Kitchens are more than decorative spaces, they are places of work. Even if they do not get a lot of time from family members, they are likely to get a lot of traffic. Of all the rooms in the house, this is the one where it's most important to get the spaces right.
If you're a serious cook, or a family of cooks, you may already have strong feelings about how things should go together -- whether you'll need two ovens, for instance, or a prep sink and a clean-up area, or more than one microwave.
If you're not so serious, or maybe are a serious microwaver, you need to devise a plan that works for you -- and that's best for the house. If resale value is important to you, a well-designed kitchen will always help.
Start by measuring the space very carefully. Plot it out on graph paper.
Kitchens are laid out in inches, not feet. The tolerance for error is actually quite small. When you do your measurements, account for trim around doors and windows. The standard height of a counter top is 36 inches. If the counter has an attached back splash (and not all do) the standard height is 40 inches. If all window trim ends 40 inches or more above the floor, it won't interfere with base units. If the window trim is lower, some accommodation will have to be made.
Remember that all cabinets must be installed level. If the floor slopes a quarter-inch per running foot, 40 inches on the high side will translate to 42 inches 8 feet down the wall. Old houses are rarely square, plumb, straight or level, so you need to measure across the tops of walls (where the wall cabinets will go) as well as across the bottom (where the base cabinets will go). If the two measurements are different, the smaller number is what you have to workwith.
It's a good idea in any case not to figure cabinets tight to the trim. You need to allow a little space for "accidents" -- like a bulging wall, electrical installation problems and so on.
Cabinets generally are made in 3-inch increments -- that is, widths of 12 inches, 15 inches, 18 inches, 21 inches and so on. (It's possible to get cabinets custom made in odd sizes, but they will be considerably more expensive.)
There's really no mystery to what arrangements and spaces work well in kitchen layouts. You can find the information in kitchen design books (some of them even have plastic grids and little stick-on cabinet and appliance shapes), or you can consult a kitchen designer. A little common sense can go a long way -- for instance, remembering that almost everything in the kitchen has a door that needs space to open.
The first task is to determine the best shape for the kitchen work space. That may already be determined by the shape of the room. If not, it may help to think in terms of the traditional work "triangle," generally laying out the shortest walking distance, measured from the center front, among the sink, stove and refrigerator.
However, there are all sorts of design elements, including personal preference, that may make that arrangement impossible or undesirable.
Whatever the arrangement, the sink is the center of most activity in the kitchen, so it makes sense to locate it centrally between or across from the stove and refrigerator.
Here are some layout considerations that Lori Markey, kitchen designer at National Lumber Co. in Baltimore, advises clients to keep in mind:
*Walk space between opposing cabinets should be 4 feet; between cabinets and wall or between cabinets and an island, it should be 3 feet.
*There should be space to walk in front of a refrigerator or oven even when the doors are open.
*If there's a corner sink, there should be enough space between the sink and dishwasher so someone standing at the sink can open the dishwasher.
*Sinks can be moved 6 inches or so on either side of the original drain. If you can get away with moving the sink only a little way, you may save on plumbing costs.
*Be careful placing tall items such as pantry units, double-oven units and refrigerators, because they will break up counter space. Youmay want that part of the kitchen to have a separate function (dining, for instance), but if you need the counter space, place the tall items at the end.
*Don't put the stove right next to the sink, especially if it's electric. You need counter space next to the stove, and water could become a safety hazard.
*Don't put the refrigerator next to the stove; the heat from the stove will not help the refrigerator.
*Refrigerators should be off a side wall by 4 to 6 inches so the door or doors can open all the way and all the bins can come out.
*Place ovens and dishwashers so that doors opening downward don't hit cabinet handles or trim on nearby walls.
*Be careful about putting the stove on the end of the counter run. If there is traffic beside it, things can get brushed off the stove top.
There are some minimum measurements that make sense in sink and appliance placement. According to Ms. Markey, these are some of the most important:
*There should be at least 12 inches of counter space on either side of the stove top.
*There should be at least 15 inches of counter space next to the open side of the refrigerator door, to put things down for loading and to set them down after taking them out.
*There should be at least 2 feet of counter space on either side of the sink.
*Oven and dishwasher door swings measure about 20 inches. The door swing on a traditional one-door refrigerator is about 30 inches.
Next: Tips on evaluating cabinets.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.