Swanson Residence – Hiding Mechanical Flues

  • Emily


    It’s great to see actual finished photos of the design project we’ve been working with. You did a beautiful job. I especially appreciate how the pantry, island, and flue millwork are all solid pieces built flush to the floor and ceiling. They define the space elegantly, and look (most importantly for me) easy to keep clean.

    Also, setting the pantry doors back a few inches and continuing the same material across the top of the refrigerator nicely integrates a behemoth of an appliance that could so easily have been an eyesore.

    I’d be happy to live in this house.

  • John Brown

    You bring up an interesting issue with refrigerators. One of the hallmarks of a cookie cutter house is a refrigerator that doesn’t really fit into the cabinetry.

    The first reason for this is because people used to take their appliances with them when they moved and builders typically left a big space that could accommodate a variety of different types and sizes. This doesn’t happen so often anymore (at least where I live) and so it is possible to integrate the appliance much more.

    The second reason is that a typical refrigerator is 2’6″ deep while the counter is only 2′. The result is that most refrigerators stick out that extra 6″. (This can be avoided with a bit of care in detailing the cabinetry). In recent years, manufacturers have started producing “counter depth” units that are the right depth to fit properly.

    In this project the clients wanted the door finish to be stainless steel and so we detailed the doors so that they floated in front of the cabinetry. A more typical detail is to use what is called a full overlay door system in which the refrigerator door arrives unfinished and the millworker installs a cabinet door on the front. In this case it is essential to coordinate the dimensions so that the refrigerator door is flush with the rest of the cabinets.

    One of the signs of a project that aspired to good detailing but missed the mark is a kitchen that has an expensive full overlay counter depth refrigerator that ends up sitting just in front of, or behind, the wall of millwork.

  • Emily

    It’s remarkable to note how much of an impact appliance manufacturers can have on residential design. Here in the UK, kitchen appliances (including the washer/dryer) are sized to fit perfectly under standard counters. Larger models, which are now preferred in most family homes, are still only counter-depth, 1.5m tall, and have the colder and less-used freezer on the bottom. As such, integrating the fridge into a British kitchen is basically an architectural non-issue. I wonder how many other design methodologies have been developed as a response to suboptimal manufacturing standards.

  • Louis Pereira

    ‘Granny’s panties’..HAHA!

    What a great renovation! Friends of ours own a similar house. All they need to do is look at this project as an excellent example of how to transform their house.

    Also, i don’t mind showcasing a project you’ve completed John. In fact I would encourage it. We’re more likely to see the end results such as you’ve shown here, which come to fruition and are very inspiring.

    Concerning the centerpiece with the flue, i noticed the cold-air return grille, which brings me to suggest that if this AND the baseboards were painted the same charcoal colour as the wall, then it would read more like an ‘object’ as you say. Perhaps even a reveal (as discussed in past design projects) or even a baseboard flush with the face of wall would lessen the effect of color contrast so that it doesn’t compete with the artwork.

    Again, excellent work and thanks for sharing this.

  • John Brown

    You bring up a really interesting point. My research indicates that there is a very high correlation between typical product standards, fast construction scheduling and the poor design results in cookie cutter housing.

    For example, to optimize construction efficiency, the trades are scheduled sequentially, like an assembly line. This means that each one (with the exception of plumbing and electrical who do both rough ins and finish out) generally comes to the site at only one time in the process. This minimizes the possibility for any integration of elements (cabinetry, drywall, and paint for example) and leads to an excessive reliance on rough dimensions (leaving enough space for the next guy’s stuff) and a big piece of trim to cover the joint.

    There are many other examples as well. Residential construction in North America is still entrenched in mid 20th Century fabrication practices. The result is a lot of waste, high environmental costs, and poor design. This needs to change.

    The situation is much better in architecturally designed projects – although there can be real problems if the architect isn’t familiar with standard residential construction practices and how to work around the system. Otherwise you can end up with a final built house that is a poor facsimile of the architects original design.

  • John Brown

    A keen eye about the paint joint. That was actually the subject of some intense discussion in the office and with the client. Typically we try to establish one colour palette for the trim in the house. However, as this is a stand alone element and reads more like an object that a part of the house, we discussed integrating the baseboard and return air grill more. In the end the client decided that the extra cost wasn’t justifiable.

  • Paul

    Hi John,
    One of the subtleties of this design that caught my eye is the incorporation of a slightly dropped ceiling over the kitchen. Maintains the openness of the plan but helps to define the areas.
    Well done.

  • John Brown

    Paul and Louis,
    I checked the original construction drawings and the stair to the basement does actually run under the closet. Oddly enough there are three stair runs, side by side. The underside of the run to the upper level cantileveres into the garage. A very odd situation.

  • Paul

    Last post for me on the stairs, I promise. :-)

    I actually think this could make some good 60′s sense. Presuming the upper level is built to the full extent of the walls below, the stairs are roughly in the middle of the upper floor and with the garage “slab” being at the lower level elevation, a car would still be able to get it’s hood under those stairs. Frugal planning maybe?


  • John Brown

    Excellent architectural deduction.

    When you look at all the craziness in the plans we analyze in the What’s Wrong With This House series, it is hard not to get a little nostalgic for that 60′s common sense.

  • Louis Pereira

    Wow! Good thing i didn’t bet high on that stair location…

    I based my claim on this floor plan i’ve attached. The stairs in this case encroached the garage which the homeowners eventually had to expand because they couldn’t fit their pickup truck


  • ersie

    It’s very useful to see the built version. On looking at the plan yesterday I got the impression that the flue-millwork wouldn’t be quite large enough for the privacy issue but from the photos I see that I was wrong. This works very well. Would it be possible to show a photo of the front entrance area (taken from between the desk and the dining table)?

    What is the three-door white thing next to the fridge? I wonder why it wasn’t finished in the same way as the rest of the cabinetry, at least with the brown strip running over the top as it does over the top of the fridge. I find this more noticeable than the cold-air return grill Louis pointed out.

    A note on popular local style: Until recently, practically all fridges were completely integrated into the cabinetry in Switzerland (full overlay is I guess how you refer to that?). Now American-style fridges (they call them Food-Centers here) are becoming popular and their doors are hinged in such a way that they can’t be made to sit flush with the cabinetry so they stick out a few centimeters. There are one or two makers in Europe who do make fully-integrable devices but they’re very expensive. I find it a bit of a shame really, as I like the flush, integrated look much better though I’m in the minority here.

    The family room seems quite dark and den-like. That probably serves the function better than a bright room as I had envisioned by opening up the south wall.

    Thanks for showing us the final version. It would be nice to see more projects like this.

  • John Brown


    Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of the front entry.

    The white panels are back painted glass doors. The reason for the use of this additional material was to articulate the storage cabinets that were going to be used for dishes and glassware.

    That is really interesting about the refrigerators. I suppose that there is an element of fashion trends to this.

    You are also correct about the family room being a little dark because of the orientation of the house. Your solution for the back entry would certainly alleviate this.