The New Kitchen Workstation

For many years, the kitchen sink acted as little more than a double compartment water appliance, strategically placed between the prep center and the cooking center. In fact, this is still the case in many homes.

Good planners make sure the dishwasher is adjacent to the sink. A single waste receptacle might be placed under the sink or a “twin bin” double container to the side, with a stack of drawers nearby. This is a very well-planned water appliance center.
However, I challenge designers today to expand their planning beyond the water appliance function of the sink, focusing on organizing the space into a complete workstation.

Growing Impostance

There are several key reasons why the sink and its surrounding cabinetry and counter surfaces have become so much more important to the cook.

In the past, one primary sink was enough. Sometimes a secondary sink (considered very luxurious) was placed by the refrigerator. Today, the food/meal preparation function is often separated from the clean-up function of the water source appliance to accommodate multiple cooks working together, as well as the specialized nature of modern kitchens. A key first question is, “How does the cook work in the space, as well as how many people share the joy…and the chore…of meal preparation and clean-up?”

When cooking is a group event, consider the following:

  • The preparation sink is typically part of the public kitchen area – but there is a “twist” about how the cook prefers to interface with his/her guests around this important area. For instance, the cook(s) might enjoy everyone gathering around the sink work area, helping in meal preparation. Therefore, the kitchen is serving as a social center.

    In this scenario, clear work space behind and on both sides of the sink, easy access to the faucet and a casual seating area for one or two people might all be part of the sink preparation center. I mentioned chairs; you might think, “This isn’t the breakfast area, is it?” No, it is a spot for someone to visit or help the cook rather than having a snack or meal.

    Rather than electrical outlets carefully positioned just for the cook on his/her side of the workstation, plugs need to be accessible from several sides of the work area. If possible, the faucet might be positioned in a corner or the side of the sink so it is accessible by more than one person. For this type of cook, a sink on an island or peninsula is a great solution. Cabinetry should be accessible from several sides of the island or peninsula. A continuous 36"-high counter height should be specified so family and friends have easy access to the sink.
  • If the preparation sink will also serve as an entertaining area, perhaps a new and unique shape or configuration for the appliance might add an attractive design detail.

    Elkay Manufacturing Co. recently introduced new shapes in both 16- and 18-gauge stainless steel to its popular Mystic Collection. Such soft, curved sinks are an example of what is new and innovative. This is a great way to add “the bling factor” to a kitchen plan. In addition to the “bling,” these shapes maximize the usable interior space of the sink.
  • Alternatively, a major preparation sink on an island might be just what the cook requested – but he/she has a very different view about how to share the space. The primary chef might prefer all guests be barricaded from his/her work area. I call this “cooking as theater.” The cook is delighted to have everyone in the room – just not in his/her kitchen!

For this consumer, all of the mechanics and orientation of the preparation sink would stay on the cook’s work side. Perhaps a raised 42" counter on the back, one side or two sides might work well. Once again, a seating area – away from the cook’s work area – provides a welcoming area for non-cooks visiting the space.

The Clean-up Function

If there are two completely different sinks, one will be the primary preparation sink, part of the public space as discussed above. It will be used for chopping, draining, composting and quick wash-ups; therefore, a drain board, knife storage close by and paper towels (or, better yet, cloth towels) are key.

The second water workstation will be reserved for after-meal duties. The clean-up sink can be located some distance away from the primary gathering area, with its orientation much more focused on the sink’s relationship to the trash container, the dishwasher and dish storage. It is the clean-up task that benefits from a sink shape that separates items being washed or rinsed from refuse being scraped from plates into the disposal. That is why double or multi-sized sink configurations are so popular. It is time to think outside of that box!

Visit with your sink sources, as well as conduct a careful review at this year’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show and look at new, innovative sink configurations. Specifying a functional but unusually shaped sink can support your merchandising goal of differentiating yourself from your competitors. Change-out (if financially feasible) as many sinks as possible in your displays so each one offers a new and unique shape solution. If you have a well-designed small/big double undermounted stainless steel sink configuration with a single pull-out faucet – regardless of how well constructed and manufactured the product – the consumer visiting your showroom is probably going to see that same configuration at your competition. Show them something different!

