Virginia Tech Leads in Kitchen Design Education

Blacksburg, VA— As the first of the Baby Boomers gets set to retire this year, kitchen designers have found requests for products and designs suited for this age group increasing. In the current economic climate, more homeowners are seeking to age-in-place, and it will depend on a new generation of kitchen designers to keep them healthy at home.

The professors of the Center for Real Life Kitchen Design at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University unveiled late last year the stunning renovation to their workspace; a combination of kitchens and class space designed to give the kitchen and home designers of the future a hands-on look at the process.

Life at the Center

The Center, in its current incarnation as the locus of Virginia Tech’s residential kitchen design program, formally opened in 1998. Kathleen Parrott, Ph.D., CKE, a professor of housing and 20-year Virginia Tech veteran, is the coordinator of the undergraduate program here at the University, which is accredited by the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

“This is a follow-up to our first renovation in the mid 1990s,” she says. “Our program in kitchen and bath design was growing and we began to ask ourselves, ‘Can we make the space function more broadly for our program?’ At the time, ours was an overtaxed, multifunctional space. While we were able to switch out product rather easily, the layout itself, the cabinetry and other key elements had been in place since the 1960s.”

Parrott cites the Center’s mission as: “[fostering] educational opportunities related to the demonstration and application of products, materials and technologies in residential kitchen and bath design.”

The facility is used for a variety of classes. General design classes have students come in and evaluate how well the spaces work.

“They’re comparing them against the NKBA industry guidelines; they’re looking at the arrangement of spaces; they’re measuring spaces. We actually have them cook here so that they can gauge how much space it takes to do certain activities,” says Parrott.

JoAnn Emmel, Ph.D. teaches residential technology classes in the Center, where students thoroughly investigate and study the equipment. They test everything from how well refrigerators maintain their temperature to how evenly cakes brown in a convection oven.

According to Parrott: “If they’re going to work with appliances, specify appliances or go into the appliance industry, they’ll come out of here with a good understanding.” All students in the undergraduate program are required to take two technology courses.

Graduate students also do work in the space including research and evaluative studies. Additionally, the Center has an established public education program called “Explore Your Dream Kitchen.” The seminar targets homeowners who are either readying themselves to undertake a major remodel or are planning a new home.

“We teach them the basics of kitchen planning and the guidelines. Then we have them cook meals in our kitchens to try out the different appliances and materials that we’ve taught them about,” says Parrott. “A lot of people who come to this are remodeling or building the home they plan to retire in.”

She estimates that roughly a third of participants in the seminar are working on their retirement homes.

“Since we use the kitchens extensively as classroom and lab space, it’s important that they illustrate for our students the latest and the greatest,” says Emmel.

“In the 10 years the center has been open, many styles have come and gone. We with our donors, particularly the appliance companies, so that, as we have students, continuing education classes and community events here, we’re not showing off outdated technology or products that are no longer being manufactured,” says Parrott.

This has led to the inclusion of the latest technology in cabinetry, appliance technology and even the trend toward sustainability as witnessed in the bamboo flooring chosen for some of the kitchens.

The Kitchens

The Center’s latest redesign owes in large part to the generosity of corporate donors to the program, including Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry, DuPont, Sub-Zero/Wolf, KitchenAid, Sharp and others. The kitchens, which include a Family Kitchen, a Starter Kitchen, a Gourmet Kitchen, a Contemporary Kitchen, a Universal Kitchen and an Outpost Kitchen, serve to reflect a specific design theme and to illustrate in a hands-on way which elements make the space work. They are designed to represent a range of price levels, space designs and diversity of age groups within the modern household. With the exception of the Outpost Kitchen, all the kitchens are fully operational.

Two, the Outpost and Gourmet, were not remodels but new building for the Center. The Outpost was designed for the modern larger home, which might have a secondary kitchen space off of a master bedroom or in a family room. The space features cabinetry from Custom Wood Products, a microwave, a coffee center and under-counter refrigeration.

Plain & Fancy collaborated with the Center and donated the custom cabinetry featured in the Gourmet Kitchen. During the remodel, the space was completely gutted and built from the cement up.

“We added many more state-of-the-art appliances,” says Parrott. These included a Sharp microwave oven drawer, and other appliances by Wolf/Sub-Zero.

Industry Expert and KBDN columnist Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS designed the GE Real Life Design Kitchen, which was donated by GE Appliances. The largest of the six kitchens, Peterson used her extensive knowledge of Universal Design to craft the room to promote the use and application of the principles of Universal Design.

Central to Peterson’s design are open and pull-down shelves, roll-out drawers, a built-in step stool as well as counters of varying heights. The kitchen shows off some modern prizes as well, such as the motorized adjustable sink which works for a person in a wheelchair as easily as it does for a person who has difficulty bending.

In addition to their work at the Center, Parrott, Emmel and their colleague Julia Beamish, Ph.D., CKE, along with Peterson have contributed volumes on kitchen and bath planning to the NKBA’s Professional Resource Library.

But there is more work to do, according to Parrott. Three of the kitchens were not included in the remodel, including the one that carries the name Contemporary, which represents the kind of kitchen most often found in an urban apartment, where space planning is of utmost concern. While it features current appliances such as Sub-Zero refrigerator drawers and a Dacor glass-top range, it also has orange laminate cabinetry by LesCare, which the company no longer manufactures.

“Long-term, the goals are to update the remaining spaces in total so that everything reflects the current state of kitchen design, and possibly to add a bath space, as well,” she says, noting that as space is a premium in the building where the Center is located, there is currently no space for one.

According to the professors, the mission of the Center is to truly bring the student into the design process and to examine design choices, quite literally, from every angle. The professors have at their disposal scooters, wheelchairs and other hands-on learning tools to give students a glimpse of a kitchen through the eyes of someone for whom they might one day be designing.