Transform a House Into a Home With the Help of Delaware Design Pros

Photo Courtesy of Berkshire Hathaway.

These Delaware design pros are experts in the field when it comes to home renovations, redecorating or rejuvenating a house to make it feel like a home.

By Eileen Smith Dallabrida, Lisa Dukart and Pam George

Before restoring, renovating or even redecorating, let Delaware’s design pros point you toward the latest trends in everything from custom pools to paint colors.

A house isn’t a home until you make it your own. If you’re lucky, that means a few finishing touches to a dream piece of architecture that’s either modern or has been meticulously maintained over the years. But more often—especially if you’re drawn to historical spaces—it means a lot of investing and labor to make it feel like a personal sanctuary. Before you put in an offer or call a contractor, consider this advice from our local experts.

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Kitchen Prep

Six things to consider before remodeling this essential room. 

At a Bay Avenue home in Lewes Beach, Coastal Cottage Renovations updated a tired kitchen by replacing old laminate floors with polished, wide-plank hardwood. For a more spacious feel, they extended 8-foot ceilings into the attic above to create an airy, vaulted ceiling, and installed 16-foot sliding-glass doors that open to a screened-in porch with nature views. Floating reclaimed wood shelves, custom-built, add a modern vibe, while a 150-year-old pantry door with original hardware was salvaged, stripped and stained./Photo courtesy of Berkshire Hathaway

In most homes, the kitchen is a hive of activity—especially as of late, when families have been cooking and baking more often, and parents and kids are using the island as a makeshift desk. So it’s not surprising that many homeowners are now considering a kitchen renovation. But before calling a contractor, advises Mark Grahne of Atlantic Kitchen & Bath in Lewes, ask yourself some key questions.

Avoid a wild color scheme if you plan to sell within five years, Grahne suggests. Neutral colors help a prospective buyer imagine living in the property. Those with rental properties should follow a similar approach. If this is the last house you will own and you plan to stay long-term, then you’ll want your kitchen to suit your lifestyle and design aesthetic.

It’s a matter of opinion as to whether the exterior and interior of a home should follow the same style. While any addition to the house should take the exterior design into account, Grahne says it’s more important to complement the rest of the décor with an interior renovation.

Don’t start with the cabinets, even if you have an investment property. Cheap cabinets won’t hold up over time, especially if you live in an area with high humidity, like on the coast, Grahne says. Putting pricey countertops on old cabinetry is another risk. “If you plan to replace those cabinets eventually, you’re going about things in the wrong order,” Grahne says. “It’s not worth investing $10,000 in countertops and putting them on cabinets that aren’t going to last.”

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Determining how often you cook helps determine the surface space, flow and type of appliances you’ll need. Also consider family members’ ages: Retirees and tweens may appreciate a microwave in the island rather than over the stove; a young parent with toddlers may wish to keep the microwave up high.

The days of one central fluorescent light are over, Grahne notes. Task lighting in specific areas, such as a food prep station, is invaluable. Many upper cabinets can accommodate lighting underneath.

Visit manufacturers’ websites and showrooms to learn about materials and costs. Consider assembling a notebook or use a storyboard on Pinterest. Provide the contractors with your ideas when you sit down to discuss an estimate. Don’t be afraid to reveal your budget to your contractor so that they can get you the best bang for your buck. It also pays to work with a contractor who gets to know your home and your style.
—Pam George

Bespoke Baths

Bathroom trends for 2021 spotlight indulgence and opulence. 

A perfect retreat after a long day at the beach, this fourth-floor master bath in Bethany, designed by Marnie Custom Homes, features floor-to-ceiling Carrara marble, a shiplap cathedral ceiling, a double vanity, a custom linen cabinet, a zero-entry shower and a soaking tub with high-up ocean views./Photo by Dana Hoff Photography

Soaker tubs. Touch-free faucets. Barrier-free showers. Bathrooms have moved beyond function, morphing into spa-like retreats drenched in luxury.

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Mike Dodson, founder of Wilmington-based Dodson Design of Delaware, says even powder rooms can pack a lot of visual punch despite their diminutive size. Think opulent wallpapers, marble mosaic floors, original paintings, sparkling sconces and such unexpected touches as leather-bound books. Provide visitors with more than a visual treat by making hygiene part of the infrastructure. “The COVID pandemic made us all very conscious of hand-washing, and your guests will appreciate a touch-free faucet and a digital hands-free soap dispenser,” he says.