Sink Accessories

In addition to the functional space management of the preparation and clean-up work centers in the kitchen, designers have a great opportunity to present “standout” design excellence by adding highly valued ancillary equipment to this center, as well as very creative in design.

The following items are a “must” in a good water work area:

  • A water purification or filtration system installed separately or as part of the primary faucet.
  • A conveniently located lotion and/or soap dispenser to minimize counter clutter.
  • A collection of useful sink accessories, with storage planned by the kitchen designer. A word of caution: Avoid any sink rack that sits on the very bottom of the sink with only a small opening directly over the drain. You need a larger opening to conveniently scrape food refuse into the disposal. Some of these racks cause garbage to get tangled up in the sink rack. If possible, use some of the different colanders/strainers/butcher blocks/trays as a professional learning experience before specifying them for a client.
  • Convenient storage for drain or cutting surfaces that is part of the sink center. Oftentimes, I will install a base cabinet lengthwise divider (from front to back) in the sink cabinet so my client can keep sink accessories and a cutting surface in this area. In this installation, I have the client add bumpers on one or both sides of a wood chopping surface so it never sits on the bottom of the cabinet.
  • A worktop sink that is part of a counter surface, extending from the front of the cabinet all the way to the back wall. The unit is designed to be at a slightly different height than the adjacent counter. The back of the sink worktop can include small containers, a knife rack or both.

Sink Materials

Another interesting sink design opportunity is with solid surface materials. When designing a recent Kitchen/Bath Industry Show exhibit, I was challenged to try to create several interesting sinks using Glacier White DuPont Corian. One sink had a square design (very popular today) with a sliding Corian cutting surface (this could have been wood) and a composting container by Rev-A-Shelf installed in a drop-down area adjacent to the sink.

In another example, I used a vanity sink for an entertaining or preparation sink, which included a grooved draining area and featured two contrasting materials. You may be able to create a “one-of-a-kind” sink by fabricating the appliance from a solid surface material.

New Countertop Materials

In addition to the sink, think about your countertops. In a small display, I used a Franke apron sink installed below a sealed wood top with drain surfaces on each side. At a corner intersection, the wood top stands higher than the adjacent soapstone top featured on each side of the range. To the far right of the sink, a mid-height unit features a concealed microwave oven and a raised dishwasher. This interesting sink area introduced new counter materials and the concept of a raised dishwasher (not new to you or I, but new to many of our clients), and has been a “show stopper” by the front door.

Sink Area Cabinetry

Lastly, when thinking about the sink center, I urge you to refresh and rethink how you are planning the cabinetry all around the water appliance. We all realize how important recycling is in the long path of responsible resource management.

However, I challenge myself in 2008 – as well as you – to think through how we can facilitate more recycling and less use of energy. For example, if you always include a towel bar under a sink for kitchen linens, have you researched how many of your clients use them? Where does the consumer have to go in the kitchen to get a clean towel or washcloth, and what does he/she do with a soiled one? If you can plan a small basket (perhaps attached to a ventilated sink door) for soiled linens, as well as a drawer close by for fresh linens, you can encourage your client to limit the use of paper towels.

One place you might find space for such an area is underneath a slide-out waste receptacle in a double compartment configuration, or in a small area behind a single unit. I always think these types of pull-out waste containers are excellent – but if there is any space above them for a small, narrow roll-out that can house clean linens or newspapers, that might be much more important than yet another drawer. Think through how you can maximize the efficiency of the entire recycling waste container cabinet.

In addition to searching for new ideas provided by your cabinet manufacturers, go online and Google “kitchen organization” – you will find everything from can crushers to battery containers. Maybe one will work for you. Study the products some of the reputable manufacturers in our business are offering.

When thinking about recycling, remember that sorting of items to be recycled should take place at the kitchen’s point of disposal. The best location to initiate product separation is at the kitchen sink – one or both of them. If you can plan a system for sorting recyclables that does not rely on an owner-initiated makeshift system, there is a much better chance it will be used by the homeowner. The sink workstation of the kitchen is as important as the well-designed refrigerator or a well-engineered range. In these centers, you specify one piece of equipment and then surround it with well-organized cabinetry. For the sink area, go beyond just the fixture and adjacent dishwasher. Organize the area(s) to suit the cook, invite guests into the room, facilitate waste management and add a unique design element.