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From the ground up

As they fit out the interior of their new home, a Toronto couple stake their claims on either side of the espresso divide

Globe Real Estate is following the construction of a new 2700 sq.-ft home in an Etobicoke neighbourhood that's become, like many Toronto residential enclaves, a hotbed of demolition and rebuilding activity.

When Tory Crowder and Shawn Thomas were considering kitchen designs – which, notoriously, can deliver the dreaded Waterloo moment for couples soldiering through an extensive reno – they found themselves weighing two alternatives for the 2,700-square-foot home they are building in Etobicoke.

The open-concept kitchen occupies a corner of the main floor, a command-post spot with visibility on the dining room, family room and backyard. As the couple scrutinized the two layouts prepared by Paragon Kitchens, a Guelph firm, Mr. Thomas noted that in one, the wrap-around, wall-mounted cupboards didn't appear to provide enough clearance for his espresso maker, an old-style manual number that enjoys pride of place on the counter.

Ms. Crowder initially balked. "I said, 'Guess what? It's broken. It's being serviced.'"

She recalled the exchange last week as Paragon's installers were building the cabinets and a generous island. "Are we really about to change the whole layout over an espresso machine?" she demanded.

Tory Crowder, left, Aileen Brown, right. Early planning sessions with the designer began last summer and some seemingly quotidian, but important insights emerged and have found expression in the layout.

"Well," Mr. Thomas replied, "we love coffee."

The caffeine prevailed. Form, after all, must follow function.

When Aileen Salva Brown – who co-owns Paragon – proposes kitchen designs, she encourages clients to think about the space in terms of zones, which is what she did with Ms. Crowder and Mr. Thomas. Her recommendations are based on many iterations of seeing what has worked – or not – with previous clients, and then incorporating those insights into her proposals.

But, she adds, "We always find that our clients are the experts on their daily lives."

The early planning sessions began last summer, and Ms. Brown sought to tease out as much information about her clients' lifestyles as about their aesthetic tastes in different types of surfaces, appliances and mechanical systems. After the first one, she dispatched Ms. Crowder and Mr. Thomas with strict instructions to figure out, well, how they live. "It's homework for our clients."

Top: The kitchen island and cabinetry under installation. Bottom: A rendering of the kitchen design.

Some seemingly quotidian, but important, insights emerged, and have found expression in the layout. The exterior drawers on the island, for example, will house bulky kid gear – lunch boxes, plastic bottles and so on. The reason? That area is situated at the intersection of what they expect will be several key thoroughfares: side door to kitchen; family room to backyard; stairs to the second floor.

The main sink will live on the island, as per much contemporary kitchen design, but there's a second, smaller sink near the sliding door to the backyard, whose purpose in life will be to hold the glasses and dishes that collect on the table on the back porch, overlooking a small pool.

Indeed, Ms. Brown's experience with other people's kitchens dovetailed with Ms. Crowder's consumer habits and the family's anticipated use of that backyard.

The cupboards are arranged in two tiers – the lower one for dishes and the like, and the higher one for bulkier, less used items. The upper tier, according to Ms. Brown's design, reaches all the way up the wall, and is installed so as to hide the inevitable unevenness of the plane of ceiling.

The upper tier of cupboards, which reach the top of the wall, are installed to hide any uneveness in the ceiling.

Her reasoning: In many kitchens, the space at the top of the cupboards becomes a grease-stained surface where unwanted vases go to die. "What's not going to live up there are dead plants and things that gather dust," she said firmly.

As for Ms. Crowder, she knows she'll be looking for additional storage space because she and Mr. Thomas buy in bulk at Costco. And, since they don't have a cottage but do make extensive use of their backyard in the summers, they needed space to store all sorts of seasonal items, such as plates and glasses for BBQs.

In light of all these kinds of decisions, the aesthetics of the cabinetry almost seemed like an afterthought, although Ms. Crowder and Mr. Thomas had approached that set of choices with a very particular set of visual goals, many of them uploaded to the project page they had created on, the renovation social-media site.

The cupboards and drawers are either wood veneer or a black satin scratch- and fingerprint-resistant laminate called Fenix and made by Miralis.

The couple have yet to decide on the colour or material of the slab countertop.

None have handles. The black upper tier cupboards open using a push mechanism. The drawers on the island and the main work area are separated from the countertop by a buffed aluminum "c-channel" moulding that eliminates the need for handles (one opens the drawer by pulling it from the top edge). "This was a splurge for us," Ms. Crowder allowed. But that choice, plus the use of black, meant they needed to go with a material that didn't show the sort of paw prints kids leave.

As Ms. Crowder and Ms. Brown surveyed the brisk progress of the cabinet installation last week, their conversation turned to the slab countertop that had yet to be affixed to the counters and the island.

Ms. Crowder confessed that she still hadn't decided on a colour, but definitely wanted a seamless, marble look. "A marble look will be super awesome."

But not marble, Ms. Brown stressed. On that point, she's unyielding. Marble is so porous that the slightest spill – even a splash of espresso – will leave the sort of stain that would negate all that meticulous investment in smudge-free cabinets.

More in the series

Part 1: The first stages of an Etobicoke home rebuild

Part 2: Etobicoke home rebuild delivers modernist look with low-slope roof

Part 3: HVAC and plumbing installs complicate Etobicoke home rebuild

Part 4: Etobicoke home rebuild faces a dilemma: take a wall down or leave it up?

Part 5: Sliding pocket doors save floor space in Etobicoke home rebuild