Kitchen Work Area

There are volumes written about kitchens, but when you dig thru all the variations there are really only a handful of principles that define a good kitchen.  Individual preferences make it so that there is no universal good kitchen, but variations on a theme.  The following four1 principles define the basic good kitchen:

  • The refrigerator/stove/sink workspace is a triangle with no edge longer than ten feet. The most comfortable distances are between 3 and 8 feet.
  • There is at least 20SF of counter space, and at least two sections of four linear feet of workspace, although a space for one person can get by on less.
  • There is plenty of light.
  • There is food storage for at least the commonly used items within the same maximum 10' distance as the work triangle.

The first principle effectively limits how big the kitchen is by limiting to the maximum distance you want to travel to get between the work places, while the second one limits how small it can be by specifying a minimum amount of counter space.  This second constraint addresses the majority complaints people have about their kitchens.  Work space size is really the most important thing in a kitchen: too small and you lack workspace, too big and you spend too much time walking.  What is too small depends on the number of people working in the kitchen at once: a kitchen for one person can be a bit smaller than one where two work side by side.

Since most counter space sits on top of cabinets, there is generally a correlation between the number of lower cabinets and counter space.  Since it makes little sense to build cabinets you won't use (or alternatively to build them only for them to end up filled with stuff you also don't use), this is a limitation in the amount of counter space.  Every cabinet should have a designed use, and each one should be located where you want it, particularly the ones for the things used every day- pots, mixing bowls, dishes and silverware.  Make a place for your storage containers, spices, cooking oil, kitchen gadgets and so on.  If you are concerned that you've forgotten something, and particularly if your counter space seems a bit short, build a little extra space, but not much.

Consider also that counters often end up cluttered with many things like a bowl of fruit, a toaster, a coffee pot, a food processor, a dish drying rack, a jar of cooking utensils,  a jar of cookies, and so on, and they don't all need to be there.  If this leaves too little counter space, consider finding other places for them.  If the other place is to build more lower cabinets, then keep in mind that you'll also end up with more counter space in the process, so you may only need to add a very small amount of both.

What is probably more important than the 20SF minimum counter size is that there are at least two 3-4' (ie 12-16SF) empty counter spaces always available after the clutter takes over the rest.  Most people will want at least a couple of feet of counter on each side of the sink, and a sizable workspace on one side of the stove as well as at leas a small counter next to the refrigerator to collect things as they are brought out of the refrigerator, and also to stack groceries going into the refrigerator.

A counter at bar height (approx 42" off the floor), is and ideal place to put out food for guests as well as a place to transfer food from the kitchen to the dining area.  If you can find comfortable enough bar stools it makes and Ok place for an informal lunch, but most people will find a table more comfortable.

If a breakfast nook is to be included, keep it far enough out of the workspace, but close enough that it still feels part of the kitchen.

It is often difficult to fit an entire pantry in the kitchen, but find space for at least the most common items you use.

While most people store dishes away in upper cabinets, and pots in lower cabinets, both can be stored out the open: the pots hung on hooks, and the dishes in opens shelves.  This solution saves significant cabinet expense, but requires you to be willing to have everyone look at your dishes and to be willing to dust them off if they haven't been used in a while.

Of all the rooms in the house, kitchens need more light than any others, and hence they often have more electric lights than anywhere else.  Except in hot climates where a lot of sunlight also means excessive solar heat gain, consider putting the kitchen workspace on a south wall and giving it plenty of windows.  In mixed climates, an overhang will keep out the summer sun while still allowing ample light in.  If the kitchen must face north, a skylight will bring in a lot of light, although beware of getting too much solar heat in the summer.

On a wall with both upper and lower cabinets, a short window (only 12" high), sitting just above the counter, gives a surprisingly large amount of light to that counter.  It is common to fill the kitchen ceiling with many recessed can lights, and although it makes the kitchen very bright, if instead you use pendant lights focused on the important work areas and combine that with under cabinet mini-fluorescents you can have equally effective lighting using far less watts.  Kitchen sinks have traditionally been located near a window, but there is no real reason why that is necessary, although a nice view outdoors would certainly make an otherwise mundane chore more pleasant.


kitchen layouts
The leftmost four examples are typical kitchen layouts: the U, L, L with an island, and galley, while the rightmost two are larger, more complex layouts.  Needless to say, the larger spaces make fitting every thing easier. he gray triangle is the work triangle. Scale: 10px=1 foot.

The examples above are samples of common kitchen layouts.  The first four plans are very efficient, and variations of them appear in many homes.  If there is a fault in any of them, its that its too easy to make them too small: in fact the drawings here are a bit on the small side.  In the rightmost two plans, the work triangle starts approaching its upper size limit.

Each plan can be rotated, flipped, and in most cases, the sink and stove could be swapped if so desired. The counter space in these examples is about the smallest possible.  The last two examples are of larger, more complex layouts, but in this case not something you'll likely find because once the size gets larger, many more variations are possible. What is common about these last two examples is that they have multiple entrances: in addition to an adjoining eating area, the other entrance leads to a mudroom, garage,  entry, family room etc.

In spite of their variations, the common thread is that each design has enough counter space, at least one sizeable prep area and the work triangle distances are not too large.  These plans are all drawn rectangular, since that is the most common, but there could be angles of other than 90 there instead, and rather than straight run, counter could be curved.  However keep in mind that non-standard designs might not be able to use standard materials, and getting everything to fit, especially with a curved counter, can be quite difficult.

It's also important to make sure that the various doors (cabinet, refrigerator, range, and particularly the dishwasher) open without banging in each other, and that an open door doesn't impede movement or more importantly when a door is open there is at least one convenient place to stand.  For example, avoid putting a range or dishwasher any closer than 18" from a corner or you won't be able to stand in the corner with the door open (nor will you be able to open a corner cabinet door).  If there is no easy way around the situation, its also not the end of the world-its just potentially annoying.


1: See pattern #184 and #199 in "A Pattern Language".  The principles given here vary somewhat from those in the book: in particular the pantry distance is made less essential, the counter space is listed as area, not distance,  and some counters shorter than 4' are considered OK.   The reason is not because I necessarily disagree with them, but that I'm trying to reduce the number of situations where following the rules is difficult or impossible.  Also the goal here is slightly different since these patterns are more about asking all the right questions while giving suggestions rather than giving specific solutions.