Of Triangles and Kitchens Today

poor triangle When I was in design school, I studied all sorts of space planning.  Only part of it had to do with residential design and of that, only a small part had anything to do with kitchens in particular.  Suffice to say, the main thing I remember being taught about kitchen planning was that it involved incorporating “the work triangle” in order to be successful.  According to NKBA guidelines, the work triangle should be no larger than 26 feet around it’s perimeter with each leg being between 4 and 9 feet.  At the points of the work triangle are the three main work centers – cooking, preparation and food storage.  Oh, and the proportion of the space dedicated to the kitchen was small compared to the other main spaces.  I recall being shown a view of the “golden triangle” and the smallest part –well that represented what the kitchen should be in relation to the living and dining rooms.

I had learned a lot of general stuff about design and architecture when I graduated almost 15 years ago.  I studied ergonomics, color theory, art and architecture history, light and sound physics, building codes, structure and materials.  Of all of that, there was much general information but very little detailed specifics that I could apply directly to the practice of designing kitchens which I began to focus my career on ten years ago.  Most of what I know today about space planning kitchens I learned by observing what pros in the industry were doing, and applying it to my designs. I also learned a lot by listening to clients –to try to accomplish their goals within a structure of design solutions that met their needs yet maintained industry standards.  I learned to refer to the NKBA guidelines frequently.  Triangles were always in the back of my mind.

The kitchen work triangle and the golden triangle are not the same. The golden triangle has to do with aesthetic use of proportion and balance in design.

This is the golden triangle:

   Golden Triangle


In this case as it applies to the “golden ratio”:

“During the Renaissance, many artists and architects have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio—especially in the form of the golden rectangle, in which the ratio of the longer side to the shorter is the golden ratio—believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing. Mathematicians have studied the golden ratio because of its unique and interesting properties.” ~Wikipedia

The kitchen work triangle was a model that was developed in the 1940’s to address the efficiency of the kitchen space between the major work centers:  Cooking (range), Preparation (sink/dishwasher) and Food Storage (refrigerator).  It was designed to maximize the efficiency of a one-cook kitchen that stemmed from Taylorist principles that had to do with time-motion studies from around the turn of the century.  The University of Illinois School of Architecture developed the work triangle to emphasize cost reduction by standardizing construction.  This resulted in a variety of configurations (Images borrowed from http://www.kitchens.com/Design/Layouts/Common-Layouts.aspx):

Wall Kitchen

Corridor Kitchen

L-Shaped Kitchen

U-Shaped Kitchen


G-Shaped Kitchen

The poor little triangle is really taking a beating these days.  Some would like to see it banished completely.  Considering technologies and lifestyles have changed a great deal in the last 75 years, it’s little wonder that many have jumped on the kill-the-triangle bandwagon.   One has to wonder how it has survived this long! 

Basically, these original functions still exist within the modern-day kitchen.  What has changed are the technologies (like microwaves and other appliances and gadgets) and the way kitchens fit into our lifestyles.  Kitchens have grown to accommodate more than one cook, so cooking zones were developed that are similar to the layout and function of commercial kitchens. With the housing boom and the expanding wealth of the Baby Boomers came the ever-expanding size of kitchens.  This allowed for commercial style appliances and zones for various functions that were outside of the traditional triangle such as prep stations that might include another smaller sink and bake centers that had areas specific for rolling out dough and baking that were separate from the “main” cooking appliances and food prep areas.  These additional zones might overlap in terms of sharing components and create secondary triangles.  Additional space allowed for adjunct spaces like butler’s pantries, planning desks and entertainment centers.  We even saw something called a “bonus room” that might be an expanded laundry room or the attic space over a garage –deciding not to label it anything else lest we jinx the potential home sale. Master bedrooms or “ensuites” often grew proportionately to kitchens if space and budgets allowed.

