My friend Susan sent me this amazing picture of her hydrangeas that she clipped from her fall garden. Aren’t they something? I was struck by their pluck. Look at ALL those flowers they produce, and for such a long time. (What are they eating? Because I’ll have what they’re having.) And right when most of the other plants are thinking about grabbing their winter sweaters and curling up, these flowers are still evolving - turning colors only mother nature can invent. “Don’t count us out yet,” they say, “It’s getting chilly, but look at us out now!”
I thought of those hydrangeas as I was talking with another friend, Christine, over the weekend. She’s a fabulous cook and was excited about breathing some new life into her 26-year-old kitchen. (“Don’t count me out yet!” that kitchen calls to me.) She tells me about it, and starts with the thing that excites her most - the new island. She’ll finally get seating in the kitchen and more storage and more counter space and she can’t wait. And then she pauses. “Well, the original Formica counters look awful too.” she continues. “And the kitchen cabinets are working OK but I don’t like the look. Maybe I'll paint them... Definitely new hardware… The floors are a mess… And I always did want to break into the living room and change the floor plan.”
There it is. It’s what I call project sprawl - and it’s very real and can be overwhelming. Where do you start? And just as importantly, where do you stop? I talk to clients about this same thing all the time - especially with bathrooms and kitchens. Where is that tipping point? When are you just putting good money into a band aid that would have been better saved for a more complete renovation?
Project sprawl happens all the time. It’s not a bad thing - in fact it’s the opposite. It allows you to look at the big picture and make informed decisions. No, don’t throw your money around willy-nilly. But sometimes, if you are already enduring the disruption of a kitchen renovation for instance, it may make sense to add on additional projects. When else are you going to have so many skilled building professionals under your roof? So why not also update your half bath, and have them fix that stair tread while they’re at it?
Are you thinking: Oh, those predatory designers (or contractors) - aren’t they always just trying to soak you for more and more billings? And for sure, do your homework to make sure you are working with reputable people. But good professionals aren’t invested in your project in that way. For me, it’s just my job to talk about your options. I’ve never heard a client say - oh I wish we had done less, but I have heard them say they wish they had done more. That is assuming, of course, that they can afford it. Because the other part of my job is to work within a budget, plan properly for the future, and to make sure you are getting the biggest impact for your dollar.
OK, back to my friend Christine - do I crush her dreams of getting that kitchen updated? Well, she has shared a few telling facts. The kitchen is 26 years old, it has Formica countertops, she really wants an island and she loves to cook. So, me? Her designer friend? I’m guessing her cabinets are nearing the end of their lifespan. She’ll probably want a quartz or granite counter which is an investment, and does it really make sense to put that on top of your 26-year-old cabinets? And the island that started it all? Traditional built-in ones certainly aren’t cheap. Christine also shared one more thing. She’s thought about using the space differently, and of designing her own kitchen. Beep, beep, beep! Tipping point reached. (“Sorry,” I say to that 1990’s kitchen.)
So now she knows what not to do. But what can she do? Well, she can take on the affordable projects that won’t lock her into something down the road. I suggest a freestanding island, with as many of the features as she can easily afford. The cabinets? Yes, she can paint them herself (hiring a painter would be too expensive for a band aid.) But beware, it’s a big job that really needs to be done right. For wood-grained cabinets, I’ve heard you can scuff them up and add a stain to give them a boost. It’s a designer hack - and the internet is filled with them, just take a look.
Yes, to new hardware, and to a new wall color, and a light fixture. And if you are putting off that renovation for years, go ahead and refinish those floors - I’m sure your other ones need some love too. Counters? Only if you must. But if you do, get creative and don’t spend more than a few hundred dollars. I’ve saved my final yes for some of that peel and stick backsplash tile that I think usually looks horrible. (We’re not so bad!” they yell to me.) Just promise you’ll use the simplest one you can find. And there you are! That’s plenty for an update.
So it’s a happy ending! That plucky 1990’s kitchen will, in fact, get a little more love. And you know what would look perfect in there? A vase full of hydrangeas.