The Great Kitchen Remodel of 2017
When asked to describe some of life’s most disruptive
activities, many humans who are married with children
would start with “marriage” and “children”. And some,
without much hesitation, might add “kitchen remodel”.
Home ownership, the supposed pinnacle of the American
Dream, comes with many costs my parents never
mentioned, and for some of us includes ripping the
bejesus out of a fully functioning kitchen. My wife and I
had been in the home ownership game for about 15
years, when we decided we were ready to completely
disorder our daily lives with a gut rehab of the most
popular room in our house.

The journey began in 2015, the year the charm left our
country kitchen. The previous owners of our house had
spent a small fortune adding a large addition to a little old
farmhouse, but apparently they drew a financial line on
kitchen upgrades. This room remained in its original
1900s location, which was now sandwiched between a
2004 addition and the late-1800s part of the house. The
tongue-in-groove cabinetry had been built directly onto
the walls, with doors warped so badly that some would
randomly spring open without warning.
The eating area was cramped, the little island couldn't seat all of
us, and those winters...the base cabinets could have doubled as
mini-refrigerators
. So we started with what you see below, which
is a floor plan for what I'll call the "old" part of the house. This
includes the original 1880s section ("Living Room and "Music"),
the 1890s addition ("Dining Room") and the Kitchen/Laundry/
Breakfast area (early 1900s addition). The outline of the 2004
addition can be seen at the bottom - the doorway near the stove
leads to the "new" part of the house. The red rectangle is what
changed the kitchen the most. We'll cover that later, but going
into the project, this is what we had to work with.
By the fall of 2015, we were entering our third winter in the house and decided to get serious about gutting the kitchen. We
would knock out the wall between the eating area and the outside entryway, put in a larger island, better insulate the exterior
walls, and redo our tiny little laundry room while we were at it. Our wish list started large and continued to grow as we
searched for a professional to design our dreams.

Our first visit with a local design/build company was arranged in January 2016. A pair of remodeling experts arrived at our
house in a matter of days, and we showed off our wish list with the gleeful naivety of a millennial embracing socialism. Six
weeks passed and we had…nothing. A few calls and emails later, a basic floorplan showed up, lacking some important
elements. We decided to explore our options.

Our next stop was a locally owned home improvement store in Rockford, Illinois. A designer quickly drew up floorplans with
3D illustrations, and we were in business. Then the designer began asking questions. Lots of questions about things like
flooring materials, countertop styles, cabinet types, appliance dimensions, paint colors, door hardware, lighting, trim…the list
seemed never to end. And we had no answers. Thus began a long series of visits to websites and showrooms, trying to map
out every last detail.
Left: When we first moved in, we were fascinated (sort
of) with the built-in cabinets across from the half-bath.
Some very old wallpaper was still attached behind the
drawers. We could also see where a door once existed,
most likely leading to a porch, before it was enclosed
and eventually made into a laundry room. The original
flooring was also visible. And our cat Jake enjoyed the
shelves.
Below: From the dining room, looking through the
kitchen and into the new part of the house. We've joked
that our house sometimes feels like a long tunnel. This
gives you an idea.
We weren't deterred by our lack of decision making. We called five
contractors, interviewed four, and received bids from three. The sticker
shock was intense, and the bids were difficult to compare. Each contractor
had their own ideas about what needed to be done, and how. The summer
of 2016 had arrived, and we were totally overwhelmed. We put the project
on hold and spent the rest of the year waiting for bargains on kitchen
appliances.

By the spring of 2017, our enthusiasm restored, we went back to our
preferred contractor and formally began what I will call “the process”. It
starts with signing a document which says something to the effect of:

We will complete your project at some point in the future for a cost listed
below which may or may not be the actual cost because we don’t know
what the inside of your house will look like after we rip the bejesus out of
your kitchen. We have no idea how long this will take, but will wildly
guess and then divide that timeframe by 3. This will excite you. We will do
a few things in certain ways you will like, and other things you will not
like. Either way, you will take it and you will give us your entire life
savings. If you expire your savings, then you will borrow money. If your
borrowing sources run dry, we will leave your property in its unfinished
state and you will deal with it. Some of your work will be completed by
subcontractors. They will show up without warning. Or not show up at all.
Whichever. If you grow impatient, you may call us at any time. We will
apologize profusely and explain that the subcontractor is late because of a
more important job than yours. We appreciate your business and look
forward to providing the same level of service you will come to expect
from every contractor on the planet
.”
Above: The dishwasher was our first purchase when we bought the house in 2013.
Previously, in its place was a "warming drawer". I had never heard of such a thing. It
was discarded immediately. I got out my Sawzall and carved out a spot for the
dishwasher. Installed it myself...then forgot to turn on the water before I ran the first
load.
Below: Our "kitchen" during construction. Michelle and I grew to loathe that
garage...I was never so happy to get the cars back in here.
The process then moved into its next phase:
Waiting for someone to show up and work. In
our case, we had a 6-week gap between the
contract date and the start of demo work. We
were mostly fine with the delay, as it is no small
task to relocate a kitchen to a part of the house
which wasn't designed for cooking. We decided
our two-car garage would serve as a temporary
kitchen. The garage was climate controlled, our
old “beverage” refrigerator was already there,
and it had a concrete floor plumbed with water
drains (more on that later). While we waited for
the demo crew to arrive, I took all the “man” out
of the garage, starting with anything which could
be described as a tool or a purveyor of death
and destruction. Also departing were the dirt
bike racing trophies, trash cans, and kid’s toys. I
then scrubbed every square inch of the floor
and vacuumed every spider web. The garage
had not been as clean since the day it was built.

