Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Eva and I just finished building our dream kitchen. Here are pictures, plus a few narratives about how we did it.

We started with a clear vision of what we wanted and, thanks to the creative team that we hired, got exactly that. It was harder and more expensive than we expected. Yet completely worth it. At one point early in our project, I realized that we were creating not just a new kitchen but a work of art. You can be the judge.

I wrote this primarily for readers who might be contemplating their own custom kitchen remodel. It’s a candid view of what our project was like from a homeowner’s perspective. Parts of my story may seem to dwell too long on a few details, but that is the nature of construction – details, details, details. If you don’t care, then just enjoy the pictures. (Click on pics to see full-screen.)

Before & After:

Rainbow Dreams:
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true
Everyone seems to know a horror story about getting screwed by an unscrupulous, over-worked, or incompetent contractor. It happens so often that there are TV shows devoted to it – Mike Holmes, for example, who seems to relish fixing botched home construction jobs, while rescuing couples who have been duped by charlatans. Here’s what we did to avoid such a fate with our own kitchen remodel.
For starters, we took our time (waiting until we could afford to do it right), going regularly to home shows and checking out the work of local architects and builders. We liked what we saw of the Eugene firm of Rainbow Valley Design & Construction. Quality was evident in the elegant, clean esthetic of their work.
We also liked how they structured projects as “design-build,” meaning, they serve as architect and general contractor, working routinely with a stable of trusted subcontractors. That meant, we hoped, one point of contact for everything, start-to-finish, with tight control of the schedule and budget.
We didn’t even get bids from other contractors. I’m not sure what bids can tell you; to a considerable extent, you get what you pay for. What can a bid show you about a firm’s quality standards or design skills?
There are hundreds of choices in a kitchen project, each linked to quality – more of it or less. That's linked to cost – more of it or less. Good design – from custom architecture to plumbing and lighting fixtures to door hardware – carries an extra premium .
The best cabinet carpenters use the best materials and build the best joints. So you have to decide. Then there are more choices: cabinet locations, dimensions, configuration, interior layout, material, finish and color, do you want to pay extra for self-closing doors and drawers?, range hood height, trim, glass fronts (where and what kind of glass?). What about the reveal dimension between doors – quarter inch or eighth inch? A pantry? Hardware. And cabinet lighting (an unpleasant little story deserving its own telling, later). If you want cabinets to be perfect, every small decision matters.
Detailed cabinet plans come after you decide on appliances – each with its own seemingly endless choices. Even if you can afford it, do you really need to spend $12,000 on a SubZero refrigerator? Although we drew the line there, we did splurge on a Wolf range, plus a second wall oven and microwave. And a nice, under-counter wine cooler.
At our first design meeting with Scott, our Rainbow Valley architect, we stressed one point – this was a kitchen for a serious cook, not just a showpiece. Like most couples, we spend a good share of our time in the kitchen. Unlike most couples, however, one of us is a spectacular chef. Our kitchen is built to be used. With wine.
Over the years, we had met several times with Rainbow Valley’s architects to discuss possible projects even before we settled on a custom kitchen remodel. I can say “the chemistry seemed right,” but what does that really mean? I think it’s about trust – trust regarding judgements in overall design and details, in recommendations about things like flooring and insulation, and trust in an honest tracking of costs. If you have secret fears that your contractor is cheating you, how much fun can that be?
Despite the inevitable headaches from any construction project, I vowed that our project would be fun for us, as well as for our design and construction team. Mostly it was, though there were moments, usually involving sub-par work by subcontractors or suppliers.
No construction project can be any better than the skills of its subs – the gaggle of guys (and all our subs except one were guys) who do the plumbing, electrical, ducting, cabinets, counters, tile, sheet rock, flooring, and so on. Keeping a project on schedule and within budget means riding herd on those tradesmen who lately, given the economic recovery, are stretched thin and over-committed. How can you know that the subs you hire are good ones? We relied completely on Rainbow Valley.
Eva and I have more construction experience than most people. Over the course of my checkered career, I managed for several years a land development company building subdivisions in Arizona, and directed construction of a big office building near Washington, DC. Eva worked for many years writing construction loans for mortgage companies, and was vice president of bank construction loan departments in Michigan and Virginia. So we pretty much knew what we were getting into with a custom kitchen remodeling project. Nevertheless, some things still surprised us and some of the glitches were frustrating.
Nothing in home building is more complicated than a custom kitchen remodel. Here’s one measure: How many people would you guess worked on our project. I tried to count all those I came to know, at least briefly, on a first-name basis – the designers, carpenters, tradesmen, appliance sellers, and building inspectors – and that’s not counting delivery guys, receptionists, dump workers, and probably others I’ve forgotten. I stopped counting when I got up to 60. Sixty! And that’s with me doing some of the work myself – all the up-front demolition and painting.
I was happy that our project manager, Andrew, was fine with letting us save some money by me doing that work. It’s an example of what I thought was one of Rainbow Valley's best qualities – they are client friendly. “Every client is different; we meet each one where they are,” is how Andrew explained it.
Bottom line, would we recommend Rainbow Valley to others? Certainly, yes, but with the caveat of being sure you know what you’re getting into.

