Innovative Design for Ergonomic Kitchens

Cabinetmakers discuss ways to move beyond the conventional kitchen characteristics such as counter height. October 13, 2012

Just read an article in the Knowledge Base about installations on unlevel floors. It reminded me of a book I read about housing for the poor in the American south. Many people would regard the resulting structure as suitable for a summer camp, or a hunting cabin (open shelf cupboards, plywood countertops) but the book had some interesting insights about a working kitchen.

Their plans called for counters at 3 different heights. 36" countertop height is a bad compromise, and is a leading cause of backache in kitchens. It came out of studies in the '30s when people were an average of an inch shorter, and the kitchen was much more the domain of women than is true now.

1. A baking station at 28-30 inches. This is the right height so that you can knead or roll with your elbows straight so you can use the weight of your shoulders. This is also a good height to have around if young kids help in the kitchen. It's a better height for parking grocery bags when you come in too.

2. A cutting surface at 34-38" (palms on surface - forearms should make a 45 degree angle with the top). 36 is about right for a person who is 5' 8". It's a lot easier to raise a surface with a heavy cutting board than to lower it, however, so lower heights may be more prudent.

3. Most sinks are too low. The working surface in a sink is the bottom of the sink. You should be able to pick up anything off the bottom of the sink without bending your back.

These heights are for a person 5'8". The crucial dimension is the height of the elbow above the floor, A 6 foot person likely would be better served by counters 2-3 inches higher. A 5' 4 person, 2-3 inches lower.

There are ways to experiment: Higher surfaces can be made by using blocks or slabs. A higher sink bottom requires a slab that won't float, and fits accurately enough that the spoons don't hide in the edges. Trimming a ceramic tile to fit, with a few finger size drainage holes, and a silicon bead around the edge can work. The height is adjusted by putting things under it.

A lower surface can be simulated by making various height platforms. For letting your clients experiment, make 1.5" 3" and 4.5 inch. Paint them some bright color so they catch the eye, and clients don't trip.

If the kitchen is busy, having an open shelf about a foot over the work surface 16" to 20" back from the front edge gives "temp space" - place to put bowls of ingredients, canisters that will be used again later, etc. Similarly a shallow shelf (6" max) over the stove can store frequently used spices and sauces.

4. Get the dishwasher off the floor. Put it on a 16" plinth.

5. Similarly, lift the refrigerator at least a foot. For a top freezer model, put the top of the fridge cabinet at eye level. For a bottom freezer unit, the top fridge shelf should be just below eye level. You can put a deep drawer underneath.

For this group, here's the big advantage to working with this: All the standard stuff is based on that 36" height. If you want something else, it's got to be custom. Your bread and butter. Okay, I've kicked off the discussion. Run with it.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor K:
I agree there is lots of room for improvement. You would think that with a renewed interest in meal prep in home, kitchens would evolve a bit. But they seem to be stuck in the same old, same old.

Kitchen builders have the job of changing what kitchen designers do - uphill all the way. Kitchen designers do what they are taught and copy each other. Why change and risk having your clients' visitors question the sanity of the kitchen designer?

Though I am known as a cynic, I have found that most of my clients just want what their neighbor has, only a little bigger and grander, and just a bit more expensive.

From contributor J:
One problem is that if you design for a certain height person, which person is it? My wife is almost a foot shorter than I am, and we both use the kitchen equally. So now what do you do? And we're not far out of average so I think you would have this problem in the majority of situations.

Second problem I see, at least in most of the homes I work in, is work space. Not many kitchens have room for several heights of countertop. And the most sought after feature arguably is counter space. So if you start dividing the already small portions of workspace into smaller sized tops at different heights… the ergonomic advantage would be lost to the resulting smaller, less useful work surfaces.

I think it's an interesting discussion, but it is a question of practicality. Of course if you live outside the metropolitan areas where they're building 8k sq. ft. McMansions and only one person really utilizes the kitchen, then you have a different scenario.

