pros: This decision eliminated an entire wall of cabinetry to make our perceived kitchen wider, with better actual aisle space and island work space. I think it will feel a million times better! We also do have flip-up-lids for under bench storage in the casual dining area, for some of the overflow odd items if we wish.

Cons: Simply -- we have less pantry/wall storage. I can't tell you how many people walked into our old kitchen and marveled "wow, you have so much storage!" I would say "yeah, too much..." and they thought I was insane.

(3) Chose our favorite appliances for cooktop area, despite style and scale issues.

Our kitchen is about 12x14 feet. We have nearly 5 feet of cooktop with a full hood over all of that. The scale of our new cooktop area is certainly disproportionate to the scale of the room. Our 5' of cooktop is 2' of commercial industrial griddle directly next to 3' of sleek Euro-style induction -- pretty much the two opposite ends of the spectrum as far as appliance styles are concerned! (Note, the cooktop area is not rendered correctly in the top drawing -- the hood size is accurate but the cooktop should show two cooktops totalling 56" of counter length, not one cooktop totalling 36" of counter length).

Pros: we got the cooking functionality that we really wanted and will use, with both a griddle and induction cooking. There is no induction cooktop that includes a griddle, so to get both functions, we had to choose two separate appliances. Normally I would suggest to someone else that they don't get the griddle, or at least compromise to a 12"/15" griddle. Or, use gas instead of induction so you can get built-in griddle options. But... I knew that we'd happily use all 24" of the griddle, as well as I knew we really preferred induction for reasons of performance, energy efficiency, and child safety.

Cons: The width of the cooktop area and the resulting hood dominated the initial rounds of design. I wanted, however, our Fiestaware dish hutch as well as soapstone countertops to really be the focus in the kitchen. The lead designer at my cabinetry firm helped to design a hood that was fairly understated in the final result (as much as a hood can be 5' wide and understated). Of course, the hood is still undeniably large.

To install the commercial griddle next to the sleek induction, and not have it look ridiculous, we chose to create a soapstone apron front underneath the induction cooktop of the same height as the front of the griddle. The cooktop, being black and flush with the counter, should also blend in fairly well with the soapstone around it. The initial idea was to put steel counter around the induction cooktop, however the bid for this was ridiculous so I discarded that idea. Other design elements such as the slate mosaic backsplash should help define the cooktop as one area, versus two oddly juxtaposed appliances.

It's a bit contrived, but I actually think it'll end up working out well. At the end of the design iterations, all people involved in these conversations took a step back, looked at the renderings, and said "wow, that's actually pretty tight!" Cross fingers that it turns out well once installed!

09 May 2009

Not-So-Simple Mac and Cheese

Photo above: not-so-simple mac and cheese.

We have been cooking out of a temporary kitchen for the last six weeks, and expect to be in this unenviable state for another eight weeks. Living through a major remodeling project is generally lousy: the psychological impact of construction mess in our home; dust everywhere (even with diligent dust protection, it's inevitable); varying noise levels throughout the day; disruption of general routine and inconvenience all around. But the worst of it all, as far as I'm concerned, is the utter disorganization and severe prepping/cooking limitation that goes along with working out of a temporary kitchen.

Our setup is basically this: our kitchen (with oven, electric skillet, fridge, microwave, and freezer) is in the garage, which is on our main ground level. We also have a grill on the back deck, which is also on the main level. Our casual dining/family area is setup in the daylight walkout basement. For our cleanup, we are using the utility sink in the laundry room... which is on the upper bedroom level. So the progression of a meal is: prep on main floor; serve down in basement; hike two levels to cleanup on top floor. Here is "appliance alley" in our garage:

And here's the view of our ghetto-garage in all its glory from the outside. Not only is it our "kitchen", as well as storage area for newly delivered appliances, but also the garage contains random odd items as any self-respecting garage would:
The best is when I am using the oven to roast or something like that -- with no venthood, I really must open the garage door to let out the fumes. We get quite a few "looks" and questions from our inquisitive neighbors as they stroll past on their walks.

The situation is far from ideal, but I went through a few scenarios and there's really no good way to do this. So, each day requires traversing the three levels of our house many, many times. As an aside, I am 7.5 months pregnant. I am also sometimes carrying our almost-2yo toddler on my right hip, as I juggle items being transported from one living level to another in my left hand. So trust me, if I could find a better way than going up and down these stairs all day, I would.

Recently our exterior framing/siding was finished... which meant we could use our deck and grill again. This meant -- drumroll -- that I could now boil water! Our Daddy Grill has a side gas burner which I had never used before, but it was now an object of my lust. My daughter had asked for mac and cheese earlier in the day, and gosh darn it I was going to make it for her!