Picking a Plan:
We have a lovely home, well-designed and constructed by a talented builder some 20 years ago. Except for the kitchen, which always seemed like an afterthought. We decided it was time for an upgrade. Unfortunately, there would be no easy way to reconfigure or expand the existing cramped space. Rainbow Valley’s Scott visited and came up with a handful of options – from working within the existing footprint to bumping out exterior walls.
We settled on a plan that involved shrinking the utility room and half-bath by moving a bearing wall several feet. Although it would add only a modest amount of new kitchen space, the impact would be dramatic. Where the refrigerator stood, there would be a new window (looking out on our chickens). New cabinets would extend to the ceiling and we would eliminate cabinets under the counter peninsula. Nasty vinyl flooring would be replaced with dark bamboo hardwood extending through the dining room and entry foyer. The net effect would be an open, inviting space in harmony with the rest of the house’s design.
Over the course of a year, that’s what we agreed to do. Construction would start right after the year-end holidays. In the meantime, we had shopping to do, starting with countertops. 

There’s something about granite. You take this rock that was formed as molten magma deep inside the earth – its colorful quartz and mica and feldspar distorted and crystallized over millions of years – then it gets mined, sliced, polished, and shipped across oceans and cut to fit your kitchen counter.
A year before we would start our project we went granite shopping – first in Eugene, then in Portland where we found the choices overwhelming. So many colors, so much stone beauty. The weird thing about buying granite countertops from a showroom is that you pick out your slab without knowing what it’s going to cost. All you see are relative prices – one to five stars on the tags. The shop ships the slabs you select to the installer, who measures your cabinet dimensions and determines exactly how much stone you need, then tells you the price. It’s an unusual retail model.

When our construction was about to begin, we made a second granite shopping trip to Portland. After looking at hundreds of choices, when we saw the slab of Brazilian “Aquarella” granite, it was love at first sight. Actually, second sight, since Eva recalled this four-star granite also had been our favorite on our earlier visit.

