Assessing Your Kitchen Needs

Your dream kitchen may not suit your best friend, your sister, or the family down the street. So, enjoy your family's advice and your friends' interest in your project. But, for guidance, look to professionals who'll ask you a lot of questions prior to giving you a lot of advice. Before you hire those pros, do some careful thinking about your dream kitchen. What do you like about your current kitchen? What do you dislike?

Elegant yet casual, this French country kitchen utilizes angled walls and a kitchen island for a dramatic look.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Elegant yet casual, this French country kitchen utilizes
angled walls and a kitchen island for a dramatic look.

Buy a few pocket folders, and start saving photos, product catalogs, and clippings that can help your hired professionals understand your taste and needs. Check out Web sites that offer kitchen and design products, and if there's a kitchen design center near you, spend time window-shopping. You want to get an idea of what's available and what it costs. If you arm yourself with this information ahead of time, you'll have a better relationship with your professionals and a better chance of getting just what you want. How can you get the kitchen that really fits and pleases you? Try these suggestions for starters:
  • Be a savvy spender. Your first wish should be a kitchen that doesn't break the bank. Yesterday's conspicuous-consumption "status kitchen" is out, and today's deftly designed, personal-style kitchen is in. So start by asking for the most kitchen you can afford on your predetermined budget.

  • Nail the essentials down first. If you have to choose, you're better off spending your money on top-grade design services rather than on upgraded materials. If you invest up front in a design that gets the floor plan and essential elements right, you can always upgrade to luxury surfacing materials later. For example, make sure the kitchen island with outlets is in the right place now. You can change that laminate countertop to granite later, as you can afford it. It is a much costlier challenge to relocate the island and change the wiring later than it is to merely resurface. At the same time, you should buy the best products your budget can afford, especially if you have no plans for moving in the next five years.

  • Look at how you really live. The best kitchen is a functional kitchen. Make sure yours fits how you really live. If you and your partner love to cook and entertain, don't settle for one oven, one sink, and no place to sit. If "Martha Stewart doesn't live here" is your motto, don't bother with two ovens and a six-burner restaurant stove. If your kids are at the do-it-yourself age, go for a roomy, top-of-the-line microwave installed near the fridge. If you come home from work late but still like to cook seriously, you may want to have a microwave installed near the stove for quick defrosting before cooking.
You get the idea. Your architect, kitchen designer, or other professional should ask you tons of questions about how you live as well as what you like. They'll walk you through your everyday life as it affects your kitchen. Your job is to answer candidly; their job is to translate your lifestyle needs into product and design solutions.

With some clever planning, your kitchen can be as individualistic as you are.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
With some clever planning, your kitchen can be as individualistic as you are.

Just a few of the questions you'll be asked should include:
  • How many people live in your household? What are their ages, and do any of them have special physical needs, including allergies?

  • Do you have any special interests that need to be accommodated in the kitchen area, such as serious wine storage, laundry, window gardening, etc.? Do you need to watch small children while cooking, or do you want to make room for two cooks at a time?

  • What is your budget? What's on your must-have list, and what's on your nice-to-have list?
Have fun thinking things through as best you can, and be sure to involve the rest of your family. It may be your five-year-old who remembers you've always wanted a pet port in the back door for the family cat, or your teen who lobbies for an adjacent mudroom/laundry room.

Learn to Love the Triangle

Fifty years ago, efficiency experts tracked the average housewife's steps in the kitchen and discovered that a natural pathway exists between the refrigerator, stove, and sink. The path between these three appliances is called "the work triangle," and the distance between them, along with how easy it is -- or isn't -- to reach them, is still the measure of kitchen efficiency.

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The sides of your kitchen triangle don't have to be equal, but the number of feet between range and sink, sink and fridge, and fridge and range should add up to something between 12 and 23 feet. (For example, range and fridge could be 3 feet apart, sink and fridge could be 8 feet apart, and range and sink could be 10 feet apart for a total of 21 feet.) For maximum efficiency and safety, make sure your design includes counterspace next to the open side of the fridge (either side, if your model is a side-by-side) for landing bags of groceries, as well as plenty of heat- and wet-resistant counterspace on both sides of the stove and sink for emergency landing of heavy, hot, or slippery cookware.

