Creating Multi-Height Cabinet Elevations

While studying the elements of style will help you to shape and define the overall ambiance of a kitchen, it's the design details that can truly make or break the project. Design details can add interest and personalize the project, yet they can also provide design solutions broad enough to be repeated in various plans.

Creating multiple-height cabinet elevations is a great way to add interest to a project. Special-height base and tall cabinetry can offer both functional and aesthetic benefits.

There are three clear advantages to such cabinetry in contemporary kitchen planning.

1. For the traditionalists, the look is accepted by clients who are engaged in a free-spirited search for "one-of-a-kind" designs, which often result in elegantly assembled unfitted furniture pieces in a total room setting. For Contemporary-inclined clients interested in a "disassembled" look, stepped cabinetry can often be a cornerstone of eclectic styling. The real challenge is to maintain the functionality of long runs of connected cabinetry while breaking up the monotony of such a space.

2. The extra functionality offered by special height base and tall cabinets makes good sense. The clear view and accessibility of cooking utensils on a lowered range top has long been recognized by designers. To eliminate bending or stooping, raised dishwashers are a favored specification by many. As our appliance menu increases in kitchens, reachable, viewable, special-purpose-height cabinets efficiently house microwave/ convection ovens, warming drawers and built-in coffeemakers. I predict flat screen technology will soon introduce yet another appliance the entertainment appliance into our kitchens. So, special-height cabinetry to house flat screen televisions may become a new specialty cabinetry application.

3. The valuable contribution special-height cabinets can make in visually defining large expanses of "Great Room" kitchens is important as we struggle to humanize the scale of such spaces. We all have faced the "airport runway" problem of a long, uninterrupted, oversized island in a kitchen. Varying the height of the cabinets is an innovative way to better define the space.
While the value of special-height cabinets seems clear, many designers haven't been able to find any carefully thought-out academic direction on how to determine the sizing of these cabinets. Nor is much written about how to technically manage the intersection of different depths, heights and finishes of cabinet cases and surfacing materials. This month, we'll look at some practical guidelines based on research into human scale, experience founded in experimentation and the study of work created by design leaders.

Step-by-Step Guide
Following is a step-by-step procedure to assist you in creatively thinking through the appropriateness of such special-height cabinets, how to present such a solution to a client, and how to detail the space.

Step No. 1: Complete the "zoning" space management of the room. Knowing all the activities that will take place in the space and the square footage of each function that must be provided is of paramount importance. Equally important, you need to think through the sight line of visitors as well as workers in the space. Lastly, track the natural light entering the room and then create the artificial light plan.

Step No. 2: Divide the possible special-height cabinet components into cabinetry categories. This will let you move beyond typical base/wall/tall cabinet sizes, yet give your creative mind a "checklist" of options to consider. This approach makes it easier to add new sizes to your "mental" cabinet line category.

Here are the categories I use:

  • A raised high base cabinet elevation (48"-57" is my recommended sizing) with no wall cabinets planned above. These types of elevations are appropriate for secondary storage areas not requiring counter space. They can be grounded to the floor with a 2"-6" baseboard rather than a toe kick, or float 4"-12" off the walking surface. The space above them may be a window wall, an unencumbered wall for the family's collectibles or shelving to provide functional and decorative storage.
  • "Pop-up" (a better name is "tower") base cabinet sections. I'm particularly fond of the emerging use of sections of cabinetry that are taller than adjacent spaces, not only helping to define the space, but providing ideal storage for a room short on wall cabinets or one long on specialty appliances. These "pop-ups" are excellent for housing appliances best placed at shoulder-to-eye level.
  • Drop-down base cabinet sections. This is probably the one idea most of you are familiar with. For many years, our European colleagues have dropped cooking area sections, providing a better view and easier accessibility to food stuffs being prepared in large pots at the range. Drop-down sections to facilitate baking arm/wrist actions have been recommended by North American home economists for years, as well. I find a dropped corner section a pleasant visual relief in large, complicated rooms. Lowered areas are also sometimes a necessity when a window finishes below a working 36" countertop. The actual drop dimensions can be based on either a proportional aesthetic or sized to suit the primary cook's height.
  • A stepped-back, mid-height tall unit. This is a functional and attractive solution when placed at the end of a run to separate the function in the kitchen from an adjacent gathering area. It's also a good substitute to wall cabinets because the cabinet will provide maximum storage in the most useful area. This is a solution worth considering when you must stack the television, microwave, appliance garage or other specialized storage and don't want to have an awkward "stepped" wall cabinet configuration with the microwave appearing to "hang out" of the 12" deep wall unit above it.
  • A full-depth (57"-72") mid-height tall (my second favorite) unit. This type of cabinet run is an excellent solution for petite cooks. Reaching above built-in ovens or to the top of cabinetry is difficult to impossible for most. This type of full-depth, mid-height unit is also well suited for side-by-side appliance installations. These may include:
    1. Side-by-side single ovens with storage cabinetry below.
    2. Single oven with microwave and warming drawer adjacent.
    3. Built-in coffeemaker with two warming drawers adjacent.
    4. Coffeemaker and microwave adjacent to one another.
    5. Stacked built-in coffeemaker, microwave or warming drawer with adjacent space featuring a flip-down plasma screen, telephone niche or specially designed spot for the laptop computer.
    6. Stacked ovens or boxed-in refrigerator (no armoire no cabinet above no panel above), a framed enclosure finishing at the top of the appliance.

As you study a plan, first block out the zones, then think through the appliance placement and work center location. Once these elements of the plan are settled, keep an open mind to different heights (and, in some cases, depths) for the cabinetry.

Step No. 3: Once you have an idea, discipline yourself to be familiar with North American anthropmetric data. Take the time to know your client's height, eye level and reaching capability. Make sure your idea "fits" your client's stature.

Step No. 4: Size-up the client's reaction to such an approach before spending a lot of time laboriously detailing the idea. Sketch it out (or find photographs) to show the client the design solution before you proceed to the final plan stage. By the way, think about updating your showroom to include some of these ideas!

Step No. 5: Once a design idea has been conceptually agreed to, begin the careful detailing with a clear eye toward dimensioning. Not only the sizes of appliances, but the dimensions of the counter surfacing material used, any abutting appliances, and an idea of how the cabinets will intersect (or flush out) with adjacent units are all critical in ensuring your solution is profitable at the end of the project's installation process.

Step No. 6: Make sure you have considered the durability and cleanability of any storage cabinetry that will come in direct contact with counter surfaces. Those countertops flush with cabinets look great yet don't provide protection to cabinetry below them in the same way a countertop with an extended lip does. Similarly, cabinetry that juts up past the countertop or sits on a countertop may expose furniture wood finishes to the housekeeper's scrubbing sponge and wet area cleaning techniques. Think about countertop material, molding or platform applications to separate a cabinet extending to the counter (or plan cabinet molding with extra ordered lengths so it can be changed throughout the life expectancy of the room).

Creating "one-of-a-kind" personalized design solutions for your client's kitchen plan is a talent one that's highly valued by consumers interested in a functional cooking room that reflects their personal design styles. The concept category of multi-height cabinet elevations might be a solution just right for your next project. KBDN

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame and author of two textbooks in the area of design education, Cheever manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet firms. She is on NKBA's Ad Hoc International Affiliations Committee and Ad Hoc Planning Guidelines Committee, and speaks at K&BDN's 'Designing for Profit' Seminars.

This is the first of a series of 'Designer's Notebook' pieces that will address design solutions from a problem-solving angle, to run during 2004, exclusively in K&BDN.