Kitchen Design

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Kitchen Design

Common-sense principles for a green kitchen

Posted on Nov 10 2017 by Martin Holladay

Every decade, kitchen design becomes more complicated. It’s gotten to the point where some residential designers subcontract the work to a specialist.

If you are a humble owner-builder, do your kitchen preferences even matter anymore? Of course they do. If you’re building a house, you should certainly have a say in matters affecting kitchen design — even if your ideas are different from those of the experts.

The basics

Before we focus on details that make a kitchen green, let’s quickly review the basics.

The oldest kitchen design principle concerns the triangle between the refrigerator, sink, and stove. According to traditional wisdom, you want this so-called “kitchen triangle” to be fairly compact (but not too cramped). Most sources advise that each leg of the triangle should measure between 4 and 9 feet. Ideally, your house design keeps foot traffic away from this triangle. (In other words, the normal path from the living room to the stairway shouldn’t be through the kitchen.)

These days, cooks realize that the kitchen sink serves two functions: food prep and clean-up. Larger kitchens sometimes separate these functions by providing two sink stations — one station (usually near the refrigerator) for food prep, and the other (usually near the dishwasher) for cleanup. If you have this type of kitchen — a good kitchen to have if your family includes two cooks — your triangle has become a quadrangle.

Some families use their microwave oven as often as their range, and these families claim that their microwave deserves status as an important apex in the kitchen geometry. If you agree, then your quadrangle has become a pentagon.

Of course, you’ll need to plan for adequate counter space on the handle side of the refrigerator, on both sides of the range, and on both sides of the sink. If your kitchen will include a dishwasher, it should be located to the right or the left of the sink.

In my opinion, your kitchen should have a window over the sink.

The refrigerator is traditionally located on the side of the kitchen nearest the door through which groceries enter the house.

Most kitchen counters are 36 inches high. If you like to make bread, you may want a section of countertop that is between 30 inches and 33 inches high — a more comfortable height for kneading bread and rolling dough.

Remember to include space for a trash can, recycling bins, and somewhere to store your broom and dustpan.

Pay attention to lighting design, especially when it comes to task lighting. For more information on this topic, see Martin’s 10 Rules of Lighting.

Maybe you want to include a pantry

A pantry is a nice luxury. The ideal pantry is a walk-in closet directly off your kitchen, on the north side of the house. The pantry should include deep shelves from floor to ceiling, with an access path about 24 or 30 inches wide on one side of the shelves.

The pantry shouldn’t include any sources of heat; with the door closed, it should be a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house during the winter.

Green principles

Are there any green principles that affect kitchen design? Perhaps.

  • Keep the room as small as possible. (Smaller rooms cost less to build, less to heat, and less to cool. They are also easier to clean.) As a cultural observation, I’ve noticed that there is an inverse relationship between kitchen size and frequency of use. People who can afford to build a huge 240-square-foot kitchen tend to be the type of people who often order take-out.
  • Any exterior walls should be well insulated and as close to airtight as possible.
  • Any windows should should have a low U-factorMeasure of the heat conducted through a given product or material—the number of British thermal units (Btus) of heat that move through a square foot of the material in one hour for every 1 degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature across the material (Btu/ft2°F hr). U-factor is the inverse of R-value. — in a very cold climate, consider specifying triple glazingWhen referring to windows or doors, the transparent or translucent layer that transmits light. High-performance glazing may include multiple layers of glass or plastic, low-e coatings, and low-conductivity gas fill. — and should be protected by an adequate roof overhang.
  • If the ceiling is insulated, it should have a high R-valueMeasure of resistance to heat flow; the higher the R-value, the lower the heat loss. The inverse of U-factor. , it should be as airtight as possible, and it shouldn’t be penetrated by any recessed can lights or skylights.
  • If the cooks in your house agree, it’s best to specify an electric induction range rather than a gas range. For more on this topic, see Going High-Tech With an Induction Cooktop and An Induction Cooktop for Our Kitchen.
  • If possible, choose a range hood exhaust fan rated at 200 cfm or less. For more on this topic, see Makeup Air for Range Hoods.

Refrigerator specs

A small refrigerator usually (but not always) consumes less electricity than a big refrigerator. When in doubt, compare the yellow Energy Guide tags at the appliance store before you buy your fridge. For more information on refrigerator selection, see Choosing an Energy-Efficient Refrigerator.

While a small refrigerator often makes sense, anyone who lives several miles from a grocery store may find that a larger refrigerator reduces shopping trips, thereby saving vehicle fuel.

Lots of people have strong opinions on kitchens

If you are planning to build a house, you probably already have strong opinions on kitchens. I’m in favor of idiosyncratic kitchens. I think it makes more sense to have a kitchen that works for your family than one designed to increase the value of your home the next time the home is sold.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Rethinking the Rules on Minimum Foam Thickness.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

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Image Credits:

  1. Fine Hombuilding - Susan Teare

Nov 10, 2017 10:33 AM ET

Edited Nov 10, 2017 10:34 AM ET.

