Dream Big When Remodeling Your Home

Professional designers in our region use creativity and imagination to turn average rooms into amazing spaces. Learn what endless possibilities await when it comes to remodeling.

This cozy loft home was a vacant industrial property when Korte Architecture, in Crystal Lake, helped its new owners to radically rethink a live/work concept building. The open space in this residence encompasses the living room, kitchen, dining room and foyer.

Break a room down to its bare studs and subfloor, and the possibilities are nearly endless. No matter if you’re improving a kitchen, creating a lower-level living space, or adaptively repurposing an old building, your designer can turn dreams into reality – just as they did in these four amazing spaces.

Lower-Level Transformation

Many a basement is evolving from an unfinished storage area into an extended living space, and these new rooms are becoming far more than just game rooms and man caves.

“Lower levels are such a great way to enhance, or add to, the footprint of your home without adding on,” says Sue McDowell, co-owner with husband Bob of McDowell Remodeling, 521 W. Main St., St. Charles. “There’s a lot of potential and there are ways to create spaces in basements, even those with lower ceilings, to have space that will fit your family’s lifestyle.”

Lower ceilings created a unique challenge on a lower level recently completed by the team at McDowell. The clients wanted to create a home cinema and entertainment hub in their sprawling 3,000 square-foot basement. Built in the 1980s, the basement’s low ceiling height necessitated a creative solution to building tiered cinema seating: the floor had to be excavated.

After surveying the site, crews used a jackhammer to break up the cement floor around the roughly 15-by-25-foot theater seating area. Then, they used shovels to excavate a hole about 18 inches deep.

“It was very nerve-wracking, because you’re always nervous you might find an underground spring or some surprise,” says McDowell.

Just behind the theatre is a kitchen area for entertaining, complete with sink, refrigerator, dishwasher and convection/microwave oven. Dark-painted cabinetry and stainless steel appliances fill out one wall of this kitchen, but there’s plenty more functionality at the oversized island, including a seating area for at least seven stools. The custom copper island top, with hammered edges, creates a surface for keeping refreshments cool during gatherings and wine tastings.

The new lower level embodies a warm Tuscan decor, with dark woods, beige walls and flooring of tumbled marble tile. The homeowner’s lockable wine cellar is guarded by a black wrought-iron door and accompanying wall sconces that complete the feel.

The kids also have their own space downstairs, with a game room that has several pinball machines and space for large, red leather cinema-style seats. Flat-screen TVs are mounted into the wall, such that wires go unseen on their way to video controls and gaming consoles.

Separate lighting zones help to balance out the many uses of this living area.

“Lighting is always important in any lower level, to make it feel bright enough, but here we made the lights dimmable when you’re watching a movie,” says McDowell. “This room has a very large screen, so you want it to be dark enough to watch a movie and feel like you’re in a theater.”

Though this project was unusual in some ways, McDowell sees more homeowners taking on remodeling projects. Before undertaking a project, she advises clients to consider their budget and the aesthetics they’re going for. Some designers, including those at McDowell Remodeling, believe that websites like Houzz.com are great places to gather project ideas.

“On the Houzz site in particular, a client can create an idea book and we can actually share it, so that we can both add photos and looks that we like, as we build the project together,” says McDowell.

Maximized Kitchen

Dave Wegner, a designer with Blue Ribbon Millwork, 1401 S. Eastwood Dr., in Woodstock, is a big believer in maximizing space. One of his most recent designs transformed a small McHenry track-home kitchen into a super-functional workstation.

Wegner’s middle-aged clients had, for years, made do with their small kitchen footprint and modest builder-grade cabinets, but these factors eventually presented a major hassle for the wife’s baking and cooking passions.

“If you have these small track homes with their tiny kitchens, and you have one or two kids, where do you put all your stuff?” says Wegner. “You either have to put pantries somewhere else or stack things in the laundry room or downstairs every time you need something. That was their problem.”

