Terry Love (425) 649-LOVE

Common-Sense Kitchen Design

Reprinted from Popular Mechanics, August 1996

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Common-Sense Kitchen Design

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How to get the best plan for your budget. By Merle Henkenius; PM Photos by Spencer Jones

If you've considered upgrading your old kitchen lately, but find the array of design and product options a bit overwhelming, take heart. The design process, though exacting, is not as mysterious as it might appear. The space and your budget will probably limit the options. Your family's lifestyle and personal tastes will also narl1ow the field. While this may sound discouraging, it's really not. The space you own, the life you live, your stylistic likes and dislikes--these make the best foundation for a uniquely personal and workable kitchen.

Finding help

When a kitchen requires only cosmetic or modest mechanical improvements to make it new again, chances are you can do that work yourself. The more extensive the job, however, the more likely it is that you'll need professional tradespeople and a trained kitchen designer to see you through it. How you proceed is directly related to how much work needs to he done and whether you have the time, the skills-including knowledge of building codes--and the inclination to handle it yourself.

The most popular approach is to hire a kitchen-remodeling outfit that is nothing more than a design/build contracting firm specializing in kitchens, and usually in baths too. In these cases, the contractor employs a trained kitchen designer, who melds your space with your needs to create the best design for you. The cost of the design--the blueprint--is often waived when you sign the build contract. The contractor then manages the job from stalt to finish, using subcontractors as needed. This approach is popular because it works well for most people. And the busier we are, the better this option appears. It does have its limits, however. In searching for the most competitive, competent design/ build firm, you can end up with as many plans and product lines as contractors. The bidding process requires an apples with apples comparison, which tends to complicate the matter a bit further. It's not an insurmountable problem, but it requires an upfront discussion with everyone concerned.

For this reason, some homeowners design their own kitchens, choose a target price and take bids on the work. Another approach is to commission a plan by a registered architect. An architect's plan will almost always cost more than one generated by a builder, because a builder has a hundred ways to recoup the design costs. The plan, in the builder's case, is an admission ticket. For the architect, the plan is the actual event.

An architect offers two clear advantages: He or she is generally better trained and produces just one plan, with a detailed product list. You then hand copies to a variety of builders, certain that all will be bidding on the same goods and services.

And finally, you might act as your own general contractor, hiring and coordinating subcontractors, and perhaps doing some of the work yourself. While some people are actually good at this, the rest of us don't have the time, patience, knowledge or organizational skills needed to do it. And, you'd probably need time away from YOUR job to make it work. Moreover, you'd be responsible for duality control, call backs and arranging warranty work. In the end, it's often better to stick to what you do best and pay a general contractor to do the same. You should expect a 15 to 20% markup on all goods and services to pay for the general contractor.

Where to begin

No matter how you choose to complete your kitchen upgrade, you should start by looking at as many kitchens and kitchen products as you can. Keep a file and stuff it with magazine clippings, product literature, prices and your own ideas. Immerse yourself. become a minor exIpert. It will all pay off, whether you do the work yourself or hire someone to do it.

Many large home centers now have computer-aided drafting programs. Bring a simple drawing of your kitchen space, with critical dimensions noted, pick a cabinet type and have the computer operator run the numbers for you. What youll get is a plan and an elevation view of your kitchen with your choice of components spliced in, complete with a price list. Keep in mind that drafting is not designing, and it's certainly not building, but the resulting pictures can help you refine your ideas, assign priorities and approximate material costs.

Lifestyle influences

While it's easy to overstate lifestyle differences-kitchens generally have more in common than individuals how you live should influence some of your choices. If you enjoy making bread, for example, a slightly elevated section of counter will make kneading dough more comfortable. If you make and freeze several days' worth of meals at a time, then a refrigerator with a large, convenient freezer makes sense. If you shop for groceries only a couple of times a month, then increased pantry space should be a priority. If you prefer meat-and-potato meals, convenient pots-and-pans storage and a first-rate oven are important. But if you favor convenience foods, a larger, carousel-equipped microwave oven, which also offers convection heat for browning meats, is a good choice.

Kitchen upgrades can range from $1000 to $50,000 and more. The low figure, of course, would limit your options, and would almost certainly require do-it-yourself work. The high end, no matter how you spend it, will buy a whole lot of kitchen.