Approach a master bath as a personal domain. If the room is large, Dodson suggests incorporating lounging furniture “so you can hang out a bit longer.” Short on space? One option is to forgo a tub and focus on an indulgent shower. That said, the designer advises that homeowners invest in only the bells and whistles they will actually use. If you fell in love with the steam shower at the spa, it makes sense to have one at home. “On the other hand, six shower heads are excessive and use a lot of water,” he says. “A handheld shower head is more practical.”

Choices for doors now include a sliding glass “barn door” for the shower. Framed sliding doors on tracks are less expensive but difficult to keep clean. “A frameless glass door is the way to go, as a frame is a soap-scum catcher,” Dodson points out. “Or if your space allows, instead of a door you can have an open shower with a slightly sloping floor with a drain.”

Free-standing tubs are popular for those who enjoy a good soak, but they consume a lot of space—a soaker tub with one flat side that fits snug against the wall is a good compromise. “This uses less water but it’s still nice and deep, so you get that immersion experience,” he says.

Think of faucets as pretty, pragmatic accessories. After years of chrome and nickel finishes, brass is making a comeback. This time around, brass has a softer, muted patina, much different from the highly polished brass of the 1980s. “I am partial to unlacquered brass,” Dodson says. “I also like brushed metals because they hide fingerprints.”

Install multiple sources of lighting: pot lights on dimmers for ambient light; an illuminated magnifying mirror for makeup and shaving; and wall-mounted sconces for accent lighting. For an artistic twist, mount a domed ceiling light on the wall to mimic the moon.

When choosing materials, Dodson advocates a high-low approach, such as installing expensive marble basketweave tiles on the floor and less expensive porcelain tiles on the shower wall. “There are excellent tiles in a stone finish,” he notes. “Splurge a little, save a little.” Dodson’s four indispensable accessories for the master bath: “candles, aromatherapy, wine—and a lock on the door.”
Eileen Smith Dallabrida

Color Theory

TOP: Benjamin Moore’s Chestertown Buff beautifully contrasts a mahogany banister, white woodwork and ash floors./Photo courtesy of Benjamin Moore BOTTOM: Rosy Peach is an easy way to warm any space./Photo courtesy of Benjamin Moore

The shades of your home should reflect your personality.

Wilmington artist Corinne Cowen Pomeroy has a knack for color, thanks to her formal art training. When she’s not painting custom commissions or other original works, she applies her talents to interior design. Here, she shares how to select the right colors, finishes and textures when painting a home.

Lead with your style. “For me, it’s really about personal style coupled with the home—it speaks to me in a way,” Pomeroy says. A good indicator of taste is to observe your closet and the colors you wear most often—and which colors are absent. “A lot of times we pick colors that seem exciting to us, but they’re not colors we would include in our wardrobes,” she points out. “So why would we want to be surrounded by it on the walls?”

Make it complementary. Whether in the same room or adjoining rooms, “you don’t want too much of the same color,” she notes. When selecting paint colors, look at opposite sides of the color wheel to find complementary colors. This may sound daring, but if they are similar in tone, the contrast will provide unrivaled visual interest.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Powder rooms, offices, three-season rooms and even formal dining rooms are great places to try bolder colors, or even wallpaper, Pomeroy says. Color shy? “Just take it down a notch.” To play it safe, she avoids the top color on any palette swatch. “You’d be surprised at how intense that top color can look once it’s up on the wall,” she says. Still love it? Use it as an accent color.

TOP: Benjamin Moore’s haute color of the moment. Aegean Teal , pairs well with beiges, whites, darker grays and even yellows, as well as Rosy Peach./Photo courtesy of Benjamin Moore BOTTOM: In her Hockessin home, painter Corrine Cowen Pomeroy uses bold, contrasting hues in adjacent rooms to add visual interest. “When selecting paint colors,” she says, “look at opposites of the color wheel to find complementary colors.”/Photo by Corinne Cowen Pomeroy

Play with finishes. Is there one hue you can’t get enough of? Go ahead and paint the entire room in it, but consider mixing up the finishes. “Paint the walls in a matte or semigloss, and then get the same color in a gloss,” Pomeroy says, noting that trim, crown molding and fireplace bump outs (including the mantel and surround) are great spots for a gloss finish. Doing so adds both texture and dimension, and can even make a room look bigger.

