Achieving functional kitchen design

When it comes to the kitchens you build, should you design them yourself or hire an expert? December 6, 2000

Who does your kitchen designs? Do you do them yourself or have someone do them for you? I've been doing my designs all myself because the customer seems to know what they wanted. I'm now bidding on a kitchen for a 750K home and the owners want me to come up with a design. I think this might be out of my league. I can build anything put in front of me, but I'm a little nervous about this. I also don't want to lose the job. I'm currently not using any kind of design software. I do everything by hand. Would a design software help me out?

Forum Responses
Lose the job. If you're not experienced enough to handle design, don't do your clients and known-competent kitchen designers the disservice.

Kitchen design isn't something you learn from a few suggestions from unknowns on the web. A kitchen design for a $750 K home begins with a $75 per hour designer, not someone who has no idea where to begin. I'm surprised that anyone who is going to spend that amount of money on a house doesn't consult a pro to begin with.

Respect your clients. Tell them the truth, that you are not a designer and can't handle the job. Doing so, you should gain enough respect for them to ask you to do a future job.

Designing is for the experienced. It would take me a full day of sitting with my client, discussing what their needs are, considering the building stats, water, waste, gas or electric, lighting, appliances, trash compactor, built ins, cabinet style, and all the time giving my input about what works and what doesn't.

If you can build what is put in front of you, hire a designer to design this job for you. Pay him/her what their fee is with the understanding that once paid for, the design is yours. The designer would in essence be your consultant. Itís a thought. If youíre not willing to invest in a designer and youíre not sure about your own qualifications, heed the previous post, pass on it. A job like this could put you out of business and make it that much harder for the next guy.

You started your business on your own, you know enough about cabinets to build anything put in front of you, you live on what your hands produce. If you think you can do it then do it! It's like anything else you learned to survive. When your machines arenít working right, do you always hire a mechanic to tune them? When a design challenge is placed in front of you, do you go and hire someone who has done it before? You learn how to do it yourself! There are times when outsourcing is the answer and there are times when you need to just do it. If this is the type of job you want to keep doing you have to start somewhere. You aren't doing anyone a disservice unless you really think you can't do it.

I know this from first hand experience. Not one year on my own and I'm given the opportunity to build cabinetry for a $6m home. At the time I was a one man shop. Did I worry about not being able to do it? Hell yes! But I did it, and that house is my portfolio. It also paid for a vertical panel saw, edgebander and widebelt sander. Take the leap man.

I have to disagree with the last post. It's important to know what your limits are. Kitchen design is more than picking a door style, placing a few appliances and trying some trick layout. Too many cabinetmakers make the mistake of pretending they are something they are not.

There is nothing wrong with doing what you do best and collaborating with someone who is also a professional or specialist. Designers know far more than we do about available appliances, sinks, color schemes, etc than we possibly could. They also have the time to spend hours with the customer learning what they want in their custom project-- few of us do, let alone have the people skills to do it well. The issue of hiring a designer has nothing to do with the cost of the project or the house, and everything to do with giving the customer what they want in their kitchen.

People who say they can do something they've never done before bumble their way through it and are really doing a disservice to the customer. The customer does not get the best advice, design, etc.

I would strongly recommend doing what some of the other above postings suggest. What you will find, if the quality of your work is good enough and your professionalism is apparent, is the opportunity to work on more challenging and unusual projects than you ever would have by yourself. You also open yourself to higher end jobs.

This is how we work. We are a two man shop and working only with designers, our projects have won awards, been published nationally, and have involved unusual layouts, figured woods, etc. Do the right thing by this customer and good will follow.

My advice after thirty years in the business is to always try and recognize your limitations and strong points. I always advise customers on large projects to get the advice of a professional designer. I explain that we are builders and not designers.

However, we do not chase away work. If they are not receptive to this suggestion we will design their work to the best of our ability. We know what is hot and what is not, and that's good enough for most people. We've built enough kitchens and media centers so that most people trust our judgment.