Budget facelifts

If your kitchen is adequate in most respects, but is showing its age, a simple facelift may do. This could entail new flooring, improved lighting, refaced or refurbished cabinet fronts and perhaps a new countertop, sink and faucet. These improvements typically fall in the $1000 to $3000 category, with costs keyed to material selection, the size of the space and the amount of cabinet frontage.

Many older homes have site-built cabinets, which were often made with solid pine or fir face-frame lumber and pine or birch plywood doors and drawer fronts. Despite the economic lumber, these cabinets are often better built than today's low- to midrange modular units. Moreover, they often include space and shape accommodations and storage features unique to each kitchen. Unless you're really set on a completely new kitchen, painting these quality cabinets is often a good choice, and can be completed for around $50. Add another $50 to $100 for new drawer and door pulls, and you'll be surprised at ,, the improvement. All you'll need to do is degloss the existing paint or stain. The best approach is to scuff the exposed areas with a palm sander and hand sand the tight spots.

Stripping and restaining is another option, but it is tedious and messy work that can tie up your kitchen for days--if not weeks-- and subject your family to unpleasant and even noxious chemical fumes. Still, if your cabinets are an attractive hardwood, and the layout is still acceptable to you, stripping and refinishing can be a real moneysaver.

Another economical solution is to have your stained cabinets refurbished. The Kitchen Tune-Up Company (131 N. Roosevelt, Aberdine, SD 57401) specializes in refurbishing cabinets that are in good overall condition but are beginning to show signs of wear. Using patented cleaners, colorizers and finishes, workers are able to remove years of accumulated grease and grime, restain worn areas around handles and drawer pulls, repair scratches, reglue raised-panel doors, adjust and replace worn drawer glides and apply a new finish. The results can be quite dramatic, and the cost is usually $300 to $500, depending on the size of the task. Kitchen Tune-Up has 300 franchises in 40 states. For the nearest dealer, call 800-333-6385.  In Seattle area call 206-861-5470

And finally, when cabinets are structurally sound, but are too beatup, too dark or just too ugly, you might consider having them refaced with hardwood veneers and fitted with replacement doors and drawer fronts. You'll find this service in the Yellow Pages, with prices ranging from $1000 to $2000 for a small to midsize kitchen.

Replacement doors, drawer fronts and veneers are also carried by home centers and lumberyards. If you're patient, you might do this work yourself, at a substantial savings and with few tools. The veneers come with heat-sensitive adhesive. Just degloss the cabinet faces, cut the veneer strips to length and apply them with a household iron. Then trim, stain and seal the veneer and install the new doors and drawer fronts. Prices will vary, but we found 2-in. x 8-ft. rolls of red-oak veneer, with iron-on adhesive, priced at $4.60 each. We also found 151/2 x 221/2-in. recessed panel red-oak doors, already stained and sealed, for $16.99. A raised panel equivalent was priced at $22.99.

Beyond the quick fix

As reasonable as these options are, they're not for every kitchen or everyone. If improved efficiency, increased capacity and a dramatic change in appearance are what you're after, cosmetic changes simply won't do. In fact, many kitchen upgrades require complete tearouts and may require mechanical, electrical and structural changes. If your kitchen is really cramped or dated, and you can afford an entirely new kitchen, then that's the route to take.

Structural changes

In many cases, kitchens are just too small for any real improvement in space management. Of course, you can add space by building an addition. Although appropriate in some cases, additions are always costly and not always feasible. For that reason, it pays to consider the less expensive alternatives. What you don't spend on structure, after all, you can invest in better cabinets, lights, counters, fixtures, flooring and appliances.

If you live in a single-story home, one option is to bump out an exterior wall by 24 in. In this scenario, a section of the existing wall is cut out and replaced by a laminated header to support the roof. The old floor is then cantilevered outward and new exterior walls are built along the perimeter of the new floor. The whole extension is covered with a small roof and you have a lot of extra space without paying for a foundation. Assuming a 24in. bump-out, the new space could hold a bank of cabinets and appliances, giving you 2 ft. of wiggle room in front of them. While it's impossible to fix an exact price, $3500 to $5500 might do it, which is one-third the cost of a modest room addition.

In other cases, the wall enclosing a small breakfast nook can be removed, extending the length of the kitchen. A breakfast bar over a peninsula cabinet would occupy much less space, and might work even better with today's dine-and-dash eating habits.

