Design Notes: Kitchen Design

I thought I would share with you some notes from our design process for the house renovation. We have been thinking about a lot of this for years, making sketches and working things out in CAD to make sure they work, but it's one thing to draw up daydreams and another thing to draw something you need to make buildable within six months.

Most of my kitchen design these days is commercial kitchens, which is actually really helpful for a home kitchen, in a way you might not expect. Commercial chefs worry less about the BTUs of their burners than a good, reliable stove that will be there when they need to start cooking. And then we spend all our time working on the line and how workflow will happen so people are not on top of each other all the time. And every single commercial kitchen I have worked in or designed is in a line, with a work table or worktop refrigeration unit in the middle of the room as an island. Cooks are on the stove side of the island, waitstaff and others are on the other side, and nobody runs into each other.

So let's talk about some concepts in kitchen design, shall we?

The work triangle

This is an interesting one. People learn about it and fall in love with it as an idea, without ever considering that it might not be 100 percent true for how they work.

The work triangle was developed by Lillian Gilbreth (if you want some background, the setup for this work is discussed in the semi-biographical novel Belles on Their Toes). I have a huge amount of respect for Dr. Gilbreth, and her work was very forward for its time, but we've learned a bit about how people in kitchens work since the 1927.

My issues with the triangle as a concept:

So what replaces the triangle? Some people say things like "work zones" or "power corners," but I like the classic commercial kitchen line as a metaphor. Stove/oven on one side, work surface on the other. Galley kitchens are the most efficient, but not all of us have a good space for a galley, and a lot of people want things to be more open, so you can use an island or a kitchen table to make a linear space to work in.

Commercial stoves

This is a big thing right now. To be clear, you cannot use an actual commercial stove in a residential setting without doing some serious work -- they have to be installed in fireproof construction and can't be near anything combustible, and they need a very complicated industrial hood system with built-in fire suppression. I doubt you have that in your house or want to install it. So what people really want is a stove that looks like a commercial stove, but is built with the right insulation for residential use.

I definitely get the appeal of this. The commercial-style stoves available now have things like high-temperature burners for wok cooking, and controlled simmer burners. After suffering through 12 years with our terrible stove -- even modifying one of the burners so it would burn a little hotter -- I am ready for a better stove that does what I need it to.

But if you don't do a lot of high-temperature cooking, you can save a ton of money by not getting a stove you will not take full advantage of. Those high end stoves cost thousands and you should not spend that kind of money unless that is the exact thing you need. If you do normal everyday American cooking, and you have small kids or hope to have them soon, consider an induction range that has no hot surfaces even when cooking. Or just get an everyday ordinary Maytag, maybe with that butch commercial stove look but without the bells and whistles, and be done with it. A better stove will not make you a better cook. My mother is an amazing cook, and she has done it all on a terrible electric range with an emotionally disturbed oven since 1979. I hope she enjoys the stove we are buying her.

Ventilation hoods

Code now requires a ventilation hood that vents to the outdoors over stoves, thank goodness. Those stupid recirculating hoods are useless.

I avoid non-overhead hoods of any kind. They don't work very well, they have to be oversized for what they do, and they do a poor job of clearing moisture, smoke, and airborne grease out of the air.

I also avoid microwave hoods, because 1) microwave overhead is bad, and 2) they are usually a combination of weak hood and weak microwave.

Hoods can either be all flashy, exposed stainless steel or concealed completely (they sell models that recess into the ceiling). Which one you choose is really a personal choice; I like to see my hood, and I'm not fond of ornate hood covers designed to match the cabinets, and I never use storage over the stove. Our over-stove cabinets now are built around a vent pipe, and they are completely useless. Even if they weren't, they're hard to get to without climbing on the stove, so what would I use them for?

Megafridge

How many people are in your household? How many people do you cook for? Your fridge should be sized for that, not for the largest fridge need you can imagine. The number one reason people give me for needing a massive fridge is that they throw a lot of parties.

