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Remodeler's Diary

Architect at Center of Kitchen Remodel

September 05, 1993|IRENE WIELAWSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Wielawski is an investigative reporter for The Times. and

My last kitchen remodel was such heartache that I vowed I would never do it again. Southern California real estate prices, however, quickly made me eat those words. Economically speaking, the move from Providence, R.I, to Los Angeles meant exchanging a finely restored, 3,800-square-foot Victorian for a '50s-era stucco box with original everything, including Wedgewood stove.

That stove was the only thing I could stand in the dingy pit that passed for a kitchen.

The room had two windows, but you couldn't pry them open without throwing your back out. Counterspace was nil. When I baked cupcakes for class parties at my children's school, the only place I could fill the tins was on the floor. There was neither dishwasher nor room to install one. Cabinet space was so stingy that the good china was exiled to packing boxes in the garage.

Worst of all was the kitchen's callous disregard for our home's most charming aspect--a back yard patio and English garden. Even though the kitchen was at the back of the house, its layout blocked any pleasing view. A back door led to the patio, but to get to it, you had make a right turn from the kitchen into a narrow washer/dryer/hot water heater utility room, then veer left to the exit.

Still, it took me a year to tackle the kitchen remodel and months more to figure out how to go about it. In the end, I decided against giving the job to a builder or kitchen shop, in favor of working with an architect.

It's not a route everyone should take, nor the least expensive since the architect's fee adds to up-front costs. But I think this professional advice saved us from more expensive mistakes--though I was skeptical at first. Our kitchen in Rhode Island had turned out just fine with me as both designer and general contractor.

I now realize that project was really an updating, not a remodel. Appliances stayed essentially where they were, and the major decisions had to do with cabinetry, color scheme and counter surfaces. The kitchen shop I hired in Rhode Island was perfectly suited to the job.

The Los Angeles project needed a sophisticated marriage of design and function in a 10-by-12-foot space. Lumber yards with kitchen designers, kitchen shops, a discount kitchen warehouse and a builder all submitted designs that failed to comprehensively tackle the problems of flow, light, storage and work space.

Moreover, their submissions largely ignored the rest of the house. In my hunt for an affordable home in Los Angeles, I had seen too many Cadillac kitchen remodels tacked onto Chevrolet homes. I wanted a kitchen that would be functional, pleasing, even interesting, but not discordant with the rest of the house.

Joe, our architect, delivered one, a subtly modern design that echoes the simplicity of the other rooms while serving as a threshold to the garden.

Equal to his professional skill was his ability and his willingness to listen to my concerns and incorporate our family's lifestyle into his design. I'd heard horror stories from friends about architects who imperiously impose their designs, and pooh-pooh client suggestions in the name of art. You wouldn't want that dictatorial approach in a doctor or other professional, and you don't want it in an architect.

Which is not to say Joe was a pushover for any notion that came into my head. He absolutely refused to consider the garden window I'd set my heart on after seeing it in a friend's kitchen. From the outside, it would look awful, he said, given the style of windows throughout the house. Joe persuaded me by leading me on a walk around the house--something none of the contractors or kitchen shop designers had thought to do before agreeably penciling my suggestion into their plans.

Joe, on the other hand, had to forgo the wood floor--an artistically painful concession to client's wishes. Although I had no doubt it would look splendid, I'd spent eight years babying the antique wood floor in our Rhode Island home while my children spilled, scribbled and ran demolition derbies on it. I dreamed of maintenance-free linoleum in those days and now I was determined to get it.

Family considerations also nixed his idea to use glass in both the upper and lower cabinet doors. The design was stunning, employing tinted glass to make the doors opaque enough to hide what was behind them while magnifying the effect of natural and electric light. But knowing my children's penchant for closing cabinets and drawers with their feet, I could see only glass shards in our future--and dashes to the local emergency room for stitches. We compromised on glass in the upper cabinets only.

Other compromises were imposed by our budget. I skimped on the quality of the appliances in a determined effort to keep costs down. Joe warned that this was shortsighted, and I regret not heeding his advice every time I pull out the frying pan to make pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches. The cooktop of my dreams--only a few hundred dollars more than what I settled for--came with a griddle.

On the other hand, I couldn't be happier about the decision to hire the contractor Joe recommended. He was not the cheapest. (The bid range went from $17,500 to an astonishing $33,000!) Still, just as straightforward give-and-take between Joe and me led to a mutually satisfying design, so a good working relationship between architect and contractor lessened the chances for costly mistakes in construction.

The result was a kitchen pleasing to all of us, delivered on budget and in only three weeks.

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