Read an Excerpt
A Design in Mind
Which would you prefer-a lifestyle that suits your kitchen, or a kitchen that suits your lifestyle?
A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine named Phil bought a modest 1960s ranch in Los Angeles and tried to update it by adding the most lavish kitchen he could imagine. "I heard it's the number one way to increase the value of a home," he said. "Anything that I spend here, I'll double when I go to sell."
Phil's spend-anything approach, however, quickly got him into trouble. He knocked out one wall and built a giant glass lean-to for the breakfast table, the kind you now see at every Burger King. This "bigger is better" approach led to a room that measures about 30 feet from one end to the other, and is done entirely in white. If you stand at one end of the kitchen, you literally have to call out loud to be heard at the other end. Rather than a kitchen, it looks more like something from the bridge of Star Trek's Enterprise. The price tag also had an element of science fiction to it: $95,000. Worse still, when he tried to sell the place eight years after this misguided renovation, the real estate agent told him something a homeowner dreads most of all. "I'm still in shock," Phil said with a sputter on the telephone. "She told me the kitchen was dated."
Now, a lot of things can go wrong with a house. You can discover the entire structure has been eaten by termites, for instance, or find you're located on the right-of-way for a new highway. But worse than either of these would be to spend $95,000 on a kitchen, only to have it turn sour as old milk before a decade is out. Yet this is a risk we homeowners face. Our houses have gotten larger and larger overthe years, but rather than spreading out our various activities through the whole house, we seem to concentrate them in the kitchen. There's no more dynamic, essential room in any home. Naturally, there is a tendency to overdo things, to somehow attempt to create a kitchen that tries to live up to someone else's fantasy of what the room should be, rather than living up to your own unique needs, wishes, and quirks. Instead, I think the goal should be to create a room that suits your needs and gives you comfort and convenience every day you live in your home. By its very functionality, rather than its show-off attempt at style, your kitchen will become a selling point when you choose to move.
Designers offer a thousand rules about how to attain this and about what a kitchen should be, in terms of layout and measurements. While some of this is helpful as a guide, I prefer to think of it as just that: a guide. Instead, your kitchen should emerge as a product of your own vision, the realities of your own lifestyle, and the even starker constraints of your own budget. Sure, adding a lavish kitchen often makes good financial sense in terms of the long-term value of your house-as long as you don't go overboard. Yet even if you don't have the $40,000 to $70,000 you would need to do a total renovation, you can benefit from following the same steps during a far more modest makeover. Let's start with the basics of design, which will help you no matter how modest or lavish your plans might be.
A Place to Start
If designing a kitchen involved nothing more than figuring out where the cabinets should go and chucking a counter on top, everybody's job would be easy. Especially mine. There's much more to it than this, however-which will still come as a surprise to many builders and do-it-yourselfers across the country who opt for shortcuts. Doing a kitchen right involves paying attention to a few basic elements.
To me, the most important element of a kitchen, like the most important element in real estate, is location-and in a kitchen, good location has everything to do with good lighting. If you're lucky enough to be able to choose exactly where you can locate the kitchen, the best place for it is with an orientation toward the east or southeast. This will allow the morning sun to fill it with light, which will do far more than the caffeine in your coffee to perk up your family. Of course, in renovating a house, choosing a new location isn't always possible. In this case, a great deal can be done to bring in lighting, through a clever use of new windows and bump-outs, as well as carefully installed electrical lighting. We'll take a more illuminating look at lighting in Chapter 5.
A second major element to consider is traffic. Think of the kitchen as the Times Square of your home, in the same way that 42nd Street is the Crossroads of the World. It's the place where everyone meets, prepares meals, eats, and simply hangs out. There's always a lot going on here, from dawn until midnight, which means that the more you can cut down on the unnecessary need for people to walk through the kitchen, the better off you'll be. To remedy this, I'm a big proponent of a circular flow of traffic, not just in the kitchen but everywhere in the house. Many traditional homes have a center entry, a living room and dining room to the right and left, and a kitchen to the rear. When you enter, you can make a big loop around the house. What this does is ease the flow of people moving around in a home, so they don't bump into one another. Although it may seem imperceptible, the home actually becomes more comfortable to live in.
The same should be true of the kitchen itself. If you create a kitchen where people can circulate freely, you'll be a lot more comfortable working in there than in a kitchen where you have to stop and back out to go the other way around someone. Wherever possible, engineer as many entrances and exits to the kitchen as possible. One way to do this, if you're starting from scratch, is to have an entrance from the kitchen
to the mudroom or garage. This makes it easier to manage the trash, without making a mess in the kitchen, and also relieves some of the clutter. You'll have to pay attention to the natural traffic flow through the kitchen, as well. Here, the goal is to reroute people out of the cooking area, defined as the zone between the kitchen, stove, and refrigerator. Much as you love your family, it can be annoying to jostle into them constantly while you're standing at the stove trying to cook and they're trying to reach into the refrigerator behind you.
Another consideration is the noise generated by a kitchen in full swing. It can get pretty rowdy, especially with pots banging, water rushing, the dishwasher churning, the blender and food processor spinning, and a hundred other devices adding their own dissonance. The din from a kitchen can cause a fairly severe culture clash if the kitchen is connected to a family room or great room, where the rest of the family is trying to catch up on something urgent-say, the lost SpongeBob Squarepants episodes. While it's possible to build kitchens that connect with family rooms or are located downstairs from the baby's nursery, it has to be done with an awareness of the noise that can be generated. It's often a far easier task to relocate rooms than it is to try to control the din with sound-deadening techniques or to quiet down the family chef.
