More popular than ever, kitchen islands are transforming into multi-functional, aesthetically pleasing must-have features for a growing number of homeowners.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association says that more than half of the kitchens created today include islands, a popular solution if you lack kitchen space.

Islands provide extra storage, seating, and workspace.

"As a seating area, they're great for cooks who like to have guests chat with them while they're preparing a meal, perfect for moms who want to keep an eye on their childrens' homework while making dinner, and a clever way for chefs who like to cook alone to separate their workspace from the rest of the kitchen area," said Kate Schwartz, editor of Kitchens.com, a web site devoted to kitchen design and remodeling.

Joan McCloskey, editorial marketing director of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, says that the kitchen island is a top priority for new-home buyers, as it represents the heart of the ever-growing kitchen.

Along with sleek appliances, simple cabinetry, and plenty of custom touches, the island is among the requirements of today's ideal kitchen.

"It includes a center island that may soon become a whole continent if it doesn't stop consuming floor space," McCloskey said when she addressed home builders at the International Builders Show earlier this year.

Schwartz said the design of the kitchen island has evolved over the years. She has noticed two key changes.

"First is in the design itself. Islands aren't just rectangular units anymore," Schwartz said. "You're seeing more curved and L-shaped islands, as well as two-tiered islands - a great way to separate cooking and eating space, as well as providing a vertical wall surface for electrical outlets."

The second change is the amount of activity taking place at today's kitchen island. Second sinks, dishwashers, cooktops, and ovens are installed in today's islands. Islands, Schwartz said, are great when two cooks are at work. They also allow the cook working at the island to be more involved in the kitchen activity - their backs aren't turned, which is the case with traditional work spaces.

As for the future, Schwartz expects to see more contrasting finishes and woods, as well as different countertop surfaces - butcher block for chopping, marble square for rolling dough, etc.

If you see a kitchen island in your future remodel, the NKBA offers the following planning suggestions:

  • Make sure there's enough space between the island and other work areas. You need to be able to open cabinet and appliance doors. You probably also want to plan for enough room for two people to work in the kitchen.
  • The island can be located so it functions as an integral part of the work area. Or you may want it to divider the kitchen and the family room.
  • Because it is an ideal place to relocate the cooktop or the main sink, or add a second sink, the island permits a reconfiguration of the classic "work triangle" of refrigerator, cooktop and sink.
  • If the cooktop will be located in the island, with a wall oven elsewhere, consider pull-out trays or drawers below the cooktop to store pots and pans. It will make food preparation and cooking much easier. If the island will be a second work station with a prep sink for cleaning veggies and the like, NKBA suggests including a pull-out wastebasket in the cabinet below.
  • Be sure to plan for the mechanical necessities for locating the cooktop or sink in the center of the room. For the sink you'll need supply and drain lines, and for the cooktop, a ventilation system-either an overhead unit or a downdraft model. Both the plumbing and downdraft unit will require breaking through the floor. That could present problems if the room is on a slab.
  • And finally, don't forget about adequate lighting. Without it, the island will lose much of its functional appeal.
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