Home & Garden

How to Design with the Future in Mind

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Predicting the future is virtually impossible, but there are some easy ways to design your new kitchen, bathroom or living space so that it’s ready to evolve with your family’s changing needs.

The white kitchen never really goes out of style; it just evolves. The latest iteration allows for tasteful mixing and matching of surfaces and textures, as in this example by Geneva Cabinet Gallery, in Geneva. (Photo courtesy Geneva Cabinet Gallery)

We Midwesterners incorporate styles and fads in our own unique way. We prefer to let the East and West Coasters hash out the latest fads, and when those designs do appear in our homes, they’re often adopted with a more traditional sensibility.

It’s only natural, then, that when it’s time to renovate, we’re looking for something that lasts – and for a kitchen or bathroom, a lifetime can mean 15 to 20 years or more.

Whether you’re the traditional, the contemporary or the in between “transitional” type, you’re looking to get the most of your investment by landing a design that will fit your personal style and will look good for years to come. And, should you plan to sell your home in the next several years, it’ll still attract a buyer.

But how can you predict the future? Our region’s remodeling experts know the right questions to ask. There’s an art to creating a trendy, yet timeless, home style and they’ve got the beat on how to do it right.

You’re Dating Yourself

Dave Wegner and Megan Lebar, designers at Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock, can fire off a long list of home features that show their age: laminate countertops, cultured marble vanities, kitchen desks, whirlpool tubs, to name a few. And then there’s the oak. Always the oak.

But there are also smaller signals that it’s time to update. Maybe the hinges aren’t working, the granite countertop is stained, floors are scratched and other surfaces just aren’t holding up.

The kitchen has become the hub of many homes, a place where the entire family gathers daily. It has to endure constant activity, yet also be versatile for the family’s ever-changing demands.

“Areas of the kitchen that are only dedicated to one or two specific tasks date a kitchen – for example, every time we see a kitchen with a desk,” says Lebar. “People say, ‘Get that out of here. I need the cabinet space.’”

And clients want something that’s easy to maintain. Lebar and Wegner say most projects in the past two years have involved quartz countertops, a manufactured product that’s extremely durable and doesn’t require periodic sealing, like granite does.

In comparison with kitchens of the past, modern kitchens are hubs for daily living and entertaining. Islands, peninsulas and other features need to be adaptable.

“In our house, whenever someone comes over, they’re sitting at the peninsula while we’re working in the kitchen,” says Wegner. “They’re all here visiting while we’re putting everything together. Kitchens are the heart of the home.”

Lynn Havlicek, owner and designer at Geneva Cabinet Gallery, in Geneva, sees more families extending that “family hub” through adjacent parts of the home, like laundry/mud rooms. She’s done several recent jobs where homeowners set aside a study area for kids, complete with personal cubbies, charging stations and workspace.

“Now, the laundry room has a desk area, or in a new house we can make a separate workroom with desks for kids,” she says. “In the houses that have lofts upstairs, those become computer areas for the kids.”

Havlicek, like many area designers, believes it’s important for a kitchen and bathroom to fit with the rest of the house and its general aesthetic. Whenever she updates a kitchen, she’s mindful of how changes there may impact surrounding spaces. Good home decor starts in the kitchen and fans out through the home, she says.

“These are more open floor plans than we used to see, so the kitchen is now part of the living space,” she says. “It really has to match the surrounding moldings and colors. You’ll see that kitchen open to the family room, too, so everything has to be cohesive. That may change our design.”

In this kitchen by Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock, the white cabinets play a supporting role to the beige island and the marbled countertop.

Safe Color Palettes

For most of the past decade gray has been the go-to color. Don’t expect that to end any time soon, but know that it will evolve.

“It’s already turning a little darker taupe, maybe a little more earthy than the cooler grays,” says Havlicek. “There’s more of a focus on neutral and warmer tones.”

To some extent, those gray tones are also influencing the latest take on the white kitchen, which never really goes out of style.