Jack of all trade room...
by Armando Cobo

In my design business, kitchens have become the all trade room, from a place to cook, to a place to eat, do homework and pay bills, party room, wine tasting room, etc., and it has become usually a big open room incorporated with the Family and Dining rooms. The days of having formal Living and Dining rooms as mostly over, even for the 3,000-5,000 sf houses. The larger homes still do have formal rooms.
Always think of Universal Design. Having two entries allow folks in walkers and wheelchairs more accessibility. If you can, design a 60" turn around radius or ample "T-turn" at kitchen ends. Choosing floors, cabinets and edges with a contrast in color for folks with eyesight issues, receptacles and switches located at a comfortable height or cabinet front. Pull out drawers, trays, lazy-Susan and shelves, fold-in under-sink doors or open under-counter seated work areas, loop handles for easy grip and pull. Pull-out spray faucets and levered handles.

Nov 10, 2017 2:41 PM ET

I was just thinking about this topic
by Brad S

Glad you wrote this. I was just wondering about what's going on in modern kitchen design.

1st, this was funny: "People who can afford to build a huge 240-square-foot kitchen tend to be the type of people who often order take-out."

2nd, me too: "I’m in favor of idiosyncratic kitchens."

3rd, I agree with the article link on countertops. I went round and round with countertop material and settled somewhere I never expected, wood. Easy to maintain with mineral oil and white vinegar. Feels great as a work surface. More modular.

4th, I'm leaning toward smaller refrigeration too. But, increased freezer space. I don't know what the tradeoff is between energy use and food waste, but freezing can go a long way toward reducing food waste when you buy in bulk (Costco.)

Nov 10, 2017 3:33 PM ET

Wood countertop
by stephen sheehy

Nearing the end of my kitchen building project, we contemplated a butcher block island countertop. Instead, as a temporary measure, I sandwiched a few layers of plywood, with prefinished maple on top. I figured it would last a few months and then I'd do the solid top. But 2 1/2 years later, it still looks pretty good. At a hundred bucks a sheet, it's a bargain. I just wrapped solid maple around the perimeter.

Not sure about huge kitchens, but lots of people with 6 burner, $10k ranges don't cook much☺

We opted for a smallish fridge, 30" wide, and it's been fine, but we have a separate freezer.

We don't like upper cabinets. Other than a set of shelves for glasses and plates, I just built a ton of drawers under the countertops. When I was building the 4x8 island, I divided it into three sections. After building two, to hold trash, recycling, pet food, paper goods and spices, I left the middle open. It makes a perfect pass-through/resting place for the dog. She's out of the way, but still close to the action.

We also have a small pantry, about 3x6, with a pocket door. I'd make it just a bit deeper next time.

Nov 12, 2017 1:00 AM ET

by James Morgan

Should go without saying but be sure to locate the cooktop or stove in a sensible relationship with the sink. You really don’t want to have to hike across the kitchen with a pot full of boiling water.

Nov 12, 2017 1:32 PM ET

by Brad S

"You really don’t want to have to hike across the kitchen with a pot full of boiling water."

Another reason to like countertop induction. Move the hob next to the sink when cooking pasta.

Nov 12, 2017 6:56 PM ET

Another option...
by Armando Cobo

We install wall mounted pot fillers. They are very inexpensive and a lot safer!

Nov 12, 2017 9:19 PM ET

Pot Fillers
by Malcolm Taylor

They are great, but you still have to empty the pot once the food is cooked. Maybe we need wall mounted pot drainers?

Nov 13, 2017 2:04 AM ET

Edited Nov 13, 2017 2:33 AM ET.

Malcom's right.
by James Morgan

Spilling a large pot of cold water is an inconvenience. With a large pot of hot water it can easily mean a trip to the emergency room.
Brad's suggestion of a movable induction hotplate is a good option to compensate for a kitchen that's not been well laid out in the first place, but kitchens are typically a large investment and while outdated countertops and individual fixtures can be relatively easily upgraded, fixing a bad initial layout often means a complete tear out, the necessity for which as 'green' designers we should do our best to avoid at the outset.

Nov 13, 2017 2:30 AM ET

Other layout considerations
by James Morgan

Food prep and cleanup are just two of the functions of a well considered kitchen. Storage of dry goods and perishables as well as cooking equipment are equally important of course, but the most often neglected is the social function. Locate the refrigerator where it’s convenient for the cook but also where guests can reach it without interfering with the core work area. If there's room, an island is a great hangout space for guests as well as a do-everything prep space. Consider putting the island on wheels so its position can be adjusted to suit the occasion. It can even be wheeled entirely out of the way if the need arises in the future to make the kitchen more wheelchair friendly. Don’t put a cooktop in the island unless it’s big enough that pot handles don’t stick out into the aisles (another safety issue). Many compact homes don’t have room for a walk-in pantry but a pullout pantry cabinet can accommodate a huge amount of stuff convenient to hand. Above all, consider the long term. With care and forethought you can design a kitchen that is well suited to your current personal needs and idiosyncrasies but will also easily adapt to other users and phases of life.

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