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Mountain House Monday: 5 Things We Didn’t Know We Needed to Know Before Starting the Renovation

Katie (my wife), is halfway through earning a masters degree in Marriage & Family Therapy, and shockingly has yet to take a class on the “trauma of termites” nor has she spent any time studying the fear of mold infestation. WHY NOT?? The unknowns when buying and/or gutting a house are scary. Trying to put that house back together, oy…you’d better be a giant risk-taker or a pro. The mountain house design team fell somewhere in between. Julie, Grace and I served as Emily’s “fresh design minds” on the project (a.k.a. new hires just barely out of school) and Emily (our pro) was wrapping up her very first gut renovation. Countless sleepless nights were endured as we began our venture into the scary unknown.

With four design minds on the project and an experienced construction team, we found we knew more than we knew we knew. (10 points to the hive mind theory). But a few times, we stumbled into uncharted “space” (or, more accurately, lack thereof) and as a result, our visions/designs had to change…leaving us saying “ahh well” (but a bit more profanely) in the end once or twice. Having made this journey, we’re here to illuminate the territory that was once unknown to us. We want you to learn from the five things we didn’t know that we didn’t know. FEAR NOT, “space” travelers, you’re about to know.

1. The retractable cabinet door trend consumes more real estate than you may realize.

And you (or your designer) need to know how much because when dealing with any non-standard/custom design, even your contractor may lack enough experience to offer insight. In the kitchen’s floor-to-ceiling cabinet design, we knew to account for more space than the standard stiles would consume (“stiles” are the vertical cabinet supports and are standardly ¾” thick). But we didn’t realize exactly how much space was required between stiles to allow for the retracting hardware and the wood-clad door. We based the design around needing a couple of inches (we wanted the least amount of space to avoid visible gaps), handed off the drawings to our contractor who thought the estimation seemed reasonable but said minor adjustments would be made on-site if needed.

Ehd For Blog 5 Things We Didn't Know Cabinet Stiles 1

We showed up for a site visit to discover the spacing built to accommodate the door was 3 inches wide instead of 2. I’m not sure what in the construction phase called for this change (added wood-cladding? Different hardware being sourced due to door weights?) and it seems like minuscule adaptation, but when multiplied by the 6 times a retracting door occurs in the design, 6 inches of space had to come from somewhere else. For us, it meant losing the highly-functional, ‘skinny pantry’ featured in this concept and inheriting, instead, a 6-inch wide end pantry that we jokingly call “the baguette” cabinet, because that’s the only shape that would utilize the space perfectly. Emily took it in stride and this became an “ah well.”

Original design…

Ehd For Blog 5 Things We Didn't Know Cabinet 1

Soooooo close…

Emily Henderson Mountain House Kitchen Lores59

Would she still have chosen the retractable doors: ABSOLUTELY. It’s literally her favorite trick to show off, but we would have designed the wall of cabinets a bit differently so we didn’t get a 4-inch cabinet at the end (which is actually even smaller once the door retracts).

2. A pop-up downdraft isn’t as slim/unassuming as it appears.

We still think this is a sleek, solid venting solution, especially for island-located cooktops. But we had no idea it meant losing some serious cabinet space below. The motor/control board has to live somewhere and with our model (which we sourced via, that meant about a third of the base cabinet space was consumed. Which meant losing the drawers featured in the original design.

Ehd For Blog 5 Things We Didn't Know Kitchen Downdraft Drawers 1

Here’s the thing. I don’t think we would’ve opted for another ventilation system, we just wish we had known to consider this prior to being mid-construction so that we could’ve been creative with a solution (custom-shaped drawers?). But so as not to hold things up, we decided that sorta thing could be added later and left it as cabinet for now. Though you know what to expect now, so we’ll look forward to photos of your genius cabinet-adaptations! (and then may or may not steal…er, “be inspired” by these solutions).

For now, it’s this…

Emily Henderson Mountain House Kitchen Lores88

3. You don’t design your stairs, your local codes do.

Okay, you have some say. But tracking down the guidelines you have to work within early is a must. Your contractor will likely come in handy here. Here are some common ‘residential’ codes for stairs, but first a quick vocabulary lesson:

Emily Henderson Mountain Fixer Infographic Elements Of A Staircase

Common Stair Codes:

  1. Handrail Height: 36”
  2. Balusters (or spindles) installed with no more than 4” between
  3. Maximum riser (height) per step is 7 ¾ inches.
  4. Minimum tread depth per step is 10 inches

Just add a zillion further restrictions (many specific to your location) and you’re now “free” to design.

