Possibly the most complex, expensive and problematical area in the house, many kitchens were planned and built before there was much more than a deep sink and a bulky cooker to think about. Even in modern houses the kitchen is usually one of the smallest rooms, yet it often has to accommodate more work and equipment than anywhere else.
BASIC PRIORITIES If you use standard kitchen units you’ll have a good idea of what you’re getting; some manufacturers also do a planning service to help you organize their selection of products. Many useful extra fittings — wire racks or plastic drawers, for instance, if you are doing more than just a cosmetic job, decide what equipment you really need in your kitchen; if you know that you can’t afford it all now, leave space. One of the main things about having a pleasing place to live in is keeping it flexible so that it can grow to meet your changing needs. Question yourself. Will you be eating in there? Will the children want to play there? What sort of meals do you cook and for how many? How much storage do you need and should it be open or in cupboards? Is the water supply, gas, electricity, ventilation adequate? Are you average height, or would it be better to have things custom made? Working surfaces at the wrong height can cause irritation, back ache and slipped discs! Then decide if you could alter the size of it by knocking out walls, a downstairs loo or an unused chimney. But make sure you won’t be losing more than you’ll gain — a pantry, for instance, can be far better for storing some food than a fridge. It may be best to leave well alone.
If you’re not starting from scratch, and can’t afford or don’t want major upheavals, try removing all that’s unnecessary or ugly — such as old wires, clocks that don’t work, threadbare tea-towels, greasy memo pads. Replacing them with fresh pretty things (a jug of flowers, a spice shelf, some nice jars) will give renewed life.
A small whitewood chest of drawers, a painted wardrobe or free-standing bookshelves may easily provide an answer to storage problems, especially in rented accommodation. Industrial shelving or a piece of pegboard could cheaply display a useful and good-looking collection of kitchen equipment. A space where the fire or range used to be might become an alcove for equipment or shelving, perhaps with a wider shelf at waist level as a work surface. A slot at the back of a shelf could keep chopping knives close at handbut out of the way of the children.
Keep shelving as narrow as possible; that way nothing gets pushed to the back and forgotten. For deeper cupboards, doors with racks on the inside, swinging out to view, are far easier to keep orderly. Ideal doors for high wall cabinets are those sliding up on a sash mechanism — who hasn’t cracked their head on a door hanging open at this awkard level?
If things are constantly in use, and the area you live in isn’t too dirty, open shelving can have a decorative and unifying effect on the whole kitchen (or you could link it visually with the windows by hanging blinds in front).
Fridges are bulky, so they usually stand on the floor, though this makes them rather difficult to see into. If you can manage with a small one, try either a wall-hung model or putting it up on a work surface. Two small ones with the doors opening different ways can be very satisfactory.
Large fridges, of course, will give you extras such as freezer sections and ice-makers. Chest freezers are less convenient but cheaper than vertical ones where you can see everything at a glance. Consider the direction of the swing of your fridge door before you buy any particular model.
You probably have your own very definite opinion about whether gas or electricity is better. If you like the cleanliness of electricity, and the flexibility of gas, why not have an electric oven and a gas hob? Conventional cookers always have a gap round the back which gets filthy and is a real nuisance to clean. A split-level scheme does avoid this problem and also cuts out bending to peer at what’s cooking.
Some small ovens can be built in or hung on a wall, which saves on space. You could consider micro-wave ovens, especially if you often eat frozen food. At the other end of the spectrum, a cooker incorporating a boiler will give your kitchen a friendly feeling, encourage you to cook slow stews and bake your own bread, and will supply hot water and perhaps heat the radiators as well.
Don’t necessarily think that you’ve got to introduce a stainless steel sink to make your kitchen look good. Old ceramic or cast iron ones may be far more in character, and you could always build units around them. Also you don’t need to observe the convention of having the sink under the window — unless you have toddlers to watch in the garden. Another time- and space-saver is a wall-mounted plate rack over the sink, and simple wall-mounted taps are the easiest to clean. The sink should be near the hot water supply, with a convenient store for detergents, tea-towels, etc., and it should also be near the cooker, for draining food.
A pedal-bin is essential in the kitchen. Bulky items will need a large plastic container — perhaps attached to the back of a cupboard door. Dustbins
should be kept away from doors and windows and the dustbin area should be kept clean, as any scraps of food will attract flies and vermin.
If you want one, it’s worth buying a good one. You may have to use it several times a day so, if it’s too small, unreliable or noisy, it will be very irritating.
HEATING AND VENTILATION
Kitchens usually produce their own heat, what with the cooking, washing and central heating boiler, so if yours is small you’ll probably find a temporary quick warmth is all you need — such as that from a fan heater. Underfloor heating would be good for stone or quarry floors.
Condensation and smells seeping out to the rest of the house can be particularly depressing. Some ovens have their own ventilation systems, otherwise an overhead hood is the most acceptable form of ventilation.
Make sure you won’t be in your own light. One answer is to install tungsten tubes under wall-hung cupboards, shining down on work tops. Spotlights will give an efficient and more friendly light than the frequently used strip lights: your kitchen doesn’t have to be as dazzling as a supermarket. Make sure the sink is properly lit — it is often the worst lit part of the kitchen at night. Natural light can often be improved — perhaps by altering an old back door to make a sliding window (louvred windows would provide ventilation without draughts). Blinds are probably better than curtains as they are easier to keep clean.
FLOORS, WALLS AND WORK TOPS
Choose something warm, washable, tough, non-slip and not too noisy for your floor covering. Linoleum, cork and vinyl are good. However, don’t rush to take out tiles or stone and brick floors if you do have them; you could keep their quality and make them practical by covering them with a matt plastic coating.
Walls in the kitchen have to withstand heat, condensation, splashing and grease, so you must be practical, perhaps even having different types of surfaces in different areas to cope with any of these problems. Ceramic or stainless steel tiles will take splashing and heat; timber, vinyl and cork are fairly resilient and look good. Semigloss paint is better than full gloss — it doesn’t show the condensation as much.
There’s no ideal work surface, so use a variety for different tasks. Formica is fairly tough, and easy to wipe clean. Stainless steel will withstand heat, wood chopping boards can be movable — large ones can be fixed in the work surface (rub in oil to keep them looking good) – and slate or marble is excellent for pastry making.
Planning the layout of your kitchen is extremely complex for there are always doors and windows in just the wrong places. The basic idea is to have food storage near where you come in with the shopping, next to a food preparation surface. Cooking facilities should be near the sink, and near a serving area. A dishwasher should be
near the dish storage.
You will need at least 75 cm (2 ft 6 in) of corridor space between units, but avoid having it as a real corridor with a flow of people going to and fro — a dangerous situation all too likely to result in burns and scalds. Keep your layout as simple as possible, and try to place all your tall items together so you can have as big an area of uninterrupted work top as possible. Storage is best positioned just above your work surface.