Diary of a kitchen remodel

Year one ... and counting

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My husband and I begin talking in earnest about redoing our kitchen. We've lived in our Oak Park brick Georgian for almost four years. The house dates from 1950, when wall-to-wall carpeting, not crown molding, was the rage. It's plain but functional. We've added some wood floors, for fear of getting kicked out of town.

The beige kitchen screams 1980. Beige laminate cabinetry, beige laminate countertops, beige (well, "almond") refrigerator and dishwasher. We have places to put our food, prepare our food, cook our food and wash our dishes. We're not gourmet cooks with professional-grade ambitions. Do we really need wood cabinetry?

No, but … . Our windowless kitchen gets little natural light. The only exterior window became a pass-through during a former owner's addition. We have a nice-sized eating area on the other side as well as a family room, a former porch. Both look out on an attractive backyardâ€"one of the main reasons we bought the house.

I have a limited view of this space from inside the kitchen. I have a limited view of our daughters, who occasionally fight while waiting for food. I could more cheerily prepare their food with access to light and space. I could more effectively nip their battles in the bud.

My husband enjoys home improvement projects, but this one is too big. We're coming to grips with that. The brick, load-bearing wall that confines our kitchen must go. Plus, we're really tired of beige laminate.

April 2004

I find a direct-mail piece from New Era in Oak Park. The owner offers to spend an hour providing ideas for a small fee, to be credited toward our remodel. With a visionary manner that reminds me of team-building seminars in my corporate days, he delivers some "big picture" comments. I become slightly afraid.

Parenthesis' kitchen walk comes along at the right time. On a prior walk, I ogled the splendor and gagged at the imagined cost. This time, I plan to take in specific details, collect business cards and ask pointed questions.

Mostly, I ogle the splendor and gag at the imagined cost. Two kitchens seem less than over-the-top. I talk with the owner of Baronger Group/Oak Park Bath & Kitchen. He assures me we can remove a load-bearing wall and redo our kitchen within our budgetâ€"an "average cost of a new kitchen" number my husband and I have swallowed hard to consider.

I come home overwhelmed but confident that we can move forward. My husband catches the vibe.

May 2004

On Mother's Day, I receive a "gift certificate" for a new kitchen. Is this a setback for feminism? Knowing my husband's progressive nature, I decide the answer is no.

We meet with New Era, Oak Park Bath & Kitchen, and the architect/design team of Figg/Halpin. We like all three but decide to go with someone who manages the construction in-house. That load-bearing wall thing scares us.

Oak Park Bath & Kitchen's designer seems inexperienced, and their financial estimate is higher than we initially discussed. New Era comes in just under our budget (but leaves out appliance costs).

New Era's designer and owner banter about our project with slightly different perspectives. It seems we're getting the best of two views. We agree to a flat design fee, to be credited toward construction.

I investigate the scary topic of financing and discover it's frighteningly easy to secure a home equity line of credit. Is that why contractors are so busy in Oak Park? My husband and I hate borrowing money. We hope he gets a big bonus next year.

June 2004

We review ideas with our designer. We consider a counter with stools but decide we need the space for our kitchen table and workspace (my writing desk).

We choose a fairly straightforward plan. Remove the load-bearing wall to open up the kitchen. Install a beam to keep the second floor from falling in. Upgrade appliances and cabinetry. Move the microwave over the stove to reclaim space. Expand the workspace along one wall of the old addition. Alter an adjacent entryway to complement

Our designer includes a custom workspace option, which would increase our budget by several thousand dollars. She also mentions that lots of office furniture can be found at IKEA.

July 2004

New Era's owner presents a detailed budget and construction contract. Their project backlog pushes our start date to the first of January. I'm relieved to postpone the upcoming mess (10 weeks or so of it).

We briefly discuss the custom workspace option again. The owner jokes that IKEA furniture is made for couples whose relationships won't last. My husband nods in agreement, but we still decide to deal with the workspace ourselves.

Our designer hands us some brochures and magazines. "In the fall," we should begin making decisions.

August 2004

We glance at our design documents and show them to friends and family. We look through magazines and find a few things we like. I develop a distaste for stainless steel appliances, simply because they seem almost mandatory.

September 2004

My husband takes an interest in countertops. Our design document quotes "Corian," although we've been told granite is feasible. My husband doesn't like the feel of Corianâ€"too plastic. I start feeling countertops myself and have to agree.

