Project Spotlight: Really Cooking

One kitchen remodel goes from good to better despite project problems.

June 04, 1999

With three growing kids, Diana Humphrey was spending way too much time in the supermarket -- especially the dairy section. "I go through a gallon of milk a day," she says. But she had an idea: Why not add a second refrigerator to her kitchen? She’d use half the refrigerator space for cooking supplies and the other half for snacks -- and milk.


Budget History
Initial estimate: $79,092
Change orders:

Two refrigerators

Faucet upgrade

Repaint wall

Vent grills, toekick --




Allowance reconciliation: $597
Final price of job: $86,115
Cost to produce: $55,993
Warranty: $1,722
Gross profit: $28,400
Gross profit: 33%
Net profit: 8%

Humphrey’s kitchen remodeling ambitions grew as rapidly as her kids, soon encompassing a plan to incorporate the little-used dining room into the kitchen space, add an island, and install two ovens to handle the cooking for Humphrey’s frequent pool parties.

Located on prime property in an upscale area of Boise, Idaho, Humphrey’s house was only 6 years old. Since moving in four years ago, she had added a second-floor office. This time she did not call the contractor who built the office. "They don’t specialize in kitchens," she says. Instead she zeroed in on one company, Stronghold Construction, which had done great kitchens for some of Humphrey’s neighbors and business associates.

On Sept. 10, 1998, Stronghold designer/salesperson Joe Kubik went out to meet Humphrey and discuss her kitchen. A designer with more than 25 years of experience, Kubik has a portfolio full of creative kitchens, but this project presented a particular challenge. The kitchen was nice to begin with, he says. "It’s hard to improve on something that’s instantly good." He realized he’d have to be creative right away.

Kubik started by learning about Humphrey’s family and their lifestyle. "Her dog and I instantly bonded," he says. Humphrey and Kubik probably talked more about their dogs than the kitchen in the first meeting, and the common interest launched a comfortable working relationship between Kubik and Humphrey that never flagged throughout the project.

Though Humphrey had few specific ideas on how to transform her kitchen, Kubik realized from the conversation that she wanted a functional, child-friendly room. He began making design suggestions and drawing quick sketches to illustrate his ideas. Humphrey liked what she saw.

She asked for a $15,000 project but says she expected to spend $30,000. Kubik immediately adjusted that expectation. "I had just finished a kitchen about the same size," says Kubik, "and I told her it would be around $60,000." With specialty design work, custom cabinetry and luxury appliances, the price often “dominoes up," he says. "But I always tell my customers that I’m a terrible guesser and that the estimator will give an accurate number."

Humphrey was unfazed. She signed a design contract on the spot and handed over a $1,500 check to cover Kubik’s design time. The design charge would roll into the construction fee if she went ahead with the job. A few days later the proposal was ready. Kubik’s design, complete with layout and hand-drawn, color illustrations (he rarely uses computer-aided design), was accompanied by a 60-page scope of work. Stronghold fills out every detail of the proposal document, says Kubik. "We don’t want to hide anything from our clients."

Design in hand, Kubik called Humphrey with the estimator’s numbers and said, "I have your proposal, and we’re way over what we thought the cost would be." He wanted to prepare her. At the house, he went right to the back page of the proposal to show Humphrey the total estimated cost -- $79,092. But Kubik’s design looked good to Humphrey, the proposal seemed fair to her, and she was comfortable with the price. "I’ve learned that you get what you pay for," she says.

Humphrey signed the construction contract and wrote a check to cover the $8,000 down payment. "I said I’d hold the check for three days" while Humphrey was out of town, recalls Kubik. Her response, says Kubik: "Go ahead and deposit it because I’m going to do the project."

