by Jon Gunson, Architect

The history of kitchens over the last two thousand years has almost come full circle. In ancient times, the focus of survival was shelter and food. The cave or primitive hut provided both functions in one space which was used for living, sleeping, and eating. This was all gathered around an open fire that cooked the food and warmed the room.

As civilization progressed over hundreds of years, the cooking area became no longer the focal point of the home but rather a secondary space, in a cramped corner of the house. The mother, or perhaps a servant, hidden from view of the family and guests, prepared the meals which then magically appeared in another separate room devoted to dining.

Today’s kitchen has once again become the hub of the home. It is not only where we prepare our meals, it is the gathering place for eating, planning, relaxing with our family, and welcoming friends. Therefore, the planning and equipping of your kitchen is one of the most important considerations in designing your home.

Certainly you want your kitchen to be in character with the rest of your home and to be attractive and inviting to your guests, but you will be working there most often; so first and foremost, it must meet your personal needs and preferences. It must be designed according to the way you prefer to work while keeping in mind that there is nothing attractive, no matter how beautifully appointed, about a kitchen that doesn’t function well.

Kitchen design is a very personalized part of what is already a custom home. I like to have in-depth discussions with my clients about each aspect of their kitchen in order to design it to meet their personal preferences. However, in order to make the kitchen functional, these preferences should be woven together within the fabric of good design principals. These principals are based on common sense: You need to have places to work on things and you need to have places to store things. Continuing this logic; it makes sense to store things near the place you want to work on them. However, it gets a bit more complicated when we ask how much space is needed for work and storage and where should it be located for efficient use? The answer to these questions is that a well designed kitchen should have 3 essential work centers, which each relate closely to a major appliance along with its own cabinetry and counter space.

  1. The Preparation Center incorporates the refrigerator and easy access to a sink with a disposer; either the main sink or one specifically for this purpose. This area can be on a center island or a side wall but it should be close to the cooking center for efficiency. This is where the food is selected, sorted, washed, sliced, diced, and measured; so it also needs adequate counter space, proper cutting surfaces, and space for other ingredients as well as knives, utensils, and mixing bowls.
  2. The Cooking Center features the cooking surface and an exhaust hood. This area often includes the oven below the cooking surface. However, some cooks prefer stacked double ovens which should be located nearby as a baking center and avoid using critical counter space next to the cooking surface. In either case, the cooking area should have adequate heat resistant counter space to receive the ingredients from the preparation center. It also needs storage (preferably drawers) for pots, pans, baking sheets, and various utensils for handling hot food and containers. This center is often considered the focal point of the kitchen and on a very visible wall, or it can be located on an island with easy access from the other work centers. Since the cooking center is also used for plating the food, consideration should be given to access of a serving counter or the dining area.
  3. The Clean-Up Center includes a sizable sink with a disposer, and a cabinet for a trash container or compactor. One or two dishwashers are also an essential part of this area, along with water resistant counters to receive dirty cooking pans and utensils as well as dirty dishes returning from the dining area. It also needs adequate cabinet space to store clean plates, glassware, and eating utensils from the dishwasher.

However, beyond these 3 major work centers, you may have additional requirements within your kitchen, such as an eating center or a desk for a planning center. Also, with an “open” kitchen concept, it is difficult to provide enough wall cabinets so I like to include a walk-in pantry as a storage center. It’s a great addition because, in addition to food items, you can store oversized cook pots, roasters, place mats, and center pieces. These secondary work centers complicate the kitchen design but they should not be allowed to compromise the 3 essential work centers for preparation, cooking, and clean-up. Furthermore, the most efficient arrangement of these centers is to form a “work triangle” where each appliance is at a vertex and the distance between the center of each is no less than 4 feet and no more than 7 feet. These are rough guidelines but the goal is to provide at least 24 to 36 inches of counter space on each side of the appliances.

We have all seen kitchens of various shapes and sizes but, for the most part, they all have one of five basic configurations:

  1. The Linear Kitchen has the work centers and appliances arranged along one wall. This means there is no work triangle and usually the storage space and counter space are much too limited for efficiency or convenience. It is, however, the most economical kitchen configuration.
  2. The Parallel Kitchen is sometimes also called the corridor kitchen because the work centers are on 2 parallel walls with a 4 to 7-foot space between them. This adds counter and storage space and makes for an efficient work triangle. If the opposite wall is over 7 feet away, a peninsula or island can be added with one of the appliances here so that the island becomes a work center rather than an obstacle.
  3. The L-Shaped Kitchen is the most popular and provides an efficient work triangle. The two sides of the “L” are usually along 2 walls of the room. In a larger version of this shape, an island or table can be added in the open part of the L for an eating area which is convenient, but outside of the work triangle.
  4. The U-Shaped Kitchen requires a larger space than the other shapes because the work centers are on 3 walls of the room. To provide adequate counter space and work area between them requires a room with walls 8 to 11-feet apart. However, this 3-wall configuration creates a spacious and efficient work triangle with plenty of counter space and storage cabinets between the work centers.
  5. The Box Shaped Kitchen adds a fourth side to the kitchen layout. With the essential preparation, cooking, and clean-up centers on 3 sides, a fourth side is available with adequate space for a baking center, a planning center, or perhaps an eating and serving counter.

All of these measurements and efficiency studies are the technical part of kitchen design and it is important to how your kitchen works, but equally important to you is how your kitchen looks and feels. This is the fun part of kitchen design and I love being inspired by my Clients because it is the heart of their home. Their preferred style may be Early American or Futuristic Modern, charming Antique Provincial or Western Ranch, as long as it is center of warmth and care and reflects their personality and the character of their home.

Filed under: Articles by Jon Gunson

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