Wegner started his design by removing the soffits, thus opening extra cabinet space overhead. In this newfound space, he had room to install an over-the-range microwave and deeper-than-usual cabinets that stretched to the ceiling.

“The lines of Bertch cabinets that we sell offer 15-inch wall cabinets standard,” says Wegner. “If you have a 12-inch dinner plate, it doesn’t fit in your typical wall cabinet; you have to fit it in the corner cabinets. But with 15 inches deep, you’ve got unlimited choices.”

The homeowners didn’t keep a kitchen table in the breakfast nook, so Wegner maximized that space, too, by installing a highly functional island. Its deep drawers now offer ample storage for pots, pans and Tupperware.

Electrical outlets are a must in any island, and Wegner again maximized this necessity. Mounted just underneath the countertop overhang is a set of angled outlets, colored to blend in with the soft cherry cabinets.

“Normally, you have to cut the side of the cabinet and then put in an electrical outlet that goes deep into your cabinet,” says Wegner. “With this island, because it was all drawers, an electrical outlet would have interfered. With these angled outlets, all we do is run wire between the side of the drawer and the side of the cabinet.”

Soft LED lights, installed with a diffuser, create a gentle glow underneath the cabinets and the toekick. The client often uses these dimmable lights, which come with a wireless switch, as an energy-efficient nightlight.

Wegner matched the soft-stained hickory cabinets with long, modern-style silver door handles and a Cambria quartz countertop. At the sink, he matched a silver-finish Moen faucet with a wide, deep sink made from black crushed granite – a manmade material that resists scratching and is easy to clean.

Everything has its place now, and, because a new trashcan pullout keeps the garbage hidden, the dog has one fewer mess to make.

“This client probably added 30 or 40 percent more storage when you figure the added height and depth of the wall cabinets and the island,” says Wegner. “She says to me, ‘Dave, you’d never believe it – I’ve got nearly empty cabinets, and I’ve got all my stuff in here.’”

The Blowout

The open-concept kitchen is taking a new twist for several of Ingrid Rowlett’s clients. Lately, the owner of I.B. Quality Cabinets, 612 S. First St., in Geneva, has helped homeowners to maximize their cramped kitchens by stretching into a seldom-used dining room.

In one particular home, built in 1988, the kitchen had been a small, L-shaped arrangement with an island and modest eating area. It was a cramped and outdated workspace.

To expand the kitchen’s footprint, Rowlett blew out a common wall with the dining room and relocated the cabinets and appliances. The new, larger kitchen is a long U shape that runs along the exterior walls of what were the dining room and kitchen. At one end, Rowlett placed the refrigerator and a corner cooktop.

On the opposite end, where the old kitchen ended, a gray granite countertop now sweeps into a peninsula, with room for food preparation and barstool-height seating. On the remaining wall, Rowlett placed a small pantry, stacked ovens, wine cooler and small countertop.

Removing walls presents few problems for Bob Rowlett, Ingrid’s husband and general contractor. Bob was involved in homebuilding for 30 years, so he recognizes the structures he modifies.

“Sometimes, we have a challenge if there’s a soffit, because there may be something hiding behind it,” says Ingrid. “And then we ask if we’re relocating anything. Bob can always relocate things like plumbing or air exchanges.”

Bob and his team can also refinish wood flooring, as they did in this kitchen, where it was necessary to match existing flooring from the old kitchen.

The light oak floor creates a nice contrast with the darker cherry-stained cabinets and island. These cabinets, as with all cabinets ordered through the Rowletts, are made by Fieldstone in Sioux Falls, S.D. The company fully customizes its products to fit a homeowner’s preferences.

“You can send them a pillowcase and say that’s the color you want your cabinets – and they’ll do it,” says Rowlett. “They customize cabinet doors, too. All we have to do is call and get a quote.”

Recessed and canned lighting, combined with LED undercabinet lighting and two large windows, help to brighten up the kitchen. LED lights also illuminate a glass-covered cabinet near the ovens.

