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A Design Guide to Kitchens

Updated: Jun 2

I have been a self-employed Architect in the UK since 2009. In my day job I specialise in designing private homes and I want to show you how to create a kitchen that becomes the heart of family life. Now, since I’m an Architect and not an interior designer, this guide is based on the assumption you aren’t just replacing the existing kitchen units. I'm assuming you want to create a brand new kitchen where there wasn’t one before. Either altering or extending your existing home or building a new house from scratch. We aren’t just talking about choosing worktops, we are going right back to basics and looking at the size, location and layout of the kitchen space as well as its relationship to the other areas of your home.

Much of the information in this design guide will apply anywhere but I should also say that since I am in the UK, I am going to reference building regulations in this country. If you are outside the UK be sure to take advice from an experienced local Architect on which regulations apply to your kitchen.

kitchen in Edinburgh new town
I designed this kitchen in 2018 and it was built in 2020

I'm going to use images from several of my designs, including this project, as an example. It's a new kitchen in an old building and thanks to Square Foot Media for the images. There wasn’t a kitchen in this room before and getting one into the space was not as easy at you might think. Now, Since we are talking about old buildings, Let’s start with a short history lesson.

In today's world, kitchens are the center of family life but it wasn’t always like this. Historically, the kitchen was one of the lowest-status rooms, even in very expensive homes.

a buffet recess in Edinburgh new town
The drawing room before work began

In this property, the main drawing room has a telltale feature. This alcove is known as a Buffet Recess. Every day, the servants would make food in the kitchen, put the food on a trolley and place the trolley in that buffet recess, from where it would be served to the owners of the house.

old kitchen
The original kitchen

This is the original kitchen in the house before we built the new kitchen. It's cramped, unloved and you wouldn’t entertain guests in there. Ive spent my career altering older properties. It seems that in homes from the 1740’s to the 1970’s the kitchen was an afterthought. It's only within the last few decades that kitchens have moved front and center.

So, this is my design guide on how to create a great kitchen for modern life.

If you are building a completely new space, say a house extension or a new home, use the Tesco test when thinking about your kitchen. Imagine you come back from grocery shopping and have to carry bags from your driveway to the kitchen. How many doors do you really want to go through before getting to the kitchen? Ideally, the fewer the better. So when planning the location of a new space for your kitchen, take into account how far you will have to walk when carrying groceries.

Another way to look at this, is that any well-designed home should have a clear split between public and private spaces. If you want the kitchen to be the center of family life, somewhere you will entertain guests to your home, you need to consider how those guests get to the kitchen. Will they walk past kids' toys, dirty laundry or the bathroom? No, they should come straight into the kitchen from the outside and there should be separate access to the more private areas of the house.

Take this house extension as an example. We kept the existing front door but created a new entrance at the driveway, where you can walk straight into the kitchen.

open plan kitchen
I designed this kitchen, this is the view immediately inside the entrance door

The client loves this and called it their ‘wow’ space. We changed the landscaping at the front of the building, to make it more obvious that this is the door guests should go to. We also created a separate access from the open plans space to the bedrooms.

Now, if you are altering the internal layout of your existing home, and not building a new extension, things like drainage become much more important.

floor plan of the existing flat

In this project the original kitchen overlooked the rear of the property but the client wanted a new kitchen that overlooked the street. There were three rooms which qualified but this one is too small and this one doesn’t have access to drains.

The property is a mid-level flat. There are neighbouring properties above and below, so we cant just dig new drains into the ground, we have to work with what’s already there.

plan of flat in Edinburgh new town
floor plan of the proposed work. New walls in yellow.

By a process of elimination, that left one room. It overlooks the street and we could run the drainage from the new kitchen sink, to the existing drain pipes at the rear of the property. Those blue lines on the drawing are the new drains.

If your property is a flat, with neighbours below, you can't just lift the floorboards and shove a drain pipe in there. There are legal issues to consider. No matter how thick the floor, there will be a point in the middle where your ownership stops and your neighbour's ownership begins. The building regulations also have something to say about floors between different properties. Aside from any structural issues, and I will get to that, a separating floor needs to provide a certain amount of fire resistance and acoustic separation.

ash deafening in a 200 year old floor

It doesn’t matter if your flat is a modern construction or 200 years old, like this one, if you place drainage pipes under the floor it could compromise the fire and acoustic separation. In an older property, built using traditional methods, this gritty stuff is called ash deafening. It usually can’t be removed, as it provides the density necessary to reduce noise between properties. Even if a pipe can be placed within the deafening, you will probably have to cut through a structural joist. And that could literally bring the house down.

Drain running above floor

In this job I designed the new drains to run above the floor and hid them inside a false wall in the bedroom next door. The same false wall was also used to accommodate other essentials.

drain hidden behind false wall

Remember a pipe from a kitchen sink or dishwasher will be 50mm in diameter and it can't be laid flat, it must fall using a ratio of 1:80. For every 80 units of measurement the pipe runs horizontally, it must drop 1 unit vertically.

The pipes from this kitchen ran 12 meters from the sink to the existing drains at the rear of the property. They had to fall 15cm in total. If they had been located in the floor it is certain they would have crossed the legal boundary with the neighbour below and the existing timber floor joists would have been butchered to make way for the pipes. Practical issues like this often determine the location of kitchens, and in particular the kitchen sink, in older properties.

Some clients ask me if they can use pumps for the kitchen sink. The short answer is no. The building regulations require that every domestic property have at least one sink drained using a gravity-fed system. That's the fancy way of describing water flowing down a pipe, not using a pump.