The contemporary take involves white marble (or marble-like quartz) counters, white cabinets and some antique-tinted gold hardware. The look is especially popular with Havlicek’s city-dwellers in Chicago.

At Blue Ribbon’s Woodstock showroom, the look is a little more traditional. White cabinets are glazed with a soft black that clings to corners and grooves. A matte-finish quartz countertop further softens the white sheen. Glass panes in the cabinet doors add to the “light and airy” feeling that makes any kitchen feel bigger and more cheerful.

Gray and white kitchens have the advantage of providing numerous mixing and matching options, in areas like the counter, the island, the backsplash or surrounding decor. Think of the cabinets as the “supporting actress,” says Lebar.

“Not everything can be the main attraction,” she says. “Sometimes, clients think, ‘Am I playing it too safe with white?’ No, it leaves opportunities for other design elements to be a wow factor.”

Havlicek sees the opportunity to add a little spunk, perhaps even something super-trendy that’s easy to replace once it’s unfashionable.

“It’s fun to do something at least a little trendy, so we’ll try to do a little pop of it in there,” she says. “If you only did your island in a navy blue painted cabinet, it’s not impossible to change that out in 10 years. It’s kind of fun, too.”

Anticipating Future Needs

One of the first things Bob and Sue McDowell look for is the “pain,” the reason a client is considering remodeling. The co-owners of McDowell Remodeling, in St. Charles, believe it’s important to understand what the homeowner really wants to accomplish through a remodel. Is this their final home? Do they plan to move during the lifespan of the design?

“You need to look at the things that are expensive to remodel – flooring, kitchen, appliances,” says Sue McDowell. “Are those going to take you into the next 10 years or not? Those are big investments if you think you’re going to change them down the road. Our designers are really good at posing the questions that will make you think.”

McDowell always asks how long the client expects to live in the home. More and more, older clients are looking for ways to stay where they are, and they’re willing to invest significant money to prepare the home for walkers, wheelchairs and days of limited mobility.

Commonly called “aging in place,” this strategy may involve wider hallways and doorframes, bathroom grab bars, showers with a low threshold or none at all, more hard-surface flooring instead of carpeting, and cabinetry with deep drawers or rollouts.

“We had one client who thought their island was too close as it was. The kitchen was really closed off,” says Tracy Levin, a designer at McDowell Remodeling. “They wanted to make sure the island had at least 4 feet of clearance around it, which is interesting, because it’s usually a distance of 40 inches. She wanted to feel like, as she ages, she could get around.”

In some cases, sound strategies for aging in place – hard-surface floors, wide passageways – aren’t just good for older residents, they’re also conveniently trendy.

“A lot of flooring is already going toward wood and tile, and it’s so much better if you have mobility issues,” says McDowell.

What’s Underfoot

A well-made floor can last 15 to 25 years or more. It’s the look that dates it the fastest, says Jeff Moritz, flooring manager for Mayfair Carpet & Furniture, in Crystal Lake.

But so, too, can a floor that’s ill-suited for its current use.

“The No. 1 consideration for a kitchen floor is its performance in that environment – meaning, potential moisture, water, food and things of that nature,” says Moritz. “You may want something that’s sealed well and less affected by moisture.”

Finding the right choice for a particular home typically comes down to performance, look and budget. Porcelain and ceramic tile are durable, but they feel cold in winter, says Moritz. More traditional surfaces like wood, engineered hardwood and the look-alike luxury vinyl tile may be better suited for a kitchen, but they’re not as durable.

Moritz believes there’s “no absolute” in a floor – everybody’s style is unique. But in general, he’s seeing a stronger trend away from neutral and warm colors with more emphasis on cool gray tones, all with a bent toward transitional design, that mix between contemporary and traditional.

“Safe is grays and beige. The term we use is ‘gray-eige,’” he says. “There’s a trend toward that palette, but there are conservative people who stay with neutral colors and trendy people who mix it up.”

