Great Kitchens and Baths Score Points with Custom Home Buyers

Kitchens and baths that display a high level of creativity and craftsmanship can give custom homebuilders an edge in a competitive market.

April 01, 2008

Automating Selections
Market-Matched Kitchens

In today's market, great design and craftsmanship aren't enough to differentiate one high-priced custom home from another. Often it's the kitchen and master bathroom that sell picky clients on a particular builder. And it's not just because they're well-executed; rather, the builder is giving them something extra. This can mean anything from custom details to personalized, expert assistance with design and selections.

Kitchens and bathrooms are so strong an emphasis for Orren Pickell Designers and Builders of Lincolnshire, Ill., that the company formed a custom cabinet division,

Striking details in the kitchen of this custom home in Medina, Wash., include a slab granite countertop and a glass tile backsplash. The home was built by Grey Lundberg/CMI Homes.

Photography by Northwest Property Imaging.

CabinetWerks Design Studio, about 14 years ago to help clients personalize those rooms as well as entertainment centers and libraries. Clients are often dazzled by the seemingly infinite array of kitchen and bath products, and, of course, they want the very latest for their new home. Once builders have demonstrated the ability to source a wide variety of products and get them at a fair price, they can refocus the client's attention on design, says Todd Wilkins, vice president of sales and marketing for Pickell.

Pickell views kitchen and bathroom products such as cabinets as commodities. "There are well-built cabinets in every price range," Wilkins says. "You can go all the way up to custom or all the way down to a production cabinet. It's the design that makes the difference. We blend custom pieces with production cabinets so the client gets something unique, while at the same time their cabinetry has a lifetime warranty."

Custom builders remark they are frequently asked to replicate specific features of a kitchen or bathroom. Frank Dalene, vice president and CFO of Telemark in Bridgehampton, N.Y., says his company started a trend of sorts in the Hamptons. "We have a custom millwork shop in-house in which we build a lot of custom cabinets," Dalene says. "[We] created a mahogany countertop that is a butcher block done on edge grain, about 3 inches thick. When our clients see this in projects we've done, they say, 'I have to have it.' The last five or six homes we built had one of these tops. They're quite unique looking."

While Wilkins won't go so far as to call it a trend, he believes that Pickell has done a lot to develop the concept of the kitchen as a family workshop. "In America, our custom homes are designed around our cars, and the kitchen always falls at the spot where groceries leave the car. So we

The island's geometric shape (top) complements the room layout. The custom mosaic backsplash is made of glass tile imported from Mexico. Builder: Hollub Homes. Leaded glass windows (middle), rustic wood ceilings and furniture-grade cabinets evoke at English country manor. Builder: Orren Pickell Designers and Builders. An arched alcove (bottom) around a professional-grade range creates a stylish cooking area. Builder: Hampton Building Co. Designer: CKS Studio.

Photography by Focus on Photography; Linda Oyama Bryan; Michael Traister

don't just design a kitchen; we think about how we can change someone's life with impactful design that gives them a place to leave the briefcase, the cell phone and whatever else they're taking out of the car before they enter the kitchen."

By the same token, features that aren't used very often are phased out. One example is the large soaking tub in the master bath. David LaRock, president of LaRock Builders in Hamilton, Va., says these big tubs are going by the wayside in favor of extravagant, 8-foot-by-8-foot showers.

"The best designers take the best of what they see and create something original," says Helene Hollub, executive vice president and co-principal of Hollub Homes in Pinecrest, Fla. Hollub, who is a kitchen and bathroom designer as well as a builder, believes in starting the kitchen design process as early as possible because "the kitchen sets the tone for the entire home. You don't want a choppy house."

To help her understand what makes clients happy, Hollub not only shows them the company portfolio but also gives them several magazines, including Architectural Digest and various kitchen and bathroom publications. "I ask them to collect photos of everything they like," she says. "Then we go over each photo to identify specific items of interest, such as the backsplash."

Hollub's familiarity with cabinet lines helps ensure that the kitchen cabinetry complements the overall style of the home. "I know which ones have a certain kind of crown molding, for example, or fluted details," she says. "I also look for accessories that are a good fit."

Inside the Design Studio

Small custom builders who lack an in-house cabinet shop or design staff may find it beneficial, for both themselves and their clients, to work with a design studio. Studios have kitchen and bath specialists who draw up plans and specifications and manage the time-consuming selections process.

Clients who use a studio typically spend more on upgrades, says Zack Simmons, a kitchen designer with CKS Kitchens & Design in Durham, N.C. "They start to realize the possibilities of what they can do," says Simmons.

The best time for clients to make their first visit to a design studio is well before they've broken ground on a new home. Some will have already gone through a preliminary design process with an architect. The earlier this first meeting takes place, the better, he says. "There are design changes we may want to make, such as moving a wall — structural changes that would give the kitchen better flow.

"We encourage them to bring inspirational photos of kitchens they like from magazines," he continues. "Often they've thought about placement of the island, the cooktop and so forth. We give them input on that and a lot of times it changes."

