Velinda’s First Freelance Client Reveal: Molding The ‘Builder-Grade Budget’ + Where They Saved & Splurged

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Velinda's First Freelance Client Reveal: Molding The 'Builder-Grade Budget' + Where They Saved & Splurged


Hi, old friends! Velinda here for the first time as an EHD alumn/contributor! It’s been a MINUTE since we checked in…. Last January, actually. What’s new? Nothing? Been a great year so far? What a relief. Glad to hear it. I mean, how much could’ve changed in 9 months, right? 

Why don’t we all ignore reality for the next 10 minutes and pretend beautiful colors are all that matter (well, actually, that IS WHAT MATTERS…. #BLM #vote)! Alas, today, I’m talking blue/greens and other such things. Not as important. But, I’ll be taking you back to my very first freelance client! And thanks to COVID, we have to go an entire year back. To truly begin the story, even further… (stay with me, this is a budget tale!).

Meet Mer and Olly and tiny, lil’ baby Duncan. When I started this project, they were turning a garage into a studio Airbnb and had become exhausted by decisions, so a mutual friend put us in touch. After a few floor plan drawings and a couple of nights serving as design-therapist, “but how would frosted glass make you feel?”, they pulled off their baby-reno and promised to call me when they were ready to redo their main house. Sure. But guess what?? They did.

(Side note: tiny, baby Duncan became an opinionated, talkative small-human during the process. I’m not around a ton of kids, but he seems super cool so far. Though, he also seems truly unhelpful when it comes to calculating ‘nominal’ numbers and fails at even basic organization. So, time will tell.)

For this project (which, thanks to COVID, was put on hold for a few months the WEEKEND before demo was to start last March), budget wasn’t in surplus. Being new to both their first home and lives as parents, they had a very ‘builder-grade’ budget in mind. But my philosophy as a designer is, ‘if you’re working with a designer, it should in some way feel special because y’know… you worked with a designer’. So that became the game: builder-grade budget vs becoming something special.

To add a hurdle, my clients decided it was fun to request a blend of EVERY style. But that’s a different story (one coming to you next week). To give you a basic idea of their desired blend: Boho, mediterranean meets scandi minimalism, english pub, traditional farmhouse, post-modern colorful. Oh, cool. Only that? 

But, there were several things they knew they wanted. First, they were coming from this:

Mer Olly Before4

AND THIS…

Mer Olly Before1

But what they desired, was this:

  • Blue kitchen cabinets
  • Open, entertaining space
  • Lots of countertop space for cooking
  • Vaulted ceilings (if budget allows?)
  • Farmhouse, heirloom table
  • A ‘Crash-able’ living room…. SOFA, SOFA, SOFA
  • Storage and lots of places to hide toys and unsightly necessities 
  • Child & dog-proofing
  • Feel: Warm, welcoming, light, but stylish/hip/modern (without being too minimal, precious, like a gallery you can’t touch.) 
  • Art Gallery: Love the art in Manuela
  • Loves Matisse, Picasso, Lichtenstein. Henry Moore, photography, prints, vintage posters and would love to display our limited family portraits

The Budget: This is not mine to disclose, so let’s talk some average ‘builder-grade’ budgets. Believe it or not, here in LA an average kitchen, alone, can easily cost $40-60K. Did my clients stay within their budget? Almost… Did they carefully decide where to increase that budget along the way? They did. So let’s break that down. But first, the reveal MUST start with the before, which looked like this:

Mer Olly Before3

And is now this:

Here are the basics: We turned a dark, oddly-divided series of rooms (galley kitchen, dining, and living) into a shared, bright, and spacious entertaining space that is 95% kid-friendly. (I’ll confess to the 5% potential kid-failure shortly). The final design checked every ‘want’ box and ultimately blended their many styles (more on HOW to mix styles next week). 

So, where did we splurge, where did we save, how did we blend high/low and where did we find ‘builder-grade’ that would feel special? Here we go:

THE SPLURGES

Plumbing Fixtures

As you may have read before, I learned the hard way that plumbing fixtures MATTER (see here). Since we didn’t want to end up replacing a cheap knock-off version of a classic-looking faucet setup and didn’t want to watch water spots ruin and corrode an inexpensive finish rapidly, we went for the real deal: Kohler Artifacts Faucet w/ side spray (in polished nickel) with a matching Kohler Soap/Lotion Dispenser. It screams high-quality. We paired it with another loved-for-quality-brand; a Signature Hardware sink. You’re going to pay to have these installed, so why not only do it once? Paying to replace a cheap version, even once, will often make up for the price difference between low and high quality. My advice is do it right the first time. I will tell you, my client LOVES this faucet, and I love the combo of classic styles and clean, polished finishes.