The store had just two slabs, and we needed both. The shop’s workers hoisted each of the 900-pound giants out on forklifts so we could better view them.
The heart wants what the heart wants.
After our cabinets had been installed, our countertop guy (Stone Works InternationalMaking sure your dreams are set in stone!) came to the house to precisely measure how to cut the granite. He created template patterns of the countertops and taped them to our two slabs, showing exactly where cuts would be made. We spent several hours in his warehouse, studying the stone and moving his templates around in order to capture our favorite parts of the slabs.
Along the way, we also selected a remnant granite piece (“Sienna Bordeaux”) for the countertop in the utility room – cheaper, but lovely still.
Kitchen Art:
Once upon a time when our new kitchen was just a fancy, Eva and I spotted some art tiles in a gallery on the Oregon coast. We vowed then that if we ever redid our kitchen, we’d put at least a few of those tiles in our counter’s backsplash. I got in touch with the artist, Matthew Patton in Seattle, and ordered a sample of his 6” x 6” tiles. We settled on three.
For weeks, I thought about how to place them – how to get the right feng shui – and during a long bike ride one day, stopped and sketched on paper the layout in my mind. Eventually, that translated into a full-scale cardboard mockup and then the real deal.
It was when Jack Frost came into the picture that I started to think of our kitchen remodel as a work of art, not just a construction project. A tall, wild-haired, English-accented artist, Jack works in metal from a ramshackle shop in nearby Springfield. Scott found him while looking for someone to create for us a unique column to support the granite peninsula – destined to be the focal point of our new kitchen.
“He’s different,” was how Scott tried to prepare us in his understated manner.
We saw Jack’s drawings before we saw Jack. We had suggested that the column echo the sensuous curves of the forged iron chandelier in our dining room. His sketches looked perfect.
Over the next weeks, Scott gave Jack some minor design guidance. Each time there was a question from Jack – should he do something this way or that way? – each time Scott made the right call. I was thrilled; it’s an example of why we came to so completely trust Rainbow Valley’s design sense and judgements.

Demo Days:
It was the hardest I’ve worked in years. Maybe ever. To save money, I volunteered to do the demolition of our old kitchen. Owner work is well-named: “sweat equity.” I took everything all down to bare studs, including prying up the old subfloor and (rough-estimate) 10,000 nails. 
We turned our garage into a temporary kitchen and laundry room. I took the old kitchen cabinets and re-mounted them in the garage. Moving absolutely everything – dishes, food, appliances – out of the kitchen was ugly. It felt way too much like moving. Yet, after a week of torturing my muscles and surprisingly little bloodshed, demolition was done and the real work ready to begin.

First on the scene were Rainbow Valley’s carpenters, Kevin and Phil. Over the next several months, we would all get fairly well acquainted. Since I’m retired, I was underfoot nearly every day.
As it turns out, both had grown up in Michigan not far from where I did. So we shared stories about favorite memories (Go Wings!) and least favorite (winter). Phil is about a decade younger than me, and a patient, wood-working perfectionist. Kevin, several decades younger, a highly talented carpenter. Whatever the construction surprise, they could solve it. Not once did either of them say, “I don’t think we can do that,” or suggest we would need to revise our design to accommodate some unexpected problem.
I can’t be sure, but I think they liked having an audience, particularly one as appreciative as me of their skills. Like all of us, they had good days and off days, but when they were in their zone and the work was flowing and the saws humming and the nail guns ka-whacking, it was a beautiful thing to behold.
Rainbow Valley did its best to curtain off the construction zone, while Eva and I scurried between garage-kitchen and living quarters. But let’s just put it this way: it’s not an experience you wish to extend one day longer than necessary. There’s dust and noise. Your privacy is re-defined. There’s stress and pressure and an endless string of decisions.
Suddenly, for example, you’re looking at a heating duct to the upstairs master bedroom that was hidden in the wall right where the new kitchen window is supposed to go. They could re-route the duct this way, or that way, or change the window, or eliminate the duct and add a baseboard heater, and what do you want us to do?
It’s not like they could just start right out putting in the new stuff. Because the kitchen wall being moved was a bearing wall, it was complicated. First, a temporary beam had to go up to keep the upstairs from becoming the downstairs. Next, two big holes were cut in the floor to access the spidery crawl space below so new concrete footings could be poured beneath the house, one wheelbarrow load at a time. Hefty posts were placed on the footings, holding the new laminated beam that was notched into the kitchen ceiling joists, which were affixed with hangers to the new beam. Only then could new construction begin.
Meanwhile, there were heating ducts, wiring, and plumbing to be re-routed, and a string of problems to be solved – like that hidden water line Kevin punctured with his nail gun. Nevertheless, it all got fixed. One day at a time, it all got done. Sheet rock went up, plasterers did their thing, flooring got nailed down, the unfinished cabinets got installed, appliances were delivered, cabinets got spray lacquered (the fumes nearly driving us out for several days), counters installed, backsplash tiles meticulously placed, sinks and faucets, toilet, lighting fixtures…


