Making the Heart of a New Home

The kitchen is the heart of the home: it's the place where family and friends gather together to share food, stories, and each other's lives. Losing the marital home in a divorce can be painful, but it can also offer the opportunity to make choices that weren't available during your marriage.

By Diana Shepherd
Updated: March 13, 2015

So much gets lost during divorce: a partner, a home, a shared vision for the future, your identity as part of a couple. You can feel adrift, rootless, not really sure where your place is anymore. For some, this is a freeing experience; for others, it represents a terrifying journey into the unknown.

The house I bought last September is the first I have owned as a single woman. Although my ex and I remain good friends, he lives in another country and is not available to come and fix a leaky faucet or a door that just won't close properly – let alone tackle major renovations – so buying what is commonly known as “a bit of a fixer-upper” took a leap of faith on my part. The biggest leap was to have faith in myself: that with the support of friends and family, I could handle whatever the house would throw at me. My house, a lovely old Victorian on a quiet tree-lined street, was built to stand forever – but in the last hundred years or so, past owners made a series of Very Bad Renovation Mistakes, which I discovered when I decided to renovate my kitchen.

The original kitchen was one of the worst I'd ever seen – it reminded me of a bad basement apartment from my college days. So I decided that I would tear it out and replace it with a do-it-yourself IKEA kitchen. My thinking was that I could save money, and there would be the added bonus of a sense of accomplishment and empowerment by putting the kitchen together by myself.

So last October, I met with Patrick Ryan, who heads up the kitchen department at IKEA Etobicoke (in Toronto's West End). He helped me create a rough draft, then sent me home to think about all the things I wanted in my new kitchen. I downloaded the IKEA kitchen planning software from, which let me see how all kinds of different combinations would look in my space. I finished designing my kitchen in November, used the IKEA software to make a printout of everything I'd need for the project, and placed my order. At the beginning of December, I invited a couple of friends over for a kitchen demolition party to make way for my new cabinets. While pulling down the old ones, we started to notice some of the Very Bad Mistakes I mentioned earlier.

I know when I'm in over my head, and promptly called for reinforcements in the form of a contractor I know socially. (N.B. Unless they give you a reason not to, always be nice to people: you never know when you may need to call on them to stop the walls from falling in on you – literally or metaphorically!)

Long story short, the contractor and his team rebuilt the back of my house, which was a little more than I had originally envisioned when I began my kitchen project. When life gives you lemons, you can complain or you can make lemonade; the lemonade I made from this experience is knowing I have a strong, straight, well-insulated wall (and a new energy-efficient window) that is built to last for another hundred years at least.

My new IKEA kitchen is functional as well as beautiful – nothing is more than two steps away, and it offers an amazing amount of storage in a fairly small space. I chose “Kalsebo” doors and drawer-fronts, which are lacquered solid beech/beech veneer. The curve of the “Tag” handles is echoed in the “Leding” track light over the sink – and even in my oven door. Light is very important in a kitchen – and it was totally missing from the old one. The window provides lots of natural light, and the under-cabinet lights (hidden behind the valances) offers task and mood lighting. The potlights shine down on the raised breakfast bar in the peninsula: a popular place for friends to sit and chat while we make dinner. I also use the bar top as a serving station for more formal meals in the dining room. The “Franklin” bar stools fold flat for easy storage when not in use. The “Emsen” 1 1/2 bowl sink is really useful, and the “Essvik” faucet has a pull-out handspray – perfect for cleaning the sink or watering plants on the windowsill.

Back to the kitchen project.

After painting the new walls (“Bleached Almond” to add warmth) and ceiling, I started building my IKEA cabinets, which had been sitting in 88 boxes awaiting the moment when the room would finally be ready to receive them. I sorted the boxes into piles – wall cabinets here, base cabinets there, doors over there, shelves in another room entirely – then I started to build the wall cabinets. It took me about an hour to figure out the first one, but I could build a cabinet in less than 10 minutes by the time I'd finished the last one.I am proud to report that I built every single one of the cabinets myself. I am also proud to report that I usually knew when to call for help: installing the wall cabinets, cutting the panels surrounding the fridge, cutting the baseboards and valances, and installing the under-cabinet lighting are prime examples of this.

Today, I stood in the middle of the room and thought, “I've never had such a great kitchen!” It suits my tastes and my needs exactly, and the fact that I was able to do so much of it myself – from design to completion – gives me renewed confidence in my own abilities.

I hope the following pages give you a sense of what it takes to take a room from awful to great. If you've never swung a hammer, I encourage you to take some classes at your local community center or school; whether or not you decide to renovate a room yourself, learning some basic “handyperson” skills will always come in useful – and boost your self-confidence and independence.

If you're not a do-it-yourself type, you can still get a great kitchen: IKEA will install one for you for a reasonable price.

Rating the IKEA experience

Here's what I liked about my IKEA kitchen renovation:

  • Everything arrived as flat, manageable packages that could be stacked fairly high without causing any damage to the contents.
  • The instructions were in drawings rather than words; once I puzzled through the first one, the rest were easy to interpret.
  • The pieces fit together very well; many literally snap together.
  • The cabinets are very strong.
  • The laminate finish is high-quality and very attractive.

Here's what I loved about my IKEA kitchen renovation:

  • The IKEA kitchen-planning software, which allows you to quickly create (and save) a variety of options, which you can view in 3-D and rotate in any direction to see how it would look from all angles.
  • The wide variety of doors and cabinet shapes and sizes. This lets you customize a kitchen based on the space available, your tastes, and your budget.
  • The upper cabinets hang on bolts on a metal rail that you first screw to studs – which makes the cabinets easy to install and reposition, if necessary.
  • The cabinets are held in perfect alignment with adjacent units using small bolts that fit into the shelf peg holes; only minor drilling is required to complete the hole through the walls.
  • Clever door hinges attach and remove quickly and easily. Hinges allow you to adjust door height, side-to-side position (left or right), and rotation (side-to-side and forward-backward tilt) until all doors are perfectly aligned and evenly spaced. This feature rivals the look and fit of custom-made cabinets.
  • The drawer faces are just as adjustable as the cabinet doors; all adjustment mechanisms hide away behind simple covers that click into place.
  • The drawers extend to 100% of their length with full support: no falling, tilting, or restricting access to items at the back.
  • The smart accessories: from pull-out wire baskets to the chopping board that sits on the side rails of the drawers (freeing up valuable counter space) to the Lazy Susans in the corner cabinets (you can adjust the height of both shelves to suit any need, and they automatically move that last inch back to neutral so the doors close cleanly).

Room for improvement:

  • The boxes are labeled with small drawings rather than words. For some boxes, the contents are obvious: this is a corner cabinet, that is a door. But some are just rectangles, leaving you to wonder what the heck they are. Is this a shelf? A drawer front? A panel? When you have 88 boxes to sort and open, this becomes a bit of a challenge.
  • The cabinet alignment bolts weren't mentioned in the upper-cabinet instructions, leaving me to puzzle out what the heck they were for. The instructions encourage you to call IKEA with any questions – great, unless you run into these problems after hours.

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By Diana Shepherd| August 15, 2006
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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