The ‘STAPLES’… A Pantry Door & ‘Heirloom’ Table

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Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 31 1

Okay, this splurge rested entirely on my shoulders and I held my breath until the very end… When my client gave final, exuberant approval. Given the limited budget, it was a hard sell to spend a couple of THOUSAND dollars on a pantry with a massive, reclaimed door. But, this was our anchor! This piece was a key player in making the whole design feel ‘special, designed, and purposeful’. (Try to imagine how much more ‘builder-grade the kitchen would feel with a standard pantry cabinet). Real reclaimed wood = instant ‘heart’ in a space and this wood wasn’t too ‘rustic’ for the desire for overall scandi/modern twists. The idea came from my client’s love for an heirloom, reclaimed table (a 100+ year-old , salvaged reclaimed oak with an Eco-friendly, plant based clear matte finish). So to match, I designed a modern-looking, oversized door (also built by We Make) to be the ‘heaviest’ piece in the house. And we love it. WHEW! 

Window Treatments (Which Elevated ‘Cheap’ Windows/Doors & Hid A View)

I get jealous of my clients on this one. I’ve never splurged on high-quality window treatments in my own home, but when my clients ALMOST didn’t want to add a window because they hated the view of their neighbor’s house so much, it was time to get creative. Enter the perfect solution for letting light in, while blocking undesirable views: the ‘top-down, bottom-up” custom Roman shades by Decorview. Besides the amazing function of this style, which can actually position the shades anywhere on the window (which for us meant letting in light while blocking ugly views), we ultimately chose these for their blend of subtle, classic style, with modern/textural interest. The other luxury that made these worth the splurge for us is we wouldn’t have to worry about a thing beyond selecting style and fabric because Decorview offers in-home (or virtual) measuring & consultation services and installation. Considering I didn’t have a team at the time, this attention to detail and quality-look was an INVALUABLE addition to the design overall.

The Sectional

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This one was hard-earned. We went through SO many sofas because my client wanted a MASSIVE, crash-able and ‘inviting’ solution for their living room, but their room wasn’t massive. A ‘cloud-like lounge’ that could fit a ton of people seemed to be one of Olly’s greatest concerns, overall. When he expressed this, I immediately thought of the Sixpenny Neva because when we were styling a shoot for Sixpenny last year, we all drooled over the comfort-level and I knew it would fit with the ‘farmhouse’-traditional vibe they were going for.

Thing was, to go with a sofa that massive, we needed an open end in our sectional design (an arm would have crowded the built-in) and I had no idea that Sixpenny offered this design. Well, they do!

After many hours of discussing potentials, a few (pre-COVID) trips by my clients to sit on said-potentials, and an ultimate leaning toward giving into something ‘custom’ (but ultimately more expensive?), I reached out to SixPenny on a whim, to see if they offered an armless sectional. I was thrilled when they said they offer new custom options since we used them last. We got a CUSTOM configuration Neva sectional. My clients never sat on it. They went off my promise that it was incredibly ‘cloud-like’ and they are STILL thrilled. It’s a relaxed-looking piece in durable, classic fabric. This was the only major piece of furniture in the entire room. It had to be right. It was. (And because I know you’ll ask, the selections we made were: ‘custom configuration with armless end’, in Feather Down Fill, Medium Weight Linen Poppy Seed).

THE SAVES

Ikea Base/Custom Doors

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 43

Though we were on a budget, we still wanted an overall ‘custom’ feel. Ikea is an obvious save when it comes to kitchens. But given the footprint, our cabinetry would consume in the space, so going with something as mass-produced/utilized didn’t quite check our desired ‘custom’ box. Enter SemiHandmade for Ikea doors.

Given the great range of style-preferences of my client, I wanted the cabinets to provide a classic base to the overall ‘eclectic’ design, but wanted to keep the color fresh. My client wanted blue cabinets, but finding just the right shade of blue was key. SemiHandmade’s paintable/DIY shaker checked all the boxes. We were able to use a more traditional cabinet style, elevate our affordable big-box purchase while creating a custom feel through a paint color that was unique and personal to my clients. I see a lot of the same ‘navy’ tones when it comes to blue cabinets, so finding something unique was a huge perk. 

For Storage:

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 36

Building around Ikea boxes, we were able to create a custom built-in. Simplicity was the goal here. For this project, the difference in the SemiHandmade slab door and the ones that would have come with are Ikea purchase was subtle, but important. We love the higher-quality of SHM’s door, but even more than that we didn’t want the shinier, bright white of an Ikea door and needed to paint the unit to match our room’s white instead. SemiHandmade for Ikea doors made this easy with their ‘ready to be painted’ option.

Ikea was a big saving over custom, but SemiHandmade made the ‘customization’ possible too.