I was on a mission one day to the local hardware store, this time for a single rubber grommet so Phil could finish installing the range hood. He got paid by the hour so I was always happy to run errands or handle other mundane tasks like daily construction cleanup. The grommet was needed to protect electrical wiring where it came through a hole in the hood’s sheet metal.
I found the tray of rubber grommets only after direction from the hardware guy, who then offered me a short lecture on how the vast selection of nuts and bolts and grommets, handy as it may be, was a money loser. “From theft?” I asked, trying to be polite.
“That and it costs more in staff to help customers than we can make on small stuff.” When I didn’t reply he added, “We can only hope they come back to buy the bigger things, too.” What he didn’t say but was implied was “instead of getting it cheaper at the big box stores.” An interesting sales tactic, I thought. Guilt-tripping customers. But he had a point.
That range hood had been a challenge, perhaps the most serious glitch of the project. As soon as the cabinets were installed, it was obvious that the upper cabinets were too tall, meaning that the range hood would end up too close to the top of the range – just 24 inches. It turned out that the range hood specifications do, in fact, recommend a clearance of exactly that. Specifications for our Wolf range, however, call for a clearance of 30 inches, which was what we had envisioned. No one caught the 6-inch contradiction, and it was a detail on the cabinet drawings that I had missed when okaying them.
So the dilemma: do we uninstall the huge upper cabinet component, truck it back to the cabinet shop for revision, and pay the many hundreds of dollars for the change? And if so, who pays? Or do we live with having the range hood lower than we wanted, which would mess up placement of our art tiles?
There really was no question that we had to fix it, and we did. Rainbow Valley agreed that it was a shared mistake and we shared the extra costs.

I then realized that the hood vented out the top, not straight out the back, as we had expected. After investigating options for a different hood, we agreed to Rainbow Valley’s proposed fix – a duct elbow inside the upper cabinets, then venting to the outside. That worked fine and our carpenters enclosed the duct in plywood to match the cabinets.

The next challenge was finding an exterior vent cap of the right size. Kevin sent me chasing unsuccessfully all over Eugene, eventually ordering it online from Home Depot.

Once installed, we discovered that the hood’s light switch was defective. But that glitch was almost worth it. Our appliance store sent a repair guy out right away.
“Would you like me to take off my shoes,” an unusually large man said at the door.
“If you don’t mind.”

Donald (we'll call him) kicked off his shoes, which fastened with Velcro straps instead of laces.
In the course of his short visit, I learned about Donald’s other job as a rural volunteer fireman and that keeping toasters plugged in is the number three biggest cause of house fires. With a genuinely curious audience, Donald broadened his social commentary to decry Oregon’s pending legalization of weed: “They sure named it right: dope!” He also feared that a proposed hike in the minimum wage would make hamburgers too expensive. “And then where will we be?” he demanded. While summing up that today’s society is, in general, going to hell, he struggled mightily with his shoes, finally jamming his feet in.
Donald promised to order a new hood switch and return when it arrived. He stood on the sidewalk giving me his final Tea Party-ish views of the world. I tried to stay interested but, really, I just wanted him to go. I had been entertained by construction guys for three months and Donald was about the last of them. Enough was enough.
I had heard bits and pieces of the life stories of tradesmen as they had worked and we had chatted. Like the plumber who was into bird watching and tried hard not to be distracted from his work by the constant flurry at my bird feeders. We talked birds.
Or Bill, the electrical inspector, who explained why he didn’t drive one of his company’s mini-trucks: “I only ask two things in life. One is a truck roomy enough to wear my cowboy hat.”
“And the second?”
“A house where I can piss off the front porch.” He quickly added, “Not that I do that. I just want to know that I could. I’m entitled, don’t you think?”

