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Developing a Functional Kitchen Floor Plan

Creating a user-friendly kitchen calls for a personalized space plan. Here are some expert tips on how to create one.

A kitchen might have the most beautiful cabinets, technologically advanced appliances and high-end finishes, but if the layout doesn't meet the needs of a homeowner's lifestyle, the rest doesn't matter. Here's how to plan an effective layout to meet your needs and fit your space:

When planning a kitchen remodel, it's important to give careful consideration to how the space will be used.

Questions that you need to ask youself include:

  • What is your cooking style?
  • What appliances to you need/want?
  • Do you want room for other people in the kitchen when preparing meals?
  • Do you often talk on the phone while cooking?

How a kitchen should function is an extremely personal matter, and a floor plan needs to be customized to reflect that. You can start creating kitchen layouts in several different ways.

From a "what's got to fit" point of view, you might already know that you want specific appliances (a huge 48" pro-style range, or side-by-side all-fridge and all-freezer appliances) or a specific cabinet range (which may limit your positioning choices).

From a "workflow" point of view, you can use either the classic "work triangle" method (dating from the 1950's but still useful for a smaller or one-cook kitchen) or the "work centers" or "zones" method, where each type of task revolves around a specific area and set of equipment -- cooking around the range in a cooking zone, for example.

While no two kitchens are alike, there are state and local codes that apply to every kitchen design. The National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) also provides guiding principles that result in a more functional space. For example, if a kitchen has only one sink, NKBA recommends that it be located adjacent to or across from the cooking surface and refrigerator. The sink should be surrounded by a 24" wide landing area to one side and at least an 18" wide landing area on the other side. When it comes to dishwasher placement, the nearest edge of the appliance should be located within 36 inches of the nearest edge of a clean-up/prep sink to ensure maximum convenience.

For NKBA's complete kitchen design guidelines, visit their website.

Traditionally, the stove, sink and refrigerator are placed at points of a triangle for efficient movement in the kitchen.

However, Americans have added more appliances to the basics, and often times food preparation can be a fun family activity, so there are likely more cooks in the kitchen. This makes the basic triangle design less relevant.

While the tried-and-true triangle still works for smaller kitchens with one cook, there's a better design for bigger, busier kitchens: Work Stations (or "Zones"). With this approach, each standard task station (prep, cooking, storage and cleanup areas), as well as the more specialized ones (baking and canning, for example), is centered around a major appliance and its landing area of at least 15 inches of adjacent countertop.

Islands, which continue to be popular, are a great way to add informal seating, as well as extra prep space and storage, to a kitchen. Rather than a flat expanse of countertop, today's islands often feature different levels and customized details like prep sinks, second dishwashers and warming drawers. Islands offer a good place for open shelving for cookbooks, built-in wine storage and lit display areas. Any kitchen design that includes an island must allow for at least 42 inches of space around it.

In order for a kitchen to function properly it must be well lit; that means layering and blending four different types of light: task, ambient, accent and decorative. No single light source can provide all the necessary light for a kitchen.

The best kitchen layouts grow out of your home, your life, your family, and the way you use your kitchen. It can be frustrating and difficult to come up with good kitchen floor plans, let alone the best plan, but even if you later decide to use a professional kitchen designer, time spent working on your own layout ideas and gathering information is never wasted. The more information you have, and the more you have thought about the possibilities and what you want, the better you'll be able to work with a designer.

Kitchen Floor Plans: The Basics

The Classic Work Triangle

Placing your refrigerator, sink and range in any arrangement within your kitchen layout will naturally result in a "work triangle" -- it can't do anything else! Your job is to optimize the triangle so that it makes the best use of your space. Here are some things to think about:

  • An island or peninsula should not interrupt the triangle. It can overlap a leg of the triangle slightly, but if you have to detour around it to get from one point of the triangle to another, it'll be a problem when you're working in the kitchen. Known as a "barrier island", it can cause a lot of extra walking and is especially awkward if you have to carry hot dishes or full, heavy pots around it to get from one place to another.
  • A main through route should not pass through the triangle. Sometimes you can't avoid this (for example, my galley kitchen has the stairs and the back door at the far end, and it would take major remodeling of the whole house to move the traffic elsewhere), but redirecting traffic outside the triangle if you can possibly do it is much safer and more convenient for the cook. This is especially important with kids underfoot: if you're a one person household it matters much less.
  • The three sides of the triangle added together should not be more than 26 feet long, and each side should be between four and nine feet long. This will create a work area large enough for comfort, but not so big that you waste time and energy running back and forth.

