How to Design a Kitchen That Is Efficient and Beautiful

People who know how to design a kitchen are keenly aware that the first goal is to make the kitchen functional and efficient. Naturally, you want your kitchen to be attractive. After all, we spend a lot of time in our kitchens. But first and foremost, your kitchen needs to fulfill its purpose of being an efficient place to prepare meals and clean up afterwards. There should be no wasted space. There should be limited excess distance between the sink, refrigerator, and the range, the focal points of the mythical work triangle. And there should be ample and accessible storage.

Learning how to design a kitchen is not hard, but it requires a good deal of planning and thought. I like to start with a “program” for the kitchen. If you’ve read some of my other articles on home design, you know how I harp on the critical step of planning what you are designing and what you want to achieve. Create a list of requirements. It should include the appliances you need, the functions you want to accommodate, and the characteristics of those elements. This list is called a program. Within your program, you should prioritize each element or characteristic noting which things are essential, which things are desired but could be compromised a bit, and which things you would like to have if they fit in but you could live without if necessary. No design can include everything. Some things must be compromised to accommodate others.

You should educate yourself about how to design a kitchen. Of course, reading articles like this one is a good way to start. But you should also observe kitchens more carefully than you may have in the past. Take a tape measure and measure your current kitchen and kitchens you are familiar with. Measure the space between and around various elements. Note how much storage space is provided and where it is located. Measure the distance between countertops and decide if it is a convenient distance or too tight or too far. In short order you will see what works and what doesn’t work. That knowledge will aid you in designing your new kitchen. Plus the kitchens you observe and measure will serve as a reference point for your kitchen design.

The three primary items of the kitchen are the sink, range or cooktop, and the refrigerator. Traditional kitchen planning refers to the arrangement of these elements as the “work triangle.”  This is the nucleus of the kitchen. If you draw straight lines connecting each one of these elements, you will have drawn your work triangle. The National Kitchen and Bath Association, the source authority on how to design a kitchen, recommends some guidelines for the ideal work triangle dimensions and characteristics:

Guidelines For Ideal Work Triangle

1. Each leg of the work triangle should be between 4 feet and 9 feet in length

2. The total length of all 3 legs should be between 12 and 26 feet 

3. Cabinets shouldn't protrude into any leg of the triangle by more than 12 inches

4. Major traffic flow shouldn't move through the triangle

If you adhere to these rules, your kitchen will be comfortable to work in. of course, many kitchens have more complicated arrangements.  Kitchens that have wall ovens, prep sinks, steamers, and other specialized appliances make the work triangle more complex.  There are no fixed rules for kitchens like these. In large kitchens, you might want to think in terms of multiple work triangles. One would be for food prep and would include the cooktop, refrigerator, and the prep sink. Another work triangle might be the cleanup triangle and include the large sink with a disposal, the trash/recycle center, and the dishwasher.

Each element in the kitchen has its own space requirements. The refrigerator needs some counter space nearby for laying down objects removed from it. This can be located to the right or left of the refrigerator as most refrigerator doors can be set to swing either way. The direction of the door swing should be compatible with the rest of the kitchen. Set it so the hinge side of the door is on the side away from the work triangle so you won’t have to walk around the door each time you want to open it. Then place the “lay down” countertop space on the opening side of the refrigerator door. For side-by-side refrigerator/freezers, having the “lay down” countertop behind you when you open the doors is often the most convenient. Instead of reaching around the open door to get to the countertop, you can simply turn around and place things on the counter behind you. Islands are perfect for this.

The cooktop or range needs a couple of feet of countertop space on either side, too. You need space to set down hot pots and to set things while cooking. The cleanup sink needs sufficient counter space on each side for staging dirty dishes and stacking dishes after they’ve been washed. Most kitchens are set up with the garbage disposal on the left and the dishwasher on the right. But consider what you might prefer, especially if you are left handed. If you are planning on having a separate cooktop and wall oven, there should be some countertop space near the oven for setting down the food you remove from the oven so as not to require you to carry hot items across the room.

A consideration when planning the cleanup area is to plan where the cleaned dishes will be stored after they are removed from the dishwasher. Some wall cabinets for glassware should be located within easy reach.  Likewise, consider the storage requirements for the items you need nearby the cooktop or range. Pots and pan drawers, drawers for utensils, spices, oils, etc. all should be placed within easy reach of the cooktop.

Storage for the things you do not access as frequently, can be further away. You might consider including a wall of tall pantry-type cabinets for storing large pots, the extra sack of flour, etc. along a wall on the far side of the kitchen. This would place those items within a few steps of your work triangle, but they would not be competing for space that is more effectively used for your daily use items.

The microwave is a difficult appliance to place. They are an awkward depth, deeper than your upper cabinets and shallower than your base cabinets. They are usually placed at an awkward height, higher than the countertop and not as high as your upper cabinets. If your microwave is not an integral part of your cooking routine, consider placing it outside the work triangle. Maybe it could even be across the room near those pantry type cabinets we discussed earlier. This logic holds true for some of the other specialty convenience appliances you might want, like coffee makers.