I laughed in agreement, “Bill, if those are your two biggest issues, you’ve got a happy life.”

How We Paid for All This:

I’m not going to reveal how much we spent on our dream kitchen. It’s fair to say, however, that it was a shocking amount, based on reactions from the few people with whom we’ve shared that detail.
But here’s the thing. For us, it has nothing to do with resale value. We’re not going anywhere. This is home forever; why not make it exactly what we want? And what I want is a life surrounded by beauty every moment.
As we chatted one afternoon, Phil asked me Eva’s age. Earlier, I had shared with him an article I’d been reading in the newspaper about how to retire successfully. “Marry a younger woman was how I did it,” I had told him. I gave him my age as 69. (Later it dawned on me that I'm “only” 68.) He seemed astounded at how well preserved I seemed to be for such an advanced age.
Apparently, that conversation had got him thinking, and he was curious for more details, like asking about my wife’s age.
I couldn’t remember so tried to do the math in my head. I pictured “2015” in my mind, subtracting Eva’s birth year, which I do remember, and gave Phil a number for her age that I thought was close enough.
As Phil worked, I watched him doing that math in his head, subtracting Eva’s age from 69.
“Luck,” he said, without looking up from his saw. “You’ve been lucky,” referring to my much-younger wife, who I was pretty sure he thought was hot and, even better, self-employed with enough success to be able to pay for this fancy kitchen.
“That’s true,” I admitted.
Then I added, “You’re right, Phil. I’ve been lucky. But there is luck and there is luck. This is my second marriage.”
“Twice to get it right,” said Phil, a lifelong bachelor, to the best of my knowledge.
I smiled and gave him a thumbnail sketch of my Wiccan white-witch first wife who had been married five or six times before me depending on whether you count the time she temporarily married her cousin so he could get a green card. As I said, there’s luck and then there’s luck.

