The Kitchen’s Balancing Act

There’s a saying that the kitchen is the heart of the home, which has never been more true when it comes to custom kitchen design. Homeowners are much savvier than they used to be and know every design and product option available. They are much more willing today to cut back expenses in other areas of a house if it guarantees they will get their dream kitchen at the end of the process.

Appliances are a major driving force in kitchen design. Some designers argue that appliances determine the storage and flow of a kitchen, making appliance selection a critical part of design. To guarantee the right appliances are chosen, it is pertinent that a designer knows what is important to his client. “If something is a ritual for a client, then I’ll focus on it,” says Stewart Davis, AIA, design director, CG&S Design/Build, Austin, Texas. “If they make coffee every morning, or drink a glass of wine at night, then we need to respond to that [lifestyle]. If those things are celebrated, thought about and carefully placed, then it responds to the clients’ lifestyle and is a successful design.”

Because these are custom spaces, homeowners expect convenience at their fingertips. “A lot of clients want the dish drawers so they can start the top drawer without running the whole dishwasher if it’s not full,” says Cheryl Stegman, CKD, designer and manager, Stegman Kitchen Showcase, Newport, Conn.

In a kitchen designed by Ricci Racela, designer and general partner, Kohala Creative Construction in Kamuela, Hawaii, her clients wanted 12 different appliances. “They had refrigerator drawers on one end of the kitchen for drinks and then one fridge and one freezer. Instead of one big fridge for the beverages, they separated the drinks into its own fridge [drawer]. They also had an oversized fridge in the pantry, and a separate dishwasher for parties,” she says.

To minimize the appearance of an all-appliance kitchen, Racela used wood panels which integrated the appliances into the wood cabinetry. The large freezer/refrigerator was the only block of stainless steel in the kitchen.

Zoning the Kitchen

Good kitchen design keeps the cooking and entertaining areas separate to minimize the chance of cooks and guests running into each other. “We need to find out how the kitchen will function. How many cooks, what kind of cooking will they be doing, do they entertain and do they have kids. From there we design a kitchen that fits their needs. If there are two cooks in the kitchen, then we’ll design two zones; client needs drive the design,” says Zach Simmons, owner of CKS Kitchens and Design, Durham, N.C.

One key to traffic flow is keeping main appliances out of the main traffic flow. “We try to design kitchens around entertaining so when a group of people are gathered, they aren’t in the main triangle. We keep entertaining outside of the island,” Stegman says.

Some designers focus on triangles or zones when it comes to keeping entertaining and cooking areas separate. If Stegman is designing a kitchen for two cooks, she creates two triangles. “We link the fridge and the main cooking appliance on one leg of the triangle, and a separate sink for each cook. They essentially have their own triangle to work in,” she says.

Simmons, on the other hand, doesn’t focus on a triangle but rather zones. “We think in terms of work zones — areas of work. The prep area, cook area and clean-up area shouldn’t overlap too much. You should be able to have three people in the kitchen without them running into each other,” he says.

When Racela’s clients told her they wanted a 12-ft. island, she searched for alternatives because the traffic flow around a 12-ft. island would be difficult to manage. “A 12-ft. island is too far to walk around. I designed two islands so the flow is much better,” she says. “Traffic flow is very important. You don’t want to stop production but rather aid it and make it easy.”

Maintaining Balance

Designers are trying to keep the abundant appliances clients want these days from intruding on storage space. “It’s difficult to balance the amount of appliances with storage. Even though you have all these appliances, you still have all the plates, big pots, napkins, placemats and items that go into the kitchen,” Racela says.

Due to space restrictions, designers are always looking for new and creative places to put storage space. “In a couple islands that I’ve done, I’ve put the cooktop on one side and the storage on the other. You can entertain there and yet not waste storage space,” Racela says.

One key to storage design is focusing on the items to be stored. It can be thought of in terms of which items are used daily, occasionally and once a year. “We put daily-used products inside the working triangle. We put less frequently used items in corridors that lead into the kitchen such as dry goods or things used once a year,” says Phil Kean, president, Phil Kean Designs, Winter Park, Fla.

Manufacturers are meeting the needs for storage by offering a multitude of cabinet accessories that can enhance storage options. A peg system is easy for unloading plates out of the dishwasher and into their proper location; and vertical cabinets are good for storing cutting boards or cookie sheets.

Lighting is an important component of kitchen design that can create interest using different types of lighting. “I like to illuminate the kitchen with overhead can lights and then have pendant lighting over the island. I also like to use puck lighting to illuminate the undercabinets,” Racela says.

When it comes to natural light, Kean pays attention to where one’s eyesight naturally focuses. “I think about what you look at from the stove and the sink and put windows where the eyesight travels. A serious cook wants to feel connected, not trapped,” he says.

A Strong Future

Designing around a budget is sometimes a challenge for designers and builders as well as homeowners, but when it comes to kitchens, homeowners are much more willing to cut a guest bathroom than they are to cut amenities in a kitchen. “Even on a tight budget, people still include professional ranges. Most people who are paying for a custom home want a custom kitchen so they will splurge on appliances,” Kean says. “A kitchen is much more permanent.”

The green movement is getting stronger with each new product introduction — a movement that definitely will affect the future of kitchen design. “As prices come down, we are going to see more green materials being used [in the kitchen],” Stegman says. “We will start to see more cabinet boxes that have no or little formaldehyde, or concrete countertops and paints that are considered green. We’re already seeing a lot of Energy Star appliances.”

As the green movement continues, more products will be available that are both convenient and energy-efficient. “The kitchen is almost becoming like the spa in the bathroom,” Racela says. “It’s based on the feeling of convenience and luxury that people want.”