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Disguise Your Appliances

Disguise appliances by seamlessly integrating them into your kitchen.

Disguise Appliances

Photo: Mullet Cabinet

Call it the great cover-up. In a trend fueled by manufacturer innovations and designer imagination, appliances are the sight-unseen heroes of the home. Refrigerators, dishwashers, and TVs are melding into the woodwork — and that’s just where many homeowners want them. Kitchens are looking more like extensions of living rooms; small appliances are being streamlined to fit in just about any room.

Sub-Zero is credited with being the leader of built-in kitchen design. “The biggest and most unsightly appliance is the refrigerator, and Sub-Zero was the company that started disguising refrigerators with panels,” says Peter Salerno, a certified master kitchen and bath designer in Wyckoff, N.J. Panels trick the eye. They take away from a refrigerator’s mass and allow it to blend into the adjacent cabinetry. Sixty percent of Sub-Zero’s refrigeration production line is intended for panels or decorative appointments, according to Paul Leuthe, Sub-Zero corporate marketing manager.

Artful Designs
As a result, refrigerator integration has taken on exotic new forms. In one kitchen project, Salerno commissioned an artist to paint an urn overflowing with flowers on the center panel. “That’s high impact,” he says. In another kitchen, the refrigerator was cloaked behind a French door painted with a faux scene of the homeowner’s backyard which overlooked the Pacific Ocean. “It looks like you’re looking through the back door of the house, but in reality you’re looking at the refrigerator-freezer. It’s one more point of interest that becomes a conversation piece.”

Custom pieces often come with big price tags. Troy Adams, a Los Angeles-based kitchen and bath designer, introduced the TansuChill refrigerator as part of his hidden furniture line. The unit is a Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer encased in traditional Japanese-influenced cabinetry. It can cost more than $24,000.

Camouflaging appliances, rather than tucking them off to the side so they don’t overpower the space, is just plain practical. Relegate them to the recesses, and you can lose the efficiency inherent in the traditional work triangle. But make them a focus and you won’t mind putting them front and center. “Wherever they go, they’re going to look great. Whether that means paneled sides, handpainting on a surface or using interesting door handles, it’ll make a statement,” Salerno says.

Taking Care
Beside higher price tags, there are some drawbacks to integrated appliances. Wood panels are especially vulnerable to moisture. The biggest threat is handling units with wet hands. Moisture can wear around handles and knobs and mar the finish. Another downside is that when appliances have to be replaced, the front panel may also need replacing. That not only adds to the cost, it adds on a complication: finding an exact match with the surrounding woodwork.

Beyond the Kitchen
Now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t innovation is allowing appliances to move out of the kitchen without sacrificing style. Small refrigeration units are doubling as tables in bedroom suites, wine cellars, exercise rooms and finished basements. “Under-counter refrigerators have become more versatile and stylized to accommodate the way people live,” says Salerno.

The Surprise Inside
Dishwashers are another commonly masked appliance. With control panels atop the door, they can easily disappear behind cabinetry. In addition to standard panels, Salerno has disguised dishwashers with shallow grain-bin drawers filled with beans and pasta. Chalkboard facings are another option, allowing the real estate to be used as family message centers. Custom dishwasher panels can add 50 percent to the cost of the unit, but Salerno is quick to add that clients rarely regret going “that extra step to customize. That type of detailing says it’s a custom piece. And that can drive an entire home.” For faster, less permanent facelifts, magnetic panels are available in a wide range of styles, from whimsical to classical.

Other hide-and-seek appliances? Cooktops concealed by cutting boards when not in use, paneled warming and refrigerator drawers, and microwaves that slide out behind pocket doors. Artful ventilation hoods, such as Miele’s stunning wall and island-hood line, are so sculptural in design, they often wind up as kitchen centerpieces.

Karen Black-Sigler, a certified kitchen designer and owner of A Karen Black Company in Oklahoma City, Okla., keeps her clients’ kitchen visitors guessing with hidden TVs. “We put flat-screen TVs into sleeves that pop out of islands and then revolve 360 degrees. It’s a great way to integrate televisions into the kitchen.”

