Virtual Reno Diary

My (Virtual) Renovation Diary | Clinton Hill 1BR Co-Op, Kitchen Stop Gap Measures

March 21, 2013 | Alex

I've been intrigued lately by what I'd term "design stop gaps." Many first time buyers, I think, find themselves in a situation where they've stretched their finances to buy a home that they desperately want to fix up. But before they can tackle the significant expense of, say, a kitchen renovation, they need to give their bank accounts some R&R. Sometimes years of R&R.

Philosophically, I fully support living within your means and taking a slow approach to design. But I also sympathize with the pain that the aesthetically-minded among us suffer when they cohabit with builder grade cabinetry and laminate countertops. Your home is meant to be your refuge, but it can also be an ugly reminder of strained finances and the tough slog of renovating ahead.

Happily, there seems to be a flood of inspiration on the web (by which, let's be honest, I basically mean Pinterest) for stopgap measures. Relatively fast and cheap ways to make that R&R period less visually caustic.

For my virtual renovation of a Clinton Hill 1-bedroom co-op, for example, I would want to take my sweet time to consider appliances, fixtures and materials. But I would not relish living with this in the meantime:

Floorplan Excerpt, via  The New York Times

Floorplan Excerpt, via The New York Times

Yikes! It kills me that the kitchen is described in the listing as "recently renovated." I am certain it was a good faith effort at improving the value of the property and I hate the idea of those newly installed materials going to waste. But on the other hand...that kitchen is just not doing it for me. Three words, friends (two if you count the hyphenation as one word): Counter-Depth Refrigerator.

My long-term plan would involve a change in layout. I've always wanted a window above my kitchen sink. As my loved ones can attest, I am not the most motivated of dish washers. But a view might change that! (Wishful thinking?) I'd move the dishwasher to the left of the sink for ease of loading and center the range on the back wall. I like the idea of building an island adjacent to the structural column, although it's hard to be sure without a sense of how the space feels in person. (Also, the scale of this floor plan is an utter mystery to me thanks to web upload distortion and the notorious unreliability of real estate floor plans.) When I drafted this altered floor plan, I intended to extend the counter on the windowed wall all the way to the corner. But now that I have a fancy new waste bin, I might prefer to reserve a spot for it. Here is my working vision for the post-(virtual)-renovation layout:

Modified from Floorplan Excerpt, via  The New York Times

Modified from Floorplan Excerpt, via The New York Times

But that's all years away, remember!? So what do I do with this kitchen in the here and now? Here are a few of my favorite kitchen stopgap measures, in decreasing order of labor intensiveness:

1. Whitewash Builder-Grade Wood Cabinets 

White paint is the epitome of a cheap and easy makeover. Granted, when you're talking about course-grained wood cabinets slathered in untold layers of polyurethane, it's not as simple as painting dry wall. But there are products and tools that can help make this a manageable DIY job. Chief among them is your trusty friend sandpaper. Grain filler also wants in on the action (see Little Green Notebook's Kitchen DIY  for a primer, no pun intended, on working with grain filler). If you're more of the one-stop-shopping type, try Rustoleum's Cabinet Transformations.

2. Replace Laminate Countertops with Concrete Overlay

Kara Paslay's Before/After, featured on Apartment Therapy, blew me away. She peeled the laminate layer off a client's countertop and replaced it with thin layer of Ardex Feather Finish (a product designed for concrete flooring overlays, and therefore, well up to the task of kitchen counter wear and tear.) Here is what the finished product looks like:

While the style of the kitchen she transformed is a bit dark and traditional for me, I love the concept of transforming laminate into concrete. I'd take the idea and head more in this direction:

Feilden Fowles  Architects, via  Remodelista

Feilden Fowles Architects, via Remodelista

3. Remove Upper Cabinet Doors to Create Open Shelving

This trick isn't for everyone. But since my dishware is 100% white and in fairly good shape, the idea of ditching those oppressive and traditional upper cabinet doors in favor of a lighter, more open space is a design slam dunk. And all it takes is a screwdriver (and most likely, a couple dabs of wood filler for any visible hinge holes.) This is the look I'm aiming to achieve with the open shelving:

