After three decades of looking at houses for a living, I still can’t
stop. If I see a realtor’s open-house sign, chances are good I’ll pull
over and take a walk-through for a little sport house-hunting. Last
weekend, for example, my wife and I were driving up the Northern
California coast when an open-house sign winked at us. The house had
decent bones, and its perch above the coastal highway afforded an
impressive view. Inside, though, it was utterly lacking in character:
gray wall-to-wall carpet, white walls, and a U-shaped kitchen with
unrelieved rows of white, plastic-laminate cabinets. It had all the
charm of a lab coat, and it got me reflecting on how some kitchens and
baths are inviting, functional spaces that are a pleasure to occupy, and
others aren’t. It’s not a matter of expense. It’s that some designers
can combine the same ingredients that make a dull, uninspired room and
cook up a space that sings.
Boatloads of ink have been spent on
the subject of kitchen and bath design; I’m not going to revisit those
guidelines here. Experiences like last weekend’s, though, make me want
to reflect on the many simple, ingenious, affordable ideas I’ve seen
applied to kitchens and baths over the years. They provide the answer to
that driving question in home design: What makes this space memorable?
When Outfitting a Kitchen, Don’t Forget the Cook
In my experience, the best kitchens reflect the people who cook in them,
so leave some open shelves. Like a scrapbook, they’ll proudly display
the cookware, crockery, and other personal favorites that make every
cook—and you hope, every kitchen—unique. Hang favorite pots and pans
from a rack. They’ll be easy to reach and will set the tone for what the
kitchen is all about.
Thirty years ago, the superb English architect Johnny Grey shook up the kitchen-design world with the “unfitted” kitchen. (Read Grey’s take on kitchen design in “Tailgate”
Grey designed kitchens that had disparate parts: individual cabinets
and counters of different heights and depths that read like pieces of
furniture. It was an old idea made new again, and it makes sense both
aesthetically and functionally. Here’s a secret: Counters don’t have to
be 36 in. high. Mix them up. It’s often easier to roll dough, for
example, on a slightly lower surface. Counters don’t have to be 24-in.
deep, either. A 30-in.-deep counter will give you lots more workspace,
and a 24-in.-deep counter with a 6-in.-deep shelf above its splash will
give you a place to keep the olive oil and soy sauce out of the way.
granite invasion of the ’90s is still with us. Acres of granite now
pave the base cabinets of America. Just how many places, though, do you
need to put down a hot pot or roll out pastry dough? Yes, granite
counters are available everywhere, and the cost has come way down. Use
granite sparingly, though, and mix it up with other durable and
beautiful materials, such as maple and stainless steel, that have
specific functions in a cook’s kitchen. If you’re on a budget, consider
using 2-ft.-sq. porcelain floor tiles for your counter. They are tough,
easy to clean, and really inexpensive. I’ve even seen these tiles
rounded over by their installers with polished bullnose edges.
The Inside Scoop on Cabinet Savings
the best-kept secrets in the cabinet business is that some cabinet shops
sub out the making of their cabinets to specialty shops that make
afford able carcases, drawers, and doors in every style and species of
wood imaginable. Local shops order a la carte, then assemble custom
cabinets for their clients. Anybody can do this, if you know how to
sound like a cabinet shop. Read Sven Hanson’s article “Mix and Match: Mail-Order Cabinets
” (FHB #159), to learn more about strategies and suppliers. Considerable savings await.
easy access to cabinet storage, drawers are where it’s at. Use drawers
everywhere you might have placed a cabinet shelf that requires knee-pads
and a headlamp to find what’s inside. Install drawers on heavy-duty,
full-extension drawer slides. Don’t skimp here. Also, don’t put drawers
behind cabinet doors. Yes, people do this. It makes no sense.
drawer with a notch in it to accommodate the drain line makes excellent
use of the space under a kitchen sink. Tile the bottom of the sink base
cabinet, and slope it toward the toe space. The plumbing will eventually
leak, and you’ll need to know about it.