The Last Day:
Good Friday was supposed to be our last day of real construction. Just two tasks remained – electricians would install the cabinet lighting and Phil would install the special pull-down screen for the new pass-through window between the kitchen and the deck.
I thought I would be sad to see it all end. It was fun – bantering with the crews, making decisions about details of construction, and watching our dream kitchen take shape.
For nearly three months I had been up every weekday and ready for construction to start at 8:00 a.m. I had put in yeoman sweat equity – demolition, installing insulation, and hauling debris for recycling and the dump. I also had done all the painting and staining, including first sanding the trim and baseboards, often working until late in the night. I was beat.
Moreover, I was tired of dealing with stupid glitches – like the range hood problem I described. Or door hardware not getting ordered, as promised. A new window too hard to open. Flaws in the ceiling plaster. Unexpected construction complications to be solved.
And electrical snafus. It was the one time in the project that I came close to losing my temper. The electrician, let’s call him Larry, had made a site visit weeks earlier. Working from the architect’s drawings, we had identified every possible detail regarding outlets, dimmer switches, fixture locations, and so on. Everything.
So when Larry’s two crew guys showed up on a Monday morning to install wiring with virtually no idea of what we wanted or where, no knowledge of our walk-through with their boss, and with the wrong color fixtures and not nearly enough dimmer switches, it was definitely a WTF moment. Eventually it all got worked out, of course, as these things always do. Except for the cabinet low-voltage lighting, which somehow hadn’t gotten ordered. Nor had Larry or his crew looked at specifications for the cabinet lighting we had selected, so had to guess about what kind of low voltage wiring to install in the walls. (As it turned out, they guessed wrong, but we made do.)
Anyway, now on this Good Friday, the very last day of construction, I was not looking forward to another visit from Larry’s crew to finally install the cabinet lighting. I summoned extra willpower to get out of bed that morning in time to greet them ringing my doorbell at 8:00 a.m. sharp.
We went over exactly how the cabinet lighting, which consists of a thin tape of tiny LED lights, would be installed. We agreed on precisely where the tape would be placed inside and under each of the cabinets. Since it was a lovely spring day, I went outside to mow the lawn as the crew went to work.
I knew they had the right supplies – including the correct length of LED tape, transformers, and special wiring connectors – because I had ordered it all myself. After learning that the original order was messed up, I had gone to our lighting store (Brighter Homes Lighting) and sat with salesman Dave for an hour, going over every detail. I had measured and re-measured. What could possibly go wrong?
I was just finishing up with my yard mowing when one of Larry’s crew signaled that they were done and did I want to come in and see their work?
The first thing I noticed was that the lighting inside the first set of cabinets wasn’t taped precisely as I’d instructed. It was only matter of a half-inch, but I had been so explicit. Yet as I looked closer, I concluded it actually looked better where they had taped it. Whew!
But then: “We ran short of tape lighting for inside the cabinets.” He pointed to the far cabinet; its top shelf was dark on one side. He explained that they had divided up what tape lighting they had left on that cabinet; both sides were short, and by different amounts. The lighting was all wrong.
I retrieved the lighting invoice. There it showed what I had ordered – 14 feet of in-cabinet tape lighting. I did the math again. Yep, 14 feet should have been more than enough. I took a tape measure and added up the actual lengths of lighting they had installed. Oh-uh; 12 feet.
I told the crew I would sort it out later and sent them on their way. I sat there at our new granite counter, concluding that I would try to get the lighting store to replace both of the too-short sections of tape lighting since they had made the mistake. That’s when I noticed the wiring coming from the wall to the under-cabinet tape lighting.
As I mentioned earlier, the crew had assumed incorrectly that the low voltage lighting required more than two wires (e.g., speaker wire). So they installed CAT5 wiring instead, which includes five wires encased in a bright blue cover. I could see that ugly blue wire extending under the cabinet, joined to the tape lighting with a bright red splice, all carelessly stapled to the underside of the cabinets. It would not do.
* * *
And as for that second task for the day – installing the special pull-down screen for the pass-through window. This had been a feature near the top of Eva’s new-kitchen wish list – being able to pass food and dishes from the kitchen directly outside to the grill area on the deck.
We had considered the simplest solution – taking off the screen of an ordinary window. Not very elegant, and how do you keep out the flies? Same problem with expensive windows that open like French doors to an outside shelf. Bugs. After much searching, Rainbow Valley found a window that would work, with a screen mounted inside that pulls down like a blind.
I had been up late the night before putting the final coat of paint on the newly-mounted window so the screen could be installed. Phil seemed to be having trouble figuring out how it worked; there were no instructions included. Moreover, the trim pieces didn’t seem long enough. We held the screen in place against the window and pulled down the screen. It would look good if we could figure out how to mount it properly. Except, the screen had a hole in it. Not a big hole, just one of the little fibers broken, but a very obvious hole, nonetheless.
“Phil, for what we’re paying for this window, I’m not going to accept a screen with a hole in it.” He agreed, of course, and a new screen got ordered.
* * *
To conclude our cabinet lighting fiasco, a week after our Good Friday woes I drove into Eugene to talk to our lighting store about how their shorting us tape light had messed things up. I took a deep breath, pushed open the door, and asked for Dave. He was out to lunch so I explained to the nice woman behind the counter how Dave and I had sat for an hour putting together the tape light order – “Right there,” I said, pointing to the table we had used.
“Oh, yes. I seem to remember that,” she said, a quizzical look on her face.
“Well, the order was messed up.” As I explained in detail the problem, the sympathy in her face went cold when I said, “So because you made the mistake on the order, I think you should replace the two 40-inch segments.”
I could picture her feet whirling like the Roadrunner’s as she backed away. “Oh, I’ll have to get Elias for this. He’s in the back.”
Several minutes later, they emerged together in conversation. Elias had me explain the issue again. He suggested splicing additional tape lighting to the short ends, but I expressed skepticism that the adhesive backing, once the old tape was pulled and moved, would stick like new. I told him I wanted new tape lighting. Seeing nothing friendly in Elias’ face, I pressed my point:
“Elias, we’ve spent a small fortune on lighting fixtures here, so I can’t imagine why this would be a problem for you.”
“It’s not a problem. I’m taking care of you.” He didn’t grit his teeth, but might as well have.
We discussed the exact length needed, and he disappeared for a long time into his stock room. He returned with five feet of tape lighting – all he had in stock – and said he would have to order more.
I told Elias, “If you want to argue about who pays for this, you can fight it out with Rainbow Valley. All I know is that I’m not paying for it.”
That’s where we left it. By my estimate, Elias was quibbling over less than $50 (his cost) in materials. I did promise him that if it looked like we could re-use the existing, poorly-installed tape lighting, that I’d consider doing that. And that’s partly what I did; a good compromise, I thought.
I went back a week later to explain this to Elias, but now he was the one out to lunch so I chatted with Dave, who seemed far more empathetic to the headaches he had caused by shorting us on the order. He apologized several times, but said to me in passing, “I’m just so surprised. I’m not saying I can’t make a mistake, but I remember measuring that tape before I sent it out, and then measuring it again.”
There you have the challenge of remodeling: No matter how skilled the workers, no matter how attentive your oversight, mistakes happen and sometimes you can’t really say for sure who screwed up. All you can be certain of is that at the end of the day, you’ll have more headaches and pay more than you expected.
So after all that, how did the cabinet lighting turn out? Absolutely beautiful.