In some situations, the mere illusion of more space can make the difference. By widening the opening of a U-shape kitchen, or by providing alternate acces to a dining area, the impression of openness and the benefits of rerouted traffic can make a kitchen feel bigger. Similarly, moving a door can open up many new layout possibilities. These alternatives are very affordable.

Sometimes merely cutting a rectangular opening in the top half of the wall that separates a kitchen and living or dining room will help. At the very least, it will allow the cook to feel less confined. Anyone who has ever thrown a party knows that cooking can be a spectator sport, so open it up and invite them in.

When it comes to creating open space, nothing can compete with removing a wall between your kitchen and dining room. While the results of this choice are dramatic, the cost can be pretty low, often as little as a few hundred dollars. But it pays to consider a licensed contractor for this work. Interior walls can harbor plumbing, heating and electrical equipment that must be moved and can easily prove to be a bigger challenge than you want to take on.

Electrical requirements

Almost all kitchens more than 10 years old are underpowered. Electricians and builders of old simply did not fathom the number of large and small appliances found in most kitchens today. Depending on the age of your house, you can expect only one or two receptacle circuits, with illumination pulled from a general lighting circuit powering all ceiling lights. Safety is another important issue, as most older kitchens do not have ground-fault protection.

In a complete kitchen overhaul, upgrading the wiring is fairly easy, given enough room for new breakers in the service panel. Lacking enough room for expansion, a panel and service upgrade is a must. The job will run $600 to $1200 in most markets, and is always money well spent. As for powering a new kitchen, give the refrigerator its own 15-amp circuit. The microwave, too, could benefit from a dedicated circuit. Avoid plugging a computer into a circuit that is serving a spikeproducing microwave oven. If your kitchen is large, try to power the small-appliance receptacles with two 20-amp circuits, with the circuit serving the sink area protected by a GFCI receptacle or breaker. Codes now require groundfault protection within 6 ft. of the sink. Island and peninsula cabinets must also be wired with receptacles, with "wet" islands requiring GFCIs.

In addition to these circuits, the dishwasher may need its own circuit, while a food disposer and hot-water dispenser might share a circuit, depending on local codes. When in doubt, and when possible, provide more, not less. Also, electric ranges, cook-tops and ovens require dedicated 240-volt circuits.

Lighting basics

Many kitchens are poorly lighted. The light from a single fixture centered overhead is usually blocked by your own body as you work at the counter. Wall cabinets also block head light, leaving the primary food-prep spaces darker than the rest of the room. And it's not just the age of the kitchen that matters. Experts say that people over the age of 50 regquire at least 100% more light to read than they did when they were 20. The solution? More versatile, task-oriented light in more places.

Fluorescent undercabinet lights can make a big difference and cost very little to install and operate. Expect a 1'/4 x 4 x 18-in. a fixture to cost less than $25. Not every cabinet will need a fluorescent light, but those nearest your primary workspaces should have them.

Recessed 120-volt incandescent fixtures can also brighten a workspace inexpensively and do double duty when controlled by a dimmer switch. At full power, they're task lights, at one-third power they're accent lights. When shopping for recessed fixtures, opt for the slightly more expensive zero-clearance models if you live in a single-story house. These can stand direct contact with attic insulation.

While 120-volt incandescent fixtures are still popular, the tiny but mighty low-voltage halogen and incandescent alternatives are gaining ground pretty quickly. Used primarily as accent lights, their advantages are compact design, energy efficiency and a certain minimalist understatement. Halogens give off a brightwhite light, while incandescents are always warmer in color.

Some fixtures are so compact that they fit invisibly beneath wall cabinets and even inside dinnerware and curie cabinets. Some fixtures have their own voltagereducing transformers, while in other cases, several fixtures are ganged together. A 100-watt transformer, for example, could serve five 20-watt lamps. Some of the small fixtures come in striplight form, with lamps in fixed positions, while miniature tracks allow a variety of twist-in lampholders. Most applications blend exposed spots with concealed puck lights (the shape and size of a hockey puck) for the best coverage.

The disadvantages? These small lights are expensive, often costing two to three times that of standard incandescent fixtures. Halogen lamps also burn very hot, so care is needed in keeping them away from combustibles. Some manufacturers substitute zenon for halogen to reduce the heat output for some applications. Give as much thought and planning to lighting as you can. Most retail lighting dealers will be able to lead you through the maze of options.

