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Tough economic times bring a more subdued approach to kitchen renovations

By Deborah K. Dietsch,

Kitchen remodeling used to be about showing off.

Yes, the kitchen serves an essential function in providing room for preparing and cooking meals. But during the boom years, this practical space grew as a place for entertaining, doing homework, recharging cellphones and laptops and just hanging out.

A lot of extras got added: Homeowners would fill large kitchens with two dishwashers, two sinks, wine coolers, warming ovens and other extras. They applied wood flourishes in European styles to their cabinets and range hoods and made granite a must-have for countertops. You’d get the money back and then some on resale, the thinking went.

But in these economically stressed times, when home prices haven’t appreciated much, the kitchen remodel has taken on a more streamlined approach to reflect the era.

Top kitchen designers in the area recommend homeowners consider this trend when planning improvements to get the most return on their investments. Their expert advice starts with an efficient floor plan for the kitchen.

“If the layout doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how much you spend on the appliances and cabinets,” says kitchen designer Nadia Subaran of Aidan Design in Bethesda.

Think inside the box

As the economy has shrunk, so has the size of a kitchen renovation, according to several kitchen designers. “People are realizing that they don’t need a huge kitchen for it to be efficient and comfortable,” says Bethesda kitchen specialist Jennifer Gilmer. Just a few years ago, she was creating big spaces filled with two of everything — sinks, ovens, refrigerators and dishwashers — and tons of cabinets. “That is considered wasteful by the younger generation,” notes Gilmer. “Now people are doing simpler renovations within the existing space rather than adding on.”

Even without expanding, the kitchen can become more spacious with the right moves. “You can increase square footage and functionality by incorporating smaller spaces around the kitchen such as a closet, butler pantry or bathroom,” says Gaithersburg kitchen designer Davida Rodriguez. “Taking down walls between a breakfast room and kitchen gives that great room effect without having to bust out.”

Making the case for the smaller-is-better approach is the bright, clean-lined kitchen at the back of the Bethesda home owned by retired attorney Gwenn Hibbs. “My two big concerns in renovating were flow and light in the room,” says Hibbs. She hired Subaran of Aidan Design to transform the 11-by-17.5-foot space with new Shaker-style cabinets, white marble countertops and a light-reflective backsplash of glass tiles. A new bay window over the sink brings in more daylight.

Subaran improved the flow by extending 30 inches of counter space into the adjacent family room and reconfiguring the peninsula to create seating for two. “I no longer spend 50 percent of my time navigating around the old U-shaped peninsula,” says Hibbs. “The additional space between counters also allows two or even three people to prep and cook without running into each other.”

Embrace contemporary style

“Five years ago, we were doing traditional kitchens with heavy moldings and turn posts,” says Larry Rosen of Jack Rosen Custom Kitchens, Inc. in Rockville. “Now people want a sleeker European approach.”

Today’s pared-down kitchens mesh with the current preference for open floor plans, allowing cooking, dining and gathering to happen all in one space. “The contemporary kitchen symbolizes the simplification of our lives,” says Savena Doychinov of Design Studio International in Falls Church. “Heavily ornamented traditional is ostentatious and not right for the times. Why spend $500 on a bracket that looks like it would belong to grandma, if she had money?” (A bracket is a support element, sometimes decorative, placed under a shelf or range hood.)

In downsizing from a single-family house, empty nesters Mike Smith, a retired IBM executive, and Diane Renfroe, a retired attorney, hired Capitol Hill architect Craig Morgan to renovate the co-op apartment and Rodriguez to design the kitchen, where he spent most of his budget (about $35,000) on top-of-the-line cabinets.

“You can always replace the stove or refrigerator, but have to get these absolutely right since they can make or break the space,” he says, pulling out a space-saving shelf from a corner cabinet.

The couple went with a contemporary look in remodeling for their home overlooking the Washington Channel in Southwest D.C. “One of the first things I did was to knock down the walls around the kitchen,” says Smith. “Because it is open to the living and dining areas, we wanted the cabinets and appliances to look like furniture.”

Rift-cut oak panels cover the dishwasher and refrigerator to match the cabinets and sideboard in the adjacent dining area. “Wild sea green” granite, inspired by the water views, tops the island dividing the kitchen from the living space.