Searching for Perfection:
I watched Phil emerge from the crawl space under the house, bedecked in white, hooded coveralls intended to protect him from the insulation he had been re-installing under the kitchen floor. I had asked him to check how the various crews had left things, certain that the under-floor insulation would be a mess. It was; hence, Phil’s protective gear. I know of few jobs worse than manhandling fiberglass insulation above your head in a dark, damp, buggy, claustrophobic crawl space under a house. Been there; done that.
Phil’s eyes were beet red; his skin crawled with itchiness. Sweat beaded on his face. But it was done.
After weeks of watching Phil work, I knew with complete confidence that I didn’t need to slither into that crawl space to check his work. Phil did things right. Every time.
He’s a perfectionist and a genius with carpentry. Often, he would spot imperfections or misalignments and promptly fix them. When I would express surprise at him picking up things that I hadn’t noticed, he would reply simply, “That’s my job.”
It’s why I knew I could trust his judgement about imperfections in the ceiling plaster. We had worried from the start that invisibly meshing the new kitchen ceiling with the old dining room ceiling would be tough. Architect Scott had even proposed a false ceiling beam to disguise the break, but we had rejected that idea. Rainbow Valley’s go-to plasterer, Robert, had come to our house before taking the job and had assured us that he could feather his work into the existing ceiling to avoid a visible break.
The trouble was that Robert hadn’t done that. Shadows in the ceiling plaster made the break obvious, even after painting. I feared that trying to go back and fix it, however, could make it look even worse, and Phil agreed that was a risk.
His conclusion: “Life’s not perfect.”
It was damned good advice.
Robert had to come back later to finish up a few spots and I told him how pleased we were with the overall quality of his work. I had put at least three coats of paint on every inch of his plaster, so I knew what I was talking about. Before Robert left, though, I told him frankly of my disappointment with the ceiling, but that I had accepted Phil’s advice and didn’t want him to mess with it.
Robert stared hard at the ceiling shadows. “When everything is done, you and I will be the only ones who will ever notice.”
He was right. After the cabinets and lights were installed, there was light and shadow coming from fixtures in all directions; the imperfections in the ceiling’s plaster disappeared as if they didn’t exist. That’s almost the same as perfect.
* * *
I’ve focused here on a few construction glitches as a cautionary note regarding the realities of home remodeling. Unexpected and unpredictable problems are unavoidable. The test is how everyone responds to those problems. The temptation for some subs is to talk you into modifying your dream and your design in order to make their problem easier to solve – things like your insisting the light fixture goes right there, or keeping the window exactly that wide.
Not once, however, did Rainbow Valley’s own staff try to compromise our design to make things easier. Always, “we can do that” was the response.
For every one thing that went wrong, there were a hundred that went right. And a few things that could have been worse. Phil worked sick one day when he should have been in bed, then went back to the shop to cut some trim for the next day and nearly severed his thumb off. Only the saw’s almost magical SawStop, which instantly brakes the blade upon contact with flesh, saved him.
We’ve now had a few weeks to live with our new kitchen. We’ve had a few family events, such as Easter dinner, which proved the kitchen to be as functional as it is beautiful.
There remain a few little details to finish up, but that’s really beside the point now. Most remarkable is how close to perfect we find our dream kitchen. Everything works just like it’s supposed to – the appliances, plumbing, heat, lighting, windows, the air button on the disposal.
We’re thrilled with the beauty of our granite countertops and the bamboo flooring. You’ll not find anywhere a countertop pedestal like our Jack Frost column. Thanks to a master tile man and his partner-son, our backsplash with its art tiles came out just as we always hoped.
Of all the quality workmanship that combined to create our dream kitchen, I think the most impressive craftsmanship is in our new beechwood cabinets from The Cabinet Factory. I know there are a lot of good cabinet makers around, but I just can’t imagine how cabinets could be made any better, the attention to detail any finer, the fit more perfect.
Cabinet installation is one place where Phil’s carpentry skill came into play, shaving the edges of ceiling trim, for example, to perfectly match a less-than-perfectly-flat ceiling. Plus, there was the crew who sealed off the kitchen, encased themselves in protective gear and respirators, and sprayed an industrial strength finish on the cabinets, giving them a rock-hard, smooth-as-silk sheen.

