We’re Making the Case for Built-In Furniture (Yes, Even in a Rental)
It’s worth the investment.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:18 AM
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When furnishing a new home (or apartment), most people’s first instinct is to run to their nearest favorite retailer or antique store to find the perfect pieces to grace their interior. Some people even purchase a whole suite of furniture online, sight unseen. In today’s fast-paced world, immediacy trumps longevity, and flat-pack furniture that can be taken home the same day has become the norm.
In fact, it’s rare for people to even think about built-in furniture until they purchase their first home or hire a professional interior designer. For most, just the thought of having to find a builder, design a plan, and patiently wait for it to be executed is not worth that custom feel. Of course, there is also the uncertainty of cost that can deter many.
But investing in built-in furniture has a slew of advantages and—spoiler—it might not even be as complicated or expensive as you might think. To demystify the process, we weighed the pros and cons with a handful of builders and interior designers. “Built-in furniture should be used when a space needs something to ground it or give the room a feeling of purpose,” explains Sally Breer, cofounder of ETC.etera, an LA-based design firm.
Ahead, Breer gives her two cents on built-in furniture alongside designers Tali Roth, Leandra Burnett of Hatchet Design Build, and Frederick Kukelhaus and Ben Young of Hugo & Hoby. Find out why built-in furniture might be worth it for you—even if you live in a rental.
What is your favorite type of furniture to build into a space?
Roth: Media units, banquettes, wardrobes, bookcases… these are all my go-tos.
Burnett: Built-in closet storage is a must because custom pieces will maximize your functional space. Outdoor furniture and bathroom pieces can be built robustly to withstand the elements and heavy use. Large pieces—like full-height bookshelves or lengthy cabinets that run the length of the room—are really great as built-ins because they can be made to be either minimal or to match the historic detailing of your home, which both blend into your eye and won’t make the room feel smaller.
Kukelhaus: Booths are in! They’re a great way to have all the customization and aesthetic appeal of furniture in a piece that is more commonly a fixture. Who doesn’t love a good nook? Custom upholstery can help you make a space your own with carefully chosen colors and textures that match your style.
What is a good built-in solution that people don’t typically think about?
Roth: Banquettes or sofas that have storage are always a good option in New York City apartments. They’re great for dining rooms, living rooms, or bedrooms. I recently made a platform wall-to-wall bed for my son with storage for toys underneath.
Burnett: A built-in or hanging headboard can be an inexpensive statement piece that would cost a lot more if it were constructed as part of a bed frame. By using a French cleat to hang a custom headboard and pairing it with a simple bed frame, you can achieve a designer look for a fraction of the cost.
Breer: Your bed. If storage isn’t great in your space, you can anchor your bed with built-in armoires on either side of it for some extra hanging or drawer storage.
In your experience, is built-in furniture more or less expensive than ready-made pieces?
Roth: Not always. I would say built-in sofas are not. Bookcases or media units are. Custom wardrobes are definitely more expensive than something store-bought. There are always ways to make the custom pieces less complex in design so that they can compete with retail pricing.
Burnett: Pricing for built-ins or other custom fabrication breaks down to material and labor. Maybe your built-in is a do-it-yourself project, put together with two-by-fours and plywood from the hardware store and costing a fraction of the ready-made. Or it might mean hiring a professional who will template the space, source the material, and install the finished piece for double the cost of a ready-made piece because you’re paying for their time, their insurance, and their skill.
Breer: It usually ends up being pretty comparable, but the built-in version is tailored in a way that grounds the space, and that can’t be quantified.
Do you ever recommend built-in furniture in a rental?
Roth: Yes I would. I have recently done a built-in daybed that can be easily moved to another space. I also ensured it was made in two pieces with the ability to add a third piece if we needed it to be larger. It made an awkward guest room so much more luxurious and easy to use.
Young: Of course. But think it through and make sure you’re in the space long enough to have the rewards pay off. If you’re in a rental, you will want to either check to make sure the owner is okay with your built-in designs or be aware that you may need to remove it before you leave. A custom banquette is probably not worth the effort in a rental, but simple shelving might be a good option.
Breer: It depends on how it’s built. In my old loft, I wanted the feeling of a long low built-in cabinet, but I was renting, so I had four credenzas made (instead of one giant one) so it would be easier to repurpose or sell as individual pieces when I moved out. If you have a good relationship with your landlord, it’s always worth asking if they’ll split the cost with you (as a tenant improvement). In this case, the money spent might be worth the “quality of life” bonus.
What should you ask yourself before deciding if built-in furniture is right for you?
Roth: How will my home and family life look in five years? How much happier will I be with something custom that was made just for me versus a store-bought solution? Will I like this material in a year?
Burnett: Does it have utility? Will it be lasting, both in material and in aesthetics? Can it be made to serve many overlapping needs?
Kukelhaus: Is there a way to accomplish the same effect without building it in? Do I have a plan for how I will build it—design, approach, timeline, costs—and permissions as needed? Do I have friends, family, or professionals with the skills to help me start or finish a project should I need it? Is this a custom item that I will use often in my home?
When should you avoid built-in furniture altogether? When is it not worth the effort or expense?
Roth: I would generally avoid built-ins if they are inflexible and you are in a short-term rental. If you really want to go built-in, I would suggest designing with flexibility in mind so that you can always uninstall and repurpose.
Burnett: Of course there are situations where it’s not worth the investment, but there’s not one hard-and-fast rule. Your home and how you use your space is a reflection of your individual lifestyle, so look to areas of your life where you expect changes: That’s where freestanding or more short-term options are going to suit you better. Built-ins, in turn, will speak to more universal and structural aspects of your life.
Young: Built-ins can have a higher risk and reward than “loose” furniture. So play around with ideas, develop a thoughtful plan, and weigh your options before you decide to take the step. If you’re still not sure, start slow and stick to nonstructural pieces where you don’t have to change significant portions of your home’s layout.
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