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2000s Archive

Living Kitchens

Part 2

Originally Published March 2000
The dream state: questions to ask yourself before designing a kitchen.

Just as the best-dressed are those who have defined their tastes before they head out to trawl the boutiques, so most cooks with great kitchens have defined their style and ambitions before they commit themselves to cherry, stainless steel, or granite. When we undertake to build, renovate, make over, or reorganize a kitchen, we are susceptible to the come-hither of new appliances and the smooth assurances of kitchen specialists (who, however well versed in design, too often have never learned to make tea, much less sauté eggplant or bone a chicken). You alone can assess your expectations and requirements in order to create a kitchen that works for you.

Your answers to the following questions will provide both an inspiration and a reality check. The patterns they disclose will better equip you to make informed choices about overall layout and organization as well as specific appliance and storage solutions.

Create a kitchen wish list and assemble a file of clippings to hone your tastes and help you communicate with architects, designers, and contractors. Get recommendations from friends and ask the professionals to show you photos and floor plans of kitchens they have completed. Then gather graph paper, pencil, measuring tape, and courage and start to sketch out your ideas.

Even the most informed cooks should have their drawings reviewed by a professional kitchen designer experienced in charting a way through the bewildering (and changing) sea of options and focusing on details—hardware, door clearances, gas feeds, weight tolerances for heavy stoves, CFM ratings for high-Btu cooktops, and so on—that would be disastrous to overlook. Owners of successful kitchens almost universally admit, albeit sheepishly, that they revised their original plan more than once, often wisely casting out some of their most cherished notions. For some, faced with space limitations and a weak floor, their dream six-burner range with griddle metamorphosed into a four-burner high-output cooktop, with a single wall oven and warming drawer relegated to a distant corner. Others, upon reflection, rejected the behemoth refrigerator/freezer cum through-the-door ice and water that is usually seen as a national archetype in favor of a midsize top-mount unit supplemented by an icemaker and a wine cooler nearer the entertaining area. And in an era that idealizes big, open kitchens, other renovators have unexpectedly rediscovered the merits of pantries for cleanup and bulk-food storage.

Be ever open-minded and analytical as you answer these questions, but don’t be afraid to dream.

Why a new kitchen?

Q. Are family circumstances altering—children arriving or fledging, for example? Or is the kitchen inconveniently situated? Are you simply updating the appliances? Is your aim to expand the seating and dining area or to open up the kitchen to the dining area? Maybe you just want to make your kitchen prettier and pleasanter to work and entertain in.

A.You may not have to do a gut job. If you’re happy with your kitchen’s layout, a face-lift may be enough, replacing countertops and cabinet doors and painting.

Q. Do you want to reorganize the kitchen functionally?

A. Creating successful kitchens requires an understanding of the cooking process. Those who plan piecemeal around individual appliances or objects, however beautiful, with-out relating them to one another and without regard for efficient kitchen practice, regret the “improvements” or, sadder still, cook less because of the stress and fatigue (not to mention accidents) such kitchens can cause. Process is difficult to visualize. Cook several meals in your current kitchen, noting your regular -routines and the things about your kitchen that frustrate you the most when you put together a meal.

Q.Are you building or redoing a kitchen chiefly for your own use and pleasure, or as an investment? Or are you simply fixing it up with a view to quick resale?

A. Make sure you don’t spend beyond neighborhood values if you wish to recoup your money in the near or medium term. As a rule, no more than 10 percent of a property’s value should be tied up in the kitchen. Real-estate professionals calculate that kitchens give an average of 15 years’ service before fashion, technology, and the way we cook make them “quaint.”

Who’s cooking?

Q. Will the kitchen frequently be used by more than one cook? If there will be two cooks (or more), will they work simultaneously? Are their repertoires significantly different?

A. You may want an additional sink with prep space, or even two separate cooktops.

Q. How tall is the principal cook? Is he or she right- or left-handed? Any frequent helper? Does any household member have a disability?

A. These answers are vital when deciding counter heights and positions of the main preparation areas. Consider counters at staggered heights to suit users of all sizes, ages, and abilities.

Q.Do you use a caterer frequently?

A. Caterers prize clients whose kitchens provide at least two full-size sinks, a bar workstation, and abundant counter space for their crates, as well as generous ovens and four or more burners.

Q. Does the principal cook feel at ease with non–family members watching his or her antics (and seeing dirty sauce-pans)?

A. If not, strive to screen the main preparation area and the dishwasher.

Q. Where do you situate yourself on the tidiness scale? Are you a minimalist? Or do you subscribe to the notion that the best houses are scrapbooks?

