How I Picked an Architect / Designer + Contractor for My Kitchen Renovation

There’s a baby on the way and a full kitchen renovation is in the works. Read more to find out how I make this project go smoothly with the possibility of baby arriving during construction!

  • By Jess Dang
  • April 3, 2017

Apparently, a new baby in late May wasn’t enough change for us in 2017.

After living in our house for 5 years, my husband and I decided to take on a home renovation this year.

We’ll be adding 300 square feet to our 1,100 square foot house so that I can get a new kitchen (!) and just have a little more space for our growing family.

This is what our kitchen looks like now:

Fine but not really anyone’s dream kitchen, right? Certainly not mine!

There’s a decent amount of room for prep but aside from that, I can’t say a whole lot of other nice things about it. I’ve made the best use of the fickle appliances and less than ideal layout, but I am SO ready for a new, custom-designed kitchen!

I’m excited to start construction soon (we are unfortunately held up in permitting right now) but also nervous that a newborn will come right in the middle of it. We’ll create a makeshift living / cooking / eating space in our garage, and it’ll be an inconvenient few months but ultimately worth the pain.

The biggest and most important decision of the project has been hiring an architect and contractor, so I thought I’d share my process for selecting the design-build firm we’ve been working with since November.

Step #1: Scoping the Project

Before I started contacting professionals, I wanted to be clear on what I wanted to get out of the project so I put together a list:

  1. Decide on a budget! – While this may change (and it certainly did for us), it helped me to have more productive conversations with the professionals we were considering.
  2. Make better use of our un-utilized front yard – We have a rock garden in our front yard that gets no love and could easily be turned into much more appreciated living space.
  3. Open kitchen / living space – I spend a lot of time cooking and entertaining and wanted to feel “part of the party” even when I had to be in the kitchen. Plus with kids now, I wanted us to feel like we were all in one space even if I was cooking and they were playing in the living room.
  4. A kitchen island with a range – After many years of making Cook Smarts cooking videos, I’ve learned that we can get much better camera angles if the range is on a kitchen island instead of facing a wall.
  5. Access to outside from kitchen area – Just like I wanted an open kitchen / living space, I wanted there to be flow from the kitchen to the outside. It would make grilling, entertaining and keeping an eye on children playing outside a lot easier.

Step #2: Putting Together a List of Professionals to Contact

At this point, I hadn’t decided if I was planning on hiring a separate architect + contractor or an all-in-one design-build firm so I reached out to all 3 types of professionals: architects, general contractors and design-build firms.

To find reputable / recommended ones that had a design aesthetic I liked, I:

  1. Put up a posting on Nextdoor to see if my neighbors had any recommendations. I live in a neighborhood of Joseph Eichler homes, which have a lot of particularities.
  2. Walked around my neighborhood and just knocked on doors of homes that had been updated that I liked. I have no fear of talking to strangers, and most people are more than happy to share their renovation stories (or nightmares).
  3. Asked friends who had gone through a renovation.
  4. Searched on

After I had a list of about 15 different options, I went about setting up initial interviews at the house and explained to them what I wanted to get out of the project. When interviewing the architects, I also asked them for contractor recommendations to widen that list.

In the end, I probably interviewed about a dozen different professionals over the course of a month. Some on the original list were too busy to take on new projects; some just thought our budget was too low.

Step #3: Making a Decision

I think everyone makes decisions differently, but as an ESFP, a lot of my criteria just had to do with gut feeling. However, if I had to sum up my criteria:

  1. Curious: I was definitely more excited to work with folks who asked me a lot of good questions and really wanted to help me make a connection between my lifestyle needs and the physical space I wanted to create.
  2. Organized: A lot of decisions would need to be made for this project and because of a baby coming smack in the middle of it, I needed all of it to be project managed as efficiently as possible. People who came prepared to the interview and then followed up quickly with email or more questions definitely made the top of the list.
  3. Honest / Straight shooting: This one can be hard to gauge from just a meeting but I found that people who gave me honest answers when I asked about specific costs and helped me to weigh trade-offs were probably going to be practical, honest folks to hire.

From the dozen or so folks I talked to, there were 3 that I really liked and who really met the criteria above. One was an architect and the other two were design-build firms.

John Klopf, the architect we were considering, specializes in Eichler homes and just had an amazing portfolio of work. He had done super upscale kitchens but also had done lots of Ikea kitchens too. He also works regularly with Flegel’s Construction, a contractor that also seemed to meet all my criteria.

I also loved both sets of designers from the two design-build firms (Harrell Remodeling and Artistic Kitchen) I was considering. One of the biggest benefits of going with design-build is that the designers and builders are all part of one company. You won’t run into the likelihood of a designer mocking up something that will be impossible or completely over-budget for a separate contractor to then build.

You’re assigned a project manager to help you manage all the decisions that need to be made during the design process to ensure that there aren’t any construction delays. There’s just a lot more fluidity between the design and build parts of the process.

Ultimately, we decided with a new baby on the way and an already way-too-long to-do list, that design-build would be our best bet to keep headaches to a minimum (despite really wanting to work with Klopf’s team). We honestly could have gone with either one of the design-build companies but opted for Artistic Kitchen in the end.

I called a few of their references and people were all really happy with their experience of working with them. Plus, much of their specialty work (e.g., plumbing, electric) is done by in-house employees, so there would be fewer sub-contractor schedules to worry about and possibly throw off our schedule.

I’ve been working with them since November, and it’s been a great experience. We expanded the scope of the project some (and therefore the budget) to include an entryway. After months of the design phase, we’re almost done making all the design decisions and now we’re just waiting for the city to give us the final green light so we can start knocking stuff down!

Next week, I’ll talk about how I decided on cabinet space and kitchen layout – something anyone can optimize even if they’re not considering a kitchen remodel.

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