A less costly alternative to cabinets is open shelving. Growing in popularity, this design option supports the open, contemporary look in kitchens. “It is a money saver,” says Doychinov. “You can use ready-made shelves from Restoration Hardware, West Elm or Pottery Barn for dishes you use regularly or special items for display.”

Invest in lighting

LED is the latest trend in kitchen lighting and manufacturers are now developing a variety of fixtures using this source, particularly for under-cabinet lighting. The advantages of LEDs over conventional light bulbs include their small size, long life and low output of heat, but the technology doesn’t come cheap.

“LED can run two to three times the cost of conventional lighting sources,” says D.C. lighting designer Cheryl Flota, who recently renovated her own kitchen in the Watergate. Flota estimates a standard 22-inch under-cabinet light fixture will cost about $25 for fluorescent and slightly more than double for xenon (incandescent); both sources last about 10,000 hours. An LED lighting strip of the same size, she says, costs about $125, but it will last a good 40,000 hours.

Despite the longevity of LED, some designers aren’t keen on using it in kitchens “I still find LED not as flattering to food and skin as other types of lighting, says Doychinov.

Cook the cool way

Many gourmet cooks still prefer gas ranges, but induction cooktops are becoming a popular alternative. This method works through a high-frequency electromagnet within the “burner” that transfers energy into a metal cooking vessel to make it hot.

“It’s super fast,” says Palisades homeowner Kirsten Wilson, demonstrating how water comes to a boil within seconds. “The cooktop will only get hot at the hob (burner), so the area around it stays cool. The hob cools fairly quickly as well once the pot is removed. There’s almost no wasted energy.”

The induction cooktop is part of a kitchen remodel by District-based Treacy & Eagleburger Architects for Wilson and her photographer husband Johnny Bivera. The kitchen reflects several design trends, including a glass backsplash, LED lighting and a Miele “speed” oven that works as both a convection oven and a microwave to save space.

Consider alternatives to granite

“Granite is still in, but people don’t want the most predictable colors or patterns,” says Gilmer, the Bethesda kitchen specialist. A new wrinkle in the popular countertop material is a textured surface, called a leather finish, or a distressed appearance known in the trade as an antique finish. “It’s a softer, more sophisticated look than polished granite,” says Doychinov.

A growing alternative to granite is a durable countertop made of ground-up quartz and resin. This manufactured material is often referred to as Silestone or Caesarstone, the major companies producing it. Quartz is less porous and purportedly more stain-resistant than granite, and does not need to be sealed. But it can cost as much as granite, about $80 to $120 per square foot installed, according to Subaran.

Repurpose to add character

Kitchens are becoming eco-friendlier with Energy Star appliances and repurposed components. Wilson and Bivera, for example, installed a countertop made of recycled glass mixed with cement and kept the dishwasher they purchased before the renovation. Subaran recycled a walnut island countertop in the kitchen designed for Chevy Chase homeowners Cara and Luis Medeiros, a hedge fund partner, to add a woodsy touch among pale surfaces.

As for reusing old cabinets, “they must be high quality to be worth saving,” says Doychinov. Look for solid wood doors and sturdy construction, she says, pointing out that repairing and repainting old cabinets can be so labor intensive as to be cost-prohibitive. The designer notes, “A good way of recycling cabinets and appliances is to donate them to Habitat for Humanity or repurpose them in a basement or garage.”

Avoid the packaged look

Matchy-matchy designs in kitchens are out. “It is important to mix finishes for cabinets, countertops and floors to create contrast, especially in a big kitchen,” says Doychinov. “If you have everything the same color, there is no definition or personality.” She went bold in the kitchen for Arlington homeowners Marc and Tina Grande, recent transplants from California, by combining bright blue and dark-stained cherry cabinets with lime green walls.

Different finishes can also define distinctive areas within the space. Subaran remodeled the 1980s Potomac kitchen of financial advisor Tristan Caudron and his wife Melanie, a singer with the band 40 Thieves, with contrasting stations for the couple and their four kids.

White cabinets and black granite countertops flank the range on one wall, while dark stained cherry cabinets frame the toaster and cookbooks on another. Most kitchen designers agree that vibrant colors should be reserved for surfaces that can be easily changed, such as painted walls, fabrics and accessories. No one wants to be reminded of the avocado green and harvest gold appliances of yesteryear. “Even backsplashes are becoming simpler without a lot of bright colors and patterns,” says Gilmer. “If you don’t want to worry about resale, do your kitchen in white. It has never gone away.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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