Give a cheery welcome. For some, door colors signify certain greetings, but Pomeroy doesn’t subscribe to that notion. Instead, she prefers to consider what color works best with the home, its landscape and the owners’ aesthetic. “Complementary colors are key here, too,” she says. “If you have siding, redbrick or a stone facade, and there’s not much dimension to the outside of the home, painting the door in a color that accentuates yet elevates the curb appeal is a huge game changer,” she explains. “Additionally, you can add elements to the landscape that will play off of the entryway and move the eye around the property.”

Let your ceilings make a statement. While many prefer a white finish on the ceiling, painting it the same color as the walls can add volume, Pomeroy points out. “This is a great idea if you have really eclectic taste.” To create a reflection effect that draws the eye, consider painting both the ceiling and crown molding in a color with a gloss finish.

Define spaces. With a growing trend in open-concept floor plans, paint is an easy way to demarcate spaces throughout the home. Stick with the tonal approach and use transitional spaces like fireplaces or pony walls to seamlessly transition colors from one room to the next. “A faux stone wall flanking the fireplace, shiplap or a built-in bookshelf with the backs of the shelves painted in a different color are also options.”
Lisa Dukart

Brighten Up

A staid color scheme has long dominated home décor, but the trend in 2021 is warming up, says Donnell Thomas, manager of Ricciardi Brothers in Wilmington. He offers a look at the latest finishes.

It’s getting warmer. Take Aegean Teal, a Benjamin Moore hue that pairs well with beiges, whites, darker grays and even yellows, as well as rust-adjacent colors, like Rosy Peach. The collective palette is reminiscent of sun-drenched summers.

Beige is the new gray. Making a comeback as a primary wall color, beige contrasts nicely with statement colors to create a welcoming atmosphere.

The finish is as important as color. The main question is washability. Finishes (sheen) range from flat to high gloss, the latter being the most durable. Those with children or pets should opt for an eggshell finish or glossier, which can easily be wiped down or scrubbed.

Polish the accents. To offset a beautiful feature—like an ornate window—add polish with a semi- or high gloss.

In a private home in Rockland, Delaware, colorful artwork and ornate furnishings are tempered by buff-colored walls./Photos by Ashley Breeding

Eco Made Easy

With the right design choices, homeowners can create more sustainable living space. Here, certified green professional Patty McDaniel and her Dwight Kelsey Hamilton of Rehoboth Beach’s Boardwalk Builders reveal how even small changes can make a big impact.

The interior design employs sustainable materials, like cork flooring, and uses energy-efficient lighting, as well as low-flow faucets, toilets and showers./Photo courtesy of Boardwalk Builders in Rehoboth Beach

SOURCE ETHICALLY. Consider the company and source when making big home construction purchases, especially lumber. While it may add a step to the process, the benefits are cleaner air, cleaner water and a cleaner conscience, McDaniel says. Be sure to discuss ethical sourcing with builders and designers up front to navigate the process with ease.

This Emerald Green Certified house in Rehoboth Beach was designed with the National Green Building Standard in mind. Surrounded by nature, the Boral-sided structure maximizes winter sun while minimizing summer heat. Quality insulation and air sealing, as well as upgraded glass windows, reduce heat loss in colder months./Photo courtesy of Boardwalk Builders

SWAP MATERIALS. Consider more eco-minded products in home construction or design that are made from repurposed, upcycled or recycled materials. That includes siding made of fiber cement, cellulose insulation instead of traditional fiberglass, and even flooring made from bamboo or cork. “There are materials that we use as trim on the outside of the house made with fly ash,” a recycled byproduct of coal combustion, Hamilton says. “There are a lot of recycled interior finishes, like countertops and carpet,” she adds, noting it’s best to work with a builder on an advanced plan to reduce excess waste.

USE HVAC MINDFULLY. Heating and air conditioning are among the top energy consumers in the home. Set the thermostat to reasonable temperatures and change them seasonally. McDaniel and Hamilton recommend higher temperatures in the summer and lower ones in the winter, noting “using your HVAC equipment correctly is probably one of the biggest things people can do to lower their energy usage.” They also recommend making small, incremental changes to temperature to not overtax the system. For added efficiency, have a professional check ductwork for leaks using a blower test.

SHORE UP THE HOUSE. Windows and doors are common spots for air leakage, meaning the house will be cooler or warmer based on the temperature outside, forcing HVAC units to work harder. Replace old, drafty windows and doors with new ones that feature tinting, Low-E and argon glass. Keeping windows locked also ensures a snug seal. Similarly, add insulation where possible. Whether renovating, building new construction or assessing open spaces like attics, adding insulation can be a game changer. “Insulation is a big-ticket item that a lot of people don’t think about because they don’t see it,” Hamilton says.

