A remodel done by remote control

Special to The Times

For other pregnant women planning to remodel, Heidi Toll's saga might serve as a warning: Stay away from Madonna concerts.

It was at a Madonna concert last year when a seven-months' pregnant Toll -- who was about to embark on a major remodel on a just-purchased Sherman Oaks fixer-upper -- went into premature labor. She was eventually ordered by her doctor to stay in bed until the baby was born.

So it came to pass that Toll created and orchestrated an upscale kitchen remodel from her West Los Angeles bed with a laptop computer and a wireless Internet connection while her husband, Daniel Cunningham, dashed around the Southland before and after his regular day job, meeting with workers in Sherman Oaks, picking up samples of wood and flooring and glass, and taking daily digital pictures of the progress to share with his laid-up wife each evening.

"It was very stressful," Toll, an interior designer, said of remote remodeling. But it didn't faze her husband. "Daniel stays pretty calm."

"I had a pregnant wife," explained Cunningham, an asset manager. He remained fixed on his goals: "To move in and fix her some food."

That finally did happen on July 23 last year, two weeks after son Caiden entered the world, full-term and healthy.

It was news of the pregnancy that started the couple on their quest for more space than the 1,200-square-foot home they had owned for two years. At first, they wanted simply to add on a bathroom, but when bids for that came in at $80,000 to $100,000, they changed course and decided in March of last year to look for a bigger place. That plan was also scuttled when they found even tiny fixers on the Westside were selling for more than $1 million. Finally, a Realtor friend suggested they check out houses in the San Fernando Valley.

Two months later, the couple found a 1961 flat-roofed Sherman Oaks home that satisfied all their requirements: It had the midcentury modern look they wanted, three bedrooms and three bathrooms in 2,200 square feet, a location in a neighborhood with good public schools, and a price tag that was "significantly less" than comparable homes over the hill. As a plus, it had a view of the Valley.

The place certainly needed to be updated. Although it had been well-maintained for decades, the house mostly sat vacant for five years preceding the sale, ever since the last of three elderly sisters had died and left it to a nephew. Cunningham said it "had the smell of abandonment," and Toll thought the wallpaper might interest the Smithsonian.

The kitchen looked to have been last remodeled in the 1970s, with inexpensive laminate wood-look cabinets, white tile counters and sheet vinyl flooring. But Toll and Cunningham saw possibilities -- something sleek and Zen-like infused with nature's hues, which Toll set out to create with a bamboo floor, green granite counters, frosted-glass backsplashes and stainless steel appliances.

As soon as escrow closed on June 17, 2004, the old kitchen was demolished. There were plans to sell the oven, which was in good shape, but that plan was not clear to the worker doing the demolition, and by the time Cunningham arrived for his evening visit, the oven had been ruined. There were other plans to reuse the garbage disposal, water filter and fixtures, but they turned out to be in bad shape.

In the end, everything ended up in a pile in the adjacent den, and the couple called in a hauler to take it away.

To save the money it would cost to reroute the plumbing, and because the layout was good, Toll kept the same floor plan for the kitchen -- with the sink at one end under the window, the refrigerator on one side and the stove in a peninsula on the opposite side, creating a divider between the kitchen and den. She got rid of the cabinets over the peninsula in favor of a floating exhaust hood. By making the new peninsula 2 feet longer and 1 foot wider, counter space was added to use as a breakfast bar lined with four stools.

To lay out the new cabinets, Toll used a computer-assisted design program, then e-mailed the plans to a custom cabinetmaker.

She and Cunningham took stock of their dishes and pans and decided on several wide drawers for those rather than upper cabinets, which Toll reserved for drinking glasses and stemware.

To choose the bamboo for the floor and the "rift oak" wood for the cabinets, Toll asked Cunningham to bring samples for her to see and touch. Vendors didn't always let their samples leave the store, but when Cunningham explained that his pregnant wife was confined to her bed, they acquiesced.

Toll admits that she did go out of the house at least once for materials, mainly to choose the two slabs of Costa Esmeralda granite that would make up her counters. But the slab yard made it easy on her, driving her around in a cart. And, she confesses, she voyaged a few times to see the job in progress. "I couldn't not come," she explained.

For appliances, Cunningham went to a store and took photos. After Toll made her choices, she downloaded sizing and installation instructions from the Internet.

Despite her immobility, Toll gave the kitchen some unique touches. The backsplash behind the counters is made of light-green laminated glass, a material that is also used in the doors of the upper cabinets, which open up instead of to the side. At floor level, she chose stainless steel kick plates for the cabinets, which adds an unusual sparkle to the room and picks up the metal in the nickel cabinet and drawer pulls.

She also added a can light directly over a display shelf, which is adorned with a framed photo of the baby.

Five weeks after they started the remodel, the couple and their newborn moved in. To get the complex job done quickly, Toll relied on her Rolodex filled with tradespeople she had used during the last 15 years in the design business.

The kitchen cost $37,550; it would have cost more had the couple not done their own design and contracting work. And it would have taken longer were it not for the swift service Toll got from her cabinetmaker and other professional peers.

"It was the time," Cunningham said, "to call in all the favors."

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What the project cost

Project: Kitchen remodel

Location: Sherman Oaks

Duration: Five weeks

Where the money went:

(Costs are approximate)

Demo, wallpaper removal,

paint, soffits... $2,000

Cabinets

and installation...$19,500

Appliances

and installation...$8,000

Granite...$2,500

Granite installation...$2,150

Glass backsplash...$900

Bamboo floor

and installation...$1,000

Electrical...$1,500

Total...$37,550

KATHY PRICE-ROBINSON

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Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for 15 years. She can be reached at www.kathyprice.com. If you would like to have your remodel considered for use in Pardon Our Dust, please send before and after images and a brief description of the project to Real Estate Editor, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

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