A. If you like your implements and ingredients out of sight, nestled in drawers and cupboards, arranged by function, size, and alphabet, you should plan plenty of dedicated cabinet space. If you find inspiration in rows of bottles of olive oil and braids of garlic, in knowing your mortar and pestle are at hand, be sure the counters are deep enough to accommodate everything.

Who’s coming for dinner?

Q.How many people live in your household? And are they adults, teen-agers, children, toddlers, infants?

A. Teen-age grazing and foraging require generous storage; toddlers demand special safety precautions: rounded corners, childproof storage for cleaning supplies, out-of-reach knives and appliance controls, and so on.

Q. If you have or plan a more formal dining area or room, how many will it seat? How regularly do you expect to use it? What is the maximum number of guests you can imagine entertaining at home? For what kind of occasion?

A. China and cookware storage needs to expand exponentially if you entertain frequently.

Q. Do you want an eat-in kitchen? Is this realistic? How many do you typically expect to seat for a meal there? Which meals? How formal? Will these be house-hold members or guests?

A. Counters are grand for quick meals, but dinners cry out for a table. Upholstered banquettes can provide maximum seating in tight spaces.

Q. Do you have pets?

A. Many a dog spends much of its life in the kitchen, along with cats, goldfish, and parrots.

What do you eat?

Q. How many evenings each week do you eat at home? And how many of those meals do you actually cook?

A. Chart an average week’s meals in your house. Indicate how many people sat down as a group at each meal (and who ate microwaved leftovers in front of the television), how long it took to prepare, and whether it was heat ’n’ serve or cooked from scratch, using what appliances. Deconstruct the steps needed to create your signature dishes, whether that means veal Orloff or reheated pizza.

Q. What single meal or task consumes the majority of your time in the kitchen? Is making breakfast the most trying? Or is it weekday family dinners, a familiar candidate for most-tedious? Maybe it’s parties.

A. The meal that provokes the worst angst deserves the most design attention. Analyze the steps and then work out how you might group ingredients and equipment near their place of use. You can often design problems out of existence.

Q. Does any member of your household have a special diet?

A. One vegetarian teen-ager can double the pressure on your prep area; one adult advised to cut back on sodium can multiply the pantry’s contents.

How do you stock your kitchen?

Q. How often do you shop, and for what kinds of food?

A. Those who shop once a week need ample refrigerator and freezer capacity.

Q. Do you shop at discount warehouses?

A. Bulk purchases require bulk storage.

Q. Do you grow vegetables and fruits or go on pick-your-own expeditions? And then pickle, can, or freeze the harvest?

A. Allow enough shelf or freezer space for your bounty.

Is your kitchen the hub of the house?

Q. Who traipses through your kitch-en? Where are they headed, and what’s their purpose?

A. Apart from the movement related to the actual preparation of meals, kitchen congestion encompasses through traffic, refrigerator raids, and grocery deliveries, as well as ferrying food to an outdoor grill, hastening hot dishes to eating areas, and incursions from leaf-trackingvisitors and pets.

Q. Is the kitchen door your house’s most trafficked entrance?

A. You may want a design that either encourages or discourages this.

Q. Do you like to do non–cooking-related tasks in the kitchen: planning meals, making lists, telephoning, ordering groceries on the Net?

A. For some, a desk is essential; others prefer to spread out on a kitchen table. And don’t forget the hardware that wires us to the world: television and VCR; radio or sound system; computer, modem, and printer. All need to be placed strategically and supplied with outlets.

Q. Would you like cookbooks (or other books) to be at hand? Do you have any collections that you will want to display?

A.Need I remind you, collections grow.

Q. Is your kitchen a clearinghouse where mail and telephone messages are exchanged and schedules are worked out? What kitchen clutter is the source of noisiest contention? Bills and catalogs; homework and mail; jackets and laundry; books and magazines; vitamins and pills; all of the above?

A. Give this “stuff” an official home, where would-be offenders, including you, can stash it. It shouldn’t necessarily be out of sight (lest it be out of mind). Consider the kindergarten solution: Provide each house-hold member with a cubby or an ample drawer where their things can be hustled when the table is needed for dinner. When they’re searching for missing keys or a library book, they’ll know to check their niche.

Q. Do you sort recyclables in the kitchen? Do you compost?

A. Allow adequate storage and be aware that recycling is likely to grow only more space-consuming as more precise sorting is mandated.

What about the structure?

Q. How old is the present kitchen?

A. Updated wiring and plumbing may have to head your budget. Ascertain the amperage of the electrical service—the primary service may have to be increased for your battery of appliances.