A base cabinet on wheels
can be a roving work surface wherever you need it. Design it to tuck
under a counter when it’s not in use. Kitchen islands on wheels add
flexibility to a space. If they have a power strip plugged into a floor
outlet, make sure the cord is long enough to move the island without
tearing off the plug.
Timesaving Sinks and Space-saving FridgesAn
undermount sink is a better choice than a drop-in sink, and you can
make it even better by adding an integral drain board. If you can swing
it, install two sinks, one for cleanup near the dishwasher and another
near the food-prep counter. Use wall-mount faucets. They take up no
counter space, look cool, and make it easier to keep the counter behind
the sink clean. If you’re tall or if it’s getting harder to bend over,
elevate the dishwasher with a pedestal.
Take a look at the
three-bowl kitchen sink pictured here. Two of the bowls drain to the
sewer, but the third drains to a gray-water system that irrigates the
garden. This is over-the-horizon thinking.
If you need a little
extra space, tuck the refrigerator into the wall. Sometimes the 3-1/2 or
5-1/2-in that this gains will let you save a bundle by not having to
buy a counter-depth refrigerator. Pantries are great, but don’t make
their shelves so deep that stuff gets lost. Visit restaurant supply
houses for amazing deals on cookware, sinks, stainless-steel tables, and
a host of other heavy-duty kitchenware. While you’re there, get
wall-mounted magnetic strips to hold all manner of kitchen tools where
you can reach them easily.
Beyond the Basic Bath
When I was in
college, I lived in a duplex with three other guys. We shared a bathroom
a lot like the ones you find in a cheap motel: a fiberglass tub/shower
enclosure with a flimsy curtain, and a commode in the corner. The sink
sat in a clunky base cabinet lit by a ceiling-mounted fixture. Years
later, when I hit the road for Fine Homebuilding to scout
projects for the magazine and to photograph the best ones, I would see
variations of our college-days’ bathroom, but all dressed up. Around the
magazine, they came to be known as “onyx baths.” Each one would have
exactly the same layout, but instead of a fiberglass enclosure and a
shower curtain, there would be glass doors and a slab of expensive stone
covering the shower walls. The big base cabinet would be made of a
precious hardwood, and there would be a pricey chandelier illuminating
it all from above. Don’t do this. You can do better with a little more
targeted effort and less expense.
How? If possible, put a window
in the wall opposite the door so that you can see it when you walk into
the room. It will make the room seem larger. If daylight is in short
supply in the house, consider a frosted-glass door to the bath. If space
and budget allow, assign different bath functions to their own alcoves.
Vary the ceiling heights to do this, and put the commode in its own
When it comes to the bath, we can learn a lot from the Europeans. For
example, waterproofing the entire floor and pitching it to a drain
allows curbless showers without enclosures and eliminates any worry
about getting the floor wet. Another European nugget is to put the
shower and the toilet in the same space, and the lavatory sink just
outside in its own alcove that shares the plumbing wall. Two people can
use this arrangement without getting in each other’s way.
Little Things Make a Big Difference
toilets and cabinets let a small bath breathe and make it much easier
to keep the floors clean. An electric heat mat under a tile floor in a
bath is an affordable slice of luxury that doesn’t cost much to install
or to operate. Anybody who shaves their legs will appreciate a seat in a
shower stall. Pay attention to lighting. Learn the difference between
task, decorative, and accent lighting, and put them to work for you. (A
great introduction to using different types of lighting is “Light a bathroom right
” in FHB
#207.) It won’t cost as much as the onyx-bath chandelier. Install a
timer switch that turns on the bath light and the ventilation fan at the
same time. When you turn off the light, the fan stays on for a preset
period to clear the air while you’re not there. Install a quiet fan so
that people will use it. See “A Buyer’s Guide to Bath Fans
,” FHB #199, for particulars.
Make Sure it Fits
No matter how you
shape your kitchen and bath, put pieces of your life into them, and make
them yours. Use real ingredients, such as stone, wood, metal, tile, and
glass. (I put real linoleum in this category, too.) Kitchens have
evolved into our living rooms, so make them comfortable places for both
you and your guests. Build what you want. You don’t have to settle for
somebody else’s lab coat.