One last major element everyone confronts when renovating a kitchen is the issue of standard sizes. We all want our kitchens to be unique, and we all also want our kitchens to conform to our budgets. The reality, however, is that we are working for the most part within a certain set of fixed parameters. Countertops are 26 inches deep, for instance, and base cabinets are 341Ž2 inches high. You almost always need 24 inches for a dishwasher, for instance, and you almost always need a 33-inch-wide sink base. Refrigerators, except those found in college dorms, are typically 33 inches wide. If you search hard enough, you can find deviations from these. You can find tiny 18-inch-wide dishwashers and oversized ones that are 30 inches wide, for instance, and you can also find dishwashers that pull out in large cabinet drawers instead of doors. If you have a particular need for an odd-sized appliance, a good contractor will help find them, as well as finding ways to make conventional-sized appliances fit. Just know that any deviations from the standard are going to cost more, and will ultimately leave you less money to spend on upgrades you might have preferred instead.
In addition to conventional appliance dimensions, there are also some standard layout dimensions that should be followed-particularly in regard to the walkway between an island and a row of cabinets adjacent to it. Here, the amount of space needed is deceptively large. While 36 inches makes a great opening for a doorway, it does not give you enough room to work with here. In a 3-foot-wide corridor, you would be continuously bumping into anyone else in the kitchen. In fact, it would require you to become a contortionist simply to open the dishwasher and empty it. The minimum space I would recommend in this case is 42 inches, but 48 inches-that's 4 feet-is even better. And if this is the main corridor in your kitchen, rather than just a side alleyway, I think you need 5 feet to make it work.
Laying on the Layout
Back when George Washington was designing Mt. Vernon, he had a simple approach to designing the kitchen: Place it in a separate building next to the house. That way if it caught fire, as old kitchens invariably did, it wouldn't take the whole house with it. Kitchens have evolved since then, beginning with their move indoors. Even here, they were relegated to the back of the house or someplace inconsequential. Things have surely changed in the last decade or so to the point where now it seems to be the kitchen-not the living room or the dining room-that is the central guest location. We're no longer hiding in there toiling away, suddenly emerging with perfectly roasted crown ribs of beef to dazzle guests à la Julia Child. In many cases, our guests are right in there with us helping put together a relaxed yet memorable dinner.
The remarkable thing is the variety of kitchen layouts that are possible using the space you already have. If you do nothing but prepare food in a kitchen, with no socializing and no more than one or two people in there at any one time, then it's possible to go toward a galley kitchen, which is streamlined and functions simply as a work kitchen. This doesn't mean it has to be ugly, by any means, but its layout and size limit its role in the house. If you want to eat in the kitchen, you can expand the basic galley kitchen slightly to include a stool or two placed by the counter, or around an island or peninsula counter. If you want a larger kitchen with a table or a kitchen that blends into a larger living space or great room, then the configuration has to expand to make room for that.
What's involved in the workings of the kitchen varies, as well. Of course, there are the basics-the refrigerator, sink, and stove, and in many cases a dishwasher. The goal is to configure these things logically, not just so that they conform to some designer's notion of a magic triangle, but to a configuration that works logically for how you use your kitchen. It makes logical sense to put the dishwasher near the sink, of course. But where is the refrigerator? On the opposite side of the kitchen where there's an alcove? Across from the stove so you have easy access to cooking? While I happen to like positioning the sink beneath a window, it doesn't have to go there-it can go anywhere. The choices are limitless, based on what works, as well as the space that you have.
Sizing Things Up
People always ask me how big a kitchen should be, and I always have the same answer: It depends. What kind of cooking do you do, and how are you going to use it? Do you envision the kitchen as the storage depot for everything in your home, the way some people think of attics? Do you buy every new kitchen gadget as soon as the Williams-Sonoma catalog hits your mailbox? If this is the case, you need a hardworking kitchen. On the flip side, there are plenty of people who rarely set foot in their kitchens other than to do a little microwaving or use the telephone to order takeout. Building an excessively large and luxurious kitchen in these cases is a waste of money. Some non-cooks might imagine a kitchen that shrinks to nothing and then disappears into the wall, like a Murphy bed. That's probably too extreme, of course, because even if you don't cook much the kitchen is still the area in your home where everybody expects and wants to congregate. The point is, how you lay out your kitchen should really be based on your lifestyle and what you like to do-not on what your neighbors' kitchens look like.
A Budget by Design
One of the things that scares people about kitchen renovations is the cost. There's a perception that a makeover will automatically add up to tens of thousands of dollars, and this alone forces people to accept the grim realities of their own kitchens and leave things alone. In all cases, I think it's best to approach a kitchen renovation from the opposite way. Instead of making the changes you dream of and hoping they don't become too expensive, I think it's more important to come up with a budget you can live with, and make the changes you can afford.
While a gut renovation of a kitchen will always cost a great deal of money, it's possible to update things with some clever thinking and give everything a fresher look for about $1,000. What would this give you? I'll describe all these techniques in the coming chapters, but here's a quick rundown. You could install a new laminate countertop, which, assuming you have an average countertop of about 20 feet total, means you would be paying about $400. You could clean the kitchen cabinets, or else paint them, which would cost you another $50. Changing the hardware on the cabinet doors is also a good way to make a change in looks, and that might cost you $125. Adding a new stainless-steel sink might cost you an additional $125, along with a $100 faucet for the same amount, and another $100 for the plumbing hardware needed to put it all together.