Despite all the glitches and frustrations, in the end our exquisitely beautiful kitchen – everything about it – is perfect. At least for Eva and me. Which is really all that matters, don't you think? 

I hope my little story gives you an idea of what a kitchen remodeling project entails. Perhaps it gives you ideas for making a kitchen that's perfect for you. Maybe thoughts on who to hire. There's one critical element of our successful project, however, that I can't share. This kitchen was my wife's vision, start to finish -- layout, colors, components. Sorry, but Eva already has a job. Good thing.


  1. Terrific and honest account of the process. As one of the other project managers at RVDC I appreciated your insights of the process particularly as "the client" point of view.

    What I respect more than anything is your awareness of the trades people, who by in large take a great deal pride in the work they do. We are fortunate to have found them to help realize projects like yours for people like you.

    Dean Lamoureux - RVDC Project Manager

  2. There is nothing like a dream kitchen. I purchased my home 8 years ago. Although I knew that my kitchen needed updating, I kept waiting and budgeting. Finally, I took the plunge and interviewed different contractors specializing in kitchen design. A top chef would love the granite counter tops, breakfast nook, and stainless steel appliances.

    Debra Newman @ Unique Stone Concepts

  3. My wife and I recently renovated our kitchen and we also knew right away that we wanted granite. Needless to say, we were quite shocked with prices that were out of our budget. We ended up going with a dark marble countertop. It is high maintenance so I wouldn't recommend it for a restaurant quality kitchen but it still looks great.

    Arthur Bryant @ Contractor Express