I would like to add another word of advice on designers. Direct your customer towards professional designers who are familiar with the type of project that you're working on. Designers are like every other trade. They range from great to incompetent. Some specialize, and some try to cover everything. Like woodworkers, some know their limitations and some don't.

Sit down with the customer and ask them if there is a layout that they prefer. You can put sinks in front of the window as it is done traditionally or they can have something different like a sink in the island or corner. Find out what kind of cooking they do and if they are going to use a gas or electric range or cook top. Big fridge or standard. Do they like traditional appliances or modern stainless steel? These are some of the same questions that a designer would ask. You need to have a feeling of their life style and what they are looking for in their kitchen. Modern or traditional, and then go from there.

We generally do three to six drawings before we have their kitchen worked out. Get them to come to your shop so that they can see what you are capable of doing. Go to their house if possible and discuss what they like and don't like about their current kitchen. This personal interaction will make them feel comfortable with you and your designing.

You should be working with a set of plans. Bid the job pretty much as the plans spec out, mentioning that although your expertise is mainly in producing cabinets, should your bid be to their liking that you would of course offer extra design services. The cost of this extra expense and any changes would depend on the extent of design services and changes they want. You might just be able to run the plans by a local cabinetmaker friend, or Home Depot for some simple input and ideas for a small fee. That probably would be all that's needed.

Experience helps with juggling heights and depths of cabinets, clipping corners here or there and messing around with moldings.

If they want ideas beyond tricking out the cabinets such as picking appliances, decks, floors, colors, etc, they could hire a designer or you could hire a designer. You should try and make it clear to them that if they come to you with relatively concrete ideas of what they want it's one price. However, if you have to start bouncing ideas back and forth between you, them and a dreaded designer with all the price adjustments and redraws, it can take its toll in time and that needs to be accounted for. If you have to work with a designer, there's a great potential for much lost time, and a $20,000 kitchen bid off plans once worked over by a designer can easily turn into $30,000 or more.

Design software would certainly help, but it's too late for this job. Learning that is another long job in itself better saved for later.

That was much more eloquently put and probably more helpful than my post. I was just trying to counteract the negative responses that seemed to be going up and give a pep talk that some people obviously didn't agree with. I think it's crap to say ďlose the jobĒ because it's bigger than what you usually do or requires design work. I still say you learn by putting yourself in tough situations and not all of us bumble through our first try at anything. If you do that you're probably in the wrong field. Take the big job, do what needs to be done, grow.

Most CKD designers I know already work for or with box cabinet retailers. While we all desire to be dealt with honestly, the desire to sell a 750K range box job is tempting. If you feel a limit on design ability and decide to use a designer, get an agreement in writing with a designer that the job is for you, and contact with owners is through you only.

Home-brew CAD: If you have some basic experience with spreadsheets, you can design cabinets with MS Excel. The process works great. Essentially, I end up with a dedicated CAD program that builds cabinets the way I build them.

I set up a spreadsheet so all I have to do is enter the cabinetís overall dimensions and I end up with a complete, errorless cutting list of all the boards I need. On the same sheet, I draw a generic plan of the item Iím building (Excel has adequate drawing tools), and set up the spreadsheet to place the dimensions in the right places. When I print, I have a shop drawing and a cutting list to follow. I do the same for the face frames, doors, and drawers. Doing drawers is where this process really shines.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
It is clear that one must know one's own knowledge-skill level and limitations. That is why you have come to this forum. I agree it is nonsense to pass on a great opportunity just because it is new to you. You can bet your bottom dollar all of those folks who easily dole out that advice are in the same place, and will stay there forever! People who have doubts and ask the right questions and listen usually rise to the top. For sure you will have some restless moments, but stay focused. Don't be afraid to outsource - if you have a hard look at even the most progressive cabinetmakers, you'll find they all outsource! That may be in the design area or perhaps they have others build componenents for them, like doors, drawers, corbels, etc.