After your planning and self-educating, it’s time to layout the floor plan. Start with a layout of the room drawn to scale. Graph paper is useful for this. Many kitchen designers who are experts at how to design a kitchen start this way.  Figure each square on the graph paper as six inches to give yourself some room to work. Denote where the doors and windows are located. Note the ceiling height. Label the adjacent rooms. These rooms will influence the kitchen layout since you will want convenient access to the dining room and you’ll need to consider how you travel from the garage to the kitchen to bring in the groceries.

If you are designing a new house, the room shape and size may be adjustable along with the overall design of the house. In this case, you may want to think in terms of the ultimate, ideal kitchen for you, lay out the plan for it with the walls, windows, and doors being adjustable at your whim, and then give the plan of your “perfect” kitchen to your architect or house designer to incorporate into the rest of the house plan.

Start your plan by drawing in wall cabinets where possible, avoiding the doors and openings to other rooms. Will there be a breakfast table in your new kitchen? If so, determine how much space it will need and sketch that in. you might even want to make a cutout of the table and chairs so you can move it around on your plan easily.

Base wall cabinets and countertops are 24” deep. Since wall space is at a premium in every kitchen, you should strive to optimize your use of this space for cabinetry. Next, decide where the kitchen sink should go. Will it face a window? Will it be on the kitchen island? Be sure to place it where there is ample counter space around it and there is room for the dishwasher. Every kitchen plan revolves around the kitchen sink.

After placing the sink, figure out where to put the range or cooktop and its adjacent counter space. Then consider where the refrigerator and wall ovens, if you have them, will go. I refer to the refrigerator and wall ovens as the “big boxes” of the kitchen. They are tall and they are as deep as your base cabinets and countertops. Any additional countertop beyond them will be effectively cut off from the work triangle and feel like it is not a part of your primary kitchen. So I like to place the big boxes at the ends of the line, at the far end of the countertops.

One note about refrigerators. The standard refrigerators are up to ten inches deeper than your base cabinets and countertops. They will stick out into the room a lot, making them an extremely big box. So check the actual depth of your refrigerator and locate it in your plan with this in mind. This is one of the reasons that so-called counter-depth refrigerators, like Sub-Zero, are popular. They don’t intrude into the kitchen like standard refrigerators do. But counter-depth refrigerators are expensive and may not fit your budget. One neat trick, if you can do it, is to place a standard refrigerator on a wall where you can create an alcove behind the refrigerator to let it “sink into” the wall. This will let you push it back and get the front face of the refrigerator doors flush with the base cabinets. If you then install surrounding cabinets and panels to create an enclosure for the refrigerator, you will give your standard refrigerator much of the same look as an expensive built-in refrigerator.

Do you have enough room for a kitchen island? An L-shaped kitchen with an island needs at least ten feet of width to fit in a minimum depth island with minimal aisle space. Twelve feet would be preferred. For a U-shaped kitchen with an island, you’ll need a room that is at least twelve feet wide for a minimum depth island with fourteen feet being preferred. If you want the island to run in the long dimension in the U-shape, you’ll need at least sixteen feet of width. Islands that will hold the sink need even more width.

After sketching out the likely locations for the wall cabinets and the essential work triangle elements, you can begin to try out various shapes and sizes for the island. Will your island have any appliances on it such as the primary sink or a prep sink? Will there be bar-style seating at one side? Will it have two levels? There are so many ways to design an island, you can be free to use your imagination. In one house I designed for my family, we had a kitchen island that was shaped like a grand piano. The cooktop was where the keyboard would have been and the seating was along the curving edge. We got lots of compliments on it.

Knowing how to design a kitchen is one thing. Getting it right is another. Don’t let yourself be stifled by your first try. Right now it’s only paper and is easily changed. Experiment with several locations for the key elements. As you sketch out several scenarios, you will learn more and more about how the pieces fit together and your personal preferences.

And there are plenty of those details to work out. Sooner or later you’ll need to determine where every drawer will go. You’ll need to select cabinet hardware, accessories that go inside the cabinets, and the mouldings that go on the top of the upper cabinets. Which cabinets should have glass doors? Are there lights in any of the cabinets? Where will the electrical outlets go? Unless you have a lot of personal experience in kitchen design, the help of a kitchen designer who is an expert at how to design a kitchen will be quite valuable. You can either hire a kitchen designer as a consultant or you can select the cabinet company you wish to work with and they will usually have designers who work out every detail with you.

When you have a plan you like, the next step is to apply some style to it. This is where you will want to visit some kitchen cabinet showrooms. There you will find kitchen vignettes, sample doors in various styles and finishes, plus people who know how to design a kitchen. Much of their advice is free. They can take the plan you have developed and fine-tune it. They can guide you through the selections of the cabinet style. And ultimately, they can help you work out the finer details.

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