Everyone could use a little more space these days. 

And, in what feels like the thousandth month of the pandemic, a change in your decor could be just what’s needed to love (or at least tolerate) your home again.

Interior designer Heidi Caillier, of Heidi Caillier Design, not only has a distinct eye for Pacific Northwest style, she’s also an expert in maximizing small spaces through the use of built-ins — elegant and versatile storage units on walls, around desks and even under seating. 

Seattle interior designer Heidi Caillier is an expert in maximizing small spaces through the use of built-ins.

We asked her for her tips on adding built-ins and maximizing space in smaller homes and apartments.  

Q: What are some fun ways to use built-ins and what materials do you like to use?

A: The built-ins that we do are normally wood or a painted finish — that’s pretty standard.

We always try to put big built-ins in family rooms and living rooms because they are a great place for toys to be hidden. 

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Built-in bookshelves and storage are a great way to contain living room clutter, Caillier says. (Haris Kenjar Photography & Design)

We also like to hide everything in kitchens and bathrooms, so we make designated spaces for small appliances, hair dryers, etc. We do not want things to have to sit on countertops, because it feels visually busy and instantly makes a space feel smaller. It goes a long way if you can keep your surfaces clean. Inset medicine cabinets are a must, as well as pull-out trays in your vanity so you can easily access the storage in the back as well as the front. 

Q: What are some of the factors you look at to determine if built-ins are right for a home you’re designing?

A: We’re always looking to see how it will work with the architecture; if it’ll work with the existing conditions — a coved ceiling or what the ceiling heights are like. Sometimes, with existing conditions, the built-in depth won’t fit with a window or we don’t have space with the furniture layout — that’s all taken into consideration.

Also, we look at what the space needs: extra storage, specific things we’re trying to hide, if we need to put a TV in there or make bookshelves for books. So we’re definitely taking functionality into consideration, first and foremost. 

Heidi Caillier added built-in cabinets, a desk and a bench seat in this Seward Park home. (Haris Kenjar Photography & Design)

Q: What is the process for creating a built-in?

A: We do a full design for it: Detailed elevations that show what the built-in will look like, the materials and the paint finish, the cabinet hardware, the layout of everything and the dimensions. 

Then we take that detailed elevation and have it estimated by two different workrooms and put that price into the client. Then we work with the cabinetmaker all the way through until execution to make sure the shop drawings are approved and that everything is executed in kind.

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If someone is not working with a designer, they would probably call a cabinet place or a woodworker and have them in their home to talk about a general design aesthetic they like — maybe show some inspiration — and then the cabinetmaker would draw up some shop drawings from there.

A petite built-in adds storage and architectural detail to a Capitol Hill dining room Caillier designed. (Haris Kenjar Photography & Design)

Q: Can you do built-ins on a budget? 

A: Sometimes they’re not as expensive as people think they are. Sometimes it can kill two birds with one stone if you’re eliminating two pieces of furniture for one built-in. 

There are all different ranges of cabinetmakers. There are more expensive, high-end, custom ones, or you can find someone who does a semi-custom or not fully custom, and that price range is much more affordable. You obviously don’t get all the customization, but you can still get built-ins done, for sure.

I have not had experience with this, but I know people do Ikea a lot. You can customize all of their kitchen cabinetry. I know a lot of people mix custom things with the combination of Ikea and the Semihandmade doors — but that is a lot of work. 

Caillier likes to add built-in storage under seating, as seen in this breakfast nook. (Haris Kenjar Photography & Design)

Q: How do you incorporate storage with seating? 

A: I do [built-ins] a lot in kitchen nooks, or I do built-in sofas or deep built-in benches — like a window nook. They are great places to put blankets, extra pillows, games, books, toys for kids, all of that. 

I tend to like to add storage wherever I can. Unless you live in a large house, you can never have enough, it feels like. And those drawers are great for spillover.

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Q: What is the most “outside the box” design solution you’ve come up with in your career so far? 

A: The built-in we did in a Sunset Hill house was a clever wall-to-wall unit that housed two sections of toys and games, a built-in desk and a hidden TV section so you do not have to stare at the TV all the time. It had a sliding panel that had space for art on the front of it that can slide to reveal the TV. 

A built-in wall-to-wall unit in a Sunset Hill house in Seattle houses toys, a desk and a TV. (Haris Kenjar Photography & Design)

Q: When is it best to go with a piece of furniture for storage (such as a bookshelf) rather than going with a built-in?

A: Built-ins can be pricier and require a bit more legwork. They require a lot of coordination. You have to find a vendor to do it, you have to get it built and then you have to have it installed. Oftentimes, there’s construction associated, so they can be slightly complicated.

Furniture is better for smaller-scale projects where the budgets are not as big, or if clients are looking for a quick turnaround time. It’s also great for rentals. 

A built-in is something that’s going to stay forever. 

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Built-in nooks in kitchens can keep essentials accessible while providing some concealment. (Haris Kenjar Photography & Design)

Q: What are some solutions for hiding appliances and kitchen gadgets? 

A: We’ll often do an appliance garage that would be placed on a countertop, so you can just open a door and pull your toaster out, or open some doors and have your coffee machine right there. And then to hide them, you would just close the door. 

Nook shelves [by the stove] can be tricky to execute, but they’re nice to have for keeping a little salt or olive oil out for cooking, so that you can easily access it.

We’ll also normally do utensil dividers, knife drawers, cutting board storage — so everything has its designated place and can be easily organized and accessed.

In homes without a mudroom or entry closet, Caillier likes to create a built-in to store coats and shoes. (Haris Kenjar Photography & Design)

Q: A lack of entryway between the front door and living room is a particular quirk in Seattle homes. What are your design workarounds? 

A: For those tricky front doors that go straight into the living room, we like to create some sort of space to help it feel like an entry — a small drop zone, hooks or some storage to help hide all of the entryway clutter. 

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You definitely need space to put coats and shoes, scarves, all the stuff that comes with daily life. We try to add built-ins and use them just like a closet. We make them 25 inches deep so we can hang a coat hanger comfortably, and add shelving for hats and shoes and the like.