Learn how to upgrade your underutilized space while adding value and charm to your home with custom built ins. Southern Living Custom Builder Program member John Bynum gives us his expert advice on how to add built-ins to your home and why built ins should be next on your home renovation to do list.

By Ellen Antworth
February 09, 2020
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Built-in closet by window

Close your eyes and think of your dream home. What’s inside? A grand entry with soaring ceilings? A KitchenAid mixer? If you’re like me, and organization and efficiency are as much of priorities as a glamourous chef’s kitchen, then your dream house has been outfitted with wall-to-wall bookshelves for the perfect vignette. Nothing makes a house feel more like a home than built-in cabinetry. Luckily, built ins aren’t a luxury that are out of reach and the options for customization are endless.

For advice on built ins, we turned to one of the pros. John Bynum of John Bynum Custom Homes in Peachtree City, Georgia, a member of the Southern Living Custom Builder Program, has been building custom homes for 16 years and has been an expert woodworker even longer. Bynum designs custom built ins for “essentially all” of his custom builds. In addition to adding value to your home when it comes to resell, “Built ins demonstrate that a home has been built to fully utilize its space,” says Bynum.

John Bynum

Where do I start?

When it comes to adding built ins to a pre-existing home, the first step is to find the space. A nook in the layout of your home usually leaves you with two options; A piece of furniture might fill the space, but a custom cabinet will give the once under-utilized space a purpose and can become the focal point of the room. Once you find the space, think about the purpose your built in will serve. A built in can be as simple as a bookshelf or as personalized as a mud room bench with specific cubbies for each member of your family.

Where is an unexpected space you can put a built-in?

You’d be surprised by the space you can find hidden in your home. If you have a staircase that is not a stacked staircase (meaning you have a spot under the lower carriage) this is a great place to build in extra storage. “It’s a little more complicated for the cabinet maker, but you should have someone in your area who can come measure and outfit some drawers that fit and utilize a space that is often forgotten.”

Built-in drawers under stairs

Even if you think a space might not work for a built in, don’t get discouraged. Bynum loves to put built ins in unconventional spaces. Many people shy away from walls with windows or doors, but these are some of Bynum’s favorite built ins. “They fill the space from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with the crown molding and baseboards flowing around the cabinets. They’re integrated into the home. This is how it was done for great historical homes,” says Bynum.

What are the best materials to use for built-ins?

Depending on the purpose of your built-in, you can customize the materials to suit its various needs. Rustic reclaimed wood is just one material Bynum will use to dress up a basic display cabinet. Besides aesthetic purposes, the material and finish you choose for your built-in can be functional. Bynum will often recommend a chalk paint on interior pantry cabinets for writing shopping lists or other reminders. “There are so many ways to customize and make [built-ins] suit your needs. Motion sensor lights on the underside of shelves in a deep pantry are just one example. There are a lot of products like this on the market that can make built-ins even more of a luxury,” says Bynum.

When do I bring in the experts?

Once you decide where you want the built-in to go and what purpose it will serve, you’ll want a cabinet specialist to come measure the space. They can talk you through your options and help you personalize the built-in to fit your specific needs. Certified kitchen and bath designers are a great place to start because of their knowledge in outfitting both large and small spaces.

Are there options to DIY?

If you’re handy with a toolkit and up for a project, you can install stock cabinetry for a more cost-effective route. “There’s not a lot of options, but you can mix and match products to fill your space and still end up with a great result,” says Bynum.

How long should I expect this process take?

Give yourself two to three weeks to find a cabinetry specialist, craft the initial design, pick materials, and finalize your order with the cabinet maker. A built-in is pretty permanent, so this should be well thought out decision. After you place the order, expect your manufacturer to have a lead time of 30-60 days. Installation time will vary depending on the complexity and size of the built-in, but in most cases the entire process takes anywhere from 60-90 days.

Is all this work worth it?

Built-ins can be an investment depending on how custom you want to go, and they’re a permanent addition to your space. “Absolutely built-ins add value to a home. Buyers go wild over built-ins,” says Bynum. Built-ins show that the house is a home and provides the luxury that a simple piece of furniture would not, and now that you’ve learned the ins and outs of built-ins, you'll be ready to get to work on that mud bench built-in you've been dreaming of!