Challenge #1: find a pot to boil water in. Any stovetop work we do in the temp kitchen is primarily in the electric skillet, so we didn't keep too many pots and pans accessible... As in, we kept one pot out with the rest stored in boxes, closets, etc. That one pot was currently storing leftover soup. Five minutes of searching later, I finally found an adequate pot. It wasn't ideal (wide and shallow) but at ~3.5" deep, it would work to boil water.

Challenge #2: Fill water into pot in bathroom sink and carry water to deck without spilling. Mostly successful.

Challenge #3: I needed a landing zone for my cooking tools: Strainer, mitt, spatula, cheese packet. There was no work surface nearby and the patio table was too far of a reach. I balanced my items on various flat parts of the grill.

Challenge #4: Cook the pasta. It is supposed to boil for 8-10 minutes. With my wide shallow pot on my outdoor gas burner, I lost a lot of surface heat to crosswind. Had to boil for an unusually long 15 minutes.

Challenge #5: Extinguish the silicone spatula. Apparently my landing zone that I concocted for #3, left the spatula too close to my gas flame. My silicone safe-to-500-degrees spatula caught on fire. I had no water source nearby. My husband grabbed the utensil and headed down off the deck to the outdoor hose and soaked the utensil. After photo:

Challenge #6: By now, all pyro incidents have been solved and the pasta is cooked. I even had, by some miracle, a strainer at hand. But - where to strain my boiling water? I have no sink on the deck. My daughter and dog are both playing in the yard down below the deck. Solution: have husband keep them at bay while I strained off the boiling water in a far corner of the deck.

Challenge #7: find a measuring cup to make the cheese sauce. Who am I kidding? I'm not going back to the garage for a measuring cup. I eyeball it. I end up putting in too much milk so the sauce is entirely runny and way unappetizing, not to mention asking for uber-messy trouble with a toddler. I ask my husband for any ideas and he suggests that I try adding bread crumbs. Miraculously, I know where the bread crumbs are (they're in the garage, next to the measuring cups!). I throw some bread crumbs into the mac and cheese and the consistency was actually lovely. It simply looked homemade.

That's part of the problem with a temporary kitchen -- every new process, as simple as it is, seems like re-inventing the wheel. It's amazing how we take the convenience of a "real kitchen" for granted. We have been really fortunate in our remodel to not only go over to friends' houses for dinners, but also to be part of a couple frozen meal swaps that have kept us stocked in easy to prepare meals. I remember wondering if running a 220v line to have my oven hooked up in the garage was really necessary (electrician visits can be expensive!). It turns out to be a lifesaver as we have lots of frozen meals that taste like proper homemade dishes, that can only be baked in the oven.

Here is what I miss most about our normal kitchen:
  • having a dishwasher - this easily tops the list as we hate dishwashing
  • having ice to keep our drinks cold
  • using real metal utensils (we could do this but... we hate washing dishes even more than we hate plastic utensils)
  • having a clean dust-free environment for storing and prepping fresh produce. We're doing a lot of bagged salads and steamed frozen veggies. We certainly do these normally, but not ALL the TIME and it's getting a bit old. I can do SOME fresh produce, but it's so exhausting to figure it all out. Easier to just throw in the proverbial towel and just steam up some frozen vegs.
(ps Luckily, both my daughter and her friend totally loved the mac and cheese.)

04 May 2009

The Plans

I figured it was about time that I posted an overview of our kitchen remodel plans!

A lot of people, when remodeling, enter the project with a statement like "I want a Tuscan kitchen" or "I just want some new appliances to make life easier." They make statements about style, form, function, utility, etc. To me, that is secondary. The first todo is to take a very big step back and think about the overall goals, and desired feel, for the kitchen. For example, here are some overall goals that we had:
  • nurture and foster a social family environment
  • enable casual and comfortable entertaining for large crowds
  • create a sense of connectedness to other areas of our home, as well as our entire site (i.e. our outdoor yards/deck)
  • celebrate food and encourage a healthier diet and eating habits
  • maximize efficiency and ergonomics* in daily usage patterns (* I have a bad back)
  • bottom line: create a space that feels good
A lot of people in design often debate form versus function. In most cases, I think the elusive quality of "feel" trumps both of those. Kelly at Kitchen Sync wrote a great post about feel just as I was starting to noodle on the idea of how to describe it and write about it. For now I'll just let you take in her thoughts and sooner or later, I'll try to organize my own thoughts about "feel."

