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Sarah Richardson: How to renovate with no regrets

Making cabinets freestanding allows for breathing room, especially if the ceiling isn’t level.

Photos by Stacey Brandford

Buying a house is a huge financial investment – usually your single biggest asset. Some home buyers are able to distance themselves completely and make a decision based strictly on financial considerations, but for most of us, it's also an emotional investment. How a house feels and how you dream of living in its rooms is as important (or even more important) than the fiscal side of things.

It's that very intangible, very emotional, very alluring aspect that drew my clients to make an against-all-odds purchase of an old house in need of a lot of love.

After months of dust, unexpected surprises and renovation chaos, the payoff was delivered in the form of a big, open kitchen outfitted with all the fixings on their wish list.

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Make the change that makes the difference

Old houses are generally comprised of a series of smaller rooms, and the existing layout isn't always in keeping with how people want to live today. This house had four separate rooms on the ground floor, and a cramped kitchen, so the first step was to combine the kitchen and the dining area into one open-plan room. Making structural changes and removing an entire wall to redefine how the spaces work isn't cheap, but removing the wall and installing a flush-mount beam in the ceiling gave us a wide-open space to work with. You may regret not doing many things in a renovation, but I've never had a client regret opening a space up.

Be unique

There are many aspects of kitchen design that require you to select the best option from what's standard and available. Appliances, sinks, faucets, counters, flooring and tile are a game of this one or that one. But once all the basics are in place, it's time to have some fun. Lots of people like the idea of an island that is a contrast colour, so it stands out from the main cabinetry finish on the perimeter cabinets. For more than a decade, the popular accent finish has been coffee-inspired with shades of espresso stain topping the popularity charts. My clients said they loved blue, so I opted to embrace a rich cobalt scheme and painted the standard door fronts on the island in a rich, deep hue (with a semi-gloss finish) to create a one-of-a-kind island that sets the tone for the whole room.

Combine functions

No matter how big or small your kitchen is, clearances are always at a premium and every inch is needed to maintain flow and free access. Keeping the radiators in their original locations under the windows stole precious floor space and affected the overall dimensions of our island. Since the basement was unfinished below the kitchen, we simply relocated the pipes to facilitate the installation of a new, slim profile rad that tucks under the far end of the island, keeping it out of sight and out of the way, while still keeping the room cozy and warm.

Go high and go low

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The top items on my clients' wish list included a big island and an eat-in kitchen. After many iterations of the design plan (and there are always many options considered and explored before we land on a final design), the winning solution was a giant island measuring about 41/2 by 10 feet. with an attached drop-down table to accommodate casual gatherings. Attaching the table to the island saved 36 inches in clearance space that would have been needed to walk between the island and the table, and allowed us to install a bigger table with more room to spread out. The finishing touch that makes the table a stand-out addition to the room is a custom base that's fashioned from brass bar rail components that helps bring a bit of restaurant chic home.

Set your cabinets free

Most kitchen companies automatically assume that you want everything in your kitchen connected. I am the exception to the norm. I do not like to have the cabinets look like they are glued to the ceiling and always prefer to leave a "shadow line" (the gap between where the crown for the cabinets stops and the ceiling starts). The ceilings in old house (and many new ones, too) are rarely level, so leaving some breathing room helps disguise any fluctuations in the ceiling, while also creating the look of an unfitted kitchen. Instead of connecting all the cabinetry to run from wall to wall along the length of the room, I also wanted to treat the different areas to function as freestanding pieces with a bit of breathing room around them to create a more traditional look.

Draw the line

I considered installing a blue backsplash to further reinforce our chosen hue, but decided it was likely too much of a good thing. White subway tile is always a budget-friendly solution and can easily be dressed up with narrow bands of an accent tile to help tie your scheme together. The dark-blue, penny-round mosaic tiles were sold as sheets and we simply sliced them into bands to add a preppy punctuation to an otherwise all-white wall of cabinetry.

Keep it low

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Double wall ovens are on the "nice to have" list if space and budget permit. My issue with them is that they generally steal precious counter space that could be better used for prep areas. But there is a solution … instead of buying a double wall oven, buy two single ones and install them below the counter on either side of the cook top. This allows you to create a symmetrical layout with maximum counter space to spread out while you whip up a feast.

Sarah Richardson's Real Potential can be seen Thursdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV.


Kitchen cabinetryand installation: HanStone

Quartz countertops in Pewter, microwave oven, dishwasher, cabinetry knobs and handles, drapery panels: IKEA,

Cook top, wall ovens and espresso machine:

Fridge: KitchenAid,

Calacutta marble countertop: New Age Granite and Marble,

Marble fabricationand installation: Uniform Custom Countertops Inc.,

Hardwood flooring: Value Wood Floors Ltd.,

Backsplash tile: Saltillo Imports,

Sink: Blanco Canada,

Faucet: The Rubinet Faucet Company,

Wire mesh behind glass doors: Dupont Wire,

Pendants over island: The Door Store,

Door and windowssupply, install: Trillium Window & Door Systems,

Drapery detail fabric: Kravet Fabrics,

Counter stools: Cornerstone Furniture,

Dining chairs: The Elegant Garage Sale,

Spraying of dining chairs & island doors: Benjamen Furniture Refinishing, 416.745.2559

Wood trim: Central Fairbank Lumber,

Custom brass table base, supply and install: Gallery Metalworks,

Drapery hardware: Designer Fabrics,

Radiator: Stelrad,

Accessories: Indigo,

Gilt faux-bamboo mirror and bar cart: Vintage Fine Objects,

Canisters, kitchen accessories and artwork: Homesense,

Paint Colours & Wallpaper:

Ceiling, walls and trim – Natural White 50YY 83/029 Dulux Paint,

Dining chairs and Island – Rich Navy 50BB 08/171

Wallpaper – Donegal blue and white T13004 Thibaut Inc.,

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