Once upon a time, kitchens were off-limits to guests, but no more. Now they’re central to entertaining. And guests love the element of surprise, says Black-Sigler. “It’s exciting. When you’re able to walk into a kitchen and have people wonder where your appliances are, you have a kitchen that doesn’t look like a kitchen. And that’s appealing.”

Trending Up
The trend to disguise appliances as armoires and furniture pieces took off in the early 1990s. Then, says Black-Sigler, came the popularity of stainless-steel appliances and suddenly consumers became comfortable with refrigerators, dishwashers and ovens being focal points of their kitchens. But she’s starting to see a trend back to appliance integration. “Lots of people have had stainless-steel appliances and they understand the difficulties in keeping them smudge-free, so we’ve gone back to integrated appliances a bit more,” she says.

For those looking for the ultimate disguise, there’s Troy Adams’ hidden kitchen, which is actually a kitchen within a kitchen. Prep and cleanup is secreted in a separate room behind wood paneling allowing the main display kitchen to remain a spic ’n span showplace.

Live In or Move Out: The Remodeling Dilemma

You’re about to sign the contract for a major home renovation. When the construction crew arrives, is it time to go? Experts and homeowners weigh the pros and cons of staying put or moving out.


If there’s one thing that can mar the excitement of a home remodeling project it’s the nightmare of living through it. Just ask the Gargers of Hicksville, NY. A planned 16-week renovation of their three-bedroom Cape Cod–style home turned into a 14-month ordeal.

The low point? Pick one. It could have been when the entire family — husband Tom, wife Dolores, two children, and two dogs — was forced to sleep in a single room for nearly four months. Or when Tom became trapped behind a cascading pile of boxes in a storage shed for 20 minutes before managing to crawl out. “It was moments like that I had to keep a good humor about things,” he says.

Deciding whether to live at home or move out during a renovation is a tough call. The disruption of relocating to new surroundings, coupled with the added expense, is enough to make many homeowners put up with the challenges. Others, however, can’t wait to get as far away as possible from the dust, drilling, and distractions. “Despite the inconvenience of living through a remodeling, the one huge advantage is that you’re able to monitor the contractor’s progress every day,” says interior designer Linda Bettencourt, owner of Centerstage, in San Francisco. Bettencourt has lived through two renovations of her own and says that being on site to address issues as they arise can save time and money. “Requests come up,” she says. “Things happen. It’s good to communicate with the contractor on a regular basis. Homeowners get into the most trouble when they’re not there. That’s when the time frame and budget can go out the window.”

Live-In Strategies
The Gargers briefly considered renting a house during their massive renovation. After all, they were increasing the size of their home by 75 percent. In the end, they say it was lucky they didn’t move. The renovation was scheduled to take 16 to 18 weeks. It took 14 months. “We’d be bankrupt,” Tom says about the prospect of paying rent on a second residence. Homeowners who decide to move into temporary digs need to factor in additional housing expenses above and beyond the cost of remodeling.

And think worst-case scenarios, advises Dolores. “The rule of thumb is to double what the contractor says,” she says. “But having lived through it, I’d say quadruple it and then double it again.”

If you decide to stay put, to preserve your sanity have your contractor set up at least one sealed-off, construction-free zone and make it your go-to place to escape the chaos. Having workers swarming your home feels very invasive. Set ground rules on crew access so you know when the house is your own and when the workers take over. “Nothing is worse than emerging from the shower to see a contractor on the roof through your skylight,” says Bettencourt.

Debbie Weiner, of My Design Solutions, in Silver Spring, MD, just completed two large remodeling projects in which her clients had no choice but to live through what she describes as “the early-morning noise, the Dumpsters tearing up the lawn, the dust, the inconvenience, the lack of privacy, and the general hell that goes with major remodeling while living at home.”

Weiner says to minimize health-related problems, pack up clothing and bedding that you won’t be using in space-saving, vacuum-sealed bags to keep them clean and dust-free. Cover ducts with plastic. And “turn off air conditioning and heating systems during the day, if possible, to keep air from circulating through the house,” she says.