From contributor P:
I think a lot of that does not take into account spatial design, as well as user design. There's a reason big box retailers use 10' x 10' kitchen samples with 8' ceilings.

One example is jacking up a dishwasher 16". It affects everything around it, and unless you have the size kitchen that can accommodate it, it can be awful to look at. It raises above the countertop and brings into view the actual DW above the countertop line. Also raising the DW 16" kind of negates all the other points about countertop height, as even if the adjoining countertops were 28" high, that means the countertop on top of the DW would be 44" high.

Same goes with the refrigerator. Raising it a foot removes a foot of the cabinet above it or if no cab, a very awkward space. Both of those height modifications, dishwasher and fridge, also work against the kid angle. Kids can stand on a stool when young, but a 5'8" adult would be bending a lot more on a 28" high counter, which also negates the sink point.

Vanities as low as 28" are made for people, but people are actually asking for 36" high vanities. While I agree that kitchen design can improve (one of the biggest is wasted space), it's about the law of averages.

From the original questioner:
A foot difference in height is all the more reason to have every trick you can to make it easy for people. Tall: You want thick cutting boards that can move around easily. Short: you want lightweight platforms that can be kicked around without damaging either the floor or your toes.

Few people spend much time prepping. Last summer, however, I did four batches of black currant jam. The sink was the wrong height for cleaning the berries, so eventually worked in a bowl on the kitchen table.

Cupboard space above a fridge is almost never used. A big drawer below the fridge might be. The raised dishwasher is raised for the same reason that a wall oven is. Access without bending. And the solution is the same: It's built into a section of full depth cupboard (pantry).

Agreed that 10x10 kitchens are going to be a compromise. But I suspect that most of the guys here who make kitchen cabinetry aren't building 10x10's.

In the ready build market, the obvious solutions are a combination of variable height toe space construction, combined with stacking units. Space below counters should be all drawers anyway. (Sink is an exception. Corners are tough to do drawers.)

So if I'm Ikea, I sell the following units for base cabinets: 3" and 5" base or adjustable legs (they sell these already). Drawers come in divisors of 45 inches: 15, 22.5, 45. They come in heights of 3", 4", 5", 7", 9" 12". So 3" base + 12" x22.5" drawers + 9"x 22.5" drawer + 3"x22.5 +3"x22.5 + 2 foot countertop section = bread station. Design them to be stacked, ideally in any combination. Sell your countertops in 16, 24, and 48 lengths, so that they can be dropped in place.

In most cases, counters are heavy enough to sit still. Help this by just having holes in the bottom face of the counter that fit on dowels set in the edge of the base units. Everything stacks on dowel pins.

Wouldn't be custom. Would be standardized, and easy to do. It would take more material, because each stacking drawer has to have enough of a face frame for structural strength, although it could be done with metal bars to make it more space efficient. I'm sure there are major problems with this approach. But that's why you guys get the big bucks. It's time to re-invent the kitchen.

From contributor L:
I have to agree that current kitchen designs aren't very good. A custom kitchen should be built to fit the owners, not the real estate market. A major problem seems to me is that kitchens have gotten to be built for aesthetics, not utility. All the goofy carved junk around the range! Do I want to de-grease that? Dishwashers are one of the poorest located items. My back hurts thinking about them. The open shelf above the main work area makes a lot of sense - truly increases the available area without requiring more counter or walking.

Some (maybe most) of this design stupidity is based on the desire to appear wealthier than thy neighbor. A kitchen as a status symbol!

From contributor J:

I think the idea of challenging convention is a good one, and I always support trying to find better ways to do things. Just keep in mind that because something doesn't work for you doesn't mean it doesn't work.

For instance, when I cook, most of the time is spent prepping. I would guess this would be the norm rather than exception, except for folks "cooking" prepared meals and frozen dinners. Prep time is always longest; actual time spent on the stove is usually the quick and easy part.

My cabinet above the fridge stores the liquor. If that's not important, I don't know what is. And there's no way I'm putting it in a drawer under the fridge!

