Susan Yeley Interiors
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We're Not Made of Money: Value Engineering and the Three P's

This is lovely, isn't it?  Casual and bright. You may think it's out of your budget, but it may not be, with a clear plan and priorities, patience, and value engineering. Image courtesy of Amber Interiors. Photographer: Tessa Neustadt.

This is lovely, isn't it?  Casual and bright. You may think it's out of your budget, but it may not be, with a clear plan and priorities, patience, and value engineering. Image courtesy of Amber Interiors. Photographer: Tessa Neustadt.

Value engineering, you say? Sorry?

It's a term widely used in the design-and-build business, and it's been floating around SYI quite a bit the past few weeks. As our clients pass the design phase and get into purchasing, it comes into play more often then not. It’s something we at SYI practice in our own homes. Heck, to be honest, we don't know very many people who don't practice it.

What is value engineering? It stems from new product development and means the ratio of function to cost.

Wait. Don't fall asleep just yet. When it comes to interior design, value engineering is a strategy that means looking for ways to deliver the best design for the dollar. Simple, right? It's maximizing the bang for your available buck.

In most any home design show on TV, you'll see value engineering in action when problems arise. The Canadian client (they're almost always Canadian, eh?) is keen on creating a mudroom for her hockey family to dump their gear. She also needs new flooring on the whole main level. Of course, Client Canadian Hockey Family has a tight and firm budget, and what-dya-know, there are hidden problems discovered that blow it clear out of the water. Asbestos in all the plaster walls! An extended family of raccoons living in the attic! A leak compromising the floor joists under the (as yet imaginary) mudroom! The designer breaths deeply and calls in structural engineers to rebuild the entire house, wistfully doodling mudroom plans on a napkin for the time being. When they finally get to the mudroom, laminate is looking like an excellent alternative to hardwood. 

This is value engineering. Laminate floor costs less than hardwood up front and delivers the same function. Longevity (aka planned obsolescence)? Depends on the quality of the laminate. Resale compared to hardwood? Depends on the market. Depends on how long the client plans to live in the home. There are so many factors never discussed on these shows. 

When you hire an interior designer, you have a goal to achieve something like this:

The pillows, the plaid, the white, the stone, the tulip table, the old poster art...all of this is so lovely and carefully planned out by a designer. Courtesy of Emily Henderson. 

The pillows, the plaid, the white, the stone, the tulip table, the old poster art...all of this is so lovely and carefully planned out by a designer. Courtesy of Emily Henderson. 

or this

Sometimes you need a designer to sweat the details and find beauty and cohesion in new and old items. Here, pre-owned items are set against a renovated master bath complete with white cabinets, marble counter, brass knobs and a whimsical wallpaper. Photo courtesy of Pencil and Paper Development Co. 

Sometimes you need a designer to sweat the details and find beauty and cohesion in new and old items. Here, pre-owned items are set against a renovated master bath complete with white cabinets, marble counter, brass knobs and a whimsical wallpaper. Photo courtesy of Pencil and Paper Development Co. 

or this

What color can I paint my cabinets? How dark is too dark for a library? How do I mix old with new? With the guidance of an interior designer, this space combines old with new, dark and light...creating a welcoming transitional space. Photo courtesy of Cortney Bishop. 

What color can I paint my cabinets? How dark is too dark for a library? How do I mix old with new? With the guidance of an interior designer, this space combines old with new, dark and light...creating a welcoming transitional space. Photo courtesy of Cortney Bishop

or this

A marriage of organic and midcentury design is carefully orchestrated in this transitional kitchen/dining combo. Indy-based Architect/Interior Designer: HAUS | Architecture for Modern Lifestyles; Construction Manager: WERK | Build

A marriage of organic and midcentury design is carefully orchestrated in this transitional kitchen/dining combo. Indy-based Architect/Interior Designer: HAUS | Architecture for Modern Lifestyles; Construction Manager: WERK | Build

or, oh my, this 

Le sigh. A stunning, clean, organized bathroom bathed in natural light. (If you dig this, you'll dig the rest of the de Gaspé home) Photo courtesy La Shed, photographer: Maxime Brouillet. 