Here are some options to buying a massive fridge with tons of bells and whistles that you will have to pay to run every day of the year, regardless of how much you actually use of it:

Any of those beats spending hundreds of dollars more on a larger fridge that you will just fill with stuff you won't eat -- the bigger the fridge, the more likely you are to lose things in it -- and that you have to pay to run.

You may guess that I am not a fan of massive refrigerators.

Dishwashers

Get the quietest dishwasher you can find. We have a Bosch, and it is wonderful, because we can have a conversation in the kitchen with it running, and nobody has to yell.

I like a stainless-steel interior because plastics can pick up smells over time.

Many dishwashers come with a top-rack-only option, so you can do a very small load of dishes. This is nice for small households like ours, or if you do a lot of canning, it makes a great way to "sterilize" your jars (don't use a dishwasher to prep your scalpel for surgery, but it gets jars clean enough to can into).

The current trend is two dishwashers, which is fine, but a little expensive. If having two dishwashers meant you could forgo separate dish storage, sure, go for it, but do you really need two dishwashers so much that you will sacrifice 24 inches of cabinet space for the second one? I've lived in some busy households, and we throw dinner parties for 12 or 16, and even I can't justify having two dishwashers. I mean, we would use them if we had them, but not enough to justify buying them. If this is your thing, go for it, but consider carefully whether this is really your thing.

Other appliances

People fall in love with appliances, but consider carefully before just filling up your kitchen with the stuff. Every appliance you install takes away from storage space, and storage allows you to have clean worktops that make a kitchen feel more open and usable.

If you want to build-in a microwave, do it in a lower cabinet (microwaves above head level as a massive potential burn accident waiting to happen).

If you have a range, and want a wall oven, consider a single oven rather than a double. You will save a lot of space for storage and unless you are running a restaurant, two ovens is probably enough.

Things people fall in love with that can either be perfect for their lifestyle or insane: ice makers, wine refrigerators, garbage compactors, warming drawers, fridge drawers, and dishwasher drawers. These all take up space and often duplicate functions of other appliances. If they are what you need, go ahead. But keep in mind the tradeoff of space versus whatever the appliance provides you.

Cabinets

This is what I want to see in cabinets:

If you have upper cabinets, install LED lighting strips underneath to light the counter.

Where there are uppers, put in an outlet strip (this is like a long set of outlets that is permanently installed) up against the bottom of the upper. That will give you plenty of outlets that are out of sight rather than cluttering up your backsplash, and also make it so any water that gets on them drips down. Kitchen outlets have to be GFCI, but a little extra caution doesn't hurt.

Either bring the uppers to the ceiling or drop a soffit over them, so you don't end up with a dirty shelf. Do not be tempted to store baskets on open upper shelves. Unless you are a compulsive cleaner, you will regret this. They will fill with sticky dust that does not clean off within weeks.

In tall cabinets, don't put a pull-out shelf above your head height; you're going to have to use a step stool to get into it, anyway. (Pull-out shelves cost quite a bit; save them for places where you can actually use them reasonably.)

Avoid having corners in the cabinets as much as possible; all those corner cabinets are a compromise of some kind or another.

A pull-out shelf under a sink can make the under-sink storage area much more accessible. But make sure it works with your plumbing; pull-outs generally need to attach to the two walls of the cabinet, though some may be made with undermount glides. This is mostly an issue on islands or peninsulas.

A narrow vertical cabinet for storing cookie trays and cooling racks is terrific. Our narrow cabinet is the only thing I love about our weird kitchen. I wish I had two of them.

Islands

I try to avoid having anything built-in on the island surface, like a stove or sink. I like having one wide, open work space. That way you can lay out trays or plates over the whole surface, or roll out dough and prepare it to go in the oven in one place.

