Closet Systems

In a fall filled with hurricanes, Supreme Court nominations, avian flu warnings and war, both Time and Newsweek made room in their pages for an issue that affects all of us: closets. More specifically, homeowner demand for storage space, and how that translates into big business in custom and semi-custom closets.

November 30, 2005

Before you build that closet...
What's cool in closets

In a fall filled with hurricanes, Supreme Court nominations, avian flu warnings and war, both Time and Newsweek made room in their pages for an issue that affects all of us: closets. More specifically, homeowner demand for storage space, and how that translates into big business in custom and semi-custom closets.

Five years ago, an NAHB survey of customer preferences showed that 30 percent of homeowners thought that master bedroom closets did not provide enough storage, while 47 percent said that secondary bedroom closets did not provide enough space. As a result, homeowners want to make the best possible use of the closet space they do have, or create bigger closets.

Furniture-look closet systems eliminate the need for a separate room and even for dressers.
Photo courtesy of: 2005 California Closet Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved

Forget the white-walled rectangle with single rods and wire shelves. In fact, forget the word "closet" — they're storage solutions, and they have multiple functions, features and finishes. Job prices can range from several hundred dollars to more than $30,000.

The storage industry, which includes manufacturers, retailers and installers of a wide range of products, is about $2 billion annually, estimates Kristina Ferrigan of the National Closet Group. The group represents about 50 independent closet companies with $100 million in annual revenue.

Franchiser California Closets, with 27 years in business and 95 U.S. locations, brought in $208 million in 2004 and projects $239 million for 2005.

"Everybody I've talked to seems to be growing about 20 percent a year," says Ferrigan, who is director of marketing for Closet Works, a National Closet Group member headquartered in Elmhurst, Ill. Like many closet companies, the firm designs, manufactures and installs its own products, usually working directly with homeowners. Builders and remodelers, however, are a growing portion of the business.

If you want to hire a closet company as a subcontractor, keep in mind that it can be hard to get much of a markup unless you lump the cost into an overall fixed sum contract for a large project. "It's like homeowners can sense the markup in there," says Ferrigan. "They tend to go and do it after market."

Another option is to have clients work directly with a closet specialist. Lisa Lennard, corporate program development manager for California Closets, says that she used to quote retail price to the homeowner but bill the contractor at a 10 percent discount, in essence providing a referral fee.

Owners of design/build firms may choose to keep the entire project in house, especially if they employ finish carpenters and use different materials. For example, Jim Edgar, owner of Starcraft Custom Builders in Lincoln, Neb., builds his closets with solid wood rather than particleboard or plywood.


Before you build that closet...

Shelving should take up to 1/3 of the closet space, according to Closet Works. The typical double hang height is about 84 inches.
Photos courtesy of Closet Works

Designing a closet system can be as complicated as designing kitchen cabinetry, but with a separate set of rules. "There are design rules that are almost gospel for us that cabinet designers and architects don't know," says Kristina Ferrigan of Closet Works. Remodelers should know these guidelines and potential pitfalls:

Reach-in or wall closet dimensions
• Reach-in closets should be at least 24 inches deep.

"On average, a suit or jacket is 21 to 24 inches on the hanger," says Lisa Lennard of California Closets. "You don't want clothing rubbing up against the wall. It requires less ironing and it doesn't get damaged."

Remodeler Jim Edgar of Starcraft Custom Builders recommends 26 to 28 inches for coat closets, noting that heavy outerwear takes up more space.

• Return walls (from door jamb to side wall) should be no more than 18 inches. "When it's deeper than 18 inches, it gets into accessibility," explains Ferrigan. "With a 2-foot return, you can't reach back there."

Walk-in closet dimensions
• Walk-in closet sizes vary. Ideally, a designer first helps the homeowners inventory their closets and evaluate their needs.

Architect Doug Walter, of Doug Walter Architects in Denver, says 6 feet by 6 feet is a fairly common size but doesn't allow many bells and whistles. As a rule of thumb in remodels, he suggests giving people half again as much closet space as they currently have.