Q. How would you like the house’s or apartment’s style to echo in your kitchen?

A. Or perhaps you would prefer to disguise it.

Q. How much square footage can you devote to the kitchen?

A. Often adjacent spaces can usefully be opened up into the kitchen. An exterior wall might be bumped out to give you more space. But before you decide to knock down a wall, read the next question.

Q. Are there bearing walls within the planned kitchen space? Where do the pipes, wiring, and ducts run?

A. These usually converge near the kitch-en, and rerouting them can be a hassle.

Q. Does the kitchen area have adequate daylight?

A. You may hope to open up additional windows or doors.

Q. What’s below your kitchen space? A basement or crawl space? A finished ceiling? A concrete slab?

A. The last could limit your choice of ven-tilation systems and complicate wiring.

Q. What’s above the kitchen?

A. If there isn’t room for wiring and ducting, you may have to consider a dropped ceiling.

Q. Is natural gas available? Pro-pane?

A. Many cooks favor the responsiveness of gas.

What is your budget?

Q. Is there any part of the work that you want to undertake yourself?

A. Be realistic about your abilities, and put a value on your available time.

Q. Do you have appliances you want to reuse? Or furniture, such as chairs, tables, or stools? What about cabinets?

A. For most kitchens, cabinetry represents about half the cost; surprisingly, appliances average under 10 percent, but that figure is rising, driven by our craving for commercial-style models.

Is this the time to remodel?

Q. Is your agenda already overloaded?

A. Even if you employ the most skilled professionals, you will find that managing the details of a new kitchen is time-consuming and frustrating for all but the most laissez-faire.

Q. When must the project be completed?

A. Scheduling constraints can limit the materials you choose. Waits of six months for custom cabinets are not -atypical.

Q. What contractor will you use, and when is the firm available?

A. In a tight labor market, it pays to be especially cautious—check references. The time taken at the beginning will spare you aggravation and disappointment in the end. Commit the builder with a contract specifying completion dates, progress payments, warranties, a change-order system, and dispute arbitration.

Q. What will you cook that first evening in your new kitchen?

A. If ever the process of making your dream a reality daunts you, visualize that dinner, smell it, taste it.

The Shape of Kitchens to come

Like the realtor’s mantra “location, location, location,” the kitchen designer’s should be “layout, layout, layout.” Though pleasing color, inviting yet practical finishes, and engaging decorative details are essential to making a kitchen livable, those planning a redo should focus on the configuration before (or at least at the same time as) they fixate on, say, a stainless-steel refrigerator or that quirky bread rack unearthed at a Paris flea market.

Classic configurations include the single-wall or strip kitchen, which, with modern fittings, can work surprisingly well; the corridor, or galley, kitchen, which, though prized by most professionals, can be vulnerable to traffic congestion and rarely works in eat-in kitchens; the U-shaped kitchen and its popular, expanded cousin, the G-shaped, both of which require at least an 8-foot-square area and provide excellent storage and counter space; and the L-shaped kitchen, a personal favorite because it positions the stovetop at the cook’s elbow.

For the past half century, the “triangle” has dominated kitchen-design thinking. Identified by home economists in 1949 in response to housing demand for returning GIs, the theory of the three poles of kitchen-activity—sink, cooktop, and refrigerator—remains a useful starting point with which to appraise kitchen layout. The ideal kitchen triangle should have no leg that exceeds 9 feet, and the sum of the legs should not exceed 26 feet, measuring in each case from the center of the equipment in question. Indeed, many designers urge that the sum be no more than 15 feet and that the sink be 3 to 6 feet from the cooktop, though triangles with sides totaling less than 12 feet are cramped.

Useful as the triangle is as an analytical tool, it is increasingly being supplanted by designs organized around activity centers dedicated to, say, prep work, cooking, cleanup, recycling, and baking. A concept appropriated (like those stainless-steel appliances) from professional kitchens, the workstation approach is especially suited to multicook households. Compact, modular appliances make it possible for each workstation to be fully equipped without significantly raising the overall price tag. In all but the smallest kitchens, multiple sink stations are becoming commonplace. Two dishwashers, twin-burner cooktop modules, undercounter refrigerator drawers, stand-alone icemakers, and wine coolers are being specified more and more frequently. All manage kitchen traffic and harness willing and able hands efficiently.

In response to the kitchen’s renewed social role, today’s designers have developed island fever. Islands, which are essentially kitchen tables refined with sinks and cooktops, can function as one side of a galley kitchen or be wrapped within an L or a U. They’re perfect for impromptu counter meals on stools, for spreading a holiday buffet, and for defining the working area of a great-room kitchen. —C.P.R.