Monday, March 30, 2009

Reader Question: Warming Up Concrete Floors

One objective I have for Useful Spaces is to answer any questions you might have about kitchen design or other topics I write about.

After posting about concrete floors I received this question:

"Can you use Nuheat under concrete?"

Nuheat is an electric heating pad that is typically installed under tile floors. There are many other varieties of this type of heating system, but they all essentially work the same way.

Gary at Colormaker Floors supplies the answer:

Hi Arne. Yes the electrical type is pretty straight forward....we would bury the matt with a layer of Pterra (a concrete overlay) at 1/4 inch deep then put another layer of one of our Micro toppings for the coloration process.
If you have a question about one of the articles written on Useful Spaces, click the Comments link below the post, or use the Email link on the right side of the blog.

New Idea Monday: Theme Design for the Martini Crowd

I'm not one for gimmicky design. While I understand the desire to paint your bedroom like the Vancouver Canucks dressing room, my gut instinct is to say, "Walk away from the paintbrush." Even Kohler's Mickey Mouse series of plumbing fixtures left me scratching my head.

And then Elkay introduces the Mystic undermount sink and Martini faucet. With a suggested retail price of around $1,600 US, it's just cool enough to bypass the whole "gimmicky" thing. Just be sure to send me an invite for the inaugural cocktail party.

Full specifications for these items can be found here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Going Where No Undermount Sink Has Gone Before

I really like undermount sinks. They're practical and they look great. Clean lines with no edges for kitchen gunk to build up under. What's not to like?

Well ... cost for one.

Because undermount sinks are most commonly used in solid surface, quartz or stone countertops, they often won't fit into a more modest budget. It's true these premium materials will give you the best results for overall "countertop experience." But premium product can also mean a premium price.

What about more economic countertops materials like laminate and tile? Despite what you may have been told, you can undermount a sink in a laminate countertop.

Counter-Seal has been successfully undermounting stainless steel sinks in laminate countertops for over 10 years. Their system involves a ring of solid surface material that is incorporated into the countertop substrate. The joint between the laminate and the ring is sealed using an epoxy adhesive (keeping the joint water-tight) and the sink is attached underneath using the standard clips provided with the sink.

The rings are available in most colours of Corian, Gibraltar and Staron (check their website for the exact colours) and can only be used with certain sinks (available through Counter-Seal). Installation can be DIY, but using a certified installer is reccommended.

The finished product looks really good, and is very durable. We had one installed in a working kitchen display in our showroom. It easily handled all the abuse that a group of kitchen designers can dish out over 5 years. And if laminate is not your scene, the Counter-Seal rings can also work with tile countertops.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Thinking Outside the Stack

Sometimes a design problem can work its way into a great design solution. Such is the case with this remodel featured in New York Magazine.

Removing a wall during the remodel of this Upper East Side apartment left the plumbing without a place to hide. Rather than re-routing everything to another wall, a rather expensive proposition, Studio Schofield made the bold move of leaving the plumbing right where it was. Or rather, they gathered everything into a central column, using it to visually anchor the room.

And if that wasn't clever enough for you, they added some custom designed spice racks to add some much needed storage.

You can read more about this project at New York Magazine's web site.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Flooring: Concrete

Pardon the pun, but flooring is often the foundation of any kitchen design. Open concept kitchens in particular need to pay particular attention to the choice of flooring materials as the visual weight of the floor will be such that it influences other colour/material choices in the room.

In the same spirit as our look at countertop materials, we’ll also spend some time looking at some of the choices you’ll face when choosing your floor. Today: concrete.

Concrete flooring typically refers to “polished concrete,” and most likely will include the addition of some form of colour treatment. The concrete is applied as a thin layer over top of an existing subfloor. Most often this is a concrete slab, but successful installations have taken place over 2” thick concrete sub-floors. However, the thinner the sub-floor is the greater the risk of cracking.

Installing a concrete floor is a labour intensive and time consuming process. The 300 square foot floor we had installed at the Paradigm Kitchen Design showroom took about a week to complete, with a couple follow up visits for waxing. Gary Jones from Colormaker Floors did the work and helped shed a lot of light onto the process.

