It wasn't arrogance that made me believe that I would have a problem-free kitchen renovation; it was experience. I've paid attention to kitchen design for at least 10 years as an editor and have even written articles on new appliances, perfect floor plans and such. I thought I was as close to being an expert as you can be without having real, hands-on experience. After my husband and I bought an apartment with a small (10 by 10 foot), 1970s-style kitchen, I actually looked forward to knocking the whole thing out and starting from scratch. Even though I had strong ideas about what I wanted to do, I also knew I wasn't going to be able to do it alone. So I hired experts. But hiring the right people turned out to be the trickiest part of all. I want to share what I discovered along the way. Some of this might seem awfully obvious, but when I compared stories with my friends, we discovered we'd all made similar (read: hopelessly naive) mistakes.
My first piece of advice is one I initially chose to ignore. I had read that you should always hire an architect when embarking on a custom renovation. "Why?" I thought. My job is so small, so simple, I can just tell the contractor what to do. Well, after interviewing several potential contractors, I realized that to get an accurate bid, I needed an architect or someone else to draw a floor plan, a lighting plan, an electrical plan and so on. Life Lesson #1: Be sure you have a complete and accurate plan before you put your job out to bid.
I turned to Robert Marino, a good friend who's an architect, and asked if he could help. Usually I think hiring friends is unwise. It's sort of like dating your sister-in-law's brother: If it works out, great. If it doesn't, it's awkward forever. But I did follow a useful protocol here. I visited several of Robert's jobs. I spoke to some of his previous clients (many of whom were his friends before working with him and still are today--a good sign, I thought). I asked them if they thought Robert was responsive, available, quick, decisive, good at keeping on top of the general contractor, amenable to changes. This last point was critical. I didn't want to hire an architect who was design-proud, who would meet any request for a redesign with a pout. I also assessed whether or not Robert's taste and mine were compatible. I concluded that we were both Sensitive Modernists. But, more important, he was flexible and actually interested in hearing what I wanted. Life Lesson #2: Do your homework on any designer or architect. Look for compatibility in both taste and working style. Charm alone doesn't make someone easy to work with.
Like everyone, I started with a budget and wound up spending almost twice as much. I picked a low number out of the air. Once I shopped around, though, I realized that the appliances alone would cost the total amount I wanted to spend. I could have chosen different appliances, but I wanted my Miele and my Viking and couldn't be swayed for love or money. Which, roughly translated, meant "The budget be damned." One acquaintance, on the other hand, worked with an architect for 10 weeks to get the budget in line. They started with the Dream Kitchen and then, when that turned out to be too costly, worked backwards to cut the budget in half while maintaining the integrity of the design. Life Lesson #3: The budget is within your control. If you do enough advance research, you can start with a realistic figure. Or you can cut back. Falling in love with any part of the project can be very expensive.
Ask people who know me and I promise you that 99 out of 100 of them will tell you I'm picky, critical and very detail-oriented. (I don't take it personally; it's something that comes with being a Virgo.) The remaining one percent would be my husband, Barclay. He discovered the hard way that I like the big picture, can be timid about pointing out errors and don't like to use a tape measure. Barclay chose to double-check the measurements on the plan against the dimensions of the room and discovered one or two inconsistencies. Barclay was also willing to be the paint police. He scrutinized every inch of the kitchen and put Post-its on every splotch, streak and drop. The painters fixed certain patches. Barclay still wasn't satisfied. In all, the painters came back four times. I would have given up after two visits and thought, I'll just live with it. Life Lesson #4: No matter how good the architect or contractor, someone on the client side should carefully examine every element of the plan. And once the construction starts, check the progress as often as possible. Don't even think about living with problems because you feel bad that a worker has to come back again. In the long run, keeping a close watch on the details will save you time, money and the anguish of having to stare at a mistake day after day.
If you're not lucky enough to be married to someone as skilled with a tape measure as Barclay, and you have a really big renovation or construction job, then perhaps you'll want to hire a client representative. This is a person who serves as an interpreter between the client and the architect, someone who can understand both of you. I thought I could decode Robert's drawings for my custom cabinets, but it wasn't until another architect friend perused them and asked several questions that I realized I had no idea what they would look like. Robert had a sample door made so I could envision the final design. Life Lesson #5: If the budget and the job are big enough, hire a client representative to help you interpret the architect's drawings. It will spare you tons of aggravation and money.
The personality of a kitchen is in the finishes: cabinets, tiles, flooring, paint color, window treatments. And I wanted my kitchen, small as it is, to have some attitude. Eighteen years earlier, I had visited a friend who had a wooden kitchen floor that was painted bright red, and I'd never forgotten it. I'd also heard that cork is perfect for kitchens, both because it takes abuse well (it's used in museums and libraries) and because it's easy on your back if you're standing for long periods (unlike tile and stone). My architect was a little hesitant--he wasn't convinced that red would go well with the cherrywood cabinets, and he feared that a sharp object dropped on the floor would scar the cork forever. But I was stubborn. I really wanted that red floor. Needless to say, Life Lesson #6: If you've hired the right people, then listen to their practical advice. I might have a statement kitchen, but I also have a floor that is scuffed and pockmarked after just six months.