I was lead on the stair design and was working on concepts to submit the project as one of our “I Design, You Decide” posts (4-inch spacing across the board, y’all, exciting stuff!) We wanted something minimalistic to avoid cramming the already narrow space. Some of the initial variations looked like this:

Ehd For Blog Stairs Concept Drawings 1

However, we learned our local codes required guard rails be 42” high and were required for anything elevated above 30″, but couldn’t also serve as the handrail (36″ requirement). Meaning, Design 1 (with a dual-purpose rail) wasn’t actually a possibility. In Portland, they must have different codes (jealous!). Here, we would have to have both a 42″ guard rail and a 36″ handrail, looking something like this:

Ehd For Blog Stairs With Guard Rail 1

It crowded the small space and the added height felt awkward with the low ceiling. We veered toward the simpler Design 2, leaving you guys with no say in the matter. Sorry about that! Blame the codes…”safety,” yada yada…but how enviably dangerous are the seemingly code-less stairs of Spain…

Ehd For Blog 5 Things We Didn't Know Dangerous Stairs 1
image source

4. Maximizing window sizes mean limiting wall space…

…and the needed opening size is going to be larger than the size of the window in your shopping cart. Plan for that opening size and don’t forget the added width of casing! For us, the mountain house was all about bringing the outdoors in and if there was a chance to make a bigger window or to add one, we jumped. We are NOT sorry, but it did affect a bed choice and, therefore, overall design in one bedroom. Once framing/opening needs were accounted for, we had gone a few inches too wide with the room’s windows to leave enough wall space to accommodate the headboard of a king bed. We hadn’t yet settled on a king bed when choosing windows. Thinking through future furniture desires and the resulting layout/making sure there’s enough uninterrupted wall space to accommodate these desired pieces is wiser than just saying “bigger window,” turns out. Julie problem-solved by sourcing this visually unobtrusive bed, which avoids blocking the light.

5. Specialty doors? Know the wheres, hows and widths of that specialty framing.

Our scenic slider is SO worth the additional space it takes from the room. Talk about bringing the outdoors in! But typically for a door, planning for 5-8” allocates plenty of space in a design. But this guy (that we sourced from Marvin) is the thickness of four stacked doors, making the sill/necessary framing over twice as wide as the standard. So which side of the wall is going to get built out to accommodate? You’d better know. Because we didn’t. In the original design, we made the mistake of framing the door flush with the interior wall instead of exterior wall. Sure, we could have read the specs but, well, we didn’t. Originally, the design concept for the room settled into something like this after discussing it through with you here and opening it up for you to decide here:

Emily Henderson Mountain Fixer Upper Family Room Fireplace Final Design White Baskets 1670x866

But upon realizing the framing needs for the scenic slider, the cabinets became impossible entirely, given the fireplace benches were already framed out:

Ehd For Blog 5 Things We Didn't Know Scenic Slider 1

So, they were scrapped and ultimately, we landed here (this was upon “move in”…reveal of final design coming SOON):

Img 1696 1670x1114

Not a bad place to land. Actually, many of you wanted us to scrap the cabinets to begin with. So…uhh…never mind, we actually just did so for you! That’s it…no oversight made here. (grimacing emoji face)

Okay, travelers, it’s safe to take your helmet off. You now have five fewer “unknowns” to fear as you voyage out into your own space. Only 100 billion unknowns left to discover…no wait, those are stars in the Milky Way. Actually, probably a similar count. Scary. Real scary. Off to call my therapist (errr… wife). Happy Mountain House Monday, Friends!

*Catch up on all mountain house posts here, and don’t miss all the reveals so far here.  

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4 years ago

Emily, I love you and I love your team, but my god, these clickbait-y titles lately… it’s cheapened your blog SO much.

4 years ago
Reply to  Lyn

The term “clickbait” is so overused that it seems to have lost its meaning. “Clickbait” is when the headline far overpromises what’s inside the article and is designed for you to simply click, without caring about the actual contents of the article. It’s meant to be a trick. This article is named *exactly* what it is: 5 things that her design team didn’t know they didn’t know about renovating a house. I.e. They DIDN’T KNOW that retractable kitchen cabinets take up so much space. I’m really failing to see how this headline doesn’t precisely live up to the writing.

I think constructive criticism is always helpful, but this is just uninformed whining.

4 years ago
Reply to  Hillary

What Hillary said!