Priming the subfloor after it has be cleaned and sanded

Spreading out the concrete top coat.
Adding colour to the concrete (the floor on the right is untreated for comparison). 
The more complex the colour scheme, the longer the process. 
This is the step where using a professional like Gary really pays off.
As you can see, concrete has a very contemporary look and feel. The colour choices are virtually endless so it can work into any design scheme. It is also extremely durable and easy to look after; a damp mop as required, and a coat of wax once or twice a year depending on the wear and tear the floor receives.

Concrete does have its downsides: most notably its hardness. If you’re concerned at all about sore feet, buy yourself some comfy shoes or select another floor. Another issue I hadn’t considered when selecting it for the Paradigm showroom: because there’s no insulation layer between the top-coat and the slab, it’s cold! This shouldn’t be an issue as we move towards a nice warm Spring-time, but during this unusually cold winter, I’ve really noticed the cold.

For more information, check out the Colormaker website.

Monday, March 23, 2009

New Idea Monday: Stone Faucets

Today's new idea comes from Nature Stone International, in Dallas, TX:
Stone faucets!

Actually a cosmetic overlay, the working parts of each faucet comes from major brand name faucets (e.g. Kohler,Delta,Grohe,Danze,etc.) They can also be retro-fit for most most exisitng faucet brands. Certification and warranties would therefore be that of the working part of the faucet. In addition, the "handles" are made to comply with ADA handicap requirements.

Jim Hill of Nature Stone also tells me they'll work with customers looking for custom designs. Send them your specifications and requirements and their design team will get back with the information within 48 hours.

They also offer stone sinks to match, along with custom engraving and inlays. The pricing seems pretty reasonable too. Just $99 for the faucet above. Almost makes me want to order one just to see it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Design by Committee

As a designer, there's nothing as frustrating as working with couples where only one person is really taking any interest in the design process. Even though only one of the couple may actually use the kitchen, the finished product is going to be at the very least seen by everyone in the house. "It doesn't really matter to me. It's her/his kitcchen" just doesn't play out in my experience. Everyone needs to have an input, no matter how large or how small.

So it was with great interest that I read about a new contest being run by Sunset Magazine. Dream Kitchen of the West starts on Monday, March 23rd, and gives designer wannabees a chance to participate in the choices involved in designing a new kitchen. Just visit the contest web page over the next 10 weeks to help designer/architect Cass Calder Smith pick everything the cabinets, appliances, countertops ... everything invovled in the design process.

Each week a new choice will be put to a vote. The first choice? Why, the floorplan of course! Then, as the work begins you'll be able to follow along on the web page. Plus, you can also put your name in for a $10 000 and a day with the Sunset design editor.

I know I'll be following. I know I believe it's important to have as many people involved in the design process as possible, but those people usually live under the same roof.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

You Said Buns! (snicker)

Does anything smell as great as freshly baked bread?

Just in case anyone was under the impression that I was the only cook in the house, I offer these beauties as proof that J. knows how to have her way with flour and yeast. We are now the proud owners of 3 dozen delicious hamburger buns.

Now if it would just get warm enough to sit outside, we'd be set!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Countertops: Butcher Block

When I started designing kitchens in the early 1990's, 75% of the countertops we installed were laminate, with the remainder being stone (granite or marble) and solid surface (Corian, Karadon, etc.).

Today, the variety of countertop materials available to the homeowner has exploded. Many of my clients come to the showroom overwhelmed by material choices before they even come to the question of colour.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to discuss many of these materials. I'll give you the manufacturer's side of the story, and then some experiential information from jobs I've done.

Today: butcher block.

Arguably one of the oldest countertop surfaces (next to that boulder Cro-Magnon man used to bash his fruit into bite-sized pieces) butcher block is the generic term used for wood work surfaces. They're typically made from strips of wood laminated together and treated with some finish to protect the wood (from food, bacteria, etc.) Almost any hardwood can be used, but the most common are maple, cherry and walnut.

You'll generally find butcher block in one of two different styles: end grain, and edge grain.