We also needed a plan for washing clothes. We’
d already come to the conclusion that the gas
dryer was a lost cause. I could have rigged a
propane line from the furnace room
(conveniently located inside the garage), but we
decided an old fashioned clothesline would work
just fine. Washing was a little more complicated.
Where we live, the nearest laundromat isn't
exactly a short drive down the street, and we
weren't planning to beat our clothes against a
rock in the creek. One day I found myself staring
at a floor drain in the garage and thought how
nice the washer would look next to it. Before I
could stop myself, I was grabbing PVC pipes
and connectors and piecing together an outlet
for waste water. All I needed was a garden hose
to supply fresh water. We wouldn't be doing any
hot loads, but it was good enough.

When the contractor finally committed to a start
date, we had a weekend to prepare. Now came
the really important decisions: What parts of the
kitchen were necessities, and which could we
live without for a couple of months? In theory,
the garage was large enough to fit just about
everything from the kitchen, but we didn't want
to move any more stuff than we had to. The
nonessentials went to the living room in the old
part of the house, which was open to the front
room where the contractor crew would be
spreading their mess from the kitchen. As we
would soon discover, this was not ideal. You’ll
never know what is truly nonessential until you
try to live without it. We crammed boxes and
bags full of things we didn't think we’d need,
sealed them behind a dust barrier, and then
spent a fair amount of time going in and out of
the barrier to find some of those things later.
The whole front part of the house became a
dusty mess.

Monday’s demo day arrived with a flurry of
activity. The crew showed up while I was at
work and began destroying things. Around 2:00
in the afternoon, my wife called. “We have a
problem,” she said, which in contractor
language means “Open your wallet.” I left work
early and came home to a filthy mess of old
plaster, piles of blown-in insulation, and visible
studs which probably hadn't seen the light of
day in over 100 years. The workers were ending
their day, but the dust hadn't settled and I could
barely breathe. The problem was the roof.
When the 2004 addition was built, a walkway
had been constructed above the kitchen to
connect the second floors of the old and new
parts of the house (the kitchen was a one-story
addition in the early 1900s). Half of the old roof
Above: No hot water, but this worked ok for washing clothes. We dried the old
fashioned way.
Below Left: First day of demolition, looking south towards new part of the house.
Below Right: This was the small attic above the kitchen. Note the condition of the
rafters, and the method used to support them. The contractor didn't like this.
Above: Looking into the dining room, with the built-in cabinets
removed. The photo exaggerates the un-square entryway, but the
house has sagged quite a bit over the years and we always
noticed the lack of congruity. With the remodel, we widened and
raised the opening to the dining room.

Below: The "music" room became the laundry room.
Above: This shows the walls we originally intended to take out. Where the
appliances are stored was a small eating area, which had previously been
a bathroom, and before that had probably been part of a porch. To the left
is a small entryway with a floor about 7 inches lower than the kitchen floor.
Oddly enough, that linoleum was exactly the same as what was in the back
porch of the farm house I grew up in. The wall between the eating area and
the entryway was supposed to be removed, and the laundry room was to
stay put. Things didn't turn out that way. We always planned to take out that
door and replace it with sliding glass doors, but it would have been a tight
fit - vertical clearance would not have been much more than 7 feet, after
raising the floor level to that of the kitchen. When we raised the roof, the
sliding glass door fit just fine.
Above: This is what changed our view of what the kitchen could be. With
the laundry room walls removed, the space grew substantially. We also
kept the vaulted ceilings, which opened it up even more. Violet and Jake
seemed to agree. Had we known we'd have this much space to work with,
we probably would have designed the island differently. It was expensive to
rebuild the roof, but totally worth it.

Thus ended my favorite part of remodeling...demolition.
Above: When we removed the base board to install the laundry
room base cabinet, the plaster pretty much fell off the lath in the
corner. Between the corner and the stud to the left of it, the space
behind the wall was filled with mouse poop about 6 inches high.
You never know what you'll find behind the walls of a 130-year-old
house. It stunk....bad.
Click on photos for larger view
had been removed to make way for the walkway; the other half had been connected to the walkway. The contractor believed
the old roof was a cobbled-together mess which wouldn't pass code. One of the ancient rafters appeared to be split, causing
an uneven roofline. They recommended we replace the entire roof structure, and do it immediately because the weather
forecast was in our favor. They also suggested we raise the roof slightly, to make the exterior wall about a foot taller. This
would allow more room to squeeze in a standard height sliding glass door.  For another $7,400 we could literally raise the
roof on the place. We opened our wallets.