New Design Frontiers

With all of the design choices out there, it’s easy to assume that cabinet design is all about creative aesthetics. In reality, though, function, accessibility, motion economy and space management are equally critical factors in creating a successful cabinet design.

Most kitchen and bath designers agree that the past decade has seen a shift away from long, uninterrupted lengths of wall cabinets in residential kitchen planning. This storage system change has been driven by a series of space management priorities:

1. In both small, loft-like spaces and large estate homes, an open floor plan that integrates the kitchen into adjacent living spaces is high on many consumer wish lists. Young couples want to see a big, flat screen television in the adjacent room, families with growing children try to maximize the quality of their time together, and empty nesting couples plan to “multitask” in the space. Yet, all of these requests tend to focus on a kitchen that is part of a larger living area. This means the cook and other people sharing the space want to see one another – which requires a view unobstructed by hanging wall cabinets.

2. The designer’s focus on large mantel hoods (requiring anywhere from 48" to 72" of wall space) has dramatically reduced the available area for traditional cabinetry on each side of such free-standing structures.

3. Kitchens with islands are very popular. Ergonomically, island design arrangements do not work well when combined with wall cabinets above them. Placing wall cabinets over an island or peninsula high enough for the cook to see below places the shelving too high to be useful. Keeping wall units at a useful height results in people staring into a cabinet door, rather than enjoying time with guests.

4. A shift in who cooks (is it the gourmet “bring home” shop down the street as opposed to the “cook everything his/her homemaker”) has led to less food being stored on cabinet shelving in the average North American kitchen. However, at the same time, the average consumer is storing more infrequently used equipment. This means storage shelving can be loosely tied to (or completely separated from) the traditional centers of activity used by a “from scratch cook,” eliminating the requirement for generous lineal footage of wall cabinet shelving in the prep and cooking areas.

In addition to identifying the need to search out alternative storage areas, colleagues across the country tell me how much their clients search for a design highly personalized for them. Consumers want their design professional to go far beyond functional space management – they want the room to reflect their personality with special, unique storage solutions.

While researching storage solution ideas for this article, I was delighted to see a collage of excellent ideas presented by the winners of the 2007 NKBA Design Competition. Additionally, I have asked several talented designers across the country to share ideas with me. It is my hope that some of these ideas will help designers think “outside of the box” when considering how and where they can plan alternatives to wall cabinets and create a “one-of-a-kind” kitchen for their clients.

Function First

However, before we sprint ahead down the path of creativity, allow me to ground us all in longstanding time management principles as they relate to motion economy. Simply put, saving motion during any activity not only means saving the human worker energy, it also means saving the person’s time. Time is one of our most valuable commodities today – indeed, it’s priceless for many. Therefore, a look back to research projects completed some time ago is worthwhile.

To simplify the work processes in the kitchen, it’s important to be cognizant of the value of energy management. Each person has a finite amount of energy depending on physical heritage, age and general health. Minimizing the efforts needed to cook in the new room is possible if you are familiar with the research and ask the right questions when you first interview your client.

As you interview your client and review the space under development, remember household tasks require several types and combinations of efforts. These include:

  • Mental effort to think through the task.
  • Visual effort as the eye directs the movements of the body.
  • Manual effort as the person reaches, lifts, carries, pulls and pushes objects as part of a task.
  • Upper body strength and mobility required for bending, leaning, rising, turning and stooping.
  • Pedal effort – the ability to walk, move and stand.

Designers can help their clients minimize the motion needed by employing four basic techniques.

1. Eliminate unnecessary work. By incorporating interior storage aids, no energy is needed to search, remove or replace objects in the cabinet interior.

2. Combine operations of elements. Thinking through the sequences family members follow when using the kitchen will lead to a plan based on a logical, fluid path for the primary cook to follow.

3. Change the sequence of an operation. By carefully monitoring the food/equipment flow, storage/preparation/cook/usage steps can be minimized.

4. Simplify the necessary operations. Any plan enhancement that can simplify the operation at hand will save energy. Locating non-cooking related activities along the perimeter of the cook’s central work stations simplifies the cooking operation.

It is also useful to be familiar with research projects that identify functional limits of reach, and the typical cook’s “work curve.” For instance, how high can the average cook reach? How much counter space does the average cook use? Consider the following research that addresses these questions:

  • Functional Limits. Cornell University studied shoulder-to-grasping fingertip reach of individuals 5'3" to 5'7", and established 79.6" as the highest comfortable overhead reach for these cooks. When the reach was over a 25"-deep counter surface, the top shelf height was lowered to 69". In the same manner, 48" was set as the comfortable side-to-side reach, and 24" off the floor as the lowest point or fingertip level from the floor. This is excellent information for designers to use when thinking of uninterrupted counter space, or how and where wall cabinets or other types of above-countertop storage units might be located.
  • Work Curve. The same study determined the normal work curve (or elbow circle) had a maximum depth of 16". This is why the average countertop depth of 25" provides plenty of room for spreading out supplies or stacking plates in front of the user. This is also an important measurement when considering new and unique backsplash storage system solutions.
  • Reaching up with the arms required less energy than bending the body.
  • Energy is consumed within proportion to the height of the reach.