With this evolution came a shift from the kitchen being a “scullery” that was the domain of hired help and womenfolk, to a social space that is presently considered the hub of the home. The walls came down, dropped ceilings were ripped out and replaced with pot lights and we now had “open plan” kitchens that spilled out into the other living areas of the home. Serious attention was being paid toward finishes.  After all, who wants to spend a gazillion dollars on a gigantic stainless steel range surrounded with glittering granite counters and not show them off.  The kitchen was no longer where you prepared the party food –it was the party.

Through the ‘90’s and well into the following decade one could expect to recoup nearly 100 percent on the investment for remodeling a kitchen –even more in some places.  Thus we had all the justification we needed to remodel and build lavish state-of-the-art mega kitchens in homes that often didn’t measure up in other areas.  Lifestyles became less formal, and people began to be drawn to big open-plan kitchens in lieu of separate formal dining and living rooms. So as well as tossing out the work triangle, the space allocation of proportion as dictated by the golden ratio began to fade as well. From my perspective, it appears that function is dictating the form in regards to the overall space plan of a home.  However, form can certainly drive a design when it comes to the aesthetics of the the details in terms of finishes, placement and proportions of components within the spaces. 

In the February 2010 issue of Qualified Remodeler Barbara Barton wrote “Planning Kitchen Work Zones” about NKBA’s kitchen planning authority Ellen Cheever’s teachings in her Seminar:  “Pathways to Profits.” A summary of the major points she discusses are:  outdoor living spaces, multigenerational families, kitchens within a “cooking room,” gathering spaces for interaction of cooks and non-cooks, smaller point-of-use appliance centers, and multiple cooking stations.  Barton also adds trends that she sees such as bringing back the entertainment “bar” area with a new twist that might include a wine refrigerator or a built-in coffee machine. Those with the space to cater events in the home might even add a “plating” zone which might actually be an extension of a pantry or breakfast nook.

There is another shift taking place that is resulting from a number of factors.  One that is most obvious is the down turn in the economy causing a recession that has all but destroyed the residential construction and remodeling industry in most parts of the country.  I’ve heard that it’s on the mend ever so slowly but it will never be what it once was.  The glory days of mansions for the middle class and flipping houses for fun and profit are history.

Another factor is the aging of the Baby Boomers who is the generation that has had the funds to build or remodel over other demographic groups. Whether due to age, emptying the nest, or lack of funds, the trend is to downsize, and to a lesser extent combining multigenerational households. No longer can they count on getting a high return on remodeling dollars.  According to recent statements by the A.I.A., quality is now preferred over quantity (square footage).  High end appliances and finishes are being used within the existing footprint.  While return on investment is certainly still a major consideration, people are now free to consider options that fall into the realm of personal taste over resale value (or even needs when it comes to adapting for “aging-in-place” or “universal design”).  They might feel justified doing so now because it’s doubtful that they will recoup their investment even on a kitchen remodel which once was considered the most reliable in respect to resale.  Also, many feel this is most likely the last home they’ll ever have.  Therefore, why not make it their ‘dream’ home in terms of custom fitting it to their lifestyle and tastes?

So is the work triangle still alive and kicking?  I think so –if only because in a small-space kitchen it exists by default.  I also believe we can incorporate zoning into small-space kitchens.  We can allocate a larger percentage of the home’s square footage to kitchen-like activities by creating an open plan that incorporates numerous functions that are not a part of the traditional work triangle.  We can also relocate functions.  One of my favorites is a coffee bar in the ensuite or a wine bar in the den. 

As a card-carrying Baby Boomer and the chief cook and bottle washer of my household, I no longer dream of a mega mansion.  I’m hoping, that as a society, we have finally arrived to a place where we truly believe that bigger is not always better and can place quality over quantity as a hallmark of affluence and good taste.  I don’t think I’m too far off the mark as clients nowadays continue to educate themselves with easy access to the internet in their quest to get the biggest bang for their bucks.  Never before has it been more worthwhile to engage the talents and knowledge of a kitchen designer to make the best use of limited spaces and new technologies. 


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