10 January 2011

Reader question: How do I know how much to spend on a renovation?

I get reader questions from all over the place and this one arrived some time around the new year. Usually, I answer reader questions with a quick note and sometimes, they need a more thoughtful response. The following came from a reader in Melbourne and there was no way a quick e-mail response could have done it any kind of justice. I learn as much from my international readers as I hope they learn form me.
My holiday reading included McCloud's '43 principles of home'. In this book chapter 15 is devoted to 'things at home not worth investing in' and one of the sections in this chapter is 'kitchen cupboards and doors'.

"The bits that matter in the kitchen are the machines that so the work and the bits you come into contact with." Chapter 16 of the same book is devoted to things worth investing in and include kitchen door handles, taps and worktops. Knives and pans are also important. But door cupboards aren't. And frankly, the best made kitchens in the world are still 'carcassed out' using orientated strand board, chipboard or plywood. Structurally there's negligible difference in quality between a $10k kitchen and it's $100k equivalent. Moreover, high-street merchants like Ikea have got wise to this and are now retailing budget kit kitchens that mimic the bespoke German ones. It also seems daft to spend vast quantities on an aspect of the home that the next owners will invariably rip out and replace. Which they will, because it's human nature to territorialise the new cave with a new kitchen.  All of which demands that you invest in kitchen units and doors that are ecological, recyclable and for that matter probably recycled in the first place. (McCloud then suggest a suitable company for sourcing your kitchen carcass from.)"

So to be fair this issues probably needs the context of the entire book. But this  little tidbit of advice worried me because it seems like sound advice, and yet I don't like the idea of a chipboard kitchen from Ikea or from bontempi for that matter. But does it make sense to get a carpenter in to hand make all my cupboards in native hardwood?

Intuitively I'd have thought this was the right thing to do. Although we're not planning on moving, are kitchens are so subject to trends and fashions, and am I so merely mortal  that 10 to 20 years the life span for a kitchen?  And if so, is chipboard ok?

I remember your post of kitchens through the ages... So the evidence is weighing in on the side of limiting the investment in the carcass.

Ikea carcass and doors tricked up with wolf appliances a subzero fridge an integrated stainless steel sink bench top on one side of the galley and a cool stone bench top on the other (for rolling pastry and for pasta making) on the other, and the best taps and handles to finish it off.... Would this work?

That was a long question I know, but I thought it was important to run the whole thing. The question came to me from Fleur, a reader from Australia and she raises a couple of good points. Before I could answer this I had to dig in a bit and find out about the source of her question, Kevin McCloud's 43 Principles of Home.

Kevin McCloud is a designer, writer and television presenter based in the UK. He has an enormous following there and in the rest of the English-speaking world. Everywhere it seems, except for the US. His latest book, 43 Things isn't available in the US and it drives me crazy that I can't get my hands on it. Maybe I'll find it in Germany in a few weeks.

The book's published by Harper-Collins-UK and they prepared this overview video I found on YouTube.

I like this guy's style and I like what he has to say. Sort of. I know more about the renovation scene in Europe than I do the scene in Australia unfortunately, but from what I've learned from other Australian readers, it's quite different from that in the US and Canada. As I understand it, there's a wide middle of the market here that's not quite so wide in your part of the world but there are a couple of things that hold true everywhere.

Kevin McCloud's opinion not withstanding, there's an enormous difference in the quality of a $100K when compared to a $10K kitchen. There just is. Whether or not a carcass is made from particle board, MDF or plywood isn't an automatic indicator of quality. There are plywood-sided cabinets I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy and there are particle board-sided cabinets I'l give a kidney for the privilege to own. What makes a quality carcass is the thickness of it and the manner in which it's joined. You make a $10K set of kitchen cabinets by making those carcasses thinner and less well joined. Another way you make a cheap set of cabinets is you skimp on the quality of the finish on the door.