Cabinet Hardware

This one is taboo. We really wanted to go expensive here, but the budget simply didn’t permit real brass. We HAD to go affordable and wanted something with a ‘UK’ vibe. The reason I would say commit to something higher-priced if possible upfront is, it can be hard to match exact sizing to replace pulls down the line. But, if it’s not in the budget, look for something that feels a bit unique, vs the same pull you see in every ‘builder-grade’ kitchen. This Richelieu model became our solution. It had an ‘old-world’ feel and didn’t have that ‘cheap-shiny’ faux-gold finish. To further ‘customize’ our hardware-world, we played with the placement, breaking the typical ‘rules’ that most people follow (all drawers matching and all cabinets matching is a ‘rule’ made to be broken… but not for the faint of heart. Designer help recommended). 

Appliances

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 45

We saved in a couple of ways here. First, my clients had a Kitchen Aid refrigerator already and they were still fans, so why scrap it? Re-using appliances can be key to low-budgets! Already trusting Kitchen Aid, we stuck to that brand for sourcing. We found a our dishwasher , range and even garbage disposal to match… Tip: You don’t HAVE to match appliances, but my client liked the uniform look and tried-and-true brand trust.

Appliance savings tip #2: the original design included a cooktop and oven combo, but when budget proved to be tightening, a slide in range cut out hundreds!

Also, if you opt for a slide in range for your island/peninsula: you need a fully reversible downdraft for this type of installation. Our’s was this downdraft solution (Faber) with this motor, due to only a 15″ deep cabinet for storage. This may seem boring, but it was one of the most important solutions of our design and will hopefully save at least one designer out there some sleep! OH… and while we are talking hard-earned knowledge, I once used a ‘freestanding wine cooler’ in my own kitchen design (pre design school)…. DON’T do that! I now have to replace the unit, which never actually got cold enough bc a ‘built-in’ look requires an under-counter design. Our solution (and likely my own, future replacement due to how slim it is: This Edgestar)

Art

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The desire for ‘Art Gallery’ could have been instantly expensive, especially if we had insisted on a uniform look. But my clients had cool pieces, they just didn’t know how to display them. Bowser and I proved helpful here, helping them create a pallet based on a balance of scale, colors, tones, and styles vs ‘like with like’. Given the overall scale, it was instantly ‘bold’ and really served to bring in the ‘post-modern color pops’. We supplied only a couple of pieces from much-loved artists: MaryAnn Puls & Elissa Barber plus a print from Filling Spaces to what they already had… but most of what they had came unframed. Our secret source: Ikea. We also pulled in Ikea frames for some of Duncan’s art (young Picasso, indeed) and their wedding portrait, to mix in a bit of ‘personal’. This dramatic feature was entirely affordable, barely a thought within the budget.

Lighting

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 7 1

I have a hard time encouraging a ‘splurge’ when it comes to lighting, but you have to select carefully (and, when a splurge is worth it, it’s worth it… I get it). But, you can find incredible makers on Etsy, really solid ‘mass-produced’ options, and inexpensive vintage. Here, we did all three. And that became the key to still feeling ‘special’… Blending!

For a clean, scandi-vibe, we pulled in (3) Kichler Danika Pendant (a stellar, ‘mass-produced’ option), but you’ll catch a couple peeks at vintage within the same eye line (French 1940’s Minimalist White Enameled Metal Dish Ceiling Lamps from Amsterdam Modern, our go-to for mid-century options actually sourced from the Netherlands!). The ambient light in the room came from overhead, recessed lights (Build.com – 4″), but the ‘accents’ were a combo of pieces: (Etsy-maker!) Rara Forma’s ‘scandi/modern-vibed’ Coast Duo Chandelier (in Brushed Brass and Satin White), which really helped blend the worlds… and a pretty/simple ‘big box’ solution (Park Harbor Barwell Sconce). The combination wasn’t a splurge, and the blend of worlds felt purposeful and not ‘builder-grade’.

Flooring

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 31 1

This is an important one and an EASY place for ‘cheap’ to look ‘cheap’. We wanted a real wood, but knew we were looking for engineered planks for easy/more affordable installation. We sampled several options (always sample before committing) and finally found the perfect tone and quality at the low end of average price points ($7.50/sq ft). Miseno Santa Cruz Flooring. This will be a go-to for sure because of the pretty, light white-oak tones and high-quality feel. Not too light, but not too yellow or orange, this was an affordable winner.

Custom Designs

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 44

Adding custom will almost always up the bill, but having no custom can result in a generic look. Given our budget limitations, we had to find a balance (and a great builder). In the original design concept, the open shelves under the uppers flanking the refrigerator were to match the rustic charm of the pantry door and dining table… But then we learned that idea would cost us several hundred dollars PER shelf and it seemed like a place to find a work-around. Still wanting warmth and textural interest, I thought it could be a fun place to incorporate the re-emerging love of cane (still classic) and keep the build super simple, avoiding anything reclaimed. The cane cost us $25 and was applied directly to the wall… a VERY affordable, custom touch.