Here is the kitchen layout that we inherited with the house:
From Kitchen - Gorsegner

There were a lot of "feel" problems with this kitchen. Here are some of the top issues:
  • When entering the front door of the house, you looked to the back and found yourself directly centered with a sliding glass door. As my husband said, the message was clearly: "welcome! come in! go out!"
  • The kitchen was entirely open on one side to the living room, to form a great room, but it was very closed and imposing on all three other sides. As you entered the great room, there was no gradual transition into the space, especially since your first view, of the glass door, gave no hint as to anything else in the great room. In just one step, you abruptly switched from hallway to kitchen... an entirely unnecessary constraint in a floor plan of this size.
  • The kitchen also had cabinetry 8' high that was 24" deep, on the three walls of the room. This might be ok for a larger kitchen but not a 12.5'x13.5' kitchen. It felt like a heaviness was bearing down on you from every direction. This imposing wall of storage - a pantry - towered over you as you entered the room:
    From Why Remodel The Kitchen?
    Note: I have a lot of kitchen "stuff" and I never used all the storage in the old kitchen!
  • The island was 10' long by 3' wide -- effectively serving as a barrier to general traffic flow in the kitchen. The island actually extended 3' past the kitchen and into what should have been the casual dining area.
  • The casual dining area was entirely cramped and uninviting -- primarily due to the intrusion of the island. Anyone sitting in the dining area obstructed access to the sliding glass door and thus the deck and back yard.
These are the new kitchen plans:
From Kitchen - Gorsegner

Of note ...
  • There is now a designated casual dining area
  • The food storage pantry has moved from the "social zone" to the butler's pantry
  • This enables the stair wall to be opened up and allows for a smoother, gradual transition to the kitchen/great room area
  • There is a speed cook oven recessed into the stair wall, under the halfway stair landing. Thus there is still function on this wall, without taking up floor space.
  • Sliding glass door is now in the living room, and no longer chops up the great room into two smaller disjointed halves
  • New island dimensions encourage a better social and functional traffic flow (through widened aisles)
  • The corner windows, which "connected" us to the neighbor's backyard, have been removed, and a new single larger window is over the sink (this window gives us a view of our herb garden and living Christmas tree)
  • We also switched out the butler's pantry door to a full height glass door, borrowing some light from the dining room into the pantry
  • This layout also creates a focal point of a red painted dish hutch as you enter the room. The hutch, with glass doors, will store our every day dishes of Fiestaware china, as well as drinking glasses and possibly some heirloom Fiestaware pieces. We are well known for Fiestaware love among our friends and family, so having this prominent hutch of Fiestaware is a really defining (and expected) statement in our kitchen.
And finally, here is a 3d perspective of the new kitchen. It is missing the all-important stair wall, to give you a feel for the new transition into the space, as well as includes several mistakes such as window sizes. It does, however, a fairly decent job of communicating the overall feel of the new kitchen layout:
From Kitchen - Gorsegner

I should mention that the first two color illustrations are quick sketches done by me in Powerpoint. This last 3D drawing was provided to me by the custom cabinetry firm I have hired. It was done using Cabinet Vision, with the primary objective being to send instructions to the CNC machine to cut my cabinets. It's an engineering tool, not a design tool. I would like to draw up my new kitchen on my own, in either Sketchup or Chief Architect software, to give you a better "feel" for the new kitchen. I would like to do a lot of things for this blog, however, so this 3D line drawing will have to suffice for now!

I've created an online album, annotated with captions, to show various aspects of our kitchen plans. There's a total of seven drawings in this album (three of which are already included in this post.)

The plans are not perfect, but we are really very happy with the overall direction. In a future post, I'll detail some sacrifices, concerns, and tradeoffs in our plans and decisions.

02 May 2009


KBIS is taking place this weekend in Atlanta. KBIS is the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show and Conference -- the largest annual gathering of professionals in the industry. Oh, how I have KBIS-envy right now!!! I look forward to the year when I can attend. Drool drool drool. I have known attendees there the past couple years and they've brought back cool photos, literature, and news of technology and trends... but this year, amongst my new peers in Portland, I don't personally know anyone who is there. So sad. Luckily the community of kitchen design on the Internet has really blossomed in the last year or two, so there are a few twitter-ers (tweeters?) that I can follow, as well as KBIS themselves offer an RSS feed which I've subbed to. The KBIS site is more marketing-oriented than news, however (which I expected). For example, apparently Eli Manning lost a competition against his dear mother in a pancake cookoff on a Kenmore induction cooktop.

(ETA -- the RSS feed is not from KBIS, but from K+BB magazine online. http://nbm.typepad.com/kbis_live/)

The last occasion where I spent quality time in Atlanta was for the 1996 Olympic Games, where I both volunteered as a gymnastics statistician as well as had a job maintaining the official website for the USA Gymnastics team. I was in Atlanta for over two weeks -- it's a really fun city. I do hope it's a bit more temperate now in the first week of May, than it was in July 1996!