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Kitchen guidelines from the experts for a functional space

Jul 13, 2023

Angela Simoneaux Poirrier only needs 20 minutes in a kitchen to know if the space is functional or faulty — if countertops are too tall or if a walkway is too tight.

Some clients think she has superpowers, but she admits it's just the basic principles of functional design.

"I'm not a psychic. I can just measure and see," said Poirrier, the second-generation owner of Acadian House Design + Renovation. "That falls into why we design the way we do — because the science is there."

Angela Simoneaux Poirrier, the second-generation owner of Acadian House Design + Renovation.

The science behind a functional kitchen comes down to ergonomics and specific guidelines from the National Kitchen and Bath Association, which provides planning suggestions to design a space effectively.

Poirrier is a past president and vice president of communications/governmental relations for NKBA, where she judged various design competitions. When she or one of her team members sits down with a client, they don't pick out colors, paint or materials. Instead, they discuss functions and layouts for tried-and-true results.

"In real estate, they say, 'Location, location, location.' In kitchen and bath design, it's 'Function, function, function,'" Poirrier said.

"In real estate, they say, 'Location, location, location.' In kitchen and bath design, it's 'Function, function, function,'" said Angela Poirrier, owner of Acadian House Desing + Renovation.

From recommended measurements for doorway openings, to proper dishwasher placement, to the number of trash cans one should have (and where they should go), NKBA has standards for everything.

For example, the ideal width of a work aisle in a single-use kitchen is 42 inches. For a two-person kitchen, 48 inches. If a walkway is any less than 42 inches wide, Poirrier says this will cause congestion.

National Kitchen and Bath Association kitchen planning guidelines and standards recommends to use the following measurements at a minimum.

Additionally, the average countertop height is 36 inches, the backsplash is 18 inches tall, and standard cabinets are 34 inches wide.

Because the standards are universal, this helps appliance manufacturers to streamline their products. For instance, most dishwashers are 24 inches wide and 34 inches tall.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association provides planning guidelines and access standards. It recommends the average backsplash in a kitchen should be 18 inches tall.

Poirrier said the detailed measurements are based on the average height and shoulder width of a person; however, a kitchen should be tailored to your or your family's needs and habits.

"My job is to give you the information," Poirrier said. "At the end of the day, it's your house. Technically, you could break every rule in the book, but are you willing to deal with the consequences of breaking those rules?"

Poirrier noted that many of her clients ask for large kitchen islands, which sometimes minimizes the space for a properly sized walkway. In these cases, one must sacrifice one for the other and deal with the consequences of straying from the suggestions, which means that people may bump into each other in the kitchen.

As these numbers and measurements are just guidelines, there are exceptions.

Kurt Kellerman, owner of Kellerman Kitchen and Bath.

Kurt Kellerman, owner of Kellerman Kitchen and Bath, said accessibility concerns tend to be a cause for bending the rules. Per the American Disability Act, countertops for commercial jobs do not exceed 34 inches tall. Various tools allow a disabled person to access the cabinets, microwave and more. Kellerman's brother, who he started the business with, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 25 years ago — an experience that has made Kellerman more aware of the need for design that fits all lifestyles.

Other exceptions are just for the sake of ergonomics. For example, a proper "work triangle" — the imaginary straight line from the sink to the stove to the refrigerator — shouldn't exceed 26 feet. However, if the space is smaller or bigger than normal, the design and layout are more custom.

"There are exceptions to every rule," Kellerman said. "Sometimes you just can't make it work."

Kurt Kellerman, owner of Kellerman Kitchen and Bath, noted that he has recently seen a surge in painted cabinets in kitchens.

If you like to work solo in the kitchen, Poirrier said the easiest way to keep guests out of the space is to create a seating area where they can see you but can't touch the counter. Many clients create a keeping room near the kitchen.

When a client has a small space, Poirrier said the key is to utilize every inch properly. She calls this "valuable real estate."

Tips to make the most of kitchen space:

Despite the many guidelines and exceptions to the guidelines, basic design principles never go out of style.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association recommends that a sink should be at least 34 inches tall, while a dishwasher should be located within 36 inches of the nearest edge of cleanup/prep sink.

When the work triangle does not apply to a kitchen, Poirrier modifies the concept and distinguishes between "task zones." The same principle follows.

"When you're designing a kitchen," she said, "you're trying to reduce the number of steps taken to complete a task."

She looks for these in almost every home: the clean-up zone (the sink, dishwasher and trash), prep zone (spices, pots and large utensils near the cooktop) and baking zone, which is usually a lowered space with rolling pins, mixing bowls and baking pans. All items in each zone should be near each other.

If a kitchen has an island, there should be enough space for people to sit and pass behind, especially if the refrigerator is behind the island.

Landing zones are helpful to have an immediate place to put down items from the refrigerator or cooktop. Kellerman says a kitchen should have a minimum of 15 inches at least on one side of a cooktop, if not both, for food prep and safety.

To determine the most functional setup for a space, Poirrier says to move items around the kitchen, especially with heavily-visited cabinets with items like silverware, plates and cups. If a kitchen is the hub for entertaining, analyze how guests interact.

Jenna Jackson, the director of operations at Acadian House Design + Renovation, said internal organization has become popular in kitchens.

"I love to test and measure," she said. "I'll move something, and I'll just sit back and watch it. That way, you can determine if the placement is better or not working."

As interior design evolves and trends are defined by the era, new materials and concepts arise.

Jenna Jackson, the director of operations at Acadian House Design + Renovation, said microwave drawers, automatic open and soft close cabinets, internal organization and unique light fixtures have become popular. Kellerman noted that he has recently seen a surge in painted cabinets, raised-panel cabinet doors and lighter paint colors in kitchens.

Jenna Jackson, the director of operations at Acadian House Design + Renovation, said internal organization in kitchen cabinets has become popular. Pictured is a two-tier utensil drawer in the Acadian showroom.

To update a space, Poirrier said the backsplash is the easiest thing to change. Kellerman said new cabinet hardware like pulls and knobs can make a dramatic difference.

A 2022 survey by OnePoll and Bosch Home Appliances found that Americans, on average, spend more than an hour a day, more than 400 hours annually in the kitchen. Of the 2,000 people surveyed, 77% say they used to cook with their family at least once a week growing up.

The kitchen often serves as the central hub of a home — setting the background for many memories.

Email Lauren Cheramie at lauren[email protected] or follow her on Twitter, @LCheramie_.