The Case For (And Against) Built-Ins

The Case For (And Against) Built-Ins

Maybe because they’re such a perfect marriage of form and function, shelving units are attracting plenty of attention these days.

Storage hungry homeowners are devouring photos on Pinterest and Houzz, and are coming up with “new and creative thinking” about the many places and possibilities of shelving, says C. Mason Hearn, president of HomeMasons, Inc., Manakin-Sabot, Virginia.

The possibilities are seemingly endless, both in function and form.

“I have very few people using shelves strictly for books,” shares Donna Vining, a Houston interior designer. Moreover, “shelving, depending on its size, can go in a multitude of niches, nooks and small spaces,” Vining says.

Possibilities are exciting, but can complicate decision-making. Here, experts share tips on choosing custom built, semi-custom or purchased units:

Consider the Options

Think of shelving as somewhat akin to kitchen cabinetry, says Brian Pontolilo, editor at Taunton Press, a design book publisher.

For one thing, shelving units often incorporate cabinetry, especially at the base, and kitchen and bath retailers offer stock and semi-custom pieces that can be used in building shelving into any room, Pontolilo notes.

Purchased elements can mix with custom-built components “depending on the needs and budget,” Hearn says.

It’s impossible to pin a price on any option, says Hearn, because there’s such a wide divergence in styles and materials.

If a homeowner wants to utilize an unusual space, like a niche under a stairway, or wants a high-end look, local wood workers and design-build firms can custom build, Hearn adds.

And, many consumers opt for purchasing a unit because it’s often less expensive and “you can take them to your next home,” notes Nate Baldwin, of, a firm that manufactures and sells shelving.

Purchased units, which can be toted to another location, are usually still “built-in” in the sense that they’re often attached to a wall with anchoring hardware to prevent them from falling over.

Talk To the Pros

“Most of the public thinks only of white painted shelves attached to a wall,” Hearn says.

The typical consumer starts realizing the potential of shelving from browsing the many photos on home websites, and customers often come to him clutching downloaded images, Hearn says.

“A photo is a great place to start, but an experienced and perceptive design professional should be able to understand what the homeowner is trying to accomplish, the budget, and the conditions of the space,” Hearn says.

Professionals, whether an architect, interior designer, or design-build expert, are usually needed anyway for built-in projects or if shelving is incorporated into remodeling.

Selecting the pro who will ultimately provide the look of your shelving takes due diligence, notes Pontolilo. “Ask to talk to other [customers] who’ve had similar work done in their home,” he advises. “If you can actually see the work that is the best way to determine if you really like it.”

Of course, consumers will usually select more inexpensive, portable shelving units on their own. “Ask the right questions,” counsels Rostal Dostal, an interior designer in Hudson, Ohio. “Does it have the right scale? Does it have the right color? Does it have the right finish? Will it create a continuity or break up a room?”

Think Ahead

When a homeowner is remodeling, though, it’s most economical to brainstorm early in the process, Hearn says.

Chris Dietz of Dietz Development, a Washington DC design-build firm, agrees.

“Look at the space being renovated while it is still being framed out, and see where there might be some creative space to be used for storage,” Dietz says.

Built-in shelving can not only fill nooks and cranny’s of otherwise “dead” space, like a corner, but it can also become a dramatic way to define rooms.

Building around a doorway or recessing a wall to add shelving, for example, can provide dramatic visual interest as well as storage, Hearn says.


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