You Asked, The Remodeling Pro Answers: How Do I Maximize Light & Layout In This Older Kitchen?

You Asked, The Remodeling Pro Answers: How Do I Maximize Light & Layout In This Older Kitchen?

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Dabney Frake
Jul 6, 2016

Homeowner Kate Millington lives on the third floor of a triple decker house in Boston. Although it's got original early 1900s details (like lovely built-ins), her kitchen isn't everything she'd like it to be. It's dark, closed off from the rest of the apartment, and — like many old homes — is set up rather awkwardly. She's got a budget of $15,000 to completely redo the space.

In this series, expert Alex Bandon answers your specific renovation questions. Write in about your planned remodel, and she'll identify potential pitfalls, give recommendations, and help you get the most of your project!

(Image credit: Kate Millington)

From Kate: The kitchen in our early 1900s triple decker is a conversation piece. The floors are covered with red vinyl and the walls are bright yellow. Item number one is to get rid of that vinyl and (hopefully!) refinish the existing hardwood floors underneath. There is also a lot of light from the big windows that we would like to share with the rest of the house, by taking down the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room and replacing it with a breakfast bar and stools. Because our budget is so wee we would like to be sure to accomplish the floor and the wall and then tackle the more cosmetic things ourselves, including refinishing the existing cabinets and repainting.

Since its an old house with odd angles it is difficult to get the layout just right. We want it to look like an intentional part of the space and not a closed off space where you put your 1950's housewife and forget about her. We want the kitchen to flow with the rest of the house, including the built-ins in the dining room, but still look updated and appealing to modern home buyers in the future.

(Image credit: Kate Millington)

Alex's Answer: Wow, you're right—you do have a difficult layout. But let's focus on the positives, like those huge windows and the super-high ceilings. You have light (yay!) and room for storage (double yay!), even if it's not within a traditional layout.

You have space to add cabinetry or shelving above the existing cabinets on the stove wall, and above where the fridge is now. Since you want to take away cabinets by opening a wall, think about where you could gain back some storage. Consider adding another row of cabinets above the stove, or even a display shelf where you can put colorful but rarely used cookware and serving pieces.

The light from the windows is definitely key. You must move that fridge away from blocking them as it does now. Slide it to the right, almost up against the apartment door. Then fill the space between it and the windows with some low-slung cabinetry. If it could be 30-inches high without interfering with the window, then you have a perfect height counter for a baking station or other work surface. If it's in your budget, I would swap in a counter-depth fridge, to minimize how much the appliance disrupts the lines of room.

The one thing working against you is your budget. Sounds like you're DIYers, but there are a couple of things you really should hire a pro for: electrical, plumbing, and floor refinishing.

If you take down the wall to the dining room, you're going to have to move some outlets and wiring that are on that wall. You'll want to talk to a pro about local codes in Boston, but many now require at least one outlet accessible from each counter in a kitchen. So you can't make those outlets go away; you'll have to move them. And you'll want to, too, since you'll need somewhere to plug in toasters and blenders and other countertop appliances. The new outlets (must be GFCIs) could go at the end of the peninsula and on the exterior wall. In any case, electrical work can take a chunk out of any budget, depending on the extent of the work. So get that bid first before you plan the rest.

Another consideration with taking down that wall is whether it holds a plumbing vent stack for the sink. That's a pipe that lets air into the system so water can drain (just like taking your finger off the end of a straw releases the liquid in it). That could be costly to move, so you might need to hide it in a decorative column when the wall comes down.

All this should make you consider whether you want to be the one doing the demolition, when there's wiring and plumbing in the wall. You need to be able to take the wall apart in a deliberate manner, rather than swinging a sledgehammer at it. You could save yourself from the cost of unintended repairs if you let a pro handle this task.

In the same vein, while floor refinishing sounds like something a DIYer could do, it's really an art and I wouldn't recommend learning how to use a big sanding machine while experimenting on your own kitchen. Expect to pay a pro $4 to $4.50 per square foot for a finish that includes staining and three coats of polyurethane (water-based is okay, but you must have three coats in a kitchen). That doesn't take into account that you may need repairs after you pull up the vinyl. (Also, make sure that vinyl is from after the 1980s. Older vinyl tiles and sheets often contained asbestos in the backing or the mastic used to glue it down, and ripping it up yourself can be hazardous. Talk to your flooring contractor about that.)

Now for the rest of your budget. You'll be building a new peninsula around the sink area, with new counters (which you'll also have to match on the stove wall). As you price out materials for the counter, remember you'll need an extra 10 to 12 inches of overhang to accommodate your bent knees sitting on a stool. If you raise the breakfast counter to bar height (40 to 42 inches), your knees don't bend as much and you can make the counter 8 to 10 inches deep, but then you will need to fill with a 6-inch backsplash. Good counters are going the take a chunk of your budget: a nice engineered stone could set you back several thousand dollars.

But if you have room for it, I would say add a row of full- or even half-depth base cabinets on the dining-room side of the peninsula, to create a deep counter with lots of room for serving plates you pass over. You could design the peninsula cabinets in the style of the dining room built-ins, using brackets or corner posts to match the trim profiles elsewhere in the room.

Then paint the cabinets white—or two colors upper and lower—add more shelves like the one you have over the fridge, hang some pendant lights over the peninsula, and keep the walls a pale color. You'll end up with a bright, sunny, open kitchen that transitions nicely into your dining room—great for a party or everyday use.

Alex Bandon has 18 years of experience in home renovations. She started as a writer and editor for This Old House, learning everything she could about residential construction and building materials. She now owns North River Renovation Management, and works with homeowners to design, budget, and manage their home makeovers.

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