21 October 2010

SENSIBLE STYLE - Family Kitchen Tips

So many of the kitchens I design are for families with active children or teens. Some include grandparents who now live with the parents and kids. Some also include pets. I love designing these projects, as I know that my success in making them both sensible and stylish will lead to years of happy use.

The sensible component means that the kitchen will fit...

  • how the family will really use the space on a daily basis;
  • with the home's architecture, especially when we're tearing down walls to open it to great rooms and dining areas;
  • the home's value, so that if they move in the near future, they will maximize their investment in the kitchen project;
  • prevailing neighborhood standards, also for maximum resale consideration.

The style component in Sensible Style gives them a look that they'll enjoy for years to come, as well. It won't be fad-driven, but updated in a way that reflects the homeowners' long-held preferences. If prevailing neighborhood standards dictate integrated appliances, I'll recommend that option to the client. If every other home in the neighborhood has stone tops, I'll suggest that for maximum resale, should they decide to move in five or seven years.

The most important consideration, I believe, is designing the kitchen to how that family uses the space on a daily basis. That means creating storage that accommodates their everyday cookware, serveware and meal ingredients.

Material Matters

Sensible Style kitchen planning means guiding my clients in selecting materials that will stand up to daily use with a maintenance level that makes sense for their lifestyle. Here's a typical example. Granite is a very popular countertop material for its unparallelled natural beauty, heat and scratch resistance - as well as its historically high resale value - but many homeowners fail to take into account its porosity.

When a client with young children or the popular teen hang-out house tells me that they want granite countertops, I let them know that the top will need to be sealed periodically, and what the recommended schedule is for the stone they like.

I also warn them that certain spills - e.g., orange or tomato juice - that go unnoticed for busy hours can stain that top, even eating through a sealer. I will typically suggest an easier maintenance engineered stone counter for this household. I also like their long warranties.

Cambria's engineered stone tops offer stone durability and concrete style, without the maintenance hassles of either!

Flooring is another key material selection. Travertine became a very popular choice for high-end kitchens, but it's not my recommendation for a busy family household. One, it's also a natural material that needs to be kept sealed. Two, it's very hard underfoot, which can make lengthy meal preparation painful to the cook's feet, legs, hips and back. Three, when wet, it becomes a slip hazard. And kitchen floors, especially with young kids, can get wet pretty often. For any grandparents in the home, that can be a broken hip waiting to happen!

For a Sensible Style family kitchen, I like a distressed-look wood or porcelain tile, especially through-body color for hiding chips and rectified for minimum grout lines. With regard to grout, I learned from my own previous kitchen to avoid white; it shows every morsel that ever drops on it! For hard floors like tile and wood, I also recommend a cushioned mat in front of the sink and cooktop.

Kerlite, used most often in commercial settings, is a stylish, durable porcelain tile for busy kitchens, too

Cork and Marmoleum Click are both good soft floor alternatives. They're both also eco-friendly and aging in place friendly. Neither, however, is going to give you the resale power of wood or tile.

Marmoleum Click is green and great for comfortable family spaces

Space Case

As I mentioned, designing a Sensible Style family kitchen involves strategic space planning. This includes figuring out how to allocate food storage. Will a standard 36 inch refrigerator meet the family's needs? If we're upgrading to a sleeker countertop-depth model, do we need to go to a 42 or 48 inch model? Would separate fridge, freezer units make more sense, given their flexible sizing options?

Each family is going to have different needs, of course, but I wouldn't want to put a family of four in less than 25 cubic feet of fridge/freezer capacity. I also wouldn't want to give them less than 36 inches of pantry space, with roll-out trays for easier access.

Often, supplemental fridge drawers on an island can be a boon for a busy family. It can be a good spot for putting kids' treats within their reach, and saving on energy bills while they deliberate on their afternoon snack.

A single or double refrigerator drawer, like this one from Sub-Zero, is great for easy kid access and supplemental food storage

Landing Zone

Kitchens aren't just for cooking and clean up any more, especially in family homes. They are often homework central, bill paying depot, the household scheduling center and serve dozens of other purposes, large and small. They are typically the first room family members enter from school and work, slamming their briefcases, purses and book bags onto the nearest surface. Basically, a family kitchen is also a clutter magnet.

To counter this norm, I like to develop a "landing zone" for the family as they enter and leave the kitchen. Each member of the household, old and young, has closed door storage for their bulky items, a drawer for small items, an outlet for their cel phone or other chargeable, and a basket for their mail, notes and other paperwork. This will keep most of the clutter off the other kitchen surfaces and organize each family member.

Safety Counts

If I'm putting a slide in range or cooktop into an island or peninsula plan, I like to have an absolute minimum of 12 inches left and right of it. I don't want a running child or excited pet to knock over a hot pot by bumping into the handle. I also like to have at least 15 inches behind if there will be counter-height seating on the other side, 12 for bar height.

My recommendation to clients with aging parents, forgetful teens and young children is to consider an induction cooktop or range. Induction will give cooks the performance level of gas without the hazards. It's energy efficient, easy maintenance and safer to use. Only the area under and immediately next to the pot or pan gets hot, and once the pot or pan is removed, the magnetic-generated heat goes away.

This induction range by Electrolux is feature-rich with convection capability, plus a warming drawer/second oven, and very family friendly

I'm not a fan of over-the-range microwaves, as I consider them both unsightly and potentially unsafe. This is particularly true for petite clients, children, older clients who may have less upper body strength, and for clients with gas stovetop burners. It's so easy to hurt yourself on a front burner when reaching up into a microwave.

Whenever space allows, I like to move the microwave to a more comfortable height near its own counter space for unloading. Microwave drawers on islands are great for older kids in the house. They can heat up their own snacks and meals and not be in the way of the cook, who may be preparing dinner while the child does homework nearby.

A microwave drawer, like this one by Wolf, is a more family friendly choice than an over-the-range model

Eat-at islands have become very popular in recent years. I recommend against them except when I can locate the seating on the non-working side of the kitchen. I don't like to seat anyone between an island and cooking surface for safety reasons. I also prefer not to seat them between the island and a prep or clean-up station, so that a person with a knife in their hand isn't getting bumped by a family member sitting nearby.

If there are grandparents in the household, I like to plan seating at table height, rather than a 42 inch bar or 36 inch counter. It's awkward for an older person to climb onto a stool and impossible if they're disabled.

If there are pets in the house, I like to designate a feeding area for them away from the cooking, prep and human eating zones. They're less likely to be tripped on that way, or trip up someone carrying a hot item to the table.

Must Have Item for Every Kitchen

I strongly recommend that the family purchase a fire extinguisher for their kitchen and store it in the pantry or under the sink for quick, easy access. Everyone in the household should be trained on its use in case of an emergency.

Enjoy all of the Sensible Style posts; the complete list is in the box on the right column!


  1. Hi Jamie, I enjoyed this post very much. Did you know that Kerlite (Laminam) is also used for worktops? It's often made with 2 layers and a sheet of glass fibre in the middle.

    You recommend a fire extinguisher but I would suggest a fire blanket and a smoke alarm. A fire blanket is much easier to handle and can be used on all kind of fires. Fire blankets don't expire or need to be checked every year. They are just there when you need them. It can also protect you and your child when you have to evacuate from the kitchen. You can buy them at IKEA for example http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/10143348

    last thing...too bad I can't make a quick link to FB to recommend your blog :-)

    Greetings from Holland,


  2. Great tips regarding building and designing a kitchen! Great advice about the many options of stone, granite and marble countertops.



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