Le sigh. A stunning, clean, organized bathroom bathed in natural light. (If you dig this, you'll dig the rest of the de Gaspé home) Photo courtesy La Shed, photographer: Maxime Brouillet

Beauty and serenity can be achieved within a budget.

YES! That's what we just said. And we believe it.

Pennies do need to be saved; sometimes home equity loans need to be taken on. (Interest rates still are awesome, by the way). But dream designs, big and small, can be achieved on a budget. One part of that is often value engineering: choosing a less expensive countertop so you can afford the ridiculously pricey but gorgeous pendants you've had your eye on for years. The other part is this zingy group, SYI's Three P's: Planning, Prioritization, and Patience.

You pay up front for a good plan from SYI, a landscape designer, or a structural engineer. That means you get a color scheme and layout and direction by professionals who have considered as many of the project's collateral impacts as possible. Once that's in hand, you figure out what to tackle first and what can wait: the laundry room and master bath go on the back burner in order to get a kitchen you love and new lighting for the painfully dark living and family rooms. You prioritize. 

Then, friends, comes the hard part. Dare I say, the spiritual part. Patience. Time. Sometimes in order to achieve your dream home makeover, you get the plan, you set your priorities, and then you phase it. You do your most desired and then wait a year. Or two. Or five. You save up to buy a piece of furniture; you redo the kitchen but put in laminate countertops for now. You hold on occasional furniture like end tables, and scout for the right thing at the right price in  antique shops over time. Let's be honest; a great home—the most authentic design—comes together over a lifetime. 

For this client, the transformation has been slow but steady. Once SYI developed a plan and color scheme, built-ins and lighting were installed first, with a paint job that included that beautiful deep blue-green line around the windows. The vintage rug was a score at an awesome price but only after months of scouring options and sources online. A good year later, the West Elm sofa went on sale, so the client took advantage. Down the road there will be a coffee table and blue Eames dining chairs. In patience there is beauty, no? 

For this client, the transformation has been slow but steady. Once SYI developed a plan and color scheme, built-ins and lighting were installed first, with a paint job that included that beautiful deep blue-green line around the windows. The vintage rug was a score at an awesome price but only after months of scouring options and sources online. A good year later, the West Elm sofa went on sale, so the client took advantage. Down the road there will be a coffee table and blue Eames dining chairs. In patience there is beauty, no? 


All of us at SYI—Susan, Janie and Keri—practice the three P's and value engineer. Like many of our clients, we have other things—tuition, bills, vacations—to pay for, and those dreamy home improvements have to be cleverly budgeted and sometimes spread out over time. 

Here are ways we have value engineered:

Susan's project

Susan knocked down all the walls in the main living level of her split-level home. But she (ahem, her husband) had a very strict budget. In order to stay within the budget, things needed to be value engineered.  

For example: 

  • The cabinets and stools are IKEA. Almost four years later, they're still pretty fantastic relative to their cost. 
  • The ceilings are plywood. Cheaper than solid planks and from a distance, they don't look half bad. 
  • The stainless sink was retrofitted from the old kitchen.
  • The white dishwasher was saved from the old kitchen since it has yet to die. When it's clean, it blends into the white cabinets, so for now, it stays.
  • IKEA laminate countertops that came in 8' lengths, requiring a (gasp) seam at the sink. Fingers-crossed for quartz someday, but at the time that alone would have eaten into more than 10 percent of the budget. 
  • Fixtures over the sink are standard, in-stock, CHEAP Menard's pendants.

    And on the other side of the windows above this sink? The cedar siding that was installed on the front and sides of the house ends abruptly. Temporary paneling frames the new windows until there is money for more cedar and/or to do the anticipated addition to the back of the house. 

