When you sit down to design a new kitchen, ask not what a kitchen should be, but what your kitchen should be.
Some years ago, appliance configurations and plumbing exigencies dictated more or less how kitchens could be arranged. That's no longer true.
"Adaptability and flexibility" are the key words with today's appliances, says Jim Krengel, a Certified Kitchen Designer who is a consultant and educator in the field of kitchen design. Appliances have to meet people's needs and not bust the budget, he said.
And far from being constrained by limited choices, today's consumers face "too many choices."
"There are something like 967 styles and models of cook tops!" Mr. Krengel said. "Trying to unravel the choices and decide which is a good value is the hardest thing to do."
So what are designers doing? Mr. Krengel said one trend is to installing more than one of a certain kind of appliance.
That's not necessarily two identical ovens, he said: One might be a regular range oven, the other a more specialized wall oven. Or it might mean two microwaves, one in the main cooking area and one near a sitting area, where kids could prepare snacks without being in the way.
It might also mean two dishwashers, he said. As long as it's not too far from drains and ventilation, there's no need to place the dishwasher right next to the sink; why not put one facing the dining or dish-storage area, with another near the sink for pots, pans and utensils?
It's true that in these recessionary times, it may be a struggle to acquire one dishwasher, much less two. But there's nothing wrong with planning space now for an acquisition when times improve.
And not all design developments are that expensive. Simply changing the traditional location of certain appliances is another trend Mr. Krengel identified. The dishwasher, for instance. It's not exactly easy to load or unload a dishwasher installed in the usual way under the counter, Mr. Krengel said. But if you raise it off the floor about 8 inches, it becomes much easier to reach, especially for tall people or older people who find bending difficult.
A raised dishwasher shouldn't be installed right next to the sink, he noted, because sinks need 'elbow room' and because you need somewhere to set things down when you take them out of the machine. But the ease of loading and unloading may more than make up for the extra distance.
And then there's the microwave. When microwave ovens first became prevalent, he said, they were considered "counter top" appliances. Then designers began moving them out of the way -- over the range (where they were hard to reach) or under the counter.
However, he said, a recent study at the University of Minnesota on the ideal spot for microwaves found that 42 to 44 inches off the floor is perfect for most people. Conveniently, that makes the spot above the raised dishwasher perfect for the microwave. The two appliances can be installed attractively in a cabinet that incorporates drawers or shelves.
What about trendy new appliances -- ceramic stoves and built-in refrigerators? They're fine if you have the money, says Mr. Krengel, who is design director at the Maytag Kitchen Idea Center in St. Paul, Minn. But it's not necessary to spend big bucks to get an efficient, attractive design.
"People are often looking for something new and exciting," he said, "but old-fashioned calrod [electric heating element] ranges bring water to boil faster than anything else." If you're concerned that electric burners continue to heat after they're turned off, he suggested that you turn it off 3 to 4 minutes early "and take advantage of the free heat."
As for the refrigerator, you can get a built-in look simply by recessing it into a wall cavity. The three inches or so left between drywall walls in a 2-by-4 stud wall leave only the door sticking out, he said. And the plug can go in the cabinet above.
Two of the most effective money-saving techniques, Mr. Krengel said, are doing the work in stages, and doing some of the labor yourself. You shouldn't have to give up the goal of a new kitchen.
Besides, he added, "If you're at the point where you're ready for a new kitchen, you probably need one."
Next: A new look at laundries.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for 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.