The Work Triangle: Does It Still Work?

The Work Triangle: Does It Still Work?

Kitchen space planners generally have strong views, both pro and con, about the efficacy of the kitchen 'work triangle' as reflected in the comments of several West Coast designers and architects.

YES It's Alive and Well, It's Functional & It Works
"We use the work triangle in all our kitchen designs, not only as a starting point, but also as a checkpoint to make sure the kitchen is functionally efficient," proclaims triangle advocate Larry Paul, AIA, NCARB, of L.A. Paul & Associates, in San Francisco. "Whether you prepare a meal, warm up leftovers or heat a frozen entree instead of cooking from scratch, you still use the same four appliances and fixtures refrigerator, range or cooktop, sink and dishwasher and they need to be located near one another to harmonize efficiency.

"For us, the 21-foot-sum triangle works best for average-size kitchens. That size puts the major appliances and adjacent work areas within two or three steps of one another, saving time and energy the perfect example of a time-and-motion study applied to meal preparation resulting in less steps taken, less energy expended and less time wasted walked back and forth."

But in a number of kitchens, the wall oven or microwave is used as much or more than the range or cooktop. 

How does the typical design triangle work when there are more than three often-used appliance centers?

According to architect Paul, "For those kitchens, I switch to a rectangle that includes the additional appliances. The microwave or wall oven modifies the triangle into a rectangle, and the appliance center is usually located between the refrigerator and a sink."

The National Kitchen & Bath Association's design guidelines, established to help design professionals plan spaces that function well, suggest making the work triangle 26 feet or less in total length (see Kitchen Plan at right). This is the distance between the refrigerator, primary cooking center and the primary sink, measured from the center front of each appliance. No leg of the triangle should be less than 4 feet or more than nine feet long. If an island or peninsula blocks the triangle, measure the shortest walking distance (this distorts the triangle somewhat), as shown. No leg should intersect an obstacle by more than 12 inches.

"Many larger kitchens require a series of smaller triangles, which work very well for multi-user kitchens or two-cook families," says designer Carolyn Heininge, of Eurostone, in San Leandro, CA and Portland, OR. "Many of my clients have two-cook kitchens when I give each cook a separate triangle (see Kitchen Plan, Page 67). The two triangles can share a leg, but shouldn't overlap."

Heininge adds that, "In two-cook kitchens, the refrigerator and range/cooktop are usually shared hopefully, the new kitchen will have two separ-
ated sinks."

Multi-user kitchens need special attention from designers. Knowing user schedules, preferences, tolerances and needs is critical to a successful design.
Mary Lou D'Auray, CID, of San Francisco-based Interior Design, knows that multi-user kitchens need more than three work areas. "I've designed some of my clients' kitchens with two food preparation areas and two clean-up zones. For multi-user kitchens, I depart from the one and only work triangle. Actually, after I digest all that I've learned about my clients' lifestyles, I connect the dots I'm probably creating a series of triangles in a few locations. They might overlap one another here and there."

Although the kitchen has evolved to include cooks of different ages, sexes, sizes and physical abilities, a family's kitchen functions may not necessarily fall into a three-point triangle; other points have been introduced.

"Making modifications to the work triangle does make sense," says D'Auray, "But you can't get away from the basic premise. I'm not saying that there are only three places a person would work at in the kitchen, but you have to start with those three places as a reference point and go from there. I use the work triangle regularly."

NO It Doesn't Work With Today's Lifestyles
"The design triangle is inflexible and very confining," says Callie McGuire of Duracite, a Benicia, CA-based kitchen countertop provider. "Home shelter magazines are quick to suggest that homeowners develop a variety of design triangles, each with the three main work centers in different places. But that's unrealistic in kitchen remodels you don't move sink, range, and refrigerator locations around as you would move furniture."

McGuire feels that the triangle could add value if the kitchen design included an island with a secondary sink. "Including a secondary sink creates at least one more triangle, and that makes the island adaptable to many uses not previously available: a wet bar location; a flower cutting and arranging area; a safe place to wash veggies so they won't get lost in a big sink filled with dirty/soapy dishes; and a craft area children can enjoy."

"Focusing on a geometric pattern precludes a designer from asking the right questions, and doesn't allow approaching the space with an open mind," says Larkspur, CA-based architect Thomas Hood. "It's a mistake not to ask how and what kinds of foods clients cook, or how many people they usually cook for. The work triangle is silent about clients' storage needs, or what kinds of small appliances, knives, or pots and pans they use."

"Why not include the daily dining function in the kitchen design?" asks McGuire.
In a comparison similar to the study that originally defined the work triangle, McGuire evaluated her own motions at mealtime. Her findings: one trip from the refrigerator to the sink, two from the refrigerator to the range, three from the range to the sink, two from the range to the table, nine between the refrigerator and the table, two from the sink to the table, five from the table to the refrigerator and seven from the table to the dishwasher.

While this analysis is far from scientific and fails to list the trips between the oven and the table, or between the dish storage cabinet and the table, McGuire says, "it does show that our individual kitchen motions are far too diverse and varied to ever attempt to place rules of efficiency on travel between just three working points in the kitchen."
She says that, while she understands the desire to establish guidelines for kitchen design, "When these guidelines perform in a negative manner that compromises designer perception and creative kitchen design, I believe it's time to re-evaluate the reason for the guidelines in the first place."

YES & NO Sometimes It Works; Other Times It Doesn't

"I was perplexed when I was asked if I was a kitchen design triangle advocate," says San Francisco architect John A. Schlenke, AIA.

"I guess I can't keep the triangle out of my mind when I first begin a kitchen design, but I'm not often motivated to put it to work and develop it for the majority of my clients. They're usually multi-cook families with varied lifestyles and schedules. And it's impossible for me to develop a single design triangle for a two-parent, two-cook family with a teenager and a pre-teen all home for dinner at one time imagining their travel patterns would blur my vision.

"I hardly use work triangles any more, except when a one-cook client makes it simple by asking for a 30-inch range with a microwave above it, one sink and one refrigerator. That's simple one person and one functional triangle."

Designer and cabinet supplier C.J. Lowenthal of Gilman Screens & Kitchens, in Foster City, CA, feels that the work triangle is "alive and well it works for average-size kitchens without islands. But in larger kitchens, two or more triangles might need to be worked into the design.

"Sometimes rules have to broken to meet individual needs," she admits. "But that's when the designer can gather all the appropriate information, develop it with the client, apply it to paper and create an effective kitchen design that's fun for the whole family to use."

Editor's Note: The preceding article appeared in All-Points Bulletin (July, 1999), a San Francisco-based newsletter for the home remodeling, repair and real estate industries. Written by remodeling facilitator Warren Camp, ASHI, this copyright-protected article has been reprinted by Kitchen & Bath Design News with permission. Subscription information on All-Points Bulletin can be obtained by calling (415) 641-1006.