For instance, reaching down to 3" above the floor by trunk bend required less energy than reaching by knee bend. (However, reaching by knee bend is favored by specialists with regard to body mechanics, because it involves less body strain.)

Design Alternatives

After the designer thinks through these motion economy issues, the next step is to investigate possible alternatives to wall cabinets for the cook.

After being reminded how important motion economy is in a kitchen plan, our design dilemma is clear: Wall cabinets are very convenient to reach into, and using them requires relatively little energy – but we must search out an alternative because our clients value the view more than the storage in traditional cabinets. So, what’s the best solution to this dilemma?

First, carefully and completely interview your clients to identify who cooks, what they cook, how often they cook and what they do in the kitchen besides cooking. A good tool to use is the new NKBA Business Management Forms System. A member-only benefit, these forms are available on NKBA’s Web site in a read-only format, or members can purchase a disk so they can adapt and modify the forms themselves. It is a very comprehensive document – it might be just right for you, or longer than you think needed. Do not miss reviewing this Business Management Forms System, which I recently updated for the NKBA.

Second, thoroughly commit to memory the basic storage principles. These will guide clients in organizing their kitchen after the installation is complete.

Storage Guidelines

Storage guidelines are based on three basic tenets:

1. Supplies should be stored at the center of use.
2. All supplies should be clearly visible.
3. All supplies should be easily accessible.

To accomplish these, storage specialists suggest the following:

  • Store items at the first or last place of use.
  • Store items in multiple locations if used for different tasks.
  • Items used together should be stored together.
  • Stored items should be easy to locate at a glance.
  • Like articles should be stored or grouped together.
  • Frequently used items should be stored within easy reach. Based on the research referenced earlier in this article, easy reach is normally defined as between eye level and hip level at the front of the cabinet’s shelf, or placed anywhere within the confines of a pull-out or roll-out shelf.
  • Items should be easy to grasp at point of storage.
  • Items should be easily removed without removing other items first.
  • Heavy equipment should be at or near floor level.
  • All space should be utilized for utmost efficiency. This is a great principle to share with your clients when they are trying to decide where everything should be placed.

An important question is, “Should everything be returned to the new room?” A “two-year test” is a good rule of thumb: If an item has not been used in two years, perhaps it should be repurposed or given away rather than stored in a valuable storage location.

Creatives Ideas

Having surveyed your clients correctly, and thought through the ergonomic recommendations to ensure motion economy (as well as categorizing the equipment the client has to store based on the storage principles), it’s time to come up with some creative ideas.

Here are a few for your consideration.

  • Incorporate a floor-to-ceiling, pantry-type storage cabinet to replace traditional wall cabinets. This may be a separate room, a diagonal walk-in corner pantry or a cabinet that is separate from the balance of the kitchen cabinets (it can be in a different finish, style or size). By virtue of its overall floor-to-ceiling size, maximum lineal shelf space is provided.
  • Outfit cabinet interiors with storage systems designed to secure items normally placed on overhead shelves. Serving platters and everyday dishes can quite comfortably sit on a shelf. Full-height base cabinets with specialized storage can provide an excellent location for dinnerware, glassware or other items that are normally stored on wall shelves.
  • Maximize the space available. Wall cabinets can extend down to the countertop. This is a great way to provide extra shelf space as long as the countertop area is not needed for other critical cooking/serving/clean-up activities. Alternatively, “pop-up” base pedestal cabinets can add extra shelf space. Taking a base cabinet and making it 48"-60" high is an excellent way to gain several extra storage levels.
  • Use the back or sides of islands or peninsulas for extra storage space.
  • Create a backsplash storage system. Use this 16"-18" of space for a cook who is tall enough to reach over the counter surface. You can build a niche for small appliances or storage shelving by boxing wall space from an adjacent room. By limiting the seating space at the back of a bar, perhaps the wall space can be used. In a normal kitchen, racking systems that hang on the backsplash are another possibility.
  • Add pole systems that run from the counter to the ceiling or soffit to provide exposed storage, shelving systems on shallow walls and racking systems that hang from the wall or ceiling.

When sorting through these alternatives, realize you have a great opportunity to create a design focal point. Consider treating the wall area behind your storage system with a different material than seen in the balance of the splash area.

Think through the “stop and start” points of any splash or wall materials when developing this type of unusual idea. You may also need to specify unusual electrical outlets or light fixture placement, as well.

The clients’ interest in keeping the kitchen open and visible from adjacent spaces and welcoming their guests creates a distinctive design challenge for the kitchen specialist who must act as both a functionalist as well as a designer with a great aesthetic eye.

By refamiliarizing yourself with motion economy studies and storage principles – as well as being open to new and different options for adding shelf space within a kitchen – you will be able to devise a solution perfectly tailored to your consumer’s lifestyle.

This article is part of a quarterly series of “Designer’s Notebook” articles, which will continue to run throughout 2007 exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.