Good Kitchen Layout, Just a Few Steps Away

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, May 6, 2006

Every home builder knows that a gorgeous kitchen will sell a house, and the kitchens in model homes always look fabulous. But fabulous-looking kitchens can be impossible to work in.

To avoid such a situation in your new house, spend some time in the kitchens that grab your attention and study them carefully. Pay particular attention to the sink and appliance locations, the size of the food-preparation area, the cabinets and the lighting. These are the things that will make your kitchen a joy or a pain to work in.

A well-designed kitchen can be large or small; the critical element is the layout. The counters, appliances and sink should be arranged so you can prepare a meal with a minimum of steps, especially when you are carrying something large and heavy, such as a water-filled pasta pot.

The most efficient arrangement for the sink and stove, and one preferred by most professional chefs, is a galley with a single aisle. The stove and sink are opposite each other, so you merely turn 180 degrees from one to the other.

In most new houses, you will probably find a modified galley -- an L-shaped counter with an island -- or a U-shaped counter. In smaller townhouses, an L-shaped counter with space for a table and chair is common. Whatever configuration you encounter, the organizing principle is the same -- you want the sink and stove to be separated by only a few steps.

There is no best spot for the refrigerator; it just needs to be near the stove and sink. If you observe that in a particular kitchen, you would have to criss-cross the room 10 times every time you fixed a meal, the refrigerator is not optimally located.

When there's a cooktop and wall oven instead of a range, the oven can be to one side because you won't spend much time at it. A microwave, however, should be convenient to the food-prep area because you may be heating or defrosting something as you prepare a meal.

How big is the food-prep area? It needn't be huge, especially if you tend to spread out onto whatever counter space is available as you fix a meal. In that case, a lot of counter area can mean a cleanup that takes forever. But you do need enough room to chop vegetables for a salad or main dish, prepare a dessert that requires several mixing bowls, and stuff that holiday turkey.

In larger houses, the counter space is usually more than ample. But it's often not as generous in townhouses, and in "starter" houses, the counters can be minuscule. If you tend to cook two things at once -- for example, you're mixing dessert while you're preparing the entree, or more than one person will be working in the kitchen at the same time, you need a longer counter or two separate ones.

The way you clean your dishes and pots and pans will also affect the amount of counter space you need. If you load most things into your dishwasher but always seem to wash a few things after every meal and air-dry them in a dish rack, you need counter space for the rack as well as for food preparation. Otherwise, you have to put the air-dried items and dish rack away before you can start to fix the next meal.

If you're not sure the kitchen will work for you, pretend to cook a meal in it, using all the appliances and the sink. You may feel ridiculous, but you will quickly know if the kitchen is right for you. If you often cook with your spouse or partner, do the pantomime routine together. If you keep bumping into each other, the kitchen is too small.

The cabinet doors may have grabbed your attention, but selecting a cabinet on this basis is like choosing a book by its cover. Open the cabinets and look at the boxes behind the doors. Do the base cabinets have two pullout shelves? These make it easier to reach an item at the back because you don't have to remove everything in front first.

Open a drawer to check the drawer box. If it's made of particleboard, the sides will be covered in a melamine-type paper and the corners will be stapled. If it's wood, which is more durable, you should see dovetailed joints at the corners.

With wood drawers, there is a further distinction with the drawer glides, which can be side-mounted or under-mounted. The latter adds about one inch to the interior width of the drawers. A further distinction in the under-mounted glides is a soft-action feature. The glide stops about three inches from the cabinet front and slowly shuts itself. You can't slam it shut, and you can't pinch your finger.

Wood drawers were once a rarity in production-built houses, but some of the stock cabinetmakers widely used by production builders now offer them.

Some wall cabinets may have glass-paned doors. These always look great in the model because they are empty. If your dishes and glasses are not perfectly matched sets or if you tend to put the cups and glasses in the cabinet any old way, the effect when you put them in these display cases will not be what you expect.

Before you sign off on the cabinets, stand back and count them. Unless you're downsizing, you need at least as many as you have now.

What kind of lighting is provided? Because you are likely to visit the model during the day, you may not even think about the lights. But you will certainly be using the kitchen at night, so look carefully. If necessary, come back after dark to see if the lighting is adequate.

When you look around the kitchen, you should see both ambient and task lighting. The ambient fixtures, which provide general light, will be in the ceiling. The task fixtures, which provide brighter light over a smaller area, should be over the sink, over the stove in the range hood and, if you're lucky, under the cabinets to illuminate the food-prep areas. Don't give the task lighting short shrift if you're an aging boomer -- you need three times as much light in the kitchen when you're 60 as you did when you were 20.

The optional recessed can lights in the ceiling (I have never seen a model house that didn't have these) will give more even and pleasing light than the florescent fixture that is usually standard and comes with the base-priced house.

If the counter and appliance layout, the cabinets and the lighting pass muster, move on to the countertops and the floor. These will certainly enhance the look of your kitchen, but their impact on your ability to fix a meal is minimal.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at

© 2006, Katherine Salant

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