Today's additional appliances -- a second dishwasher, a separate cooktop, etc. -- may create extra work stations, which means additional triangles in your kitchen. In these cases, use extra care to make sure triangles don't create collision courses. For energy-saving reasons, it's best to separate the fridge and the range or oven if space permits. And if you've got an island, you'll need at least 4 feet between it and the nearest counter or appliance. Obviously, this all requires good planning and orchestration!

Shape Up

Big or small, basic or elaborate, most efficient kitchen designs fall into one of a few basic arrangements. Your existing kitchen probably fits one of these; a newly built house is likely to utilize one of them. Think about which appeals most to you.
  • L-shape kitchens have one long "leg" housing two of the three basic appliances (range, fridge, sink) and one short "leg" housing the other. This layout often places the fridge at one end, the range at the other, and the sink in between. In a two-cook version, you might find two triangles: a sink and cooking surface at one end, and another sink and cooking surface at the other, with shared access to the fridge.

  • U-shape kitchens have two "legs" of equal length, so the range and fridge are opposite each other and the three appliances are equal distance apart. A two-cook version might have a cooktop at each end with shared access to an island sink and the fridge on the wall opposite the sink.

    This G-shape kitchen uses knotty pine cabinetry and granite countertops to transition gracefully into a finished dining area.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    This G-shape kitchen uses knotty pine
    cabinetry and granite countertops to
    transition gracefully into a
     finished dining area.

  • G-shape kitchens are L- or U-shaped with an added peninsula partly separating the work area from an adjoining breakfast area or family room. A two-cook version might have an extended peninsula and two cooking areas--one for an oven and one for a cooktop, both with access to a shared fridge and sink.

  • Corridor or galley-shape kitchens, sometimes called step-saver kitchens, have range and sink on one wall, a fridge directly opposite, and a narrow (but not less than 36- to 40-inch) walkway in between. A two-cook version might feature an extra sink on the wall with the fridge, for two distinct triangles. Useful for very small spaces, this shape is most at risk for disruption if a main traffic lane is through the work area.
Plan for the Future

Do you have young children or grandchildren? want to stay in your home as long as possible as you age? have any kind of physical limitation?

"Universal design" is something you definitely want to consider. It goes way beyond designing walkways to accommodate wheelchairs. Universal design creates a versatile space that works well for every family member at every stage of life. Solutions as simple as bordering a countertop in contrasting-color tiles to mark the edge, increasing aisle width from 36 to 40 inches, or specifying no-scald faucets and wing-style faucet handles that don't require wrist-twisting can make a difference in your kitchen's long-term usefulness.

If a family member has allergies or if you want to be particularly rigorous about ecological issues, you can even specify products made with special glues, colorants, and materials to meet those needs. And today's universal-design products are as attractive as their conventional counterparts, too. Ask your kitchen professional about them before you get started.

Style It Your Way

Do you love your home's architecture? Do you dote on the decorating style you've already established for the rest of your house? Now's the time to bring your kitchen's style in sync with it. A knowledgeable designer or architect can steer you toward products that meet today's needs while evoking the inspiration of the past. If your home is circa-1865 Victorian or 1930s art deco, you can have the fixtures, fittings, and furniture-style cabinets that create a great vintage look.

If you're building a new home from scratch, it may be time for a real break from your past. Take this opportunity to freely choose the style that warms your heart; one that makes you happy to get up in the morning and stagger out to make that first pot of coffee.

Kitchen appliances can't help but be contemporary, so they'll introduce a modern element to the most traditional setting. On the other hand, natural (or faux) stone and wood cabinets, countertops, and floors impart a timeless warmth to even the most up-to-date space. So it shouldn't be hard to go with the flow and introduce at least some elements of your other rooms' style into your kitchen. Flow is most easily achieved by mirroring a color or two, echoing architectural details, and repeating decorating motifs. After all the initial "oohs" and "aahhs" you expect to hear from first-time visitors, you'll want your new kitchen to fit in smoothly, as if it has always been a part of the house. This book includes a wealth of wonderful kitchen designs that will show you how to put it all together.

A brand new kitchen may not be the only solution. In the next section, we will look at a new kitchen versus a remolded kitchen.