Insist that your crew conduct daily cleanups. Linda Minde, co-owner of Tri-Lite Builders, a residential remodeling company in Chandler, AZ, says that her crews not only put up plastic barriers between rooms and lay runners on the floor but also use portable scrubbers that purify the air of dust and chemical fumes.

Exit Strategies
The reality is that living day in and day out in a construction zone is grueling. It’s loud and dirty. Your quality of life suffers, and, sometimes so does your ability to function as a family. “If that’s more than people can handle,” Bettencourt says, “they’re going to have to move out.”

Some make their great escape to a relative’s home or an extended-stay residence hotel. Others seek out long-term house-sitting arrangements or RV rentals. At a minimum, timing a vacation to coincide with the demolition —the messiest part of a remodeling —is a smart idea.

Create a checklist if you do opt for alternative quarters. There are a lot of issues to consider, big and small: How will a new address affect commuting distances to work and school? Will you need to forward your mail and phone calls? Stop your newspapers? Put a hold on your cable and find a new Internet service provider, or go wireless?

From Minde’s perspective as a builder, working in an unoccupied home is a lot more productive for her crews. “We can tell a homeowner we’ll make it as easy and painless as possible, but the first few weeks are really bad,” she says. “We can get it done quicker if you’re out. We get in and we get moving.” She says it can also be more economical for the homeowner. The cost of paying for temporary lodging can sometimes be offset by a stepped-up construction schedule. And, she adds, there’s an emotional benefit to “not having to listen to it, see it, hear it or smell it.”

Professionals say that if you decide to move out, keep close tabs on the progress. Visit the property regularly to monitor the pace and quality of the work. Make sure you’re easily reachable in case there are any decision that have to be made quickly to avoid holding up any part of the process. And visit your home during off hours to make sure it’s properly secured.

“Treat the experience as an adventure and know that one day soon it will end,” says Bettencourt. “Once everyone leaves, you’ll have the beautiful home you always wanted. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Design a Home Gym

Create a workout space that’s safe and structurally sound.

Many homes have a treadmill or dumbbell these days, but a home gym is more than just an accumulation of equipment — it’s the product of a well-conceived design that’s as functional as it is motivating.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much space — nor does it require plumbing or a lot of rewiring — to set up a home gym. It does, however, take careful planning to optimize the square footage and create a sound, safe, and inviting workout space.

Space Considerations
Before you start equipment shopping, settle on the location of your home gym. Space limitations will impact the size, quantity, and layout of your apparatus. According to the American Council on Exercise, free weights require 20 to 50 square feet of space to use properly, treadmills need about 30 square feet, and a multi-station gym necessitates 50 to 200 square feet.

“Maximizing smaller space comes down to choosing the right equipment,” says Jeff Thomsen, president of Fitness Solutions Direct in Hoboken, NJ. Thomsen works with homeowners to design gyms based on their space, lifestyle, and fitness goals. “There are pieces of equipment that are very functional and take up minimal room,” he says. Thomsen also suggests you select a square or rectangular area as “odd-shaped rooms tend to result in a lot of wasted space.”

Basements are a natural for an exercise area. According to Cary, NC-based architect William J. Hirsch, Jr., author of Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect , “It’s best to place the home gym on the lowest floor of the house to reduce noise transmission from the exercise equipment.” Sound is a top issue in designing a gym. Treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines produce droning vibrations that can be transmitted through a wood-framed floor. On the other hand, the concrete slab floors usually found in basements absorb the vibrations. Another plus? Basements are cooler.

Architect Joshua Zinder of JZA + D in Princeton, NJ, recently finished a large basement for a family that included about 250 square feet for a home gym. “Because it was all subterranean, we had to make sure the gym felt light and airy and open even though it was in a small section of the basement that didn’t have windows” says Zinder. who achieved that airy feeling by using bright lighting, reflective white acoustical ceiling tiles, and mirrors. “Lining the room with mirrors made it feel twice the size.” Mirrors play a dual role, as well, since they help you monitor your form to ensure you’re exercising properly. There was also a green aspect to Zinder’s design: The ceiling tiles and rubber flooring were made from recycled materials.