I like the raised dishwashers, they're just hard to fit in an average kitchen without losing precious counter space. I also like mostly drawers under the countertop, they're just so much easier to store stuff in.

Farmers sinks are so much easier to work in than the average stainless steel under mount. I had to push the farmers sink when I did our kitchen, but now my wife loves it and appreciates the easier access!

You're right in that many of the high end kitchens are designed more towards looks than function. And yes, they are a status symbol. Don't know why you think others will disagree with that? I think that's pretty well established with most here.

Also remember, though, that the really high end super kitchens probably won't get a lot of real use anyway. And in the unlikely event that there is some grease build up on those carved moldings… You don't think the homeowner is going to clean it, do you? They have people for that.

From contributor T:
Woodwork that is used for promotional purposes is where the profit is. Trade shows, retail stores, high end houses where the owner has a need to promote himself, hotel lobbies, restaurants, etc.

From contributor P:
I agree that it is good to challenge conventional thinking. It's where moldings, corbels and appliques, susans, corner units, glass, etc. all came from. Not to mention custom cabs in general. But what is important to keep in mind is that you are also dealing with more conventions than just cabinetry.

Maximizing space and customizing it to the customer while at the same time keeping the future in mind is the best bet. One of the first things we usually ask is, "is this home? are you done?" Because resale is important also.

We go through their kitchen at full measure, find out what they store where, where they normally do things, and customize the space to them, but I can tell you there are a lot of givens when it comes to design. The workstations and surrounding cab placement are really more defined by the appliances than anything else.

I haven't heard of a new concept that has blown me away as it relates to kitchen design. To a customer though, a new kitchen designed to them is really a comfortable glove that will make an impression.

From contributor D:
Most "designer" kitchens seem so over the top, but lack function. With large rooms and large budgets, they just keep drawing that same old plan with new sizes but the exact same details for the most part.

The solution for the dishwashers can be the drawer type so the raised counters are really not needed. I did make a huge drawer box cabinet that a battery operated fridge sat on to allow the drain to work; the house was off the grid.

The kitchen I'm on is getting the Super Susans in one corner; these are a first for me. Keeping the basic standards for appliances is safest, but now and then we have to fudge, especially on hoods.

From contributor S:
Ergonomic improvements:
1. Do drawers only under counters - no cabinet drawers.
2. Multi-level countertops.
3. Drawer dishwasher - raised a little.

I'm doing a small kitchen now - not a single cabinet door below the countertop. Even the sink we have two deep drawers (with notch outs for the plumbing). All 27 drawers will have servo drive.

Multi-levels are the way to go. This kitchen has 3 (four if you count the bar top). Think outside the box - it is not hard to mix in multiple levels and is so much more comfortable to use, both for different height users and for the same person performing different functions.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I completed a kitchen cabinet reface for a friend which included some modifications. The owner swapped his old fridge for a new, larger one. Since the old over-fridge cabinet had to come down, I made a new one that covered the entire fridge top. As he pointed out fridge cabinets usually get buried by things on top the fridge anyway. I took it a step farther and made a 30" lazy Susan and he loves it. As he pointed out, the combination of the larger cabinet and the Susan make better use of the area and are actually usable.

The other thing I did was to build soffits over his cabinets using panels that latched magnetically. They look like decorative panels, but actually store items. They use hidden hinges so no one knows they exist as other than soffits.

We are doing an extensive remodel on our home and I inherited two blind corners. For the first I built a unique lazy Susan in that I left an area to the right and to the left that can hold large pans. Because they are back a bit from the door, opening it gives a feeling of wide access to the Susan.

For the other blind corner I built a regular cabinet with two drawers. Items that are used rarely are stored there. To make it accessible, I built a pull out cart with good quality, swiveling casters. It's built to appear as just another part of the system of built-ins, that way we were able to make full use of both blind corners. A side benefit includes using the hidden cabinet as a hiding place for.