A $10K kitchen will need to be replaced in ten years or less. A $100K kitchen will last forever. It's not possible to separate the doors from the carcasses, especially when you start customizing the sizes of things. Even when you don't customize, manufacturers build both together and they do so using proprietary sizes. A door from company A won't fit a carcass from company B properly. Part of that door and carcass package and what's usually a bigger driver of quality than either is the hinges. Hinges tend to be made by third party companies and they come in a wide variety of qualities and price points. A nice-looking, well-made cabinet door with a cheap hinge makes for a cheap cabinet.

So what there is to do is learn from the good stuff and find a more cost-effective supplier who uses as many of those quality points as you can find. Most people don't need or want a forever kitchen. However, nobody wants a kitchen that falls apart in five years.

So look for things like hinges and hardware from Blum, a German hardware manufacturer with plants all over the world. Pay attention to the thickness of the sides of a cabinet and the manner in which the sides join the back and the floor. Ask about things like rabbeted joints and catalyzed glue. You may get funny looks but those things are important. The US market is starting to become flooded with cheap in every sense of the word cabinetry from China. I'm sure that stuff hit Australia before it washed up on our shores. Avoid it.

Back to your actual question though, people do combine cabinetry from IKEA with Wolf/ Sub-Zero appliances all the time. There are a couple of pitfalls to this method though. Sub-Zero refrigerators are built in and don't come with finished sides. Better cabinet lines sell the parts to finish them off but cabinetry from IKEA can't panel in a Sub-Zero. So be sure the refrigerator model you buy and the design you choose for your kitchen work with the cabinet supplier you end up with.

The kitchen you describe sounds wonderful but be careful about spending too little on your cabinetry. When it comes to building products, price point is a pretty good indicator of quality. A $100 faucet is one you'll be replacing in a year. A $3000 faucet is overkill for most people, but you can rest assured that it will never need to be replaced.

Does that help?


  1. Paul, I know you’re not as big on Peacock Cabinetry as I am, but a few months ago when my business partner on my blog site (we’re both cabinetmakers) visited them in Los Angeles, we were immediately impressed with the quality of their work. I won’t argue with those who say that line may be overpriced, but the quality is manifest, and especially so to people like my partner and I. The moment I walked into their showroom, without opening a single door, I was blown away by the quality of those cabinets.

    Other people do similar work, and there are a fair number of independent cabinetmakers who make absolutely superb kitchen cabinets. I absolutely would not install typical Melamine European-style cabinetry into any kitchen I might make for myself. They are nothing but garbage, and that sort of thing will come back to haunt you.

    The other thing, to me at least, is just the fact that you are in kitchens and bathroom every day of your life. You touch those cabinets every day. Why not enjoy the best?

  2. My stock response to this question is to spend the most you can afford but that wasn't where this was headed. Fleur is also in Australia, where things like Peacock Cabinetry aren't available. The world of semi-custom and custom cabinetry are pretty much unique to North America and had this question come from someone in the US or Canada, my answer would have been much closer to what I usually tell people.

  3. This is such an awesome educational post! I wish this was the sort of stuff HGTV would espouse to the public instead of the kitchen fluff that makes up their programming, setting unreal expectations for homeowners who want to redo their kitchen.

  4. Thanks Lauren, I wish the same thing. Unfortunately, what ends up being featured on that network come from the supplier who's the highest bidder and it's impossible to be objective when product placement is such an important part of your revenue stream.

  5. I have an ENTIRELY different opinion on kitchen "furniture."

    I'd start out by determining property value and then not having a renovation that causes the cost of the home to exceed 90% of what you think your home will be worth in 5 years. What you think is quality, the new owners will think is crap.

    I redid my kitchen about five years ago and had this logic with cabinets: I bought stock stuff from Lowes all around, but reinforced the joints on the high-traffic drawers/doors such as the silverware, dishes, knife and junk drawers. Midrange countertops and high quality sinks and faucets (cause I HATE plumbing twice.) Appliances will fail at the same rate now-a-days, so don't buy cheap, but don't invest the farm. Mid-range. The features you like today will be a maintenance nightmare in five years.

    My two-cents.