Prior to Zinder’s completion of their basement gym, homeowners Michael and Lori Feldstein had their exercise equipment in the bedroom. Lori Feldstein says it was used “more as a towel bar” than for its intended purpose. “I love that the space is in the basement, in a room intended for exercise,” she says. “When I go down to work out, I can tune out the chaos that my three kids may be making upstairs and enjoy some well-deserved time to do something for myself.”

Attics are another popular location to house a home gym. An advantage of attic gyms is they often have high ceilings that can accommodate tall pieces of equipment. Most have windows, too, and natural light can be especially motivating. One drawback is that vibrations can carry down to the rooms below. If the gym is being planned in a newly constructed home or as part of a remodeling where the floor system is accessible, “then placing sound-deadening insulation in the floor is a good idea,” suggests Hirsch. The walls and ceiling should be insulated for sound, too. “This can be done with fiberglass sound-deadening batts, sound-deadening drywall, or a sound-deadening board installed between the drywall and the studs.” If you opt for a gym in the attic or an upper level, additional bracing might be required to ensure the floor is strong enough to support heavy exercise equipment.

Of course, any space — from a spare bedroom to a small alcove — can be repurposed for a gym. “The important thing,” Zinder says, “is a space that’s going to encourage you to use it.”

Flooring Options
The choice of floor surfaces is critical. Gym floors are susceptible to perspiration drips, so sheet vinyl, tile, or hardwood flooring with a polyurethane finish are low-maintenance choices, Hirsch says. Another smart option is using carpet tiles, which are resilient, sound-absorbing, and easy to replace. And if one gets damaged, there’s no need to replace the entire floor.

If you have a free-weight area, think about heavy-duty mats that will protect the floor. Zinder recommends half-inch-thick recycled rubber flooring available online from retailers who specialize in both residential and commercial-grade products such as Rubber Flooring Inc. “It’s going to be able to take the impact from the dropping of weights a lot easier,” he says. If your fitness area is comprised mainly of machines, rather than free weights, you can opt for flooring that’s more stylish and less heavy-duty.

Air Quality
Engage in a vigorous workout and suddenly a home gym becomes hot and humid. For that reason, many prefer to have the room cooler than the rest of the home. Architect Hirsch says, “It’s a good idea to have the home gym on a separate heating and air conditioning system, or at least be controlled as a separate zone off the main system” so it won’t affect the temperature in other rooms of the house. Installing a ceiling fan to circulate the air will also keep the room comfortable.

Motivational Tools
Televisions, DVD players, and stereo systems are almost a prerequisite in home gyms today. To keep your workout space clutter- and hazard-free, mount audio-video equipment on a swiveling ceiling bracket or recess it in a niche in the wall. Be sure to position the TV at a height that’s comfortable to view when you’re on a raised piece of equipment like a bicycle or elliptical machine.

“The most important thing is designing something that’s integral to the way you use your home,” says Zinder. “For us, aesthetics are everything. If you improve the finishes and make it a place you want to be, it’ll encourage you to use the gym and not feel like working out is a chore.”

Winter Preparation Checklist

Conduct a thorough inspection before the season’s first cold snap as part of your winter preparation.

Winter Preparation

Photo: Flickr

Give your home a once-over and tend to winter preparation tasks and repairs before the year’s first frost. “Getting the exterior of the home ready for the cold winds, snow and ice is critical for keeping Old Man Winter out and keeping it warm and toasty inside,” says Reggie Marston, president of Residential Equity Management Home Inspections in Springfield, VA. By being proactive, you’ll lower your energy bills, increase the efficiency and lifespan of your home’s components, and make your property safer.

Windows and Doors

  • Check all the weatherstripping around windows and doorframes for leaks to prevent heat loss. Replace weatherstripping, if necessary.
  • Replace all screen doors with storm doors.
  • Examine wooden window frames for signs of rot or decay. Repair or replace framing to maintain structural integrity.
  • Check for drafts around windows and doors. Caulk inside and out, where necessary, to keep heat from escaping.
  • Inspect windows for cracks, broken glass, or gaps. Repair or replace, if needed.

