02 December 2008


This is high season in Hawaii, the Caribbean… and your kitchen. All three experience heavy traffic and potential burn-out during the holidays.

If you’ve got island fever, let me break out a few planning tips before you raid your piggy bank.


Some clients want an island (or two!) because everyone else and every kitchen magazine has one – or more.

Even these clients need to figure out what they want to do with these structures, and how they want to equip them. There are wonderful reasons to add an island:

* Increase your kitchen storage
* Add an additional work zone
* Add a specialty function – e.g., baking center
* Facilitate a Kosher lifestyle
* Add an entertainment center

Decide what you want your island to help you achieve before you purchase or install one. Knowing your goals in advance will get you the best outcome.


Not all homes were designed for islands, and trying to cram one (or more) into an inadequate space will make working in your kitchen worse, not better. You can, potentially, pull down a wall to make an island work, as some clients do.

If you’re not up for that scale of project, grab a measuring tape, use the National Kitchen & Bath Association planning guidelines noted below, and see if an island will fit into your existing kitchen.

Then, check out Jamie’s Proven Island Test.

6. Work Aisle

The width of a work aisle should be at least 42” for one cook and at least 48” for multiple cooks. Measure between the counter frontage, tall cabinets and/or appliances.

3. Distance Between Work Centers

No work triangle leg intersects an island/peninsula or other obstacle by more than 12”.

7. Walkway

The width of a walkway [behind an island] should be at least 36”.

8. Traffic Clearance at Seating

In a seating area where no traffic passes behind a seated diner, allow 32” of clearance from the counter/table edge to any wall or other obstruction behind the seating area.

a. If traffic passes behind the seated diner, allow at least 36” to edge past.
b. If traffic passes behind the seated diner, allow at least 44” to walk past.

NOTE: These are NKBA Planning Guidelines. State or local codes may apply, as well.


If you’re adding an island opposite a 36” single-door refrigerator and/or freezer, you’ll constrict your traffic flow dramatically in that area, even using the guideline.

Many folks like the idea of an island with seating. My emphatic recommendation is not to seat anyone between your island and work zone – particularly near a range or cooktop – even if that means giving up seating altogether.

If you can fit seating on the non-working side of your island, here are the planning guidelines that make sense and comfortable arrangements.

9. Seating Clearance

Kitchen seating areas should incorporate at least the following clearances:

a. 30” high tables/counters: Allow a 24” wide x 18” deep knee space for each seated diner and at least 18” of clear knee space.

b. 36” high counters: Allow a 24” wide x 15” deep knee space for each seated diner and at least 15” of clear knee space.

c. 42” high counters: Allow a 24” wide x 12” deep knee space for each seated diner and 12” of clear knee space.

In one of the showrooms where I used to work, my design clients used to regularly bang their knees on the back of my desk. It was 30” high and had barely a 12” overhang. I never had to justify following the guidelines to this clientele!

Here's another one to think carefully about:

2. Door Interference

No entry door should interfere with the safe operation of appliances, nor should appliance doors interfere with one another.

This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to overlook such details in the fervor to fit everything in. I’ve seen it done.


When clients come to me wanting to add an island to their existing kitchen, I assign them this exercise:

Tape off the area on the floor where the proposed island will be installed. (Many lesser tests stop at this point – don’t!) Next, using weighted boxes, “build” a full-height, full-width, full-depth model of it in the planned space. Live with this structure for a week and see how it affects your work flow. If you’re planning island seating, add chairs at the desired spots. If it’s a comfortable fit, great – we’ll add an island to your kitchen. If not, we’ll look at other size, seating and storage options to achieve your goals.

Check back next for Island Fever II - Equipping your Dream

PHOTO NOTES (Top to Bottom by SECTION):


(1) The architect/home builder said, "one island is obsolete" about this $2 million beach home whose kitchen I designed.

(2) The island shown here from U-Line's website features the firm's fridge/freezer/ice maker combo that makes for a great entertainment center.


This kitchen on the CWP Cabinetry web site features two large islands with ample work and walk space between them.


There's clearly no traffic crunch behind the counter stools at this sleek Kraftmaid island from the firm's web site.


This kitchen I designed for an active family featured side-by-side refrigerator/freezer that called for an extra wide walkway/work aisle between it and the island opposite.


The hard-working island I designed for this remodeled kitchen was made possible because of the client's desire to remove a wall where it now stands.


  1. Hi, I am planning a kitchen and this has been immensely helpful. I would love your advice on something. I am planning a 9.5 x 55 inch island. I would like five and half inch legs on the island (I guess Christopher Peacock style for reference). I have 48 between fridge wall and island (stools on that side) and 41 between island and sink. I would like to put two stools on the short end as well but I'm not sure if that's too tight with 5 1/2 inch legs. There would be about 43 inches between the legs (counter surface though is 55 inches). Thanks so much! Tracy

  2. I guess really my question boils down to what does "15 inches of clear knee space mean" I know it does not mean the depth of the overhang because that's already mentioned. Thanks

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Glad you found this helpful, Tracy. You don't have enough room for two stools. Each seated area should have 24" to itself. The 15" I referred to as clear knee space did refer to the depth of the overhang.

  5. Replies
    1. My pleasure. Good luck with your project, Tracy.


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