I’m guessing this blog’s revenue is driven by traffic, so they need to name the blog posts in an SEO-friendly way. The title is exactly what is promised.

We can probably blame Buzzfeed for all of these numbered lists, but hey, people like them. Give the people what they want!

4 years ago
Reply to  Jordan

HAHA re buzzfeed. Its a hard/fine line folks because we do have to title things in a way that is SEO friendly. this title is exactly what the article is. No one likes overpromised titles and we really try to be mindful of it, but i’m sure we can always use improvement.

4 years ago

So very helpful. This blog helped me so much with my home reno last year and even though it’s complete (and turned out better than we hoped for), I still love these posts.

4 years ago

These are all things an architect or interior architect would know! Strongly recommend working with a qualified design professional when dealing with structural, framing, stair, or building envelope issues.

4 years ago
Reply to  T

We did! 🙂 Some thing – like the retractable are just not done very often and both our contractor and architect didn’t have enough experience with them (and its nuanced so its hard to figure out down to the cm).

4 years ago

I know stair codes seem crazy and annoying (we’ve just unscrewed the wall handrail in our place to allow easier access up and down our narrow staircase!) and the council will never know its gone since it was put there in the 1980s!

However, there is a great TV documentary called “Hidden Killers Of The Victorian Home” – 18 minutes into the video – – illustrating how stairs were one of the major causes of death in Victorian times. Builders ignored the “science” of stair building – especially in the servants quarters where domestic staff carried heavy items up and down the narrowest, steepest but also least uniform in tread size – and thus the most dangerous – stairs in the house. To this day, stairs are one of the most common causes of accidents in the home.

4 years ago

Hoping to see more styling posts soon. The mountain house process has grown veeeeeery weary. The home is beautiful, but can we see how you styled it and possibly move on? How has your other home continued to evolve with growing kids? Or other projects! Since it’s seemingly all for publication, the wait times are a major bummer.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sara

Sara, we announced a while back that it will be in a magaine that launches August 12th – so starting August 12 (TWO WEEKS!!) you will get every single room styled out for like 5 days straight. We’ll put it in todays post so people are reminded about it. trust us that we are excited to talk styling, too 🙂

4 years ago

This post was very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

4 years ago

Baguette cabinet seems perfect for storing a broom!

4 years ago
Reply to  Kate

OMG YOU ARE RIGHT. where were you 8 months ago!! Sadly we have shelves on the top and pull out stuff on the bottom – we should have absolutely skipped that (they were already installed when we arrived and it was 3″) and done a broom instead.

Mary Ann
4 years ago
Reply to  Kate

agreed—you can always find a use for a super skinny cabinet!

4 years ago

Oh boy, having remodeled nearly 2/3 of our Northern Ca house, I just love those CA codes!!! Not only the state codes but also the local ones that change every moment it seems. Great post!!

4 years ago

Ugh … after so many recent disappointing post, I came back today in hopes of seeing a great design post about the Mountain House, but again another disappointing post! I’m going to take a break from my daily check-ins and will be back in a month to see if the content gets back to what made it so appealing for me to begin with. I hope it does because Emily is my favorite designer!

4 years ago
Reply to  Carolyn

I, too, have many thoughts, but will keep them to myself as I move on to other more expansive design blogs…this circle has just gotten too tight for my taste, even as the staff has expanded, but hey, to each her own, right? Best of luck to all the EHD staff, and to Emily.

4 years ago

This was very informative, thanks!

4 years ago

There are so many things that pop up during a renovation where you really need to pause and consider if you might be better off keeping what’s in place because once you change it, building codes come into play and it gets very expensive very quickly.

4 years ago

I think these sorts of retrospective posts are incredibly helpful for those of us interested in the nuts and bolts of renovation. Please keep sharing them! I learn a ton from them.

Mary Ann
4 years ago

thank you for sharing!!! if’n I ever get the chance to consider similar projects, I’m sure to remember your time-saving tips… there’s just something about a story-with-photos that “sticks”.

LOVE that downdraft venting — even looks sharp when it’s in-use. IMO, worth each and every compromise.

4 years ago

I love this article because it’s a reminder that even the most experienced of us have hiccups. I am constantly kicking myself when something like this falls through the cracks, staring at it constantly thinking “if only I caught it, I would’ve adapted better!”
This article will definitely help with LETTING. IT. GO. (the real small things, at least). And now there will be 5 less things I’ll ever have to!

