Did you know that research recommended an island sink as early as 1936? Or that the number of small appliances in the average kitchen in 1965 was three and in 2003, it had risen to 12?
In writing the new design manuals for NKBA, I had the pleasure of working with JoAnn Emmel, Kathleen Parrott and Julia Beamish of Virginia Tech, and what they don't know about kitchen design research simply doesn't exist. In fact, the most recent research used to update the NKBA planning guidelines was done by them.
Comparing the demands on a farm kitchen of the 1930s with those of the typical kitchen today, much has changed, but remarkably, many of the recommendations made back then still apply. A look at some of the kitchen design research from the historic up through the recent Virginia Tech work can provide a solid foundation for current designs and help us to better guide our clients.
Yesterday and Today
By the 1930s, a number of housing studies had been completed and the findings were often reported by home economists through the Cooperative Extension Services. While some of the recommendations were based more on typical housing standards such as cabinetry heights matched to entry door heights or work aisles to door widths, most of them were based on improved efficiency. Work centers were introduced, work surfaces recommended at varied heights and the concept of an island with a sink to shorten steps for the cook was introduced. Researchers found that this could result in a savings of 95 hours of work and 28 miles of travel per year in the preparation and cleanup of breakfast for a farm family of eight (Ella Cushman, 1936).
In the 1940s, the Small Home Council (SHC) established early guidelines for kitchen design, and in 1975, NKBA joined the SHC to develop the original 21 NKBA kitchen planning guidelines. These guidelines, which were updated in 1992, 1996 and 2004, continue to apply today.
In 1965, the Beltsville Energy Savings Kitchens were designed and studied (Mildred Howard). These kitchens included concepts some of us still think of as "cutting edge," and some we might want to work hard to incorporate, such as seated work areas (minimum one, often two), rolling carts, storage in the backsplash, a variety of heights for storage and work surfaces, and picture this slant-front wall cabinets that become deeper as they go up in height to better reflect the cook's reach.
In the early 1990's NKBA sponsored two research projects to determine more current lifestyles and demands on kitchens (Yust and Olsen, and Cheever). The results brought a significant revision to our NKBA guidelines in 1992. Again to reflect the times, the guidelines were revised in 1996 to incorporate universal design. Two studies were commissioned by NKBA in 2000 to revisit kitchen use and storage requirements in light of today's lifestyles. The team Emmel, Beamish and Parrott of Virginia Tech completed this research and the findings are reflected in our newly updated kitchens planning guidelines.
Among the expected results: people do much more than cook and
eat in their kitchens, the microwave oven is used frequently, sinks
serve dual purposes in preparation and cleanup, and much more
regarding the work centers of the kitchens. Some surprising results
include: built-in ovens and cooktops were found in very few of the
kitchens (maybe due in part to the pro-range trend?), the average
kitchen has 12 small appliances (no wonder our kitchens have grown
although our household sizes have shrunk), close to half of the
people surveyed did not use convenience foods, and similar
percentages reported rarely or never buying take-out.
While many people spend time in the kitchen, 67% of the households (telephone survey) had only one person doing most of the cooking. These responses remind me that we must never "assume" and instead use this research and listen to our clients in order to plan spaces that truly fit their needs.
Some Design Conclusions
Based on these and the multitudes of additional findings from research done over the years on how kitchens work, we can draw some solid kitchen design considerations, including:
'' Because the sink is and has always been the most frequently visited fixture or appliance in the kitchen (Howard, 1965), it may be the first item we look to duplicate when space allows. Because of the heavy traffic between other major work centers and the sink, there should always be a clear path between them in other words, islands that obstruct the path between sink and refrigerator or sink and cooktop might need to be reconsidered or a second sink might be needed.
'' From the beginning, the most universally accessed kitchen storage includes the standard backsplash area, so cabinetry or other storage accessories brought into this area is an excellent idea.
'' Then and now designs that permit a choice of positions, especially between sitting and standing, are desirable.
'' The increase in the number of people and activities in today's kitchens suggests we design generous work and walk aisles whenever possible.
'' The number of items stored in the kitchen has increased considerably (Cheever, 1992 and again Virginia Tech, 2004) over the years, as have the size and options of appliances, so storage remains at a premium and must be planned specific to a client's preferences inventory/needs.
'' Regardless of the fact that dishwashers no longer require it, most people rinse dishes before placing them in the dishwasher (Virginia Tech, 2004), so sinks and dishwashers should still be near each other.
'' Grilling is hugely popular (Virginia Tech, 2004), so easy access to the grill, whether indoors or out, is a must.
'' Most people prefer and do buy fresh produce, which might justify additional refrigerator space.
'' Trash and recycling bins are essential elements of the kitchen and, when possible, they should be easily moved for access at point of use.
'' Many people do not "fit" their kitchens, so better work accessible and more efficient storage should be incorporated into the design.
These are just a few examples of how research can be applied to keep kitchen design appropriate for the lifestyle of the times. Our NKBA kitchen planning guidelines are more than numbers to be memorized, and it is research that documents and explains the "how and why" of these dimensions. See for yourself when you check out the research chapter of the new NKBA Kitchen Planning Manual (due out in spring 2005). As a final word of advice, I'd recommend you do what I do when in doubt call the team at Virginia Tech.