The builds… NOT DIY… but, carefully delegated. We had a very affordable contractor that my client had used for her garage conversion, though she knew when it came to finish details, we might need to outsource. Enter Maura Anderson with Unique Construct. She handled the shelves for the white oak media center, the entry bench, the custom shelving for the island, and our open, cane shelving. Basically, if we knew the wood tones and cuts had to be JUST so, we leaned on her to carefully work with our contractor at very fair prices…. why was she fairly priced? Because she is a startup. It was her experience with Ikea hacks that drew us in (which is exactly what she’s doing for a future project)!

THE ‘WE CHEATED’

A few tips on making ‘otherwise expensive’ less so and general places we cut out pennies. 

Vintage Rugs

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 21 1

My client had a ‘rug budget’ of a couple thousand dollars for living room, dining room, and kitchen. Believe it or not, that’s pretty low. Nice rugs (especially really large ones) AREN’T cheap. You’ll notice there isn’t a dining room rug, in the end, because we opted to splurge most of the budget on our ‘star’ rug (at a designer discount)… One that is actually over a hundred years old and is pure SOUL for the living room. (Source: Jean Palmer Home) We love her stuff ended up finding a super affordable (and still truly vintage) runner for the kitchen that fit the same world. We then rounded out our rug roundup with a super cheap jute (blends with almost anything). So, by reducing our rug count and mixing ‘cheaper’ rugs with the superstar rug, we stayed in budget.

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 8

Tile/Backsplash (Using Extra Slab vs. Adding Tile)

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 39

I don’t mind a (good) ‘big-box-store’ tile for simpler designs at all, but the warmth a handmade tile brings to a design is undeniable. Alas, it ain’t the cheapest. But, if you can’t afford to totally embrace hand-crafted, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t afford it at all. My client’s eclectic style world’s instantly led me to selecting the Mini Star and Cross in Ivory and Calcite from Fireclay. More on why next week. But we were in love right away. By keeping the quantity of tile we needed low by carefully selecting to only use this special tile minimally in a high-focal area, we were able to anchor the kitchen with a truly special element at an affordable price.

Where we saved even more… We used what we knew would be leftover countertop slab as the remaining backsplash. The slab is Caesarstone’s Fresh Concrete. It’s a quartz that has this really organic feel and isn’t too white/stark. Again, this will become a go-to.

Ceiling

Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 25 2

You’ll notice the living room opened up drastically, thanks not only to the added light of the window, but also to the vaulted ceiling. When my client asked me if they could vault the ceilings within their budget, I said, ‘not a chance’. They had HVAC running all over their kitchen and dining room, which would have been a BEAST (of a bill) to move. BUT that didn’t mean we couldn’t vault SOME ceiling. And what a major feature that limited-vault became. And since we avoided areas with HVAC, the job fell under 5K… mostly due to the fact it was already a big job, had it been a ‘stand-alone’ job, we are told it would have been more… But, So. Worth. It.

So there you have it, our strategy for stretching a ‘builder-grade’ budget to its max to create a custom world that is truly my client! The cliff notes:

  • Pick your ‘staples’ for each room (splurge there).
  • Stay ‘small scale’ if possible for more expensive items
  • Consider included services (shipping, installation, design help)
  • Don’t underestimate longevity (Ceasarstone)
  • Keep Appliances
  • Limit furniture pieces to go for better quality
  • Mix high & low (duh), big box and vintage
  • Limit & simplify ‘custom’ builds
  • In Reno: Keep as many window/door sizes as possible & avoid shifting plumbing
  • Don’t work with a designer (kidding… we can actually save you in the long run!) 
Emily Henderson Velinda Hellen Design First Client Kitchen 40

Quick aside, until styling (thanks, Emily Bowser) and shooting (thanks, Sara Ligorria-Tramp) I did this project without a team. And to other designers, I recommend doing this 0%. Since this project, my EHD-Alumn teammates, Julie & Grace, have joined me in the new venture! We’ve also formed an E-Design team to work with people who are on a more-limited budget/scope or aren’t near Los Angeles (thanks, Courtney and Hina – E-Designers). So, if you’re interested in Full Service OR E-Design, please check out our site. And if you’re looking into starting your own design business (as I naively opted to do THIS year), there’s no better place to start than a consultation with Carly Waters. 

Next week, there’s more ‘reveal’ coming and we get the chance to venture into HOW we blended the multiple styles and creatively ‘checked off’ some of my client’s specific wants (storage!). So please join us again then. What more-important thing could you possibly have to do in 2020? #vote.

Design by Velinda Hellen Design | Assistant Styling by Emily Bowser | Photos by Sara Ligorria-Tramp

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