The hubs and I have been talking about kitchens A LOT lately. And we’re not alone. It seems as though every time we mention the renovations in the new house, we discover someone else is also planning a facelift or in the midst of one or just finishing. In the course of these conversations, we’ve been able to share the tips and tricks we’ve learned — often the hard way — and pick up some great new ones as well.
Here are what I think are seven of the best ideas and observations to keep in mind when planning a new kitchen:
The measuring tape is your best friend!
The little difference of half an inch is a BIG difference when building a kitchen! Even a really careful measure can change by a few eighths of an inch when baseboards or tile are removed, and they can mean a unit will no longer line-up properly, or maybe not fit at all. I do a rough measure when I’m just starting to plan, a good measure when I’m getting close to a finished design, and a really, really careful measure when we are about to order the cabinets.
2) Virtual planning tools are great … but don’t forget to also plan in the real world
Don’t forget to play in your space!
Lots of companies offer free online planning tools that are great for visualizing different arrangements and planning where appliances and cupboards will and won’t fit. By trying out alternative designs virtually, we have been able to compare different layouts in 3-D and imagine what different finishes and styles would look like. Not only that, but we could visualize what it would be like to take out walls and structures without the risk and effort.
As great as these tools are for getting a sense of the new design, they can’t quite compare to physically being in the space. When we are just-about ready to finalize and order the kitchen, we’ve found it’s a good idea to mark out the new lines on the floor with masking tape, make a mock-up of the main structures with cardboard and practice “working” in the kitchen. Sure, it feels a bit like going back to pre-school to play-act cooking and cleaning up, but it gives a sense of the space you just can’t get on a screen.
One of our previous kitchens where we didn’t leave quite enough open space
To get the most out of your space, there’s a big temptation to squeeze as many cabinets, drawers or shelves into the square footage as possible. While each inch has to count, the hubs and I have found that open space — for moving around, sitting, talking and just doing things–is just as important as built-out areas.
In one of our previous homes, the long, narrow kitchen had walkways that were just 30″ instead of the usual 36″. Because of that, the kitchen felt cramped even though it was of a generous size. In retrospect, we would have been better off losing the island or trading deep base cabinets for shallow ones to give ourselves enough room to properly move in the space.
Additional inches between cabinets are also important as we’ve found out to our cost: in our acreage, I forgot to allow an additional inch and a half for finishing gables for a wall cabinet. Even though it was a small amount, it meant the cupboard would no longer fit on the wall. I couldn’t return it so I had to buy a new one. That 1 1/2″ gap resulted in a $250 mistake!
4) Little things make a BIG difference
Little finishing details and extras can make a kitchen look and feel that much more inviting. Taking a cue from the custom kitchens we’ve seen, we used a decorative panel to finish the cabinets at one end of the kitchen, false doors over the hood fan and upgraded crown mouldings at the tops of cabinets.
We also installed an instant-hot tap for making coffee and tea quickly — because nap-time is brief and every minute counts!
While the overall look of a kitchen is enhanced by these small details, the feel of the space is important too. Soft-close doors and drawers make working in a kitchen that much nicer (and quieter!). Pretty-yet-functional handles make such a big difference to all those little tasks that I actually went around hardware stores trying out handles (they must have thought me quite mad!) because I wanted to make sure I could get more than just my fingertips under them!
5) Lighting for tasks, lighting for mood
Fiat lux! LED pot lights overhead together with under-cabinet task-lighting plus spot-lights in
a pot-rack over the island give variable levels of light for different needs
Our acreage kitchen was north-facing and had just one small window, so we needed to install a LOT of lights!
We put in LED pots on a dimmer switch to provide general lighting, the intensity of which we can control easily. The LED technology is so much brighter than incandescent or halogen, not to mention cost-efficient (no, I’m not being paid to say that!). We chose “warm” spectrum because we found that the cool made everything look grey; fine for living areas but not so great for food!
We also have spot lights in a pot-rack over the island and LED strip lights under the cabinets. The strip lights were inexpensive and easily installed. They are great for giving soft early-morning or late-evening lighting, plus they give good task-lighting as well. One thing I overlooked for the current kitchen though was task-lighting over the sink. I realized (too late!) that not having a dedicated light here means I am working in shadow when I’m doing the dishes at certain times of the day, which is usually late at night when the kids are finally in bed!
“Zoning” a kitchen design
Most professional designers talk about “work-zones” or “task-zones” in a kitchen — the areas where preparing, cooking, clean-up occur. It’s a great way of broadly conceptualizing the way people typically work in a kitchen. But if you’re designing a kitchen for yourself, one you plan to use for many years to come, it’s helpful to take things a bit further and think about the specific activities that you perform at different times throughout your day.
In my case, in the mornings I use the toaster, the fridge and the coffee pot, plus some spoons and knives, casual mugs and plates. This is quite a bit different from the evenings when we use the range, larger pots, different utensils for cooking, and sometimes more formal dinnerware.
So part of our planning involved getting out the measuring tape( again!) and figuring out the size of a cupboard needed for the toaster, deciding how much space we really needed for cups (this is when I finally got rid of all the chipped mugs from the hubs’ bachelor days) and determined how much space we needed for our pots and pans. All this measuring and thinking meant we had less wasted space and more of the items we use simultaneously grouped together. Of course, if you’ve got your eye on a new set of plates or pots, by all means skip this step and “discover” that your old stuff won’t fit — I won’t tell!
7) Don’t over-buy … but do buy what you love
Glossy magazines like to show the latest and greatest appliances. You know the ones I mean: the huge space-age walls of built-in fridge-freezers that would store enough food for a small city; the incredibly high-powered multiple-burner ranges, often with the oh-so distinctive red handles. Though they might look fantastic in celebrity houses, they come at a ridiculously high cost — often $12000-$18000 for each appliance!
Sadly, almost all the real estate agents, appliance sales-people and even friends who’ve bought them have said that the elevated dollar figure on these high-end appliances just doesn’t represent value for money: they cost three, four, even six times as much as a mid- and lower- range appliances but don’t deliver a good return on the investment.
Even knowing all this, I still went and bought a higher-end range for the acreage kitchen
It was a gorgeous piece of equipment to work with and became the focal point of the kitchen, a statement piece that makes the otherwise understated kitchen stand out.
The splurge: 36″ dual-fuel range with 6 burners and self-cleaning convection oven
Not all splurges are created equal though. We also splashed-out on a higher-end built-in microwave, but this gamble didn’t pay off. It’s no worse, but certainly not appreciably better than a regular microwave. We simply ended up paying an extra $1500 for the look of the thing — not a good use of money.
Though we splurged on the range (and the microwave), we compromised on the fridge, opting for a counter-depth model rather than a built-in one — at a saving of roughly $8000 (!). Not including the doors, it stands just 1 1/2″ proud of the wall-cabinets, so still gives the impression of integration. I’m happy with this decision as I can’t say our food stays any less fresh and the capacity is actually greater with the less-expensive model.
When it comes to spending versus saving, I think some items are worth the money — both in terms of design impact and personal enjoyment. But I would caution against choosing all high-end appliances, fixtures or items. What (mostly) worked in our kitchen was to mix high- and middle- end, a kind of selective buying that kept the budget somewhat in check while still giving the sense of luxury and quality.