I tour a revamped condo for a WEDNESDAY JOURNAL story. The owner praises the advantages of his countertop material: Silestone (quartz). It has granite's heat- and scratch-resistance, plus it's maintenance-free. I share the tip with my husband, who looks intrigued.

October 2004

We take a family trip to Abt Electronics in Glenview. A salesman captures us and walks us through refrigerators, ranges, microwaves and dishwashers. I focus on the options in white. My husband takes pictures.

In refrigerators, our 5-year-old lies on the floor. In dishwashers, my husband takes both girls to find the free cookies. We bolt soon after with glazed eyes and hazy ideas.

I briefly wonder if we should stick with the appliances we have. Our KitchenAid "Supurba" refrigerator with chrome accents was clearly once a stylish choice, but the dishwasher is loutishly loud compared to modern machines. I can't preheat our
Kenmore oven and fire the burners at the same time.

We're spend ing a boatload to remodel the kitchen. What's a little dingy-full of new appliances? I head to Trage in Forest Park, leaving with different preferences (Bosch instead of GE oven and dishwasher), model numbers and price quotes. We look at sinks and faucets at The Great Indoors, while our girls chip away at a nearby block of

My husband makes a pitch for a dishwasher that can be covered with a wood panel. He's decided that the dishwasher's prominenceâ€"viewable from our foyerâ€"merits the investment. I discount the notion, but his idea nags at me until I change my mind.

Our designer politely suggests that with our dark wood parquet floor (which we hope to preserve) and our cabinet and countertop vision, white appliances will look stark. I throw out my anti-stainless stance.

My husband's eyes light up at the sight of a sturdy-looking cabinet handle. We firm up cabinet, countertop and hardware decisions. Our designer confesses they've lost a contractor, but she doesn't yet know what that means for our start date.

November 2004

The election results plunge me into the pit of despair. After a few days of mourning, I head to Trage and cast my vote for our new appliances. My husband follows suit and closes the deal.

Oak Park Bath & Kitchen's owner calls me to ask about our project. He tells me the (seemingly inexperienced) designer is no longer with his company. Oh well.

New Era calls to tell us they're looking at mid-February.

December 2004

Tsunamis wipe out more than a hundred thousand people in Asia. Many more
are without food and clean water. It's about time for us to pick out our tile backsplash. I cringe at my superficial American
life and make a small contribution to
Tsunami relief.

January 2005

While our girls eat peanut butter pretzels at New Era, we decide where to put garbage and recycling cabinets. We add glass inserts to four cabinets and shorten two for visual interest. I mentally vow not to put any baskets up there.

Our designer suggests we revisit our choice of range. The back will break up a nice smooth expanse of backsplash. Would we want to consider a built-in oven and cook top?

On individual trips to Trage, my husband and I see how cool and streamlined the built-ins look. The ovens are small, thoughâ€"often sold in "twos" for people with bigger kitchens.

The girls eat cookies at Abt as I dart back and forth between ovens. We decide that a slide-in might be the answerâ€"no back to interrupt our clean lines, plus the edges overhang the countertop, containing crumbs. We don't find one we like.

On the way out, I notice a $30,000 stand-alone range in a display kitchenâ€"$30,000, and you'd still have a gap where crumbs could fall!

I waste dozens of hours on the Internet obsessively searching for the perfect range. I drive to The Great Indoors and finally decide on a Jenn-Air slide-in (not Viking, not Wolf … please don't kick us out of town). I find the best price on the Internet and get it from Trage.

We sign final design documents, already $1,500 over budget. Our lighting plan is a bright spot. We'll be going from two fixtures at 150 watts each to 12, 75-watt recessed can lights (plus six under-cabinet halogen lights). My husband takes pictures of our dim, beige kitchen.

February 2005

Our girls are ready for the project to start, so we can begin "living in the basement." I explain we'll just be eating down there. Our second-floor bedrooms will be usable. They look disappointed. I'm ready to stop cookingâ€"and waiting.

Our designer calls from village hall. A computer glitch has erased our ownership records. We need a copy of our deed or bill of sale to get our permit. I find the required paperwork and wait for word on our start date.

Two weeks later, New Era says they're ready to start, but the permit's not done. Another week passes. The last day of February, our permit comes through. We'll start March 7.

Freelance writer Linda Downing Miller is a frequent contributor to these pages. Work on her kitchen began Monday. In the coming months, she'll keep us up to date on how her kitchen remodel is progressing.


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