Modern Plans: Work Centers (or "Zones")

Since the work triangle was proposed in the 1950's many more possible appliances have been created, and nowadays kitchens can have more than one of some appliances, and often more than one cook. The work triangle is often not enough to describe how a modern kitchen will function.

Adding more cooks to a single work triangle means that they will often get in each others' way. Adding more appliances (extra sink, one or more dishwashers, separate cooktop and oven, microwave oven, etc.) adds extra work stations and one simple triangle can't design around them.

The idea used to solve these design problems is work zones or work centers.

A work center or zone pulls everything -- equipment, appliances, materials -- needed to do a certain type of task into the same area. The three major zones are:

  • Cooking Center centered around the cooktop or range
  • Food Prep Center often located by a separate prep sink, or the main sink if there is only one
  • Cleanup Center centered around the main sink

Depending on how you cook and eat, you could have other work zones as well:

  • Snack Center with beverages, coffee machine, microwave, toaster, toaster oven, perhaps a dedicated fridge
  • Baking Center where you keep baking ingredients, cookie sheets, and the mixer
  • Eating Center based around the kitchen table or breakfast bar, possibly with storage for dishes, napkins, condiments, and flatware

The Basic Kitchen Floor Plans

There are just a few basic kitchen floor plans, and a couple variations on those.

  • Single Wall The simplest kitchen layout is laid out along a single wall. There are no corner cabinets necessary in this layout.
  • Galley Two parallel walls give you a galley kitchen -- an efficient and economical layout (especially for a single cook) with the possible drawback of traffic flow through the work triangle. There are no corner cabinets in this layout.
  • L-Shaped A kitchen with two usable walls at right angles to each other can have cabinets and/or appliances on that side of the room. This corner can be outside the main traffic flow paths if the door location permits. This plan requires a corner cabinet set (base and wall).
  • U-Shaped These kitchens have cabinets and/or appliances on three sides of the room. This layout can also be outside the main traffic flow paths, depending on where the doors to the room are placed. This plan requires multiple corner cabinet sets (base and wall).
  • Island If the kitchen is large enough in the middle, a center island can be added to any of these basic shapes to improve work flow, protect the work area from traffic, and add storage and counter space.
  • Peninsula If the kitchen is large enough along one wall, a peninsula can be added to improve work flow, protect the work area from traffic, and add storage and counter space.

The Single Wall Kitchen

One-wall plans are most often seen in vacation homes and small apartments.

Pros: This floor plan is the most space-saving.

Cons: One-wall plans are the least efficient for the cook. Because there is usually a door at each end, through traffic is a common problem.

Other considerations: One-wall kitchens work best when the sink is in the center, flanked by the refrigerator and cooktop.

If space will allow, include 4 feet of counter space on each side of the sink.

One-wall kitchen floor plans can be very efficient, provided they are small enough. What's that you say? Isn't bigger better? Not when it involves walking back and forth along a long lineup of appliances and worktops! Keep your layout compact, or add an island across from your one wall if you have the space, and turn it into the equivalent of a galley. You could also consider adding a rolling island cart which stows out of the way when not in use, or pull-out work surfaces or cutting boards to add more work space.

Ideally, you want the work sequence to flow from food storage (cabinets, fridge) to prep area (countertop, sink) to cooking center (range, microwave) to eating area. Right to left or left to right is up to you and how your house is arranged. Make sure you also have at least one decent sized (30″ minimum) countertop area to work at.

The Galley Kitchen

Parallel walls mark the galley-style plan.

Pros: The galley kitchen's compact floor plan is ideal for small spaces. Parallel walls let the cook move easily from one workstation to another.

Cons: The biggest drawback is that the work triangle is in the traffic path unless one doorway is closed off. Another negative is lack of a handy gathering spot for kids or guests.

Other considerations: Plan at least 4 feet of space between the opposing counters. For maximum efficiency, consider pairing the sink and refrigerator on one wall with the cooktop centered between them on the opposite wall.

