How Much for Those Gorgeous Built-In Bookshelves?

This summer BB is bringing back Home School, a series of design-y stories and giveaways that we run in partnership with theSweeten.com. The website, which New York Magazine deemed the “Best Contractor Locator” in their Best of New York 2012 issue, intros New Yorkers seeking to renovate their homes with the perfect architects, contractors and interior designers for the job. Its founder and CEO, Jean Brownhill Lauer, trained as an architect at The Cooper Union, and recently completed a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Here, she covers the true cost of built-in bookcases. Read below for details on this month’s sweet giveaway--a $200 gift certificate at one-of-a-kind design store RePOP in Williamsburg, where you can find something special for your shelves.

Having a frank and honest conversations about the cost of a renovation project can be awkward and uncomfortable. Ask someone about their adorable new baby, and they will share every detail of their natural delivery. But inquire about their gorgeous new bathroom, and you get broad price ranges and blurry memories of the timeline.

This collective generality about cost and experience has lead most people to have no clue what construction actually costs. I see it every day on theSweeten, people wanting to improve their homes–but their expectations, inspired by the gorgeous images they see around the web and in glossy magazines–are often out of whack with their budgets.

So as part of this summer’s Home School series, we’re going to talk about what construction really costs. Of course, there are incredible blogs and options for those of you who are handy DIYers, but this series will focus on the price, process and expectations of hiring design and construction professionals to do the work for you.

We’re going to start with one of my personal favorite objects of desire, bookcases. I chatted with Doug of Hudson Cabinetry Design and member of theSweeten network, about about the process, and the pricing on a few recently completed bookcase projects. I then asked a few architects, general contractors and millworkers in theSweeten network to preview the interview. The consensus was that Doug’s prices are solidly mid-range, meaning that a very high-end millworker will be much more expensive, while a carpenter with tools but no shop would be cheaper. Almost all of Doug’s comments about the process rang true with the group, with only small differences, mostly related to personal preferences in running a business.

What’s the basic overview people should keep in mind when considering a custom built-in bookcase?
Doug: The material costs are relatively fixed, and what we are charging for is the time it takes to build, finish, and install the cabinetry. Anything that adds time to any of those three areas is going to add to the cost of the project.

What’s the “back of the envelope” math that you use to give people a rough price?
Our basic cabinetry pricing is based on a linear footage model. Assuming the unit will be no more than 8ft tall, we start our pricing with a rough calculation of the total length of the unit x our base price. This price can vary, but it is usually in the range of $850 – $1100 per linear foot.

We then take into account certain conditions that may affect the cost or time involved in building or installing the unit. These items include the following:

  • Height – Taller units are more complicated to build and install. Installations from 8-10 feet tall are assessed a small premium. Projects taller than 10′ are evaluated on an individual project basis.
  • Job site location or work rules – Projects in apartments often take longer to deliver and install than those in houses. Some apartment buildings have strict work hours for contractors. This can limit the amount of work we can get done in a day, stretching a one day installation into two.
  • Specific job site conditions – Is there an existing condition that will require additional time and attention in designing or installing the project? Specific molding that we need to match, floors or walls that are significantly out of plumb or level, etc.
  • Features –  Simple open shelving is the least expensive cabinetry option.  Adding functional items such as doors and drawers will increase costs. Glass doors, glass shelves, and cabinetry lighting all have additional costs in time and materials.

What about open shelving, that’s really popular right now, can you give us an idea of how that’s priced?
A typical wall unit, say 9ft wide x 8ft tall, would have a lower section with closed storage and then an upper section with adjustable shelves and maybe a place for a tv. That would cost say $8-9k. If you strip it down so that it’s all open shelving, floor to ceiling, you’d drop the price down to about $7000 – $7500. If you add a lot more closed storage, lots of drawers, lots of closed upper cabinets, you increase the price. We don’t have hard and fast pricing for these items, but typically each door adds $100 – $200 and drawers add about $200 each. That’s for the cost of the additional parts and labor. There’s also a little extra “futzing” that goes into each door or drawer at install just to make sure the gaps are even and it functions smoothly.

What are some recurring misconceptions you hear?
The single biggest misconception most homeowners typically have about cabinetry pricing is in regards to where their money goes. For most projects, labor, insurance, and shop overhead add up to approximately 70-80% of the total cost. Materials make up the remaining 20-30%. While there are exceptions for certain rare or figured woods, most of the high quality furniture grade woods and veneers we use are relatively comparable in price to one another and are not likely to have a large impact on pricing.

Also a lot of homeowners have a misconception about the pricing for painted finish cabinetry. Very simply, there is a lot of labor that goes into producing a high-quality painted finish. The entire process can take up to 5 days and include up to 4 coats of primer and finish. Compared to 2-3 coats of a high quality clear lacquer that can be applied in as little as one day, the additional labor costs easily offset the savings of less expensive, “paint grade” materials.

Alright, that’s a good overview, can you share some actual projects?

This was part of a larger project that we did for an apartment in a new building in Harlem. The owner was looking for storage for her large and growing collection of books and looked to us to offer guidance on how best to achieve that goal. While a full wall bookcase handles larger novels and art books, I suggested taking advantage of the vacant space below the window in her dining area for her collection of paperbacks.  We designed this bookcase to blend in completely. A new seamless top that extends back to replace the existing window sill was key to the effect.  Simple construction, adjustable shelves, painted finish. $4600 for a 10.5′ run. Here is what the space looked like before, it was really underutilized.


(photo via Hudson Cabinetry Design)


(photo via Hudson Cabinetry Design)

This living room bookcase for a Brooklyn loft cost $19,000. It was a relatively straight forward project, but the size of the unit was exceptional. The overall length is 15ft and the height is 11ft, requiring special consideration of both methods of construction and installation. In addition, there are 7 large storage drawers along the bottom of the unit.

The design process took about 2 weeks of emailing design ideas back and forth with the client. It was a truly collaborative effort. They had some great ideas for things they knew they wanted; the thick upright columns with the groove detail on the front and the sconces. I was fairly insistent on wrapping the unit around the corner on to the short wall. It helps to define the living room within the larger space and make the loft feel cozy. It’s one of those projects that just came together perfectly in every respect.

We spent about 200 man hours constructing it in the shop, then a week’s worth of painting and then the installation took a 3-man crew 2 days to complete. The single biggest challenge was just the size. It’s hard to judge the scale based on the photo, but it’s a giant. (see photo below, the guy on the ladder is 6ft tall!)  Usually, we build a wall unit by making a series of cabinets that join horizontally together. If we did that here, they wouldn’t have fit in the elevator, so the entire project, down to each individual shelf, was bolted together like an erector set with hidden fasteners in the shop and then taken apart, and then reassembled on site.

(photos via Hudson Cabinetry Design)

What to put on those brand-new bookshelves? Enter our June Home School Giveaway!
Enter your email here for a chance to win $200 to spend on any one, fabulous item at the eclectic vintage furniture and accessories shop, RePOP, in Williamsburg. (And be sure to check out RePOP owner Russell Boyle’s design ideas for bookshelves or any corner of your apartment in need of sprucing up.) Entrants will automatically be signed up for brooklynbased.com and theSweeten.com (but can opt out at any time). We’ll select a random winner at 5pm on June 21.

One Comment

  • Very helpful information on size of projects and cost differentials. It would have helped if there was some mention of materials used (wood types, etc.).