Planning Kitchen Work Zones

Since formal kitchen design research started in the early 1900s, we have constantly been analyzing what works and doesn’t work as each generation expands lifestyle issues, products and aesthetics around the most important room of a home. Ergonomics and efficiency in time/motion studies were the biggest parts of the early “work triangle” and subsequent placements of appliances, storage, traffic patterns and sinks. It was, however, all based on a one-person/primary cook kitchen. Now that we have multiple cooks, a double work triangle has emerged and even more recently labeled centers or zones for the activities associated with any kitchen today.

Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer Ellen Cheever, who has researched, authored, designed and taught in the industry for more than 30 years, recently made the distinction in space planning based on activity zones, not work centers as previously described. Her recent Pathways to Profits Seminar, sponsored by the National Kitchen and Bath Association and Kitchen & Bath Design News magazine, addressed the, “… phenomena as a change due to what families do in the kitchen as well as what they are eating at home.”

A myriad of noncooking activities such as watching TV, entertaining, homework and talking on the telephone have been a “but of course” comment for many families. Just as important, according to Cheever, is that shopping for pre-prepared gourmet takeout meals is more common than “from scratch” meals, impacting the activities we are trying to identify. Her major points are:

  • Outdoor living is valued, impacting the grilling and outdoor kitchen rage.
  • Multigenerational families are sharing the same space. Consumers want to stay in their homes (aging in place).
  • Consumers want a kitchen within a “cooking room” to serve weekday warm-up meals in a smaller environment than needed for weekend gourmet feasts.
  • Gathering spaces for personal interaction between cooks and noncooks is valued.
  • Appliances are broken up into smaller point-of-use pieces, along with special-purpose fixtures.
  • Multiple cooking stations for shared cooking activities are valued.

As a designer who continues to deal with a lengthy interview process before attempting a space plan, I also have encountered the same activities that Ms. Cheever labeled as noncooking activities.

Communicating activities including the telephone, Internet, personal visiting and any type of correspondence demand more than just a desk or an Internet connection these days. I fondly call this the command center, but it’s more than just technology for cell phones and Wi-Fi. It’s the place where people can comfortably talk, share and maintain a master calendar.

Entertaining/educational activities seem to be growing in style (hanging-out “bars” instead of just eating-only bars). Video game activities for the family or any TV-based entertainment, and a children’s computer/homework area (to help control computer use) are on the top of many families’ lists.

Household management activities may have been just a desk in the past, but now include a family home office, security area, smart-home technology controls, multipurpose laundry/hobby area and a pet care/feeding center.

Pleasurable pastime activity spaces include gardening, flower arranging, a cookbook library, photography/scrapbooking or even wine cellar/tasting areas. One of my customers collected pinball machines and it was high on his list of inclusions.

Ms. Cheever has certainly covered the range of activities and thus helps us evaluate how to include them in our expanded kitchen spaces. For food assembly, however, the activities could help to explain five activity zones, up from the initial three zones when the work triangle was used solely:

  1. The Consumable Zone — This space contains food items such as rice, cereal, canned goods, pasta, staples, drinks and refrigerated goods. It is usually in one main spot, but could be labeled as such in two areas.
  2. The Nonconsumable Zone — These items are the dishes, glasses, plastic containers, storage items, silverware and even cookbooks.
  3. The Cleaning Zone — The sink, dishwasher(s), trash and recycling as well as cleaning supplies are found here.
  4. The Preparation Zone — This is the most important area in the food-assembly process. Utensils, mixing bowls, small electrical items plus items such as spices and oils needed to prepare food are kept here.
  5. The Cooking Zone — The appliance package for cooking, including microwave, cooktop/range and oven is the start, but this also includes all pots/pans, cooking utensils, baking sheets and some spices, oils, etc.

I suggest there also are other specialty zones which could incorporate Ms. Cheever’s stated activities. There’s an entertaining zone, which in older circles could have been called the bar. Undercounter refrigerators, ice machines, wine chillers, along with countertop or built-in coffee machines and all the accompaniments suggest a self-serve or hostess-run area strictly for guests. Some have bar sinks, but most don’t.

Some designers I know now incorporate a plating zone when entertaining which allows the owners or caterers a space for serving plates, appetizers, larger quantity of drinks, serving platters, etc., when entertaining a group of guests. Sometimes this is in a butler’s pantry and sometimes is an extension of the kitchen/breakfast nook areas.

Kent Barnes, CKD, Kitchens of Austin, has designed a free zone into his brother’s kitchen, allowing the teenagers a place to fix their own snacks in the afternoon or even meals in the hectic life of a typical sportsman or parent.
As we step back and see the evolution of design for kitchens, we realize that our lifestyles have shifted primarily due to our activities. The zone approach may be the easy way to include every family’s needs for this most important area of our homes.

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