“We hook these up using low-voltage LED wire,” says Bob. “We leave our cabinet lights on all the time. It’s an economically efficient nightlight.”

Compared with its predecessor, this kitchen has an easy and natural flow, with plenty of space for entertaining and spending time together as a family – something Rowlett is seeing more frequently in local kitchens.

“A lot of people now prefer to all sit together,” she says. “They really don’t want to have that wall between dining room and kitchen. They’re doing homework together, they’re sitting together, and they really like having this open dining room/living room/kitchen area. They don’t like to be separated.”

The Live/Work Loft

Working at home takes on a different meaning at Carmen and Neil Boyer’s new home.

“We like to think of this not as a home-based business, but rather a business-based home,” says Neil.

Both Carmen and Neil own their own businesses. She’s an interior designer and owner of White Oak Interiors; he owns Lifestyle Transitions and helps people to downsize. In their own efforts to downsize, the couple sought an unusual space that felt like an urban loft – a setting the couple had long dreamed of.

“I set out some criteria,” says Carmen. “We wanted to be within walking distance of a downtown center and close to the Metra line, we wanted to have rental income, and we wanted to live in the building. This building lent itself to all those things.”

Located just south of downtown Crystal Lake, the Boyers’ 1940s-era industrial building housed a tool and die manufacturer before a series of printers moved in. The Boyers spent much of winter 2014-15 removing trash and gutting the building, hauling out 40 dumpsters in preparation for construction. Come spring, energy-efficient roofing was installed, the original windows were replaced, and the brick was restored.

To effectively transform the inside, the Boyers turned to Brian and Andrea Korte, owners of Korte Architecture, 91 Gates St., Crystal Lake. The Kortes provide a variety of architectural services for both residential and commercial clients, and had just completed Crystal Lake Brewing Co., when they got a call from the Boyers.

The Kortes’ connections proved vital to this project, which required new building codes because of its unusual residential/commercial combination.

“It was challenging to work with the city on this, because it was such an oddball project, where we had residential and commercial in the same building, on the same floor,” says Brian. “They had trouble wrapping their heads around it because nothing like that has been done in the city.”

The Kortes provided advice on floor plans and building code, helping the Boyers through three different layouts. The final design places two business showrooms in the front of the building and separates the residence with a 12-inch thick fire wall. Inside the residence, a large, open space creates an easy flow between the foyer, kitchen, living room and dining room. Long bays of windows look out on the driveway, parking lot and nearby railroad spur line. The master suite is on one side of the building; the guest suite is on the other side, connected with Carmen’s business showroom and Neil’s office.

The building’s architectural elements, including wooden beams and concrete floors, have been polished up and left exposed. You still can see ink and grease stains in the floor, and you can see where crews had to trench in new plumbing for bathroom and kitchen fixtures.

“All of this light-colored concrete is where we filled in,” explains Carmen. “Today, concrete floors are usually about 4 inches thick. We discovered these are 10 inches thick.”

The entire home is built with the intention of aging in place, so it’s equipped with wide doors and extra clearance around showers and sinks. Plus, what’s now a commercial office is equipped to become a potential caregiver’s residence.

Brian Korte is pleased with the transformative results.

“It was really a mess when we got in there, and it was so cluttered that people might wonder, ‘How do you transform this?’” says Brian. “But Carmen had a good vision of what she wanted and we just worked together to give the Boyers the best vision that made the most sense.”

The Boyers moved in around fall 2015 and have eagerly shared their new space. Carmen regularly hosts clients and gatherings to show off the interior, which she finished off with warm cabinetry, a variety of overhead lighting, and all of the couple’s original furniture.

“I love everything about it,” says Carmen. “I love the openness. We came from a traditional Colonial-style home, and that was always fine for our family, but now I host events every other month for my business here, and I use our living space. It’s nice to be able to have space to demonstrate design and decorating ideas.”