In Remodeling, Little Details Make a Big Impact

It’s the little things that make a house a home, and when it comes to remodeling every little detail adds up to big results. Before jumping into your next remodel, consider these finer details.

At its core, a kitchen and bathroom are simply a box. It’s what you do within the box that makes the finished product truly exceptional.

The right combination of fixtures, colors, textures and lights define a space, but they also tell an important story about ourselves. They announce our hopes and aspirations, and they tell others who we are. But how to find the perfect balance? That’s where a little of the right help makes all the difference.

Where to Start

Walk into any remodeler’s showroom and you’ll find a wealth of choices before you. Options abound, in everything from materials to colors and textures. It can be overwhelming.

That’s why Dave Wegner and Kelsey Bechtel, designers at Blue Ribbon Millwork, in Woodstock, have one common starting point.

“The best place to start, because it’ll drive your process, is to know what style you’re looking for,” says Bechtel. “If you know you want country rustic, modern contemporary, transitional – whatever you like – a designer will help you home into the materials and finishes that go together.”

It’s easy to start exploring your tastes in advance. Websites like Pinterest and Houzz display thousands of examples of beautifully remodeled homes. Cabinet makers and remodeling companies also have ideas on their websites and in brochures.

Take a look at your home and see what clues it offers. Is there a distinctive style, like Victorian, Craftsman or mid-century modern? Does your home have a common flooring finish or design theme?

The first place you’ll apply these styles is in the cabinet design. Why start here? Because cabinets typically come in fewer colors and design options than flooring and countertops, so it’s easier to narrow down, says Wegner.

Next, look at finishes. Do you like something with texture (think knotty wood grains) or color (like cobalt and sage paints)? Or, do you prefer a more neutral cabinet stain that lets your countertops, backsplashes, walls and accessories do the talking?

Wegner likes to splash in color at just the right places – mixing textures and feelings, sometimes with a dramatic, full-height backsplash that matches the countertop or an accent tile that offers some visual interest.

In general, color trends are moving toward warm, earthy tones and textures that reflect the natural world. They bring a sense of calm to the room. Cooler, whiter grays, by contrast, tend to be more activating.

“If it’s a master bath you want to spend time in, you’re going to want warmer tones,” says Bechtel. “Same thing in the kitchen. If that’s your space to entertain and everyone gathers there, you’ll want it to be warmer, because otherwise the feeling it evokes will be counterproductive.”

This is where lighting also plays a role. New LED bulbs come in a variety of color and temperature ranges, and each one will look different in your home. Wegner finds the 3,000K bulb is most popular, in large part because it gives off a warmer, more yellow tone reminiscent of traditional incandescent bulbs. The 5,000K bulb gives off a blue tone that clients find to be colder, he says.

It’s important to note that the fixture can similarly affect the feeling in a room.

“We put all LEDs in my basement, using the 3,000K bulbs,” says Wegner. “I’ve got a vinyl floor with white, and it looks stunning. It brightens up the room, where before we had the tube fluorescent bulbs and it looked horrible.”

Clients take comfort in the fact that their designers are right there, guiding them through the process. Wegner and Bechtel often provide subtle input that guides a client through the process. It’s important for the homeowner to feel good with the final result, says Wegner.

“Once they understand where they’re going, it makes them real proud that they’ve found the color they want,” he says. “I talked with a woman the other day and said, ‘Want to see my favorite color?’ The minute she saw that combination, she said, ‘I love this,’ and she was walking around the showroom saying it was going to be perfect.”

Then, the Tops

As soon as her clients have selected cabinets, Tricia Hehr is ready to talk countertops. The design, sales and production manager at Marble Emporium, in Northbrook, specializes in all things stone, both natural and man-made, in full slabs and in remnants. The company’s selections of granite, marble and other choices end up on countertops as well as full-height backsplashes and fireplaces.

“We always ask clients to have samples of their floors, tiles and cabinets,” says Hehr. “Some people have a whole workbook they use for the project. We request you bring in anything and everything you can, because we’re usually one of the last things locked in.”

Before the conversation goes very far, Hehr has a few essential questions for her clients. Durability is often top of mind, because a kitchen that takes daily abuse will need a more durable surface than a showpiece that’s seldom used. Budget is also important, because selections can vary wildly – from $10 per square foot for raw material to nearly $200 for premium, top-end marble slabs.

Quartz remains beloved for its uniform look and durability, but it’s not perfect, says Hehr. It’s generally stain-, scratch- and heat-resistant, but it’s not entirely scratch-proof, stain-proof or heat-proof. On the other hand, natural stone provides a truly unique look, and the top can be refinished so that it shines like the day it was installed.