Philadelphia Loft Space by Qb3, via  Remodelista

Philadelphia Loft Space by Qb3, via Remodelista

4. Upgrade Lighting

There are a couple ways I could go in terms of lighting. Technically, I wouldn't need to wait until the full on kitchen renovation to upgrade the overhead lighting situation. I could have an electrician install track lighting ASAP, but I think I would prefer to wait on a lighting plan until I finalize my kitchen scheme. While I'm generally in favor of functional vs. decorative lighting in the kitchen, I might like to use temporary lighting as an opportunity to add character to the kitchen. Since I would plan to live with this white, concrete and stainless steel kitchen for years, it might be nice to introduce wood for warmth and to tie in the flooring. (I didn't explicitly mention this in my flooring post, but the tile would be replaced with hardwood for continuity throughout the apartment.) Once the lighting was upgraded during the renovation, I would plan to move the temporary fixture to a different location in the apartment. The Andrea Claire Studio light fixture I'm currently coveting would do very nicely, providing it threw off enough light (unclear from her website.)

The Constantin Series, via  Andrea Claire Studio

The Constantin Series, via Andrea Claire Studio

A significantly less expensive option would be Ikea's FUGA ceiling spotlight. I have this light in the bedroom of my Brooklyn apartment and can vouch for its budget-friendly splendor:

FUGA - $50, via  Ikea    

FUGA - $50, via Ikea


In reality, I almost certainly go with the more practical FUGA spotlight, but it can't hurt to dream about the Andrea Claire fixture. 

5. Add Ikea's Stainless Steel Floating Shelves and Free-Standing Island

There seems to be unused wall space to the left of the kitchen window. I might prefer to use the space for art, given the amount of open shelving I would have after removing the upper cabinet doors. But it's nice to know that Ikea's LIMHAMN  shelves in stainless steel are an option. While I don't recommend their EKBY MOSBY  shelves for wet spaces (and neither does Ikea-- they stain almost instantly), this is a pretty stellar look:

Another Ikea kitchen stand-by is their FLYTTA  rolling island cart, also in stainless steel. I like the idea of expanding my prep space in the temporary kitchen, while getting used the idea of having an island pre-renovation. If it turns out that it obstructs the flow from kitchen to living space, or that adjoining it to the column is too far away from the appliances, I'm only out $159 (amortized over a couple years of use, no less)-- not a couple thousand for a custom island! Ikea's free standing kitchen units, albiet more expensive, provide a more substantial alternative to the FLYTTA. 

FLYTTA - $159 via  Ikea

FLYTTA - $159 via Ikea

Your Poster Child for Kitchen Stop Gaps:

While I've seen various home owners and DIY bloggers apply variations of each these strategies over a dozen times, the poster child for an inexpensive kitchen transformation has got to be Wendy Furman, whose California home was recently featured in Remodelista. Furman combined nearly all of these strategies, and even added a dose of contrast by painting the backs of her upper cabinets, to create a clean, comfortable kitchen with only a few small changes:

Napa Valley Home of Wendy Furman, via  Remodelista

Napa Valley Home of Wendy Furman, via Remodelista

Phew, I'm reassured that I could make this kitchen liveable-- nay, beautiful-- while I save my shekels for a full (virtual) renovation.

My (Virtual) Renovation Diary | Clinton Hill 1BR Co-Op, Part II - Built-in Units

March 13, 2013 | Alex

Don't worry-- I haven't forgotten about my (virtual) renovation of a Clinton Hill 1-bedroom/1-bath Co-op, although I have had a slight change of heart on the order of construction.

To recap: in my last post we stripped off layers of old paint where necessary, painted the walls and replaced the flooring throughout the apartment. I had initially planned to tackle the bathroom next. But selecting fixtures and materials for a bathroom requires careful planning and research. I have a few ideas, but I'm not quite ready to take the plunge-- even a virtual one.