Mayfair carries many traditional, neutral colors and styles, but it also carries bolder choices, like carpet prints in zebra, elk skin, wild patterns and marbleization. But those prints can age quickly.

“You have to choose if you want your carpet to be the focal point or to be complementary,” Moritz says. “If your flooring is the focal point you may need to change that flooring to change your style. If you want it to be complementary, you can change your accessories and surroundings to go along with that.”

Moritz encourages clients to take samples home, so they can see how things look in a particular room. It’s not unusual for customers to change their minds as they go through the sales process.

“They come in wanting to replace the plush, light carpet the homebuilder installed 20 years ago,” says Moritz. “They’re so sick of that plush, light carpet that they want to do something different, so they look at some patterns. They go through the process and they’re not sure if they want to put a pattern in their whole house or just their bedrooms, or their living room, so they get very overwhelmed and they go back to what’s safe. It’s all about how comfortable you are moving forward in the future.”

Note the extensive use of drawers, instead of doors, in this kitchen by McDowell Remodeling, in St. Charles. Drawers are easier to access, especially for people with limited mobility.

Stay or Go?

Moving into the future is a funny thing. The McDowells have come across several clients lately who were prepared to downsize, but instead reinvested in their present home.

“People always have to weigh the factors of remodeling versus buying new,” says Sue McDowell. “They look at all the houses on the market that fit their criteria, and those houses all need a lot of remodeling, so they come back and go, ‘We love this house, we raised our family here, we love the neighborhood, so let’s put the money into where we are.’”

Still, not everyone is ready to make what’s sometimes a whole-house update. If a move is on the horizon, consider creating something you enjoy that will look good in the future. Remodel for yourself, not the next family, says Bob McDowell.

“If you’re going to spend money and remodel your home, you want to make it fit your lifestyle and your tastes,” adds his wife, Sue. “I don’t think you can answer what will be popular in 10 years, but you should stay neutral. Then again, a Realtor will probably tell you if you’re only going to stay in your home a year or two, don’t put your money into a remodel because the new person will come in and remodel anyway.”

Havlicek prepares for the future by investing in quality cabinets that can be easily updated down the road.

“For people who did their kitchen 15 or 20 years ago, if we used really high-end cabinets and they still like them, we can just change the lighting and the backsplashes, the countertops, the sinks, maybe some appliances,” she says. “It’s much easier to handle, and it can be done in a week or two.”

With appliance updates, as with cabinets, Havlicek encourages buying the higher-end models, as they’re more likely to become the standards of tomorrow.

“One thing consumers can do is go to demonstration dinners,” she adds. “Appliance manufacturers will sometimes do this in their showrooms so you can see how all of these new appliances work. They bring in a group of people to watch a chef cook on all of these appliances in a beautiful setting.”

The Trust Factor

Perhaps the best way to ensure a timeless remodel is to put your home in the hands of someone you trust. Professional remodelers can share plenty of stories of shoddy workmanship they’ve been hired to clean up. The McDowell team recently worked with homeowners whose friends hired a less-reputable contractor who caused the roof to collapse.

“One of the reasons this client went with us was because we took the time to get into the attic and look at everything, and he really appreciated that,” says designer Levin. “Before he even signed a contract, he told us, ‘I have a lot of bids, and I want to go with you because I know you have integrity and it shows me you’re watching out for my house.”

Havlicek believes it’s just as important to find the right designer, one who’s willing to work within your budget, steer you down the right path, and remain upfront with you.

When contracting work, she partners with several building firms, including her husband’s custom homebuilding firm, Havlicek Builders. Both Havlicek Builders and Geneva Cabinet Co. use some of the same subcontractors, which is one way Havlicek can assure her customers of a high-quality job.

“Communication is so important, especially in an older home – which is a lot around here,” says Havlicek. “You don’t always know what’s behind the walls.”

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