“One of the things about natural stone is that you’re never going to have that exact same piece of stone as the person next to you,” says Hehr. “And that’s when people agree they want something unique, so we start looking at natural stone rather than quartz.”

Marble Emporium’s artisans combine technology and skill to achieve the right look. Guided only by their trained eye, they can match up the veins in various slabs for just the right effect. They’re also skilled at achieving the mitered edge look, which is a growing trend in stone slab installation. By using carefully placed diagonal cuts, these artisans create an edging that looks much thicker than usual.

“Creating that three- or four-inch mitered edge is really popular right now,” says Hehr. “People love it because they can see more of the stone when they approach it, and it looks like a very thick slab.”

Hehr also finds more clients are choosing one stone for their main tops and a secondary, complementing stone for the island. The effect adds color and interest.

Consumers are now stepping away from the traditional white, gray and black tones for something that mixes in hints of blue and green.

“You don’t have to have a stone that’s all green or all blue,” says Hehr. “There are so many tones out there right now. These materials have pops of color in them, so we can finally get away from the white-on-white and the painted white cabinets look.”

Finally, Floors

The floors are typically one of your last selections because there’s so much to choose from. Your final decision needs to account for many factors, including style, color, application and price.

River Sonnet, a designer at Benson Stone Co., in Rockford, starts out with a battery of questions along these lines. But there are two words he’s especially eager to hear: I love.

“I’m looking for the emotion when people show me pictures of things they like,” he says. “I’m looking at why they like it, and they might say, ‘Because it’s clean,’ or ‘I like it because it feels cozy,’ or ‘I like it because it makes me feel like it’s my sanctuary or spa – it’s relaxing, or it’s energizing.’”

Sonnet aims to evoke that feeling with the final product. To get to that feeling, the designer considers colors, styles, textures and designs in the client’s home, especially where this flooring will be installed.

“It’s not just flooring but what goes with this flooring,” says Sonnet. “I’ve had families where they’ve got a golden retriever and it sheds all the time, or they’ll say, ‘I’m not the type who likes to clean a lot. I’m not messy, but I want something that doesn’t show the dust or dirt or footprints.’”

Durability is top of mind for many customers, so it’s important to consider the nature of foot traffic, cleaning needs and the water-resistance.

Luxury vinyl tile (LVT) is increasingly popular because of its durability, its cleanability and its affordability, Sonnet says. And, many newer styles are also incredibly lifelike. Top manufacturers are moving from flat finishes to life-like textures that truly mimic wood grain and ceramic tile. A slightly beveled edge completes the look.

“With enhanced embossing, the texture is actually imprinted into the surface. It’s actually following the print underneath,” he says. “So, if you see a knot, you see the texture go around the swirl. I tell people it’s not at all like Pergo.”

Vinyl planks are getting wider and longer than usual, and so is ceramic tile, which is selling in increments as large as 24 by 48 inches.

“Larger planks give the appearance of bigger, because they’re longer and wider,” says Sonnet. “It just fools the eye into creating more expanse.”

No matter how his customers feel about their selection, Sonnet encourages them to go with something that’s fresh and original, not merely what’s trendy. And what’s trendy, he says, is something that’s overused – think avocado in the 1980s, honey oak in the ’90s and gray today.

“Grays have been here for so long that people are like, ‘I’m over the gray factor,’” he says. “So, what has been arriving in the past couple of years has been more brown and taupe. It’s speculated that beige will make a comeback, but not the beige we all knew in the ’90s. It will have more brown undertones, which is good.”

Before You Buy

Global product shortages related to COVID have made for unpredictable inventories in every part of the kitchen and bathroom remodel. Patience and careful planning are essential for any job getting underway this year.

Wegner and Bechtel, of Blue Ribbon Millwork, have heard some cabinet manufacturers need six months to process an order. Their supplier, Bertch, is on a three- or four-month turnaround. So, orders made right now will probably be installed in winter.

Countertops also are taking longer than usual to produce. Hehr, of Marble Emporium, suggests shopping countertops as soon as the cabinet order goes out, just to be safe. While the firm for years has guaranteed a two-week turnaround, that timeframe is almost double right now, but Hehr adds that other stone fabricators are as much as seven weeks out.

“Everything is delayed, so patience is definitely a virtue in the construction industry,” she says.

Sonnet believes if there’s something you like, or something that completes your room, order it as soon as possible. There’s no guarantee it’ll be available. If it’s out of stock – and that’s a strong possibility – be flexible and open-minded to alternatives.

“The thing I tell customers is this: if you’re looking to start six months from now, there might be new materials that are out there anyway,” he says. “So, at least we have an idea in our head.”