Instead, I'd like to focus today's virtual renovation on built-in units, including new radiator covers. The existing radiator covers are in need of modernization.

If you run a Google image search for "radiator cover" it's easy for the contemporary design lover to despair. But cheer up! I've collected a slew of images of radiator covers that fit perfectly into a modern home.


Sources  (clockwise from top left)

  1. Custom Radiator Cover by Emma Victoria Interior Design
  2. via Pinterest
  3. Wooden Curved Radiator Cover, by Jason Muteham
  4. Custom Radiator Cover by Rodriguez Studio Architecture PC, via Houzz
  5. via Pinterest
  6. via Pinterest

As the images illustrate, a custom radiator cover can serve multiple functions. It can extend a window sill to create a deeper surface, provide covered storage or serve as extra "bench-style" seating, depending on the height. 

Since the building is old (built in 1939), I'd like to introduce a touch of weathered material to temper all the modern sleekness I plan to inject in the way of the kitchen and furnishings. Here are two interesting radiator covers that combine rustic elements with a contemporary feel.



  1. Left: Custom radiator cover by Daniel Greene
  2. Right: Radiator Cover by Nightwood

My favorite is the above left image-- both for its appearance and its back story. The unit features a clean, white and contemporary radiator cover designed by Daniel Greene, but features a ledge made from beams salvaged from the Brooklyn Bridge during a renovation. While I'd love to integrate an old component of the Brooklyn Bridge into my design, I have a feeling I'd have to settle for a less historical salvaged joist. I'd make a few other adjustments, I think. I'd align the top of the joist with the window to create an extension of the sill and I'd ideally prefer a lighter stain. The effect I'm trying to achieve is a juxtaposition of clean, white and sleek with warm, weathered wood. Here's an image of Tribeca loft that hit the nail on the head of that winning combination:

Tribeca loft by  Wettling Architects , via  Remodelista

Tribeca loft by Wettling Architects, via Remodelista

Now that I've decided on a design for the radiator covers, I'd like to expand covered storage in the living space. While the apartment is generously endowed with 4 closets, they are all clustered near the entry and bedroom. If you look at the floor plan, you can see that there is one long, uninterrupted wall that runs the length of the living room. That's where I plan to install a built-in unit that integrates covered storage, pull-out flat file storage, open shelving and-- best of all-- home office at the windowed end of the wall that can be hidden when company is coming.

Here is an inspiration image for the built-in units, with a stow-away home office. Sleek and practical, no?

I especially love that there's a long open shelf running along eye-level to display beloved objects, but the majority of the storage space is covered. After working with Ryan on an apartment with no less than 5 floor-to-ceiling open bookshelf units, I am practically salivating at the thought of having storage in which I can stash all sorts of junk that need never be organized or artfully displayed when I'm expecting visitors. Just shut the cabinet doors and you're ready for your guests to arrive.

My (Virtual) Renovation Diary | Clinton Hill 1BR Co-Op, Part I

March 6, 2013 | Alex

I'm firmly in a "renter" stage of my life. And, truth be told, I'm content with that. Between juggling two jobs and evening school, it's a relief to know that when the dishwasher isn't draining properly, all I have to do is email my landlord and, voila, the dishwasher is magically fixed within 48 hours. (Yes, I am extremely lucky to have kind, efficient, live-in landlords.)

I also like the idea that come any given April (my lease renewal month), I could pack my bags and move across the world to purse an exciting job opportunity. When you're 25 and trying to figure out what the heck you want to do with your life, that brand of freedom is arguably a more valuable commodity than real estate.

But that's not to say that I don't experience the occasional twinge of longing for a space all my own. A space I could transform from "eh" to a knock-out. Especially when I read Apartment Therapy's Renovation Diary. Which brings me to my serial addiction to real estate listings. As a kid, I would panic whenever my parents browsed real estate for recreation-- "Are we moving!?!"

Now I totally get it. Take this Clinton Hill 1-Bedroom/1-Bath Co-Op, for example, listed at $385,000. Over-sized windows! Open plan living! Flooded with light! Views for miles! Massive amounts of space! A grand total of four closets! Even a windowed nook for a possible second bedroom. Not to mention, it's practically on the campus of a top design school.