Patti BuserHIll
4 years ago

The kitchen looks great, but I think you may find the lighting over the kitchen island a bit problemmatic. Exposed bulbs are so popular lately, but they throw light everywhere, rather than on the task surface where it’s needed most, and they prevent an atmosphere of intimacy when needed (like while entertaining). Pendants with all or most illumination in the downward direction over islands are most functional for tasks, and most desirable for ambiance, for space definition, and for highlighting beautiful materials. I often ask my clients to visit a Restoration Hardware showroom, which has excellent lighting, before we begin the lighting design phase of a project, so that they can understand how important accent lighting is to achieve killer results, and how simple it is to make it happen.

4 years ago

HIya! we have track lighting as well over the island so we are good and they are frosted bulbs that can be dimmed so honestly the ambience is GREAT. but I totally agree that typically the exposed bulbs give off such annoying/bright light.

4 years ago

I love watching the mountain house process and these are all really good things for homeowners to keep in mind! Those big slider doors are so tough and totally based on where they’re sourced from. Just want to chime in and say that a well-trained kitchen designer who knows all the technical nuances of cabinetry and appliances would have (or should have) identified the pivot pocket door width issue and educated you about the amount of space taken up by a down-draft system. Most architects I’ve worked with don’t know kitchens well enough to get into the nitty-gritty details of them. I’ve only met a handful who do and that’s only because they sell their own cabinetry.

4 years ago

Love this post! Two thumbs up and many hugs for the real deal. I so appreciate posts that address all the details the professionals miss. It’s both generous and kind. You could have easily left it out and made it look like everything was done perfectly.

Oh and those Spanish stairs are giving me an anxiety attack! The railing is like knee high at the bottom of the stairs. Ack.

4 years ago

This post was very informative! I never knew slider doors required so much extra space and the tip about windows is a good one as well! Thank you for sharing your process and the things you’ve learned. 🙂

4 years ago

Architects often know these specs.

4 years ago

I really enjoyed this post and I learned a few things too. I think it’s always helpful to learn what to avoid, or be aware of so I appreciate this type of post in addition to all the others. Variety is good so keep up the good work everyone! Also, I love this kitchen so much I just can’t even tell you!

4 years ago
Reply to  Pam

thanks. we also work on interior lighting, pls check and say about your idea

4 years ago

Thank you so much for such a well-written and informative post.
Keep up the good work and we ‘ll wait the two weeks for the big reveal 🙂

4 years ago

Love this post, so honest, helpful and funny! Velinda your writing style is rad.
Def looking forward to the fully styled reveal posts, but also really enjoying getting to see behind the curtain on how things really went down.

4 years ago

Love these posts where you tell us what you learned, or would have done differently. They are so helpful! Looking forward to the reveal posts!

4 years ago

All of these “mistakes” would have been avoided if you would have hired a licensed Architect. They are seasoned, trained professionals whose knowledge of most of these problems you encountered would have made them non-issues. And contractors should not be the go-to for code questions, architects should be.

4 years ago

My absolute favorite thing about this post was the photo of the Spanish stairs. It really looks like the stairs fell out of the ceiling, and then they tried halfheartedly to put railings on them. Taking your life into hands just to get to the bedroom, if you ask me!

p.s. Just want to say that it seems to me that Studio McGee (IMHO) totally ripped off your Mountain House powder room design. It’s really really close to what you guys did. And since you guys published the design so long ago, they really had ample time to copy and make “their” version. Which is basically the exact same as yours. I don’t mean to start any beef because they have lovely designs, but it kinda makes me a little annoyed. I know the design world is all about inspiration and stealing ideas, but I think its one thing to reference another designer and another thing to pretty much copy exactly. Just my two cents. Wonder if you guys saw their recent post of the bathroom and thought the same thing. Can’t wait to see more reveal!!!!

4 years ago

Those Spanish stairs are literally a nightmare for me! My scary dreams often include steep/wonky stairs with no railings for some reason, ha.

Very informative post though, thank you! I’m considering retractable doors for our master closet – would love a post that goes into more detail about them (like, is it possible to DIY with hardware you can find at Home Depot?).

4 years ago

This helps me a lot. Thank you for sharing the post! There are so many things I have never thought about.

4 years ago

I really appreciated reading this. We recently built a house and while it is a blessing to have done so sometimes I only see my “mistakes.” Seeing a design professional have some adjustments and “ah well” moments gives me a fresh perspective on our build. I suspect if I did it all over again we would make all new mistakes so time to settle in and enjoy!

4 years ago

Could the benches be shortened to fit in the cabinets or would they still have beeen too small?