    Classy, huh? Fortunately, not too many people see this part of the house and the ones that do are under 5' tall - or managing people under 5' tall. We're sharing our not-so-pretty sides with you here; please do not judge. 

    Classy, huh? Fortunately, not too many people see this part of the house and the ones that do are under 5' tall - or managing people under 5' tall. We're sharing our not-so-pretty sides with you here; please do not judge. 


    Janie's project

    Updating a mid-1980s back room addition of her 1969 Bi-level

    • Painted over the wood paneling instead of taking it down and installing drywall.
    • The floors are laminate. Of course Janie would have loved wood, but she's gradually replacing wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the upper level, and that much hardwood just isn't in the budget. 
    • Another thing that would have been great: custom built-ins. Instead, Janie painted the two existing stock cabinets that flank the fireplace the same color as the wall and left the simple bookshelves alone.  For now.
    • All the furniture but the chair/ottoman are second-hand finds or hand-me-downs. The little chair in from of the television was a particular bargain at $14.00, and the area rug was the happy payment in a barter deal. 
    • Drapes are from Target.  
    • Throw pillows are all bargain buys picked up at TJ Maxx or Pier One. 

    Keri's project

    Making her first floor in her 1981 colonial less Family Ties, and giving it the illusion of being more open and airy. (Not that she doesn't love Family Ties, just maybe not in her decor.)

    Back in 2012 when Keri's family moved in, they got busy opening up entryways and homogenizing the flooring on the main level. Those projects, in addition to a ton of hidden costs like insulating the crawl space and a leaky roof, left very little money to spend on other improvements. 

    But there was this kitchen.  It needed something.  A facelift at the very least:

    Oh, this kitchen felt so dark and heavy. Moving from the land of 300 days of sun (Colorado) to Indiana in January did not help morale.

    Oh, this kitchen felt so dark and heavy. Moving from the land of 300 days of sun (Colorado) to Indiana in January did not help morale.

    Knowing that the budget was next to nothing, Keri spent $700 dollars (minus the flooring, trim and doors, which was part of the greater project) updating this kitchen the best she could until they save enough to knock down all those soffits, get new cabinets and counters, and install more windows by the sink. 

    A touch better for only $700.  And yes, the boob light in the middle of the kitchen still needs to be replaced with something less…um…"boob-ish." 

    A touch better for only $700.  And yes, the boob light in the middle of the kitchen still needs to be replaced with something less…um…"boob-ish." 

    • Replaced the knobs with antique brass knobs to match the exposed hinges. (Thank goodness brass has come back.) Purchased on eBay for $50.
    • Painted the cabinets and walls: $200 for paint and supplies
    • New faucet (Delta via Amazon) and separate water filter faucet (stock Menards): $200 
    • New recessed light details: $100 (they cheated since Keri's dad is an electrician; discovered electrical problems to boot...did we mention Keri's house was built on the cheap?)
    • Removed scalloped feature and curtains above sink: $0 
    • New light above sink (replaced a fluorescent strip and put in a halogen puck light): $30
    • New switches and outlets: $70
    • LED bulbs: $50 (Not totally sold on these. Halogen is warmer; this is greener.)
    • Chairs: repurposed from the old house

    We have a mission at SYI that makes us different from other Interior Design firms. We create residential design that is accessible, beautiful and sustainable. We do this by helping our clients value engineer, plan, prioritize, and realize that dream homes, in real life, sometimes require patience. 

    There will be surprises and hiccups. The old tile may have been applied with NASA strength adhesive. Your budget may contract when you must fly to Bermuda to be in your second cousin's wedding. Estimates and quotes from designers and contractors can have more zero's than you thought they would. 

    Things add up, and it can be scary. But with planning and some prudence, foresight and patience, good design can be accessible, beautiful and sustainable. We promise.