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Lose four inches or spend $4,000?

Before we hired him, contractor Dave Rannala looked over our renovation drawings and asked some key questions. "Is there a reason why the windows in the family room are 7-foot 8-inches tall as opposed to 7-foot-6?" he wanted to know.

Before we hired him, contractor Dave Rannala looked over our renovation drawings and asked some key questions.

"Is there a reason why the windows in the family room are 7-foot 8-inches tall as opposed to 7-foot-6?" he wanted to know.

“Uh, because that’s how they were drawn?” was my first response.

In fact, our designer was trying to maximize the view out the windows. Our kitchen is three steps up from and overlooks the family room. Pre-renovation, the windows in the family room were not only smaller, but lower down the wall. So when you stood in the kitchen and looked out to the family room, you mostly saw the wall above the windows.

The redesigned family room would have larger, taller windows, providing a view of the back garden. We also chose to replace the old picture windows with corner windows that mimicked the look of the older, front part of the home. The plan is to make the renovation as sympathetic as possible to the original character of the 1946 house.

Those are great design ideas, our contractor noted, but with one reservation. “Windows tend to be sold in six- and 12-inch increments, so a 7-foot-6 window is a standard size, 7-foot-8 is custom. That means each one of those 7-foot-8 windows is going to cost you more. If you don’t absolutely have to have those extra two inches and go with a standard size, you’ll save some money."

Dave pointed out that, to preserve the view from the kitchen through the family room to the back garden, we could just move the window up two inches off the floor. “I don’t think you would notice any difference.”

It wouldn’t be the last time that Dave’s suggestion of a minor modification would save us money. It just shows how your choice of contractor can make a big difference to your project.

When Dave had most of the walls down in the kitchen, he called us to the house to have a look. The demolition had revealed that what we thought was a single beam stretching the width of the house was, in fact, two beams. Those beams met in a corner of the original kitchen where they were supported, in one case, by the original bathroom wall and, in the other, by a post obscured by the old pantry wall. That post was in the way — by four inches — of where our new kitchen cabinets and a peninsula were supposed to go.

We had three options, Dave explained: 1. Replace the wood beam with a longer, steel substitute and substantially reframe a partition wall; 2. Keep the post in place and frame a wall around it, which would have taken a notch out of part of the kitchen countertop; or 3. Enclose the post in the wall of the family room, making the family room four inches bigger and the kitchen four inches smaller.

"If those four inches are important to you," Dave said, "I'll get an engineer in here and we'll figure how to run a beam all the way across. It'll probably cost you about $4,000. But, if you're willing to give up four inches and move the wall in a bit, we can leave the beams the way they are. We'll have to have the kitchen redrawn, so you would probably have to lose two inches off your island."

The island would be 9-foot-4 instead of 9-foot-6, which didn't seem like a huge loss. ("The island is the size of a small bedroom," a friend noted.) We were already removing a bathroom to gain space for the kitchen, which was going to be 21 feet long. Sacrificing four inches didn't seem like much. In fact, it wasn't really a sacrifice because we would gain the space in the family room.

(By the way, it turns out that the island is NOT 9-foot-6. Dave pulled out his measuring tape recently so that we could go over the layout of the cabinetry in the kitchen. The island will be 8-foot-6. It appears an incorrect number had been written on the plans).

The S-bracket solution

We thought that that the four-inch trade-off was the end of that discussion. But about a week later, Dave came back to us because he had thought about the problem some more.

"I think I've come up with a better solution," he said. We were meeting in my husband's office and Dave took advantage of the white board to sketch out his plan. (See the sketch, above.) He was going install what he called an S-bracket (which, to me, looks more like a cross between an S and Z). A new post is installed next to the existing post. The bracket, made from a thick piece of steel, hooks over the top of the new post. Four large bolts are driven through the top of post as well as through the beam, tying the two together laterally as well as supporting the beam. (See photo, above.) This support allows for the removal of the old post.  A small fraction of the new post -- about an inch -- sits under the edge of the S-bracket. This gains back three of the four inches. And it means that we don't have to draw the kitchen because, Dave says, " we can build that inch into the cabinetry, so you won't even know it's there."

What does building an inch into the cabinetry mean?

"In the long run of approximately 18 feet of cabinetry, we adjust all the cabinets [in size]. It works out to about 1/16th of an inch difference in dimensions per cabinet. You would never notice a 1/16 of an inch per each and — violà — the inch has disappeared."

One of the reasons we chose Dave as our contractor is that he has a workshop where his staff build all the cabinets and trim for their clients' projects. Small changes in dimensions are easy for them to accommodate. When you're hiring a contractor, think carefully about the company's strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you have a good rapport with the contractor and will feel comfortable working together, especially when problems arise -- because, chances are, they will.