Clients can review most of the CKS portfolio online and fill out a screening questionnaire before their first appointment. "We ask how many people live in the house, how many children they have, do they like to cook, how many of them cook, do they entertain and that kind of thing," he says. "That also helps us understand the flavor of the house they want to build. From there, we can show

Green features (top) include recycled tile and limestone flooring and countertops. Builder: Grey Lundberg/CMI Homes. Matching pedestal sinks and cabinets (right) gives spouses separare grooming space. Builder: Zinn Design Build.

Photography by Michael Seidl; Jennifer Rhodes

them styles we recommend."

Simmons believes that when a kitchen and bathroom design studio gets involved in a custom-home project, it can give the builder an edge because the finished home has a higher perceived value.

"Not only do we pay a lot of attention to the finer details of the cabinetry and other fixtures, we also spend time learning about what [clients] are looking for in the entire house, from the front elevation to the interior moldings, to make sure it's a cohesive design throughout," he says.

Know What Works

Grey Lundberg/CMI Homes in Bellevue, Wash., often utilizes other professionals to help custom-home clients design their kitchens and bathrooms. "We're not a design/build company," says President Grey Lundberg. "We prefer the team approach, working with an architect and, if available, an interior designer." Custom cabinet shops supply cabinet planning and design services. Kitchens take so much time "that we get started as soon as we have preliminary plans, where spaces are defined and we can begin cabinet selection and design," Lundberg says.

Prospective clients formulate ideas from photos and walkthroughs of homes he has built. "Everybody has different desires, but most of our clients want the kitchen to be the showcase of their house," says Lundberg. "So we stay on top of design trends through the professionals we work with. I would say we're cutting edge from the standpoint of knowing the best practices and the latest materials — both the ones that work and the ones that don't."

The company is known for its sustainable designs and extensive use of green features throughout the home, not just in the kitchen and bathroom, says Lundberg. "With kitchens, it depends on the [client's] focus," he says. Countertops, for example, might be made of 75 percent recycled glass, and the cabinets might be formaldehyde-free. The ability to create kitchens and master bathrooms that are well beyond ordinary could convince affluent clients to pick you as the builder of their new home. As Lundberg says, "The kitchen and master bath are two of the most important rooms in a house because they show off a company's craftsmanship. Some of the client's biggest decisions involve those rooms, and most of the money is spent there."


Automating Selections

Selecting products for the kitchen and bathroom takes so much time that if a custom builder doesn't have a good plan for managing the process, it can get out of hand very quickly — not to mention lead to missed opportunities for increased profits from upgrades. Automating the process is the only way to go, says Andy Elsbury, developer of SelectionWare, a Web-based

SelectionWare makes it easy for clients to upgrade

service that organizes the selections process and keeps track of schedules and costs as a home is being built.

Based in Indianapolis, Elsbury travels around the country helping home builders set up his software on their computers. He's found that most are clueless about the amount of time their customers spend making selections. "The typical answer is about 100 hours. The reality is 350 hours." That number came from a 2004 survey, commissioned by SelectionWare, of 200 consumers buying homes in the $500,000 to $1 million range.

Kitchen and bathroom selections accounted for nearly a third of those 350 hours. Respondents said they spent 22 hours picking appliances, 15 on plumbing fixtures, 33 on cabinetry, 19 on countertops and 20 on door and cabinet hardware. "The numbers will only have gone up in the last four years because the number of options [in the marketplace] has gone up," says Elsbury. "Builders just don't realize what they're putting their clients through."

The SelectionWare program includes an extensive photo library of homes both finished and under construction. "We're never going to replace a see-feel-and-touch, but the photos are a representative sample," he says. Builders can supplement their own portals with photos of homes they've built to illustrate various custom options and upgrades. Everyone involved in a home-building project — client, builder, trade partners and vendors — has access to blueprints, specs, selections, schedules and photos online, and can e-mail each other.

As clients start making selections, allowances are automatically calculated to help them track their spending. Colors, sizes and finishes are also documented to ensure the right product is ordered and delivered to the job site, avoiding costly mistakes.

Elsbury charges $1,900 to get a builder enrolled and trained; this includes customer support and future upgrades to the system. There is an additional $800 charge each time the builder starts a new project and loads documents and images for sharing.

Market-Matched Kitchens

Merillat's 2007 Kitchen 4mula survey took an in-depth look at four homeowner segments to discover how they shop and live in new homes. Builders, take heed: according to Merillat, the most affluent segment — dubbed Luxury Leaders — want kitchen features and accessories that are unique, express their personality and fit their eclectic taste.

Features that excite this crowd include:

  • Serving areas for food and wine
  • Upgraded appliances
  • A pull-down rack to hold a cookbook
  • Crown molding, decorative hardware and glass doors on cabinets

Key areas include a large island with seating, a cooking grotto and staggered cabinet heights. And among the most popular accessories are drawer dividers, recycling centers and roll-out pantry shelves.

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