Plumbing, heating and ventilation

Most extensive kitchen remodels require some changes in plumbing, heating and ventilation piping. Unless your changes will be minor, this work requires the assistance of a professional. All perimeter-wall drain lines must be vented through the roof. If you're lucky, you might be able to tap an existing vent pipe, but many older kitchens were inadequately vented from the start. One sure sign thata kitchen is not vented is an S-trap under the sink. Because of its shape, an S-trap pipe cannot be vented and should not be utilized. If you install an island cabinet with a sink, the drain line serving that sink cannot be vented conventionally. In this case, an automatic-vent device or a barometric (loop) vent is required. A licensed plumber will know which is best for your application.

Changes in the heating system are usually minor, but new exhaust vent requirements are often complicated. If at all possible, choose a range hood that vents to the open air, with a capacity of at least 150 cfm.

And finally, if you plan to install a cook-top with a griddle/grill combination and a downdraft exhaust vent, be sure to check the basement ceiling for clearance room. Floor joists that run parallel to the preferred vent direction will allow you to install the vent between joists, and avoid dropping the ceiling. In either case, you'll need access to the joists, so a finished ceiling can really complicate matters.

Choices and more choices The basic behind-the-scenes requirements of your kitchen remodel can be pretty straightforward. Small changes to the structure and the mechanical systems don't often require much thought because usually the choices aren't that complicated.

But nothing could be further from the truth for the kitchen components that everyone sees, namely the cabinets, counters, appliances and flooring. In these areas, the options can be absolutely overwhelming. For example, it may take you just a moment to decide you'd like laminate countertops. But how long will it take to choose between the hundreds of colors available?

The following articles cover those four topics in more detail. We can't promise you that when you're done you'll understand the forest any better. But we think it's a good bet that you'll know more about the trees.

Design Basics

The building industry has used several sets of design guidelines since the 1920s, with the most recent revision established in 1992. Sponsored by the National Kitchen &, Bath Association (NKBA), in conjunction with the University Of Minnesota, The Kitchen Guidelines adapts older standards to emerging lifestyle trends, factoring in more appliances, less formal eating habits and two cooks at the counter. We'll only hit the highlights here. The complete list is available from NKBA, 687 Willow Grove St., Hackettstown, NJ 07840.

The work triangle

The heart of every kitchen layout is the work triangle, a 3-cornered traffic pattern anchored by the sink, refrigerator and cook-tap. This area gets the most use, and whenever possible, should be kept free of cross-traffic and permanent obstructions, such as island cabinets. No leg of the triangle should be shorter than 4 ft.or longer than 9 ft., as measured from the center of the sink and appliances. For optimum convenience, the combined legs of the triangle should not exceed 26 ft. When designing a 2-cook kitchen, consider adding a small food-prep sink opposite the primary sink, which would bend the triangle into a rectangle.

Remember, though, that an ideal is an island surrounded by compromise. If your family must pass through a galley kitchen on the way to the dining room, your work triangle will be invaded fairly frequently. If so, you might consider changing the location of the dining room entry. But if this isn't possible, then just resolve to enjoy the added physical contact and push on.

Cabinet storage

A kitchen smaller than 150 so. ft. should have at least 156 linear inches of base cabinet frontage, while a larger kitchen should shoot for a minimum of 196 in. For upper cabinets, the minimums are 144 and 186 in. Lazy Susans can be assigned 30 in. Try for at least 60 in. of upper cabinet dinnerware storage near the sink. Organization should grow outward from the work triangle, with the most used items located nearest the workspace.

Counter space

Provide as much counter space as possible, especially near the sink, cook-top and refrigerator. Again, small undercabinet appliances can make a big difference. Try for at least 9 in. of counter on one side of a cook-top and 15 in. on the other. You'll need at least 15 in, of space adjacent to the latch side of the refrigerator and 36 in. on at least one side of the sink.

Walkway clearances

In galley kitchens and kitchens with island cabinets, provide a minimum of 42 in. of clearance between opposing cabinets in the primary workspace. Walkways that do not enter the work triangle should have at least 32 to 36 in. of clearance. Avoid locating appliances with opening doors, such as dishwashers and ovens, across from each other. --M.H.

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