End grain looks like a checkerboard, with the grain running vertically in relation to the surface of the countertop. Advantages? the wood fibres will spread when a knife is pushed into them. This is easier on the butcher block (the wood fibres won't cut and become rough) and on the knife (not getting dull from cutting through wood fibres). For these reasons, end grain is the most common style of butcher block used for professional food related applications. If you've seen an old butcher block at your butcher's you'll most likely have seen end grain.

Another benefit is that end grain of wood very absorbent, so it can soak up lots of protectant (like mineral oil - my product of choice.) used to prevent bacteria from entering the wood. There is evidence that natural enzymes in the wood are really good at killing bacteria. This does not mean you don't need to clean and seal it. But it's nice to have as a backup.

Edge grain will look like a hardwood floor, with the grain of the wood running lengthwise. Most wood countertops are made this way because it's much less expensive than end grain. And because of the risk of ruining the surface of an edge-grain top by cutting on it, they're typically used for more aesthetic applications.

Because of the maintenance issues (discussed below) I almost always use butcher block as a feature material - something to bring a little bit of visual interest into a design. On the left is an island that features a raised eating bar made of cherry butcher block, stained to match the cabinets around the outside of the room. The butcher block in this case is treated with a clear lacquer (3 coats) and the client promises never to cut anything on it.

I mentioned cleaning earlier on. Maintenance is probably the biggest drawback of butcher block countertops. John Boos & Co, has a terrific list of maintenance procedures. Some items of note:
  • Periodically (once every several weeks, depending upon the use and household conditions), apply an even coat of mineral oil or Boos Mystery Oil to the work surface of your butcher block. Sponge on with a rag!
  • DO NOT allow moisture of any type to stand on the block for long periods of time. Don't let fresh, wet meats lay on the block longer than necessary. Brine, water and blood contain much moisture, which soaks into the wood, causing the block to expand, the wood to soften, and affects the strength, of the glued joints.
  • Use a good steel scraper or spatula several times a day, as necessary, to keep the cutting surface clean and sanitary. Do not use a steel brush on the cutting surface of your block.
  • DO NOT cut fish or fowl on the work surface of your butcher block, unless you have thoroughly followed the instructions in step the moisture barrier must be intact prior to cutting any type of fish, seafood, or fowl on the work surface of your butcher block. ALWAYS CLEAN THE BLOCK THOROUGHLY AFTER CUTTING FISH OR FOWL ON THE WORK SURFACE.
  • At the conclusion of a day's work preparing meat or food on your butcher block, scraping the block will remove 75% of the moisture. After scraping, immediately dry thoroughly with an absorbent towel. This assures an odourless, clean cutting surface for the next day, and prevents premature quick deterioration of the work surface.
Most clients lose interest around item 2 or 3, and decide for a smaller butcher block cutting board like the one pictured above, or opt for using wood in a non-food related area. Bottom line: if you plan on preparing food on your butcher block, be prepared to look after it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

New Idea Monday: Kitchens in the Round

Mondays are tough. The weekend is over, the work week (for most of us) has just begun. Sometimes a cup of coffee just isn't enough to get motivated.

I'm here to help.

Each Monday I will try to find something new in the world of design. It might be some new technology in appliances, or simply a new line of hardware I've been introduced to.  This is New Idea Monday, or NIM for short.  For today's instalment, it's one of the coolest kitchen designs I've seen in a long time.

This is the winner of the 2005 "Kitchen is the Heart of the Home" competition put on by Designboom and the imm Cologne interior design show. Created by Chinese designers Cheng He, Liu Guang Kui and Zhou Dong of China, this "apartment" kitchen features a brilliant combination of clever design and brilliant engineering. Not only does the design make sense as-is, the countertop (along with the cooktop and sink) rotates, bringing to work centres to the cook!

This kitchen reminds me a lot of Snaidero's Acropolis concept, only turned inside out ... which is probably what I like best about it. Both are great examples of letting function steer the design without sacrifing form. This design takes both the form and function of Acropolis one step further.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Which Comes First?

I hear this question a lot when meeting with new clients.

