The kitchen has always been the nerve center of the household, and never has the kitchen's central role been more important than it is today. If you're considering remodeling, either for yourself or for resale, there are new products and techniques worth knowing about and discussing with your contractor.
Of primary importance to most people today is a kitchen that has a bright and airy feeling to it, one that is open to the rest of the house. People are looking for a minimum number of enclosure walls, and vaulted ceilings are also very popular. In older homes where the kitchen was designed to be a separate room with four distinct walls and a flat ceiling, remodeling to achieve this openness will typically mean the complete or partial removal of one or more walls, and perhaps some alteration in the ceiling and even the roof structure.
Adding to these structural considerations in an older home are small windows that limit natural light. If this is the case in your home, as part of your initial planning you'll want to explore the possibility of enlarging or adding windows, and perhaps adding one or more skylights as well.
Beyond the openness of the physical structure of the kitchen, a number of other factors enter into the overall feeling of brightness. These include light colors in wall coverings and tile; cabinets in lighter colors than were popular in years past; and some new considerations in floor covering, including wood and laminate.
When selecting your cabinets, you're apt to find some choices in wood that you didn't see just a few years ago. Maple, with its straight, refined grain patterns and furniture-grade appearance, has gained considerable popularity in recent years. You'll typically find it finished only with a clear top coat in order to keep it as light as possible, or perhaps finished with a very light color stain prior to application of the clear finish. Hickory, which is a little darker and has more of a pronounced grain pattern, is a good choice if you're after a somewhat less formal look, and birch seems to be regaining popularity as a cabinet wood for the same reasons.
In kitchens without vaulted ceilings, and where extending the ceiling height is expensive or impractical, some contractors are using shorter upper cabinets to create or enhance a feeling of openness. Another trick is to place the upper cabinets a little higher on the wall, thereby increasing the space between the counter and the bottom of the upper cabinets. Valances that used to connect the upper cabinets on either side of a window or sink are rarely used anymore, again with an eye toward minimizing the feeling of heavy enclosure. For the same reason, soffits above the upper cabinets are also falling by the wayside.
For counters, laminate has made a tremendous resurgence in popularity. Here again, the emphasis is on light, neutral colors and ease of maintenance. If you're an experienced home handyperson, many home centers are stocking prefabricated laminate counters in white, off white, almond, light gray and similar colors, with precut corners, end splashes, and everything else you need. Synthetic, solid surfaces such as Corian are also popular, but their installed cost - about four times that of laminate - may limit their use in many homes.
Another trend worth discussing with your contractor is the unified "all one house" look. Some builders are using wood floors in the kitchen and other parts of the house that are matched to the wood type and color used in the cabinets, and in some cases are even matching those woods to the wood used in the home's furniture.
You'll want to begin with a comprehensive plan for the new kitchen layout, then consult with a contractor with proven experience in this type of remodeling. He or she can examine the structural components of your home and make a determination on the feasibility of removing walls or opening up ceilings. This requires a contractor with a thorough knowledge of the construction techniques employed in older homes, since a greater number of interior walls are weight-bearing in older homes than are found in newer homes constructed with room-spanning roof trusses.
Remember that any kitchen remodeling, no matter how minor, is an expensive and disruptive undertaking. Look for a licensed contractor who is experienced with kitchens, and make sure you understand as much about the proposed remodeling as possible. Also remember that any structural alterations, as well as changes to the wiring, pluming and heating system, all require building permits.