But there's still room for improvement-- a real estate browsing requirement as basic for me as running water. I don't love the choppiness of parquet floors. And those radiator covers have seen better days. The kitchen, while "recently renovated", leaves something to be desired aesthetically. And the bathroom is practically begging for my love and attention. Just a fresh coat of white paint and a new medicine cabinet would do wonders.

So how about we roll up our sleeves and do some (virtual) renovating? Cool. Before we start, I need to disclose a weird quirk: even in my daydreams, I like to be somewhat practical. Rest assured, they'll be a few splurges. But I will take into account practicalities like my lifestyle and resale value. Design is, after all, born of limitation.

Step 1: Flooring + Painting

Why is this step 1? Because I'd like to replace the flooring and paint the apartment before I move in. One of my first steps after closing will be to suit up in my hazmat attire and strip the decades of paint off the window trim. When you own an apartment with age and character, there's something very fulfilling about scraping off those layers instead of adding to them.

Some might argue that major alterations to the floor plan, kitchen and bath should take precedence. But since this apartment is a major (pretend) investment for me, I want to live in the space and learn from how I use it before I go mucking around with anything structural or spacial.

Decision 1A: Concrete vs. Hardwood

Left via  Dezeen  | Right via  Bloesem

Left via Dezeen | Right via Bloesem

I love concrete flooring. Beautiful, dog-friendly, easy to clean, relatively low cost and low maintenance. But a little inconsistent with the feel of the building (built in 1939) and not as valuable as hardwood for resale. I think I'll save concrete for my modern prefab  in the country. 

Winner: Hardwood (right)

Decision 1B: Herringbone vs. Wide Plank


Left via  Nordic Design  | Right via  Desire to Inspire

Left via Nordic Design | Right via Desire to Inspire

I love the look of both. But since I am am happiest in a contemporary home, I must be true to what makes me happy. (And forgive the gross factor here, but when you have a dog, you realize those tiny cracks between planks are plenty big enough for liquid to seep into and real tricky to clean inside. The wider the floorboards, the fewer the cracks.)

Winner: Wide-Plank (right)

Decision 1C: Type of Wood and Stain


Left via  SFGirlbyBay  | Right via  Dinesen    

Left via SFGirlbyBay | Right via Dinesen


Another toughie! The Scandinavian in me is attracted to white-washed floorboards, with a slightly rustic grain. But the dog lover says soft woods (like pine) and white floors are a nightmare waiting to happen. I'm leaning towards oak, so I'm following my heart and opting for Dineson's Heart Oak  in a clear lacquer finish for extra protection. (Danish company Dineson, if you're not familiar, makes very fancy flooring.)

Winner: Dineson's Heart Oak Flooring, Clear Lacquer (right)

Decision 1D: Paint Color


In the modified words of Henry Ford, "any color, as long it's white." I'm a white paint fanatic. It's funny to me when people describe a home as "museum-like" or "gallery-like" in a pejorative context. Who wouldn't want to live in a fabulous gallery or museum? In my own space, I want a pristine white backdrop that lets my art shine.

The question, though, is which shade of white. For trim, I like Benjamin Moore's Super White in semigloss. For the walls, BM's Decorators White or Simply White are good stand-bys for a true white. But lately, I've seen and liked BM's Mountain Peak white. It's softer than my go-to's, but without yellow undertones. So do I take a chance on Mountain Peak? Maybe in my next apartment. For my first big reno, I want to stay tried-and-true. 

Winner: Walls - Benjamin Moore's Simply White, Matte; Trim - Benjamin Moore's Super White, Semigloss.

Well, we've done some good work today. We bought an apartment, stripped the windows casings, replaced the parquet flooring with wide-plank heart oak and repainted every inch of wall and trim. I think we've earned a well-deserved rest, don't you? (And maybe a beer or two...)

Stay tuned for Part II: The Bathroom Overhaul.