| | By Jody Brettkelly
When we relocated from London to Oakland 10 years ago, our three children were under 5 years old. We wound up renting a 3,500-square-foot, two-story house in Upper Rockridge—a wooden rectangle with peeling paint, and no discernible features or particular style except a bay entry. Built in 1945, it had its share of design quirks—the rooms ranged from ballroom- to cupboard-size—and needed more than a new coat of paint. The place needed a total makeover.
The cramped 1970s kitchen at the back of the house could have been inspired by The Brady Bunch with its dark-brown color scheme and hospital-size fluorescent lights, and I wasn’t sure what to do with the nook originally built to gut fish.
However, coming from London, where we rented a pokey two-bedroom flat up five flights of stairs, the space felt unimaginably huge. The house brimmed with potential. When the owner died five years later, we bought it quickly. At first, I daydreamed about creating one of those sleek, hyper-modern showcases I often wrote about back in London as a style journalist. I had visions of rooms filled with Frank Gehry cardboard Wiggle chairs and items selected from the Eames, Noguchi, and Saarinen design catalogues.
But with four kids who would undoubtedly be sitting and jumping on said furniture, I worried such notions were totally impractical. (The kids, by the way, are now in their tweens and teens: Cy is 9, Tallulah, 11, Jackson, 13, and Harley, 15).
Also, we love to entertain, from soccer team parties to fundraisers for our children’s school (I am missing the organizing gene, so hosting parties is our main volunteer contribution). We especially enjoy inviting people at the drop of a hat: “Come over for a barbie,” as we Kiwis say. So, our new home needed to feel inviting and casual and be able to accommodate crowds of people, both tall and short. Cleanup needed to be quick and easy (see furniture section below) so we could host a Mad Men party on Saturday followed by 30 baseball kids on Sunday. We realized quickly that anything precious needed to be hardy—like leather sofas which only get better with age—or hanging on the wall.
But was it going to be possible to find sleek floors, countertops, furnishing, and features that would withstand the scuff and tumble of family life? Here’s what we came up with:
We were lucky enough to find husband-and-wife Oakland architects Wencke Solfjeld and Russ Dotter. Their two children were a few years older than ours so they knew where we were coming from in terms of wanting to combine style with the realities of family life.
When remodeling a home for growing children, “Think two years ahead” was one of their best tips. So, for the backyard, we didn’t invest in an expensive new play structure that the kids would soon outgrow. Instead, we filled three quarters of the space with artificial grass that allows them to romp outside in all weather.
Flow was the magic word, and they helped us do everything we could to open up the kitchen to the rest of the house and the backyard. Our kitchen now incorporates a dining area, a seating area, and a two-person desk set up against the wall. We also remembered the kitchen design mantra of the triangle of stove, sink, and fridge. Having the cook protected within that triangle will “save your marriage,” says architect Jerome Buttrick of Oakland.
We also built a mudroom, which contains the Mt. Vesuvius of effluvia that fills our lives. And we transformed our attached two-car garage into a recreation room for the kids. As the children get older you need separate rooms for parents and kids: You don’t want to be hearing Total Recall while you’re watching Amour.
Floors and more
It soon became clear that the more you need to fuss with a material, the less suitable it is for children. Quality is important but having expensive surfaces that need a lot of care is a stress no one needs.
Among our best finds was Caesarstone, one of the least expensive and most durable materials we found, which we used for countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms. It consists of 95 percent quartz and a five-percent mix of polymer resins and coloring, and resists scratches, heat, and stains from wine, vinegar, lemon juice, coffee, tea, and those deeply colored spices that can stain marbles and granites. We chose a version of white that contains flecks of white shell, giving the kitchen a casual, beach look.
For the kitchen cupboards, we used laminated surfaces that are widely considered to be the most durable and easy to clean. And, as much as we wanted to use expensive tile, we had a limited budget so we had to think of creative ways to use tile without breaking the bank. For example, we saved the most costly tiles to use on walls that are most visible. Sometimes including just one horizontal strip of the pricier patterned tile can spark up a bathroom. Friends had also warned us that tiles with strong colors date easily, so we decided to keep many of the tiles white and bring in color with wall paint. White subway tiles and large Porcelenosa tiles will be your budget friends.
Paint is something you can change easily. Color is almost impossible to get right (unless you can recognize the brown undertones in a particular blue, and I can’t) and Berkeley-based color consultant Kathy Farley was decisive in choosing our purples, greens, blues, and yellows.
To make the kids’ rooms feel cozy, we installed carpet—a thick-pile charcoal gray with slightly visible stripes that hide dirt. Because the carpet was a remnant from a commercial job, we were able to buy it at a discount. Ask your carpet dealer about remnants.
We chose anything we could easily wipe down or wipe off: plastic, polished polyester, and polycarbonate furniture, including orange Arper high-backed counter stools, Lucite Louis Ghost chairs by Phillipe Starck, and Cappellini tables and chairs. Our Kenneth Cobonpue wicker chairs and sofa can be moved through the Loewen folding doors to the back patio whenever we have big gatherings. We used outdoor material to cover the sectional in the TV room (it’s also used in hospitals and can be easily scrubbed down).
Best things we did
Our artificial grass, surrounded by a low stucco wall, converted a mud-filled lawn and uneven brick patio into a space that can be used for all sorts of sports and games. It also looks real. While it’s initially more expensive to lay down than sod, it will last indefinitely, and saves on watering costs. Installing stalwart plants helps, too. We went with non-delicate ones like succulents, pittisporum, and flaxes—anything that can bounce back when a ball lands in their midst.
Our 6-foot-long kitchen island serves as homework center, crafts table, food prep area, and bar, with no taps, sinks, or stove to clutter it up. The kids never sit at the nearby two-person desk area, choosing instead to huddle together and bicker at the island.