A new kitchen design involves a staggering number of choices: cabinets, flooring, countertops, backsplash, and more. And as if that wasn't difficult enough, each choice often has sub choices: maple cabinets may be available in 20 different finishes, granite countertops in dozens of colours and backsplash tile ... well the choices are almost infinite.

So where does one begin? The answer is going to depend on you.

Just like no kitchen is the same, nor is the driving force behind the design. Before you start thinking about oak, maple or painted, granite or quartz, you should think about the following:

How does the kitchen relate to the rest of the house? An open concept design needs to pay more attention to the colours and material adjacent spaces than an enclosed kitchen.

In this design the kitchen is visible from the family room, kitchen nook and main foyer. The colour scheme was not identical in each room, but was carefully coordinated to create a unified look.

Are there any "must have" materials? If you plan on using Brazilian cherry hardwood throughout your first-floor remodel, use that as a starting point.

Another open concept kitchen. I needed to pay close attention to the rough-hewn cedar beams that were prevelant throughout the ceiling.

Which material choice has the fewest options? Selecting the material with the fewest options first increases your options down the road. There's nothing as frustrating as picking a countertop colour only to discover it won't work with any of the flooring choices available.

Believe it or not, this kitchen was designed around the door, or rather the door colour. The client fell in love with the Corian countertops that matched her favorite colour perfectly. All other choices were based on that.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Useful Spaces: A New Beginning

As a kitchen designer, I've learned that the kitchen is more than just a collection of cabinets and appliances. It's where we live our lives. It's where we plan our day and where we share with each other once we come home. It's where our friends gather before we try out a new recipe, and where those recipes get passed down from generation to generation.

For the past 15 years I've been fortunate enough to share in those experiences with my clients by working on what is not only the most important room in the home, it's also the most personal. And now it's my turn to share those experiences with you.

My goal for this blog is to bring to you the latest news and information from the kitchen business. Whether it's new materials for the countertop or the latest technology in appliances, I'll do my best to help you through the design process. I'll also try to keep you up to date with some of my current projects. And if there's a question that pops up along the way, email me or post it in the "comments" section of the blog and I'll do my best to answer it.

Now, back to the drafting board ...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Playa Me With 20 Peso Cervesas

J. had been to Playa del Carmen about 15 years ago. She told of driving down dirt roads towards the beach, findling a low key resort with lots of palapas and cheap beers. 15 years later, Playa had changed a lot.

Playa exists for two reasons: 1) Tourism, and 2) the ferry to Cozumel. There is a smidgen of culture along 5th Avenue, but only so far as it feeds the tourists.

When faced with these situations, we find it's always a good idea to go with what we know; food. Street vendors can be found all along the beach, featuring everything from ice cream (helado) to fresh fruit. We tried to find some more traditional fare, but to no avail. In fact, the only tacos, tomales and ceviche we found were either on the outskirts of town (seen from our cab on the way out of town) or on the menus of the touristy joints.

Deciding to swallow our pride a little, we looked for the cheapest beer specials and hoped for the best with the food. Enter Eduardo, and Playa Tropica. Eduardo was the guy working the street trying to fill his patio with customers. Normally I hate this sort of hucksterism, but we were in a buying mood, and I'm sure Eduardo sensed that.

"Señor, you look thirsty." His 20 peso beer deal sealed the deal.

The menu was less than inspired. Burgers, fajitas ... pizza for crissake! Now I've been told pizza in Playa is pretty good ... but no. Not this trip.

"Something to eat señor?"

"I thought this area was known for fish. I don't see any fish on the menu."

"You want fish señor? I can get you fish."

"You have fish tacos Eduardo?"

"Si. You like ceviche?"

"Si Eduardo ... and two more cervesa por favor."

The food was fine. Nothing more, nothing less. And as we sat and listened to Eduardo invite the "honeymooners" (what he called every young couple) to the best lunch in Playa, the cheap beers and distinct lack of snow on the ground made the patio at Playa Tropica almost as good as the palapas at the end of a dirt road.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

My Oh Mayan

It has been too cold for too long.

