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Business & Real Estate

"Do-it-yourself" remodel

Photo by Monique Schoenfeld, Town CrierBill Johnson of Los Altos Hills designed furniture-like cabinets of red birch for his new kitchen. His wife Nicki contributed her color and design skills to the project.

Nicki and Bill Johnson's new kitchen

For Nicki and Bill Johnson of Los Altos Hills, 1997 was the year of the kitchen.

Out went their disintegrating, 25-year-old dark walnut cabinets and failing appliances, replaced by furniture-like cabinetry designed by Bill, a stainless steel sink big enough to bathe a toddler ("I like a deep single sink," Bill said), and efficient new stainless steel cooktop, refrigerators, a warming oven and state-of-the-art dishwasher.

The entire project was conceived, designed, and built by Bill, a self-described "informed amateur," with the help of teacher-contractor Chuck Rumwell of the Building Education Center in Berkeley. The two men worked together five days a week for six months, from June 1 through the end of December.

"Ninety percent of the work was done by Bill and me," Rumwell said. "We had someone come in to install the granite countertops and another person did the large sheet rock work, but we did the rest.

"Since I retired a few years ago, I became the family chef," Bill said. "Without that cooking knowledge, I couldn't have done this; I wanted a kitchen that looked beautiful, had more space and professional equipment - also one that would be easy to clean. Like most people, we were afraid of that big terrible thing called 'remodeling the kitchen,' but by connecting with Chuck, we got a roadmap on how a kitchen gets redone."

Bill already had some background as a builder. His father was in the lumber business in Phoenix, Ariz., and Bill helped frame houses as a teenager. He's also a talented woodworker who designs and builds tables and cabinets in his garage workshop.

Exactly one year ago, the Johnsons read a Los Altos Town Crier notice about a free introductory lecture of Rumwell's - "What You Need to Know Before You Build or Remodel." They attended the lecture and soon launched a creative adventure that ended just last week with their new kitchen's final inspection (It passed with flying colors).

First Bill drove to Berkeley on Tuesdays and Thursday nights for two full months, attending "The Homeowner's Essential Course: How to Build, Remodel, and Maintain Your Home." The class is now also offered several times a year at Cubberley Center in Palo Alto. It costs $425 per person; a free Building Center class schedule can be ordered by phone, (510) 525-7610.

"Some of the classes are hands-on, some lectures - you cover all the major aspects of designing a house, from the foundation up," Bill said.

"Each set of classes is tailored to the needs of the students," Rumwell said. "We always cover all of the basic components of home-building, but the approach varies because of students' questions. We want everyone to walk away with the knowledge they came for."

Do other students end up hiring the teacher to help with remodeling projects?

"A few," Rumwell replied. "I'm seeing more and more people in the Santa Clara Valley who want someone like me to help them along, and I'm happy to offer this service because it's very rewarding, personally. I consider the Johnsons' project a work of art."

While taking the home-building class, Bill, who is now retired after 25 years of marketing personal computers for Hewlett-Packard Company, started manipulating his available kitchen space on a CAD (computer-aided design) program.

"I started by taking measurements. I knew I would knock out the closet that contained our furnace and water heater and play around with other walls," he recalled. "Nicki and our son Alex, who works for Sony, also helped. They would each come in and make suggestions and we'd ask each other, 'Will this work?'"

Bill, who Rumwell describes as "brilliant and a delight to be around," even kept statistics on how many times family members opened the refrigerator door and what they were seeking in the refrigerator.

"I wanted to use the narrower model of Sub Zero refrigerator, because of space limitations. I discovered that most family refrigerator visits were for beverages - so I decided to place a small refrigerator, just for beverages, in the bar area at the other end of the room," Bill said.

A major feature of the new kitchen is the dramatically rough-hewn circular beam at the peak of the roof-high ceiling.

"When Bill told me he'd really prefer a round beam up there, rather than the 6-by-14-foot beam we had planned to use, I said 'Do it!'" Chuck laughed. "The whole point of doing a project on your own is to have exactly what you want."

"That round beam is a telephone pole," Bill said. "Getting it up to ceiling height was an exercise in physics."

"When people do their own remodeling, there is much less chaos," Chuck said. "Each afternoon, we would sit down and discuss what would happen tomorrow and how to make the rest of the household run smoothly. Also, you don't have a lot of strangers coming into the home."

Are there other remodeling projects ahead for the Johnsons, now that they've mastered the process?

"We need to rest up for awhile," Nicki laughed.

"But eventually we would like to redo two bathrooms and maybe the pool house and patio arbor," Bill said.

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