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When we choose a home, we tend to check out what's contained in the kitchen much the same way we count fingers and toes when our children enter the world; “Stove – check. Oven –check. Dishwasher–check. Oh, and it’s nice that there’s a window over the sink.”  

But whether you're buying, building, or remodeling, such lists fail to address whether a kitchen is well thought out or user-friendly.

Times have changed from those Father Knows Best days, where the kitchen was Mom’s main domain, and where the family was summoned to gobble down sumptuous meals.  For the past few decades, kitchen layouts have been based on three basic designs:

  • The galley, or Pullman-style kitchen kitchen.
  • The L-shaped kitchen.
  • The U-shaped kitchen .

All three styles make use of the famous work triangle concept that positions all the major appliances within a step or two from one another. The idea is rooted in the 50's family profile of the stay-at-home mom who worked alone in the kitchen and cooked full-scale meals from scratch, making storage necessities minimal.

In the late '90’s, the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) co-sponsored research that recognized the changing use patterns in the American kitchen. The organization went on to publish 31 guidelines to provide industry professionals with minimum standards for kitchen efficiency, including convenience, traffic spaces, distances between items, work and storage space. All of it is designed to facilitate food storage, preparation and cleanup. It found that:  

  • Cooking is a shared task
  • Many families use all or partially pre-packaged food
  • Storage space is more important than ever, with the need for some 800 items to be available within the kitchen’s cabinets and on its countertops.

Designers now tend to think in terms of multiple workstations incorporated into the kitchen layout, rather than the traditional triangle.  This is to allow more than one person to work efficiently without being in the way of another.  

Just as some brokers will spout that there is “no substitute for square footage” when you can get it, so is there no substitute for counterspace in a well-thought out kitchen to provide these separate food prep areas.One of the best ways workstation space can be provided is the popular kitchen island.

This stand-alone countertop can create several more workstations along its perimeter; the addition of a sink or cook top to the island can create even more workstation possibilities, freeing up peripheral space as well. In the overall design, just avoiding the following design errors may go a long way in helping to plan your ideal kitchen:

  • Poor planning in kitchen corners: Deep, dark cabinets can be eliminated with glide-out shelving, lazy Susans, or L-shaped doors.
  • Doors that obstruct and conflict:  This is a phenomenon not relegated solely to cabinet doors that get blocked by other objects; it also applies to appliance doors. If a refrigerator door opens to block a traffic space in the kitchen or hits a kitchen island without even be fully extended, you’re robbed of both ‘fridge access and important kitchen thoroughfares. Dishwasher doors that open to block access to cabinets or circulation are also culprits.
  • Poor lighting: One main kitchen fixture just isn’t enough to illuminate some countertop areas. Task lighting, such as under-cabinet fluorescent or low-voltage halogen fixtures can offer help here. A recessed or hanging fixture over a sink has become increasingly popular, and a series of recessed, yet directed ceiling lights are sometimes more useful and attractive than the typical tract-home illuminated ceiling fixture.
  • Failure to set priorities when planning: The kitchen is easily, on a per-square-foot basis, one of the most costly rooms in your home. Unless you have inexhaustible funds, however, you can’t have it all. Make one list of the items you really want, and another list of what you truly need. Then do the old Ben Franklin. Is it an abundance of light, a roomy pantry, furniture-like cabinetry, gleaming cutting-edge appliances, or a smooth, expensive counter top your biggest priority?  If choosing a new home with a workable kitchen design, you may want to opt for the fancy cabinets and countertops through the builder’s design center, and wait for custom lighting, SubZero refrigerators and Thermador cooktops until you can comfortably afford them.
  • Forgetting where you spend most of your time in the kitchen: If you are a sink-dweller but need or want to be able to view backyard activities regularly, choosing a kitchen with a window there will not even be a point of discussion.  If, however, you want to be able to keep an eye on a big screen TV and like feeling included with other activity near by, a sink that faces towards a living area would be just the ticket. There will always be some trade-offs.
  • Neglecting overflow seating for entertainment: Any area a counter may extend to become a logical eating area with a few extra stools can become a Godsend when entertaining, even when you have a generous informal eating area near or contained within the kitchen.  

Some kitchen product manufacturers, remodeling firms, retail showrooms and homebuilders may offer virtual tours of the kitchens for consumers to “walk around” in. Planning a kitchen out to the smallest detail is fun, but stepping back and imagining how you and your family will function within its confines is even better. Dozens of articles can be found on kitchen cabinetry, appliances, design, and amenities on the World Wide Web.  A good place to start is at www.homeportfolio.com.

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