Kubik’s design called for stripping the kitchen "down to bare floors" and lightening it up with glass-fronted cabinets, glossy granite countertops, all sorts of lighting and sleek oak flooring. He turned a sunny nook into a dining area and pulled out a wall to integrate the old dining room into the kitchen space. Oak and wedgewood-blue cabinets wrap around the extended kitchen; French doors connect the space to the living room. A window seat, a brick arch over the range, and a stylish island add panache. Except for moving the island from the work area toward the center of the space and making sure the second refrigerator was in the plan, Humphrey accepted Kubik’s design without alteration. During the job, Kubik’s recommendations continued to hit the mark. He’d present three or four choices of colors or finish materials, and Humphrey almost always was happy with one of them.

Demolition began in mid-October, bringing to light the first big problem of the job. When lead carpenter Michael Thatcher pulled down the dining room wall, he discovered it supported the second-floor office added the year before. It also housed a natural gas line. Thatcher had to move the gas line and support the second floor with a recessed microlam beam. Designing the structure (with the help of an engineer), putting in the beam, installing new framing and drywall set back production two weeks.

Kubik planned a continuous ribbon of granite counters to tie together the old and new sections of the kitchen. The second surprise of the job came when Thatcher pulled off the old counters on the existing base cabinets and found no "buildup material" underneath. Once a substrate was installed, the granite counter on these cabinets would be an inch higher than standard, says Thatcher. In the middle of production, he recommended yanking the existing cabinets and installing all new, uniform units. It wasn’t practical to assign the work to a cabinet company on such short notice, so Thatcher did it himself, splitting his time between managing construction on site and building all the cabinet bases and face frames in Stronghold’s shop. In-house cabinetmaking slows things but guarantees good work, says Stronghold co-owner Jim Stephens, CR.

Thatcher revised the production schedule and pressed ahead. By mid-December it looked as if he’d still make the before-Christmas Eve completion goal with ease. Then came a triple whammy. The cabinet doors, which were ordered weeks before, arrived in the wrong size and had to be reordered (six-week delivery). One of the side-by-side refrigerators would not sit level and had to be replaced (30-day delivery), and Kubik and Humphrey decided to replace wood shelving, already installed in the lighted display cabinets, with custom glass shelves. To compensate for the project delays, Stronghold provided the $226 shelves at no charge.

Stronghold was in overdrive. Thatcher, the electrician and the plumber worked through Dec. 23, putting in 18-hour days so the kitchen would be in working order on Christmas -- not finished, but in working order. They made it, and it’s a good thing they did. Five cooks were working at one time preparing Christmas dinner in the new kitchen, Humphrey says. "We all thought about how wonderful it was."

By late January the kitchen was complete. Humphrey continues to be enthusiastic. The new kitchen, she says, makes cooking fun again. She adds, "It’s made the house so much more usable. Everyone ends up standing in the kitchen."

Recently Kubik stopped by for a visit. He wanted to ensure that Humphrey was happy with the kitchen and to find out if he’d succeeded in creating a child-friendly, well-functioning space. One of Humphrey’s sons happened to be there. While Kubik and Humphrey chatted, the boy hopped from refrigerator to microwave to counter. In that short time, he probably had six small meals, says Kubik. "That’s the whole point." The Humphrey family kitchen works.


SNAPSHOT Stronghold Construction
Location: Boise, Idaho
Type of Company: Full-service remodeling company; Stronghold Plumbing and Stronghold-Electric launched in 1997
Staff Model: 9 office (the companies share receptionist and accounting staff); 15 field
Annual Jobs 160
Sales History: $1.3 million in 1994 to $2.2 million in 1998
Workweek 40 hours
Bio: Jim Stephens, CR, says he got into this industry to pay bills while studying English in college and learned through the school of hard knocks how to run a business. He and wife Joan, also a CR, started their business in 1978 and incorporated Stronghold Construction in 1987. Both have been leaders of their local NARI chapter; Joan is now secretary of NARI national.
Key to Success: An ordained minister and church pastor, Jim attributes his success to understanding a basic principle of the Bible: You reap what you sow. "We are diligent about being honest, fair and forthright in all our dealings with employees, clients [and service providers]."
Contact Information: (208) 345-7154;

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