From Work Triangles to Work Spaces

As a cornerstone of the kitchen planning process, the work triangle used to be pretty simple. You started by drawing an imaginary straight line from the center of the sink to the center of the cooktop, from the center of the cooktop to the center of the refrigerator, and then from the center of the refrigerator back to the center of the sink.

This was your basic work triangle, and you generally kept it as small and functional as possible to minimize wasted steps and keep traffic out of the main work area.

To execute this concept, there were a few basic rules, and most everyone followed them. Kitchen designers used the NKBA Guidelines as their standard:
- The work triangle should total less than 26'. No single leg of the triangle should be shorter than 4' or longer than 9'.
- The triangle is defined as the shortest walking distance between the refrigerator, primary cooking surface and primary food preparation sink. It is measured from the center front of each appliance.
- The work triangle may not intersect an island or peninsula cabinet by more than 12".
- No major household traffic patterns should cross through the work triangle connecting the three primary centers.

Of course, that was before everyone had multiple sinks, under-counter and point-of-use refrigeration, microwaves so advanced they often took on primary cooking functions, and two or more cooks vying for space at the same time.

A trend toward larger kitchens further muddied the waters. After all, a tight work triangle might make sense, but then didn't that just waste all that extra space?

A New Shape
There's no question that as consumers have changed the way the cook and live, so, too, has the kitchen evolved. As a result, designers have had to give the work triangle a fresh look ' and sometimes a whole new shape.

According to Bill Schafer, senior designer at the Escondido, CA-based Distinctive Kitchen & Bath Design, Inc., "The work triangle the way it was originally created made sense. But now that the kitchen has evolved, it doesn't anymore."

Robin Rigby-Fisher, CKD, CBD, owner/principal designer, Pegasus Design, Inc., in Portland, OR agrees: "With the advent of refrigerator drawers, built-in coffee machines, high-speed cookers and dish drawers, the kitchen triangle is morphing into many different shapes and sizes."

While she still believes in the concept of a work triangle, she also notes that "the work triangle isn't [necessarily] a triangle anymore ' it's more an odd-shaped square or five-point space."

James Garland, kitchen designer for Lowe's, in McMinnville, OR, concurs: "The work triangle is still the place to start, but then it may have to be modified based on the needs of the cook or cooks. Multiple refrigerators in more than one spot changed things. The addition of the microwave and more people working in the kitchen changed things. Nowadays, you often have work quadrangles, or work rectangles."

It's not necessarily that the work triangle doesn't work, Rigby-Fisher explains. Rather, she believes kitchens sometimes require designers to think outside the box ' or, in this case, triangle '-to ensure they meet all the functional requirements of the owners and the capabilities of the existing space.

"While the [classic work triangle] is all well and good," she believes, "this scenario was designed for the optimum kitchen layout, and there are many times when this rule needs to be bent or even broken."

As Garland sees it: "The work triangle is a way to measure the function of the space, the usability of the space. But it's not sacrosanct. Ultimately, the design really depends on how the person uses the space. And sometimes the space must dictate what can and can't be done. Maybe that's a triangle. Maybe it's two separate work triangles. Or maybe it's something else that works better for [the way the homeowner] uses the space."

Work Centers
But if the work triangle is no longer an absolute design constant, how do designers ensure a well-planned kitchen that takes into account work flow, traffic flow and best use of space? For Rigby-Fisher, the answer lies in designing around the concept of "work centers," which she believes better take into consideration how homeowners actually cook.

She explains: "In today's kitchens, we have centers where different functions are grouped. The easiest is the baking center, but moving beyond that, there are many [other functions that have to be considered]. You may have the sandwich center [with a microwave and refrigerator], the coffee center [including the expresso machine, sink and refrigerator], the salad center [including either a small ancillary refrigerator or the main refrigerator and a sink to wash the salad greens]' and these are only a few of the possible considerations."

In order for a design to be truly functional, she adds, these centers must be as self-contained as possible. Otherwise, you defeat the purpose, since people will be getting in each other's way if they have to keep finding utensils from other areas. "So, if you have a sandwich center, you want to store things like the bread board and knives in that area. Likewise, salad bowls should be stored in the salad center, and microwave popcorn should be stored near the microwave," she states.

Shafer also sees the concept of work stations or work centers as being key to today's designs. "One of the basics [to designing around work centers rather than with the classic triangle] is that you don't want the refrigerator in the middle of everything because it gets in the way. And I generally put the microwave near the refrigerator [to facilitate a 'snack station,'] though of course it really depends on the client. A lot of the way you lay out a kitchen differs greatly depending on the client," Shafer states.

This is even more relevant today, he believes, because of the growing diversity of households comprised of a wider variety of ethnicities, family make-ups and backgrounds ' all of which can influence kitchen use.

For instance, Garland sees microwaves placed over the range as a good way to keep the kitchen work triangle intact and create an efficient design' for some situations. However, this isn't always practical or desirable, especially when designing for families with small children.

"I remember when my own children were growing up, and they went through a phase where all they wanted to do was make Ramen noodles in the micro-wave," he comments. In this case, he thinks a more child-friendly placement of the microwave would be in order, keeping that microwave out of the main work triangle to ensure a safer kitchen environment.

Even how clients use their appliances can factor heavily into defining work spaces. For instance, some people have two dishwashers, but use one primarily for storage; others cook out of a microwave more than out of an oven. All of this changes how the users will function in the space. If the oven is rarely in use, designing a classic work triangle doesn't really make sense, as it goes counter to how the space actually functions.

Notes Shafer: "We go through a couple of different surveys with each client to determine needs. Are they right-handed or left-handed? Are there one, two, three or more cooks? What kind of entertaining do they do? Do they have pets? Do they need a feeding center for them? The surveys ask all sorts of these type of questions to determine a client's lifestyle and how they will use the kitchen."

Even after creating work areas, designers must still think about what comes next, since work areas don't work unless they're customized to meet the needs of the clients, right down to the details. As Rigby-Fisher explains: "You have to look at how messy someone is when they cook. With multiple cooks, a messier person may need a bigger prep area. And you need to look at how they work' Do they leave everything out or clean up as they move along? If they [do the latter], it may make sense to place a small dish drawer dishwasher in that work space. All the details matter. That's design. It's all about the function."

Island Challenges
Islands can pose another challenge to efficient kitchen design, Garland warns. "Everyone wants an island, but often, they disregard whether [it makes the most sense] for the room. An island is commonly in the way of the triangle '-particularly in a small kitchen '-and it can impede the function of the space. If you have to walk around the island to get from one station to another, how it this making the kitchen better? Unless it's designed properly, they may not be getting the benefit they think."

Adds Rigby-Fisher: "Americans think bigger is better, but [when it comes to kitchens and islands] it's not always better. A good cook wants to work without a huge work triangle. If you have a huge kitchen, you have to reassess what you're doing and make sure the space really works."

And it's not just islands that can present challenges, Rigby-Fisher warns. She notes that today's work triangles may need to provide a space for a laptop "since many people will actually download recipes from their laptop, so that's now part of how they use the kitchen, that may be part of their [individual] triangle."

As Garland concludes: "Kitchens are getting larger, you have ovens separating appliances, more work stations, more appliances, more water sources, more accessories to add convenience. The whole space is just getting more 'souped-up' in general. So you have to design with that in mind. I can't stress it enough ' you have to design spaces for the individual." Even if it means giving that triangle a whole new angle. KBDN