Drawers

I love drawers in the kitchen. When we bought this house, we bought an IKEA Varde drawer countertop, which has been one of our primary work surfaces since then. When we do the kitchen, we will be putting in lots of drawers. They are more expensive by far, but they are worth spending the money on.

It's also worth the money to get soft-close on the drawers, because otherwise things tend to slide to the back of the drawer over time, even with non-slip mats.

Don't plan on any drawers more than 36 inches wide. Better yet, try to stay around 30 inches or less, especially if you will be storing heavy things. The laws of physics still apply in a kitchen, and they still apply even if you spend a lot of money on cabinets.

I generally avoid doing built-in dividers in drawers, because that makes them harder to clean. But you can get removable dividers that can be customized to your drawer for the same look.

Flooring

For the money, a linoleum floor will be your cheapest nice flooring choice -- it comes in all kinds of colours and patterns can be cut into it in another colour if you want that. Tile can be lovely but you'll be cleaning grout, and if you drop a glass it will be toast. Hardwood is a classic look, and it elevates the kitchen from workspace to family space.

Prototyping

If you have the time and space, make a cardboard mockup of your kitchen and try it out. I'm a big fan of trying it out in person, if at all possible.

Some kitchen equipment showrooms have test kitchens, and some even let you come in with your own pans and supplies and try out cooking in their spaces. This can be a good way to test out different equipment and configurations.

Professionals

If you feel really unsure, go ahead and hire a professional to design your kitchen. But be aware that most professional accreditation doesn't address being a good designer for you. You need to review portfolio samples and check references for that. If references will let you come see their kitchen in person, even better. Make sure they are designing for your needs and not their own default kitchen.

posted by ayse on 01/10/15

7 Comments

Another big factor in kitchen layout for many households (though not yours) is, how many people will be trying to work in there independently but simultaneously? Especially in the morning, you may have spouses, kids, roommates, guests, or whatever, all simultaneously trying to fix their own breakfasts and takeaway lunches, and anxious to get out the door on time.

Good point, Brent. We actually often have a lot of people in the kitchen in the morning, between what seems like a nonstop stream of houseguests and ourselves, and when my parents move in we will have them as well (it's nice to imagine they will sleep in in retirement, but experience with family vacations shows this will not happen and they will in fact be stumbling around making coffee right when I need to get out the door).

Thanks for the great run-down!

Just a not of caution on induction: if you've got sensitive ears, avoid it! It's incredibly fast but these things emit seriously high-pitched whining noises that can make cooking literally painful! Not sure if that's the case with all models but I suspect to some extent it is, considering how these units are designed internally.

Oh, that's interesting. I think it must depend on the model because I haven't heard any whines with the ones (only a few) I've been around during cooking, and I hear well into the ultrasonic range. But that would definitely be irritating. I've never had a client complain about them, though, so I wonder if it's not audible to most older people. And for people who have a big worry about kids and stoves, it may not be a bad tradeoff.

If I had a big kitchen, I'd have two dishwashers. Dirty dishes always pile up in the sink while one is washing or the dishes in there are air drying.

Our dishwasher has a "dry" cycle, so that helps quite a bit. Unless we've made a mistake on loading, everything will be fine to put away as soon as it cools down enough to touch.

I think that is one of those personal decisions. I was 100 percent behind two dishwashers until I really started looking at how we use ours, and it's not going to be worth it for us. I can definitely see the value with kids or with households where a lot of dishes are generated at odd intervals.

As I said, I've only ever used one induction hob so I'm not sure if it's a general problem. I'd say in that case the noise was somewhere around 15-18 kHz or even lower so that's something many people should still be able to hear. I can hear at least up to 19 kHz (makeshift test using Audacity and both speakers and headphones, so I have no idea whether I just can't hear anything beyond that or whether my equipment just isn't able to reproduce such high frequencies although it should according to the specs).

Note: We're getting pummeled with spam comments, so I've turned off the ability to use any HTML or include any links for the time being. Email with any issues.

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