Dream Houses for Real People
This piece was to have appeared in Chapter 2 of Kitchens, the first volume of a book series intended to help people with limited resources, like most of us, to transform their unremarkable dwellings into the homes of their dreams. Regrettably, the principals canceled the project before I completed the work.

According to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, the average cost of a new kitchen these days approaches $30,000. When such a sum—or even a more modest one—is at stake, it pays to proceed from a well thought-out plan. Without this guide to the project, a number of unpleasant outcomes lie in ambush. One candidate for worst result is a kitchen that falls short of your vision in some important way. A close competitor is a kitchen that outstrips your budget. It’s also possible to end up with the worst of both worlds: a break-the-bank kitchen that doesn’t quite fulfill your dreams for it.

“Inevitably,” says New York architect Dennis Wedlick of kitchen renovations in particular, “the more time you invest up front, the less money you will spend.” Confronted with a substantial renovation, it’s not uncommon for a homeowner to spend a year or more perfecting the plan. “Time,” continues Wedlick, “let’s you price out design and construction options and, when you settle on a plan, minimize the chances that major money-consuming changes will occur once work begins.” (Top)

Arriving at a workable plan may seem daunting, but when approached step-by-step, the journey becomes one to relish. It begins with the realization that good kitchens share a few key traits. The room is neither under- or oversize; it is easy to move around in; the work triangle (pages 85-86) makes sense; appliances are close at hand but not in the way. Add enough storage to keep things organized—plus a dash of style in the appointments—and the plan is complete.

If you are longing for a new kitchen, you probably already have some thoughts about the renovation and perhaps a fair idea of what you can afford to spend on it. Bring those notions as you dig into this chapter, which opens on page 87 with an explanation of design principles for a good, working kitchen. With those basics in mind, you can begin to take stock of your finances and your present kitchen. A hard look at its plusses and minuses lays a strong foundation for achieving whatever you most want in your redone kitchen with the money you have to spend. (Top)

Those issues settled, you’ll be ready to get the work under way. Some of it you may do yourself—and spend the savings on, say, ceramic tile for the floor instead of vinyl. The remaining tasks will go to a contractor. How to find a good, reliable one is explained in Getting Started (pages 41-42), where you will also find advice about how to establish an effective working relationship with the contractor you choose and how to write a contract that minimizes the risk of misunderstanding and disappointment as the project unfolds.


Design Principles

Imagine a kitchen. It could be one you’ve admired in a magazine or seen on a house tour. It could be your own kitchen, as you see it every day or as you dream it might become.

From this mental image, first subtract all the color. Thinking now in black-and-white, delete shutters, wall hangings, and other decorative touches. Banish appliances from countertops, books from shelves, and snippets of recent and future family history from the refrigerator. Simplify details of cabinets and hardware to their essentials. Distill the basic shapes of kitchen furniture from any elements of style. (Top)

What remains is the room’s unadorned essence, where the most fundamental kitchen-design principles are at work. Before all else, a kitchen must work as a place to cook. As award-winning kitchen guru Kerry Hillmyer has noted, “great looking kitchens fail unless they function with the utmost convenience and efficiency.” And that’s where you should begin any reevaluation of your kitchen’s layout. But you won’t stop there. Nowadays, most households see the kitchen as a center of family life, not merely an outpost for cooking. The kitchen has become part of a family’s social space.

In new houses, the kitchen invariably shares a large space with a dining area and frequently opens onto a family room. In older homes, the first thing to go in a kitchen renovation is often a wall that isolates the cooking area from adjoining spaces. (Top)

Once you have settled on a layout for your renovation, you can begin to consider details of cabinetry and furniture, a color palette, floor and countertop materials, as well as other elements that establish a style for the new kitchen and spaces next to it.

Basic Shapes
You’ll probably recognize your kitchen among the half dozen drawings on pages 89 and 90. Each layout is named for its arrangement of countertops along the walls. In a narrow room, the choices are limited to the one-wall kitchen and the corridor, or galley, kitchen. A wider space permits the other four arrangements.

Overlaid on each drawing is a tinted area called the kitchen work triangle. Invented by time-and-motion specialists in the 1950s, the work triangle remains the best tool for analyzing the efficiency of any kitchen.

Except in a one-wall kitchen, where the work triangle compresses to a narrow rectangle represented as a straight line, the apexes point to the three kitchen features most often visited when cooking: the stove, the sink, and the refrigerator. Ideally, each leg of the triangle has a length between four feet and nine feet. With shorter legs, the kitchen becomes cramped; longer legs waste the cook’s time and energy. (Top)

If your present kitchen seems confining, measure the work triangle. A small triangle may be the reason. Begin to look for ways to spread apart the three cooking focal points. The sink and dishwasher are usually the most difficult and expensive to move. However, the refrigerator and the stove, especially if it’s an electric one, frequently offer more options.