Closet Works recommends a minimum depth of 5 feet to allow the door to swing inward and leave room for clothes to hang on the back wall. With a center island, the company suggests a minimum width of 11 feet.

  • Return walls should be at least 24 inches to allow hanging on side walls.
  • With a sloped ceiling, create at least a 4-foot-high knee wall. This is the minimum height needed to hang shirts, blouses, trousers or skirts.
  • High or vaulted ceilings create room for three hanging rows. The right extension hardware (Walter and Edgar both recommend fittings from Häfele) makes the top row accessible.

Windows and skylights

  • Think twice before installing either one in a closet. They look nice, but sunlight fades clothing. Plus, says Ferrigan, they're hard to design storage around.

If you do install a window or skylight, remember the following:

  • Glass should have ultraviolet coating to prevent clothes from fading.
  • Built-in blinds protect the clothes and provide privacy in closets that double as dressing rooms.
  • Use space under the window for storage or a window seat if possible.

Lighting and mechanicals

  • Put the light switch outside the closet. "You lose space, and people want to put the light on before they walk in," says Lennard.
  • In a reach-in closet, mount the overhead light on the header, not the ceiling, to allow full use of the top shelf.
    c In a walk-in closet, think multiple lighting fixtures. "Usually there's not enough lighting," says Lennard. "Consider what it's going to be like to tell the navy blue from the black socks."
  • Locate vents, ducts, breaker boxes and access panels elsewhere. "It's usually in the secondary closets," says Lennard, "which are the smallest and hardest to get everything into."

What's cool in closets

A three-way mirror, multiple lighting fixtures and lots of shoe storage turn this Colorado closet into a dressing room.   Photo by Don Riley Photography

Many of the trends in closet design follow what we've seen in recent years with bath and kitchen cabinetry. The most popular ideas include:

• White laminate, melamine or MDF remains the standard, but wood veneer is growing in popularity, according to Kristina Ferrigan of Closet Works.

"Wood veneer is almost always for a walk-in closet," she adds.

• In a large master suite, some homeowners are turning the closet into a dressing room, including a floor-length or three-way mirror; a bench to sit down; and a dresser that doubles as an island.

"At the upper end, closets take on more of a feel of a dressing room or upscale clothing store with elegant wood built-ins, everything behind closed doors," says architect Doug Walters.

These dressing room closets tend to be sited between the master bath and master bedroom, easily accessible from either room. The closets may have doors, but they're not always wanted or necessary, depending on the elegance of the built-ins.

• The furniture look goes hand-in-hand with the popularity of wood and of dressing rooms.

Jim Edgar of Starcraft Custom Builders encourages his clients to opt for what he calls a "storage wall," especially when he's remodeling a bedroom with reach-in closets and bifold doors.

"You've got a space 2 feet deep and 8 feet tall; let's fill that up with cabinets and drawers," he says. "You don't need a door if you have a drawer."

Going this route may also eliminate the client's need for dressers, armoires or wardrobes, leaving more space in the bedroom for a seating area or other needs.

• Homeowners want to customize the closet with accessories that use space wisely. Examples include baskets, jewelry drawer inserts, pull-out mirrors, drawer dividers, shoe shelves and belt, tie and scarf racks. For someone with a large collection of shoes, ties or handbags, this may be the most important aspect of the closet.

"The more you can specialize accessories to the need, the better off you are," says Lisa Lennard of California Closets. "It makes it more personalized."

• Eliminate last-minute morning fumbling with a valet rod, which Ferrigan classifies as a "can't live without" item for Closet Works' clients. Mounted to one side, these retractable rods come in varying lengths and are used to hold dry cleaning, tomorrow's outfit or a garment bag for travel.

Edgar goes a step further, building "five-day cubbies" into his closets. Professional clients like them, he says, because it allows them to coordinate all their clothes for the week ahead.

"It's a selling point for these homes," he says.

• To keep dirty clothes from ending up on the floor, design a laundry hamper or two into the closet. Most closet specialists offer this as a system accessory. Walters suggests incorporating an ironing center as well.

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