If you're from Metro Vancouver, this is not news. With the cold as motivation, J. and I searched the Internet for a couple inexpensive fares to an all-inclusive somewhere in Mexico. I had never been to the Mayan Riviera side, so we picked a great resort near Playa del Carmen called the Blue Bay Grand Esmerelda.

Don't worry, resort food doesn't make an appearance ... although it was pretty good.

Now, the purpose of any trip that includes the words "all inclusive" will likely not have anything to do with culture. Primarily, we were going to Mexico to a) warm up, b) catch up on our reading, and c) drink our weight in fruity tequila drinks. Nothing fancy, just some good old fashioned r & r.

It was through the resort however that we decided to take in an excursion. It seemed the appropriately touristy thing to do, and would keep us from too many fruity tequila drinks. The trip was to the Mayan archaeological ruins in Coba, and included a visit with a "Real Mayan Family."

To say I was a somewhat skeptical about the last part of the tour is a bit of an understatement. It was over-the-top touristy. Dress some locals in traditional garb, throw in a sombrero and a mule ... instant authenticity. Well, I'm here to say that my gut instincts were right ... or at least partially so.

The house was literally a shack at the end of a dirt road so narrow our bus could barely open its doors to let us off. We were introduced to the family (all 58 of us!) and marched into their living/sleeping/cooking room. 3 women and 3 little girls greeted us with huge smiles as our tour guide (Katya) told us how these people were truly happy with what little they had. When Katya told us they made all their own clothes, one of the women sat down at the sewing machine. When she told us they slept in hammocks, one of the girls jumped up in the hammock. Oh, and did we mention that clothing items and hammocks are for sale in the back yard?

Cynicism aside, after getting over the weird sensation that these incredible friendly people were in some sort of human zoo, it was a pretty interesting visit.

When I entered the back yard, the smell of smoke alerted me that something was cooking. Tortillas. Hand-made, corn tortillas. The women of the family were gathered around a squat table, each churning out tortillas at the rate of about 3 or 4 per minute. Hands grabbed the precise amount of dough and began flattening it against a sheet of plastic wrap. With rhythmic precision they turned the dough as the pressed it, chatting amongst themselves in a ritual that has been instilled in them for generations.

There was an ease to the ritual. The women spoke with each other, seemingly oblivious to the work their hands were doing. One woman called after her young daughter while effortlessly flipping a cooking tortilla. The little girls watched intently, memorizing what they would be doing with their children when the time came.

I too started memorizing the motions. Turn push turn push .... pat pat pat. Seemed pretty straight forward, so I asked Katya if I might have a try. Both Katya and the Mayan women were a little surprised, as no male tourista had ever asked to try his hand at making tortillas. I was more than happy to be the guinea pig.

I reached in and grabbed what I thought to be the right amount of dough, only to have it snatched from my hand. The Mayan woman giggled a little (there would be much giggling to follow) and pulled off a portion of the dough and returned it to the main pile, handing the smaller ball of dough back to me. And so I tried to repeat what I had seen. Turn push turn push ... pat pat pat.

Giggle giggle giggle.

Apparently I was doing quite well, at first. It was round ... ish. Getting the tortilla to the correct thickness was a problem for me though, as I didn't have my edges smooth enough before I started to flatten it. But I soldiered on until I had something I thought was ready for the griddle.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I spend a lot of time cooking around fire. My hands, I feel, can take a lot of heat. So, I figured a tortilla griddle should be no trouble. The Mayan woman was flipping tortillas on and off like nothing, right? Trouble was, her hands know exactly how that tortilla is going to behave in her hands, and how it's going to fall out of her hand and onto the griddle. I didn't. And the hot griddle makes no exceptions for Canadians who think they can get tortilla-making right on the first try. So rather than burning the finger prints off my fingers while I clumsily placed the tortilla, I let more experienced hands cook my tortilla.

Before I tried my tortilla, I had to taste the real deal. They were wonderful. Lots of corn taste, unlike the flour tortillas we'd been eating at the resort; apparently gringos don't like corn tortillas. This gringo begs to differ. Corn tortillas are the only way to go, and these were soft, pliable and utterly delicious.

As for mine? It tasted .... thick. But for a first try I was somewhat pleased.
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