We chose Australian Spotted Gum for the floors. The planks from this tree range in color from beige to dark brown; the color variations hide the dirt. The planks are also sturdy—hiding the imprints of stiletto heels from one of our parties—and it’s easy to clean, including the green spray paint left by someone’s Green Day costume (don’t ask).
By placing the washer and dryer upstairs next to the bedrooms, rather than near the kitchen, we save ourselves lugging all the clothes up and down stairs.
Our induction electric stovetop has turned out to be a safe way for the kids to learn cooking. The heat turns off as soon as you take the pot off the burner.
Didn’t work so well
Creating a boys’ toilet with no window. Say. No. More. Meanwhile, in the girls’ bathroom, we should have installed just a shower rather than a tub with shower. Once kids grow out of toddlerhood, they don’t take as many baths, and it’s harder for visiting grandparents to step over the tub edge.
A pebble tile floor in the kids’ recreation room looks really cool but requires a lot of scrubbing because it has too much grout.
Architects: Russ Dotter and Wencke Solfjeld, Dotter & Solfjeld Architecture + Design, (510) 530-9231; dottersolarchitects.com.
Contractor: Steve Strand Builders, (925) 935-7968; strandbuilders.com.
Color consultant: Kathy Farley, ArtDecor, (510) 527-3904; artdecorhome.com.
Plantings: Randall Blair, (925) 250-0526; blair-landscape.com.
Potted plants and additional plantings: Tamar Carson, (510) 654-8242; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Caryn Kramer is mother to three active boys: Asher, 7, Zach, 9, and Max, 12. Like the backyards of many houses in the East Bay hills, their Oakland yard is split into two levels; the upper level—20 by 40 feet—was tricky to put to good use.
When the kids were tiny, they had a play structure there but four years ago Kramer decided to step up to a sports court.
“I wanted the kids outside and active as much as possible, away from video games and TV, while I could be inside and cooking dinner,” Kramer says. “I didn’t mind being the place that the neighborhood kids come to play and have fun.”
The sports court has been an enduring success. Bay Area Rhino Court charged $10,900 for the concrete and site prep, installation was $2,000, and equipment was $15,700, totaling $28,600. A basketball hoop at the side makes it a “half court, three pointer.” With a middle net the court turns into a mini tennis court or volleyball court, and nets at either end help the boys practice their lacrosse throws. They can play tetherball by adding another pole. And the best part? The boys can make these net adjustments by themselves.
For fun, the Kramer family added a Blue “M” for Michigan to the yellow and blue court, which they will take out if they ever sell, leaving behind a more Cal look.
Aesthetically, Kramer worried about an unsightly view from her kitchen to the sports court, but plantings of fern, lavender, flaxes, and kangaroo paws soften the look.
With the kids happy up on the court, Kramer now feels freed up to further develop the outdoor space right outside the kitchen into a cozy hangout with a modern fire pit, where adults can sit and chat with a glass of wine or coffee. And because the sports court is contained and safe, the Kramers feel comfortable lounging on their upstairs deck with its spectacularly glittery views of San Francisco. They’ve even used the sports court as a dance floor for adult parties.
Lesley and Curtis Evers, who have two boys ages 13 and 11, enjoy getting up at 5:30 a.m. on the first Sundays of every month for expeditions to the Alameda Flea Market. They don’t have to hunt very hard to find quality light fixtures, rugs, curtains, and furniture from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s at a fraction of the price at an antique store.
In the eating area off their Oakland kitchen is an intricately crafted wooden credenza ($650) next to a marble and sewn catskin lamp ($50) and a very Royal Tenenbaums ($45) tweed chair. Around their old polished-wood family dining table are $50 pink leather-and-chrome chairs. In the kitchen itself hangs a charming painted flower chandelier ($30).
In the living room, orange ’70s-patterned curtains (that exactly fit the windows) are behind a $1,600 blue velour sofa and two mint-colored lamps ($200). The huge azure ceramic lamp in the corner of the living room was $100 and the little formica tables cost $25.
“We get all the fun of living with mid-century furniture without the high prices you usually have to pay for iconic pieces,” says Curtis Evers. “The furniture can be used every day by the boys and their friends and we don’t stress about it. It is pretty incredible what you can find at the Alameda Flea Market.”
Walnut Creek writer and art teacher Katie Zeigler says her very old tile-and-blond-wood kitchen was “hideous.” Her new kitchen makes her so happy: “I know this sounds hokey, but this is the one room in our house that now feels completely like me. I love it!”
She and her husband intended at first to just resurface the old cabinets, but when the cabinets turned out to be particle board and were not attached to anything, they realized that was a “whipped cream on poop strategy.”
With the help of her childhood friend who owns Style Bath & Kitchen in Oakland, they undertook a complete remodel which in the end cost $50,000. Zeigler chose the Nugget shade of Caesarstone which “looks like candy” and, along with white painted cabinetry called Sequoia, and gray porcelain tiles called Fibra Linen, this transformed her kitchen.
“The tiles we had were absolutely repulsive with all this old grout. Now we have one big solid surface and you can prepare across the whole length of the kitchen.”
She wanted an eat-in kitchen where her sons Campbell, 9, and Brodie, 7, could eat breakfast, do their homework and help her cook.
The other seating area has white leather piston chairs which cater to her youngest son and to her husband, who’s 6 foot 3. “That was what my sons wanted most,” she says, “the chairs that go up and down.”
Jody Brettkelly was a journalist in London for 15 years writing for national newspapers including The Times, the Mail on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard. She was also a travel expert for TravelTV and Talk Radio. She blogs at AboutLastWeekend.com and Huffington Post.