SLOW THE FLOW. While many newer homes have water-efficient plumbing, homeowners can increase sustainability by incorporating low-flow faucets, toilets and showerheads. If you have a second home or are often away, consider installing a water-leak detector system, some of which can even shut the water off remotely via an app.
Lisa Dukart

Private Oasis

A backyard pool is more than a place to swim. It’s a versatile space that’s both a retreat and a centerpiece for entertaining. Here, Nicole Bailey Ashton of Ashton Pools in Rehoboth Beach dives into the latest trends.

This bayfront property designed by Marnie Custom Homes boasts a spacious backyard pool with a slip-resistant deck that’s cool to the touch./Photo by Dana Hoff Photography

Also known as a sun shelf or a tanning ledge, a Baja shelf is a ledge that is about 9 inches deep and also serves as an entry to the pool. You can furnish the ledge with lounge chairs, daybeds, or bar stools and tables. You can even include a slot to insert a beach umbrella.

A cocktail pool is small, typically chest height. We built one that was 10 feet by 10 feet square, which shows you can have a pool even if you have a tiny yard. A cocktail pool is about living your best life and indulging in a relaxing beverage.

Salt water is easier on the skin and requires fewer chemicals than fresh water, which typically is treated with chlorine. A newer option uses a combination of UV light and ozone to clean fresh water with fewer chemicals.

A scupper is a copper spout that protrudes from a wall to deliver water and create a waterfall into the pool. It provides a constant, stress-relieving sound of water.

We are fans of travertine, which is both slip resistant and beautiful. It’s also about 15 degrees cooler than concrete. Avoid flagstone and bluestone, which retain heat and can be hot to the touch.

Acrylic walls, made from plexiglass, are super cool. They are moldable and durable, which means you can set the pool into a hillside so you can see what goes on inside the pool. Essentially, you are swimming in an aquarium.

Heated pools can maintain water temperatures up to 80 degrees, although you can expect much higher utility bills due to the amount of water you will be heating. (The average pool holds about 15,000 gallons.) You can enjoy the pool area longer by placing fire bowls and heating columns on the patio.
Eileen Smith Dallabrida

This Old House

When buying or altering a century-old residence, follow these five tips.

Photo courtesy of Berkshire Hathaway

Many Delawareans love old homes, whether it’s a Brandywine Valley farmhouse, a 19th-century townhouse or a Victorian by the beach. But making changes to these properties is a bit like opening Pandora’s box. Before you purchase or renovate, consider these expert tips from Stephanie Boright and Justin Travis of Coastal Cottage Renovations in Lewes.

Moisture is a home’s enemy. Look around windows, doors and at the sills, where the walls meet the foundation, Boright says. Repairs include removing the rot and replacing it with a new material with structural integrity. “With that comes siding and drywall repair,” she adds. Cracks or small foundation issues can be repaired, but if damage to the foundation is significant, the house is raised so workers can replace the entire thing. “We have never found anything that can’t be fixed,” Boright says. “Unfortunately, upfront costs for foundation repairs can set you back a lot of money before we even start on the good stuff.”

“Most of the time, we rip everything out—walls, plumbing, electric,” Travis says. “We can assess if there’s any rot.” What’s more, many 100-plus-year-old homes lack insulation, and their electrical systems aren’t up to code. Early knob-and-tube wiring is both obsolete and a fire hazard. Plumbing was only meant to survive so long, and most systems have expired.

“We try to keep floors, doors, hardware and window trim,” Boright says. “They don’t make trim like this— with multilayers—anymore.” But there are exceptions. Historic commissions often ask contractors to keep original windows, but they’re inefficient. Coastal Cottage purchases new, energy-efficient products that look old. In short: Stay away from vinyl.

A cluster of small rooms is not conducive to 21st-century living. “In Lewes, people like to entertain,” Boright notes. You can remove walls to make larger spaces without losing the home’s integrity, she says. Contractors will remove clunky additions and add square footage by other means. “An addition shouldn’t look like an addition,” Travis notes. New trim, siding or rooflines may create a more seamless look.

Slightly slanted floors and uneven ceiling lines are part of these homes’ charm. “You can’t make them perfect,” Travis says. “But we can definitely make them look awesome.”

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