Alternatively, your kit­chen may simply be too small. At the very least, you need twelve square feet of floor space, unoccupied by cabinets or appliances, to move around in. Even if your kitchen has twice as much open space, you may nevertheless want to consider how to expand it. (Top)

Very large kitchens present the opposite problem—too much ground for the cook to cover along the sides of the work triangle. In such a case, the solution might be to move the stove and refrigerator closer to the sink and dishwasher. One possibility is to install a cooktop in an island or in an extension of the countertop, called a peninsula, as shown in the G-shaped kitchen at right.

With the work triangle compressed, you may find space in a large kitchen to add one or more specialized work centers, perhaps a baker’s nook or a food-preparation station, outside the primary work triangle. Each of these areas will have a work triangle of its own, although the apexes will fall at different places. It’s best to plan multiple work triangles so that they overlap as little as possible or not at all, thus minimizing the likelihood of collision when multiple cooks occupy the work triangles. (Top)

Avoiding triangle overlap may require duplicating a feature or two. For example, a double sink at the apexes of the primary work triangle and one for a food-preparation center might be shared by both cooks. But to avoid congestion at the refrigerator, the food-prep center may benefit from a small refrigerator of its own for storing the vegetables that are to be washed and chopped there.

Kitchen designers agree that you need at least eleven feet of counter space in a kitchen. Before settling on a final layout for your kitchen’s work triangle, consider that the cooktop or stove, refrigerator, and sink divide the expanse of countertop that runs along the walls. (Top)

One or two countertop sections should be at least three feet long, the minimum, comfortable working space for one person. Of these, one is best placed between the refrigerator and the sink and the other between the sink and the cooktop or stove. Other important countertop dimensions appear on page 85.

“Everyone used to want wall-to-wall cabinetry,” says kitchen designer Jennifer Gilmer. “Today’s trend is more toward breaking up cabinets and leaving space between them for furniture or art. What’s hard for people to understand is if you want a stylish kit­chen, you have to sacrifice storage.” 

Yet, it’s a rare kitchen that has a place for all the things that seem to congregate there—pots and pans, china and glassware, boxes and bottles of food, herbs, and spices, cookbooks and utensils, beverages, small appliances, soccer schedules, grocery lists, and the like. This is a good place to begin practicing the art of compromise. It’s something you’ll need often as you see your dream kitchen grapple with the hard realities of space, money, and time. (Top)

In general, the smaller the kitchen, the less storage space you can sacrifice to other amenities. One avenue for compromise is to move some items out of the kitchen altogether. For example, shelve cookbooks around the corner in the next room. Move seldom-used cooking implements to the garage or cellar. Banish the ubiquitous kitchen “junk” draw­er to another room.

You can in effect multiply storage space by tailoring it to a specific purpose. Ideas abound. Below a cooktop in an island is a handy place for storing pots and pans. A lazy Susan increases the usefulness of the hard-to-reach space in a corner cabinet. Dividing a drawer to fit standard herb and spice containers increases its capacity over one filled randomly. Pizza pans and cookie sheets, resting on edge against a vertical cabinet divider, are easy to extract for use and free cabinet floor-space beside them for other items. (Top)

A Look You Like
A kitchen’s arrangement of work triangles, appliances, countertops, and storage space contributes much to its look and feel, but not everything. To develop a look for your kit­chen that perfectly fits your needs and sense of style, you’ll want to consider colors, textures, shapes, and lighting—as well as the interplay among these elements.

To produce results that you’ll be happy with for years, you’ll need to take your time and do some research, much of which takes the form of purposeful window shopping. On these reconnaissance excursions, try to keep thoughts of your renovation budget at bay. Aside from diamond-studded faucet handles and the like, collect anything that appeals to you. Compromise may be necessary later, but it should be far from your mind at this stage of the project. (Top)

Begin by visiting vendors of everything your kitchen is likely to need: appliances, countertops, cabinets, wall coverings, flooring, and appliances. Large home-improvement stores, small kitchen-design boutiques, specialty stores for paint, wallpaper, flooring, blinds, and shutters are all good candidates. If possible, collect samples on a weekday, when business is generally slower; the staff will have more time to answer questions.

The purpose of this grand tour is to build familiarity with the options available to you. To help organize the task, kitchen designers Martin and Richard Edic suggest first seeking out a color photograph or assembling a collection of objects that contains a palette of colors and textures that appeal to you. The idea is not to match these colors exactly, but to judge whether the color of a particular tile, for example, falls within the palette you’ve chosen. (Top)


Dream Houses for Real People: Kitchens.
Copyright Time-Life Books, 2000

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