  6. Hey Paul, there's always amazon.co.uk - but more fun to shop when you're actually there.

    There is a whole little sub-industry here in the US making wood doors and drawers for Ikea carcases. It's a VERY inexpensive way for people get a kitchen with the BLUM hardware, etc. and how long it will last depends as much on how and where it is installed and what type of use it gets (careful couple or horde of teenage football players)as on what it cost in the first place.

    If everybody could afford Clive Christian, or whatever they perceive to be the absolute tip top of the quality ladder, then somebody would have to invent another step up the ladder to satisfy our competetive natures, right?

  7. Rufus: I much prefer that major decisions involving thousands of dollars be made in haste and with as little research as possible. It's even better when there's a whole lot of strong emotion thrown into the mix. In spite of that, good points.

    Sarah: I had no idea that there was a cottage industry in the US that involves making doors and drawer heads for IKEA carcasses. You've given me a whole new thing to research, thanks.

    I saw the Amazon UK link when I was Google around so I know I can get it but it seems odd that someone who's such a star in the rest of the world is an unknown in the US. Especially on this topic. He doesn't even show up on BBCAmerica. Odd.

    I'll probably be able to get it in Germany next week so I'm heading across the Atlantic on a quest.

  8. He's on a rival channel to the BBC that's why he doesn't show up there. Also induction, caesarstone, LED lighting-all big in EU and AUS long before US accepted them. Check out this too (Canada) http://carolreeddesign.blogspot.com/2009/10/why-i-love-ikea-kitchens.html#comment-form
    But the answer to the post title is, with a kitchen reno you will probably only know one thing for certain: that you spent more than you intended!

  9. Thank you. I thought Kevin McCloud was on Channel 4, it makes sense that he's not on BBCAmerica now. Thanks too for that link. I'm getting a real education today.

  10. "...Whether or not a carcass is made from particle board, MDF or plywood isn't an automatic indicator of quality. There are plywood-sided cabinets I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy and there are particle board-sided cabinets I'd give a kidney for the privilege to own. What makes a quality carcass is the thickness of it and the manner in which it's joined."

    Probably the best description of what makes a cabinet I've read. Well done.

    In Australia, they have some fine joineries (at least where I visited and a few of them were NKBA members) and some of most beautiful woods I've ever seen. They were wistful about wanting to use oak, and I was trying to keep my hands off the rosewood!

    Hmm...we need a group trip down under, don't you think?

  11. I think you can soooo tell the diff between lowes stock cabs and custom. I have diff perpective because i only do custom with my local shop. But it is all me and what i spec. Basically he builds "cheryl" cabinetry. I like the freedom from a design standpoint and have not had a drawer fail in 14 yrs... Unless you count the pot holder that got stuck in the back and had to be rescued by my cabinet man. Geesh. Same day service also. And to Rufus, let me design your kitchen and i promise you will get every cent out of it and then some!! So, design and creativity also factor into the mix. But like i just said on my last blog post, i think cabinetry is important investment and not just quality but also the flexibility in achieving good design! Rufus is correct tho about not spending more than the neighborhood is worth. Cant overcome the slum with a great kitchen! I say throw the appliances under the bus!

  12. Kelly: I've seen some of those Australian hardwoods and they're amazing. I can't imagine anyone coveting oak the way I covet blackwood, jarrah, kempas and yes, rosewood. Thanks for the compliments and yes, a Blogger19 inspection tour of Australia is definitely in order.

    Cheryl: I'd love to see you and Rufus duke this one out. We'll have to arrange some kind of a face-to-face meeting between the three of us during one of our trips to far off lands this year. Whattya say we all meet in New York the last weekend in April?

  13. Ooo, blackwood. I'd forgotten about that. Yum. Yes, the oak thing floored me (so to speak). Guess the grass is always greener...

  14. Thank you very much for this response to my question. This has helped enormously and I have enjoyed the discussion comments too. It would be really great if you could squeeze an Australian visit into your schedule in the next year or so!

  15. Yes Kelly, blackwood. Ooooh indeed.Blackwood floors make me swoon.

    Fleur: Thanks for spurring such a good conversation. I would love to come to Australia. I've never been and the place has haunted me for as long as I can remember. I correspond with more than a few of your countrymen and the more I learn the more I realize that I need to get there.


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