A variation on the theme: Corridor kitchens are simply galley kitchens with entryways on each end. This gives a galley kitchen a more open feel; however, the probability of traffic interrupting the work triangle can make a corridor kitchen harder to work in.

Galley or corridor kitchen floor plans (two walls opposite each other) are some of the most efficient you can get, especially for a single cook. With two points of the triangle on one wall and the other point on the opposite wall, your walking distance will be short, but there's also room for plenty of storage and counter space.

The main drawback occurs if, as in the example layout above, you have a door at each end of the space (or even more doors in the sides!). A door at each end makes the galley into a through traffic route. How much of a problem that is depends on your family and what's at each end of the kitchen. Sometimes it's possible to block off one of the doors and use an alternative traffic route, leaving the kitchen to the cook.

Another possible gotcha to watch for is appliance doors opening into each other across the center aisle. If possible, offset your appliances so that the doors can't interfere with each other.

Width of the aisle between counters should be about 4 feet. More will give you more room for traffic, but more walking back and forth: less can be OK if it's a dead-end galley with only one cook, but can feel a bit cramped.

The L-Shaped Kitchen

The L-shape plan puts two workstations on one wall and the third on an adjacent wall.

Pros: This layout is more space-efficient than a U-shape plan, especially if the main workstations are located close to the crook of the L.

Cons: Not well-suited to small spaces. Be sure to allow adequate open counter space between the two workstations that share the same wall -- at least 4 feet.

Other considerations: The arrangement of workstations is critical: Work should flow from the refrigerator to the sink and then to the cooktop and serving area.

The area opposite the crook of the L often is an ideal spot for an eating nook.

The main advantages of L-shaped kitchen floor plans are that it's easy to keep traffic out of the work triangle, they can be compact, and the area opposite the corner of the L can be the perfect place for a table and chairs or an island.

If the L gets too big, though, it can mean a lot of walking. You also have the “corner problem”: whether to put the sink or range there (which restricts usage to one person at a time) or a cabinet which either has dead space inside or requires special fittings to use the space.

The U-Shaped Kitchen

This efficient, versatile plan usually puts one workstation on each of three walls.

Pros: Storage and counter space on three sides maximize efficiency, and the dead-end floor plan ensures that traffic doesn't interrupt the work triangle.

Cons: This isn't the best plan for entertaining or for accommodating multiple cooks, however.

Other considerations: An 8 x 8-foot space is the minimum needed for a U-shape kitchen; anything less won't provide the minimum 4 feet of work space recommended for the center of the room.

For maximum efficiency in a large kitchen, locate one workstation in a freestanding island.

The Island Floor Plan

The island floor plan features a freestanding workstation, usually incorporating either the sink or cooktop.

Pros: This plan works best for large kitchens in which the work triangle would exceed the 26-foot rule if all three workstations were located against walls.

The "26-foot rule" dictates that for maximum efficiency, the perimeter of the work triangle should measure at least 12 feet but not more than 26 feet. Each side should measure at least 4 feet but no longer than 9 feet. (Note: Old-timers may remember the "22-foot rule"; it's the same idea, but not as well-suited to today's larger homes.)

Cons: Island plans are not well-suited to kitchens where two work stations must be on opposite walls.

Other considerations: Allow at least 42 inches of aisle space on all sides of the island; in a two-cook kitchen, 48 inches is better.

In a large kitchen, the island is a convenient location for specialty countertops, such as butcher block for chopping vegetables or marble for rolling out pastry dough. In a small kitchen, consider a portable island such as a rolling cart or table. It won't accommodate a bonafide workstation but will give you extra counter space where you need it.

If the island also includes an eating counter, keep it well away from the cooktop.

The Peninsula Variation

When one end of an island is anchored to a wall or line of cabinets, the result is a peninsula plan. The peninsula kitchen packs all the versatility of an island kitchen, but doesn't require as much floor space.

The cooktop and sink work equally well on a peninsula; moving the sink from against a wall isn't a problem if there is a basement with accessible plumbing.

Like islands, peninsulas give the cook a workstation with a view into an adjacent room rather than just toward a wall. After meal preparation, a peninsula can double as a snack bar or buffet as well as a room divider to help route traffic away from the kitchen.