Lawn, Garden, and Deck

  • Trim overgrown branches back from the house and electrical wires to prevent iced-over or wind-swept branches from causing property damage or a power problem.
  • Aerate the lawn, reseed, and apply a winterizing fertilizer to promote deep-root growth come spring.
  • Ensure rain or snow drains away from the house to avoid foundation problems. The dirt grade — around the exterior of your home — should slope away from the house. Add extra dirt to low areas, as necessary.
  • Clean and dry patio furniture. Cover with a heavy tarp or store inside a shed or garage to protect it from the elements.
  • Clean soil from planters. Bring pots made of clay or other fragile materials indoors. Because terra cotta pots can swell and crack, lay them on their sides in a wood carton.
  • Dig up flower bulbs, brush off soil, and label. Store bulbs in a bag or box with peat moss in a cool, dry place for spring replanting.
  • Remove any attached hoses and store them away for the winter to prevent cracks, preserve their shapes, and prolong their life. Wrap outside faucets with covers to prevent water damage.
  • Shut off exterior faucets. Drain water from outdoor pipes, valves, and sprinkler heads to protect against pipe bursts.
  • Inspect decks for splintering, decay, or insect damage and treat, if needed, to prevent further deterioration over the winter.
  • Clean leaves, dirt, and pine needles between the boards of wooden decks to thwart mold and mildew growth.
  • Inspect outdoor lighting around the property. Good illumination will help minimize the chance of accidents on icy walkways at night.
  • Check handrails on exterior stairs to make sure they’re well secured.

Tools and Machinery

  • Bring all seasonal tools inside and spray them with a coating of lightweight oil to prevent rust.
  • Weatherize your lawn mower by cleaning off mud, leaves, grass, and debris.
  • Move your snow blower and shovels to the front of the garage or shed for easy access.
  • Prepare the snow blower for the first snowfall by changing the oil and replacing the spark plug.
  • Sharpen ice chopper and inspect snow shovels to make sure they’re ready for another season of work.
  • Make sure you have an ample supply of ice melt or sand on hand for steps, walkways, and the driveway.

Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning

  • Inspect the firebox and flue system to ensure that they’re clean of any soot or creosote and that there aren’t any cracks or voids that could cause a fire hazard.
  • Check fireplace for drafts. If it’s cold despite the damper being closed, the damper itself may be warped, worn, or rusted. Consider installing a Chimney Balloon into the flue to air seal the area tightly.
  • Clean or replace the air filter in your furnace for maximum efficiency and improved indoor air quality.
  • Clean your whole house humidifier and replace the evaporator pad.
  • Bleed valves on any hot-water radiators to increase heating efficiency by releasing air that may be trapped inside.
  • Check that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order.
  • Remove air conditioners from windows or cover them with insulated liners, to prevent drafts.
  • If you have an older thermostat, replace it with a programmable unit to save on heating costs.
  • Install foam-insulating sheets behind outlets and switch plates on exterior walls to reduce outside airflow.
  • Make sure fans are switched to the reverse or clockwise position, which will blow warm air down to the floor for enhanced energy efficiency and comfort.
  • Flush a hot water heater tank to remove sediment, and check the pressure relief valve to make sure it’s in proper working order.
  • Examine exposed ducts in the attic, basement, and crawl spaces, and use a sealant to plug up any leaks.

Gutters, Roof, and Drains

  • Check for missing, damaged or warped shingles and replace, as necessary before you get stuck with a leak.
  • Check for deteriorated flashing at the chimney, walls, and skylights and around vent pipes. Seal joints where water could penetrate, using roofing cement and a caulking gun.
  • Check the gutters and downspouts for proper fastening, and re-secure if loose or sagging. The weight of snow and ice can pull gutters off the house.
  • Clean gutters of any debris. Make sure downspouts extend away from the house by at least 5 feet to prevent flooding of the foundation and water damage from snowmelt.
  • Clean leaves and debris from courtyard and pool storm drains to prevent blockages.
  • Ensure all vents and openings are covered to prevent insects, birds, and rodents from getting inside to nest in a warm place.

Done? Congratulations!  You’re officially ready for winter.