It is possible to have a kitchen sink drained using a pump if there were another kitchen sink somewhere else on the same floor as the kitchen. The kitchen must be on the principal living level. So if you try to pull this trick, the gravity-fed sink needs to be on the same floor as the sink using the pump. Pumped systems often use narrower pipes and can pump wastewater vertically, so they offer significant design flexibility.

The kitchen / dining space

Imagine this client wanted a sink on the island. We couldn't make gravity-fed drains work, for all the reasons I mentioned before. But we could use a pump for a sink in the island as long as the main sink on the worktop behind used traditional, gravity-fed drains. I have looked at this with a few clients but never actually gone ahead with it. Most people just don’t have the space to do it. Which brings us to the next question. How much space should a kitchen have? What size should a kitchen be?

There are two factors at work here. First is the practical issue of ensuring you have enough storage, worktop and appliances to adequately feed everyone in the house. The other is the building regulations, again. I occasionally get clients who complain that the building regulations are intrusive and overly onerous but, when it comes to kitchens, the building regulations in Scotland only ask for 1 cubic meter of storage space in a kitchen.

A typical floor-mounted kitchen cabinet is 60cm wide, 60cm deep and 1m tall. So it would take three such cabinets to meet or exceed the minimum requirement for storage in a kitchen. In my experience, this isn’t enough storage for a modern family. My own rule of thumb is two kitchen cabinets per person, whether adult or child. So a family of four should have at least eight floor-mounted kitchen cabinets. That doesn’t include the fridge freezers, ovens or dishwashers, just cupboards and drawers. This kitchen was designed for a family of four and the kitchen has far more cabinets than that.

Scottish building regulations activity spaces for kitchens

The building regulations also require what they call activity spaces. Zones that set out the minimum amount of space needed to use the kitchen effectively. If these aren’t specified, some property developers would make kitchens so small they would be impractical. There must be a space at least 1m deep in front of an oven and a separate maneuvering space within the kitchen. That maneuvering space can be either 1.5m x 1.5m or an oval shape 1.8m long by 1.4m wide. So now you know how much space a kitchen needs. The next thing to consider is ventilation.

Cooking creates a lot of steam and this water vapour has to be removed from the building as quickly as possible, otherwise, it will lead to dampness and mold. Aside from the smell and potential for causing illness, this can be potentially catastrophic if it gets into structural timbers because, over time, they will rot. Our building regulations require a kitchen to have a mechanical extractor. That’s a fan which sucks the air out of the room and vents it to the outside. I've seen so many kitchen companies sell cooker hoods or downdraft extractors to my clients without explaining to them that these must be physically connected to the outside.

If you put a downdraft extractor on a kitchen island, it will have the same problem I mentioned earlier with a sink on an island. The extractor must have a 100mm diameter pipe connecting it to a vent outside. For this reason, whenever I design a kitchen I always put a separate mechanical extract fan in the room. We placed this one high up, and specified a discrete model. The pipe connecting it to the outside air runs in the same false wall that accommodates the drains.

hiding the pipes

This means the kitchen didn't need a hood over the hob, which would have cluttered the space. If a kitchen has an independent mechanical extractor, you can still install a hood or downdraft and this can be a re-circulator. The more expensive models sometimes have charcoal filters. These are all fine and well but, on their own, they don't comply with the building regulations. The building regulations don't ask for a kitchen to have a window for ventilation, which might seem like a more natural solution to the problem. Not only that, but in our building regulations, a kitchen isn't required to have natural light.

This part of the regs must be read carefully however, because if the room has other activities such as living or dining spaces, those activities must have natural light. The regulations require glazing to be at least one-fifteenth the floor area. So if the room is 15 square meters, the glass in the window must be 1 square meter.

Once we get all the practical and regulatory issues out of the way, we can begin to have some fun designing the kitchen itself. The biggest challenge I feel is getting the flow correct. Any well-designed kitchen must have a layout that respects the three most important activities in any kitchen. Preparation, Cooking and Cleaning.

prep, cook, clean

You can see this kitchen is laid our with distinct areas for prep, cooking and cleaning. In short, the kitchen sink should not be located between the prep area and the cooking area. If you have a breakfast bar or if the kitchen space also accommodates a dining table, like this room, the cooking area also becomes the service area. Where food is plated up and passed around. This may sound trivial but I have seen people mess it up.

Another big consideration is noise. If you are considering a kitchen in an open place space or even just a kitchen diner, like this project, do not put the washing machine or tumble dryer in the same room. Create a separate utility room, like I did in this flat. You will thank me.

I should also say that, while I have opinions on elements of kitchen design, like worktops, cabinets or handles, I don't actually design the units myself. This is a specialist area, and there are so many different companies offering kitchens in the UK right now. From cheap and cheerful to unbelievably expensive. I couldn't possibly compete, given that kitchen firms offer free design with their units. Plus, these guys have far more up-to-date knowledge on the current trends for materials and appliances.

I will say that the price of kitchen units can seem hard to justify in some cases. Ive seen German kitchens costing upwards of £40k. I've spoken to a specialist manufacturer of hand-built timber kitchen units who don't sell anything under £60k. And I've been told some kitchens can cost more than the price of a one-bed flat. Like all things in life, there is a sweet spot. A point beyond which the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and the more you pay, the less you get.

I have nothing against kitchen companies or interior designers but I felt discussing the practical issues associated with kitchens would be a worthwhile post.

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