Kitchens for Looks and for Cooks

I like to cook, especially when I don’t have to. When I have the time, I like to whip up the real thing, like a pie with a homemade crust. My cooking style generally can be classified as “get outta my way.” I need space for all the stuff I’m chopping and shredding. There are a lot of dirty dishes and a lot of tools. It’s not a pretty process. But I like a pretty kitchen as much as the next person. So I visited some model homes recently to indulge in a little window shopping — and to find out whether new kitchens are for looks or for cooks.

kitchen islands

I found — no surprise — that good looks abound. Kitchens are airy and sophisticated, with rich wood cabinets that look like furniture. There’s always an island of some sort, with seating for three or four people. There’s usually a breakfast nook nearby. Often, there are useful luxuries such as sets of sink, trash disposal and dishwasher.
Appliances come and go, but the real way to a cook’s heart is layout. If the layout is poorly designed, you will curse that pretty kitchen with every meal you make.
Unfortunately, I found that layouts often leave something to be desired, even in expensive new houses. One culprit seems to be the copious space taken up by industrial-size ranges, range hoods and refrigerators. They gobble up culinary real estate that could be used for countertops and cabinets. Even though the kitchens all had either a walk-in pantry or a pantry made of cabinets, there still should be plenty of other cabinet space for dishes, cereal boxes and other groceries that you want to keep handy.
Other common flaws include oversize islands that crowd the counters and appliances and wall ovens that are orphaned away from the rest of the cooking area, without enough counter space nearby to handle pans on their way into or out of the oven. And some kitchen planners still haven’t figured out where to put the microwave. (I like mine near the range so it’s handy for melting chocolate and defrosting chicken.)
One of the kitchens I liked most was in a house that I was prepared to dislike from the start. Driving up to the palatial Frasier model home on two acres in Great Falls, constructed by custom builder Keswick Homes, one could easily imagine serfs tending sheep on the grounds of the French-style chateau. Base price for the 5,600-square-foot home is $3.15 million, but the full 10,000-square-foot la-dee-da on display costs $5 million.
Given the size of the house, I expected to find an overly large, inefficient kitchen, but instead I found well-thought-out details. At 480 square feet, the kitchen is certainly larger than average, but it consumes nowhere near the 12 percent of a home’s total area that is typical, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
I could make do with a single Sub-Zero fridge, of course, instead of the pair this kitchen has. And the $20,000-ish British Aga-brand range and oven (which looks like a gorgeous, red, retro coal-fired stove) is way over the top. But, aside from those flourishes, this is a kitchen that could be put to good use.
Key to the space’s usability is the narrow working island running down the middle of what is basically a galley kitchen — one of the most efficient layouts. That long, wood-topped island is about 24 inches deep, offering plenty of space for work (or a stand-up bowl of cereal) without crowding the rest of the work area. A second island, with an extra sink and space for three stools (and thoughtful recesses beneath the island to accommodate knees), defines the boundary between kitchen and breakfast nook.
This kitchen also had one wonderfully practical touch that could be incorporated in any renovation of an existing home. An eight-inch-high strip of black honed-granite countertop material is mounted on the wall as a backsplash above the counter (made of the same semi-gloss black granite). That dark panel allowed the builder to go wild installing electrical outlets; with black faceplates, they disappear into the granite. This kitchen has 10 pairs of outlets spaced along the counters. Just think of all the waffle irons, juicers and coffee makers this kitchen could handle! You could plug in the whole line of George Foreman grills and rotisseries, if you wanted. But you wouldn’t have to plug in a microwave; it’s ensconced in the wall, just above the oven.
I also found a very comfortable working kitchen in Bowie, at a less expensive but still upper-brackets house. The Tara model, by Mid-Atlantic Builders in the Woodmore North development, is priced at $979,900 for 4,642 square feet. The kitchen consumes 356 square feet of that.
The two-height island, with sink and extra dishwasher, accommodates four seats. It does crowd the range and oven, but only slightly. And there is adequate counter space to each side of those appliances. A big highlight is the triple-wide window above the double sink, which has a sill deep enough to hold plants. One quibble is the lack of space for a built-in microwave.
Alas, I also found a number of recurring flaws among model homes, layout problems that any home shopper would be wise to watch for.
An overly deep single-level island is one such flaw on display in Mid-Atlantic’s 3,651-square-foot Toscana model, priced at $839,900. Granted, I’m 5 feet 3, but I could barely reach the center. It’s also too close to the refrigerator and wall ovens. (The presence of a side-by-side refrigerator is a tip-off to check for bottlenecks. They often are installed where there would not be enough space to open a single-door fridge.)
The microwave is left to find a home somewhere on the counter, and the double wall ovens are orphaned away from the rest of the cooking area. At a surprising number of houses, the ovens were next to the refrigerator, a less-than-optimal spot for energy efficiency.
Today’s new-home kitchens are designed to seduce, and they’re very good at it. But if you cook anything more elaborate than Pop-Tarts and coffee, you owe it to yourself to imagine going through the steps of meal prep before you buy. If construction is not already finished, you may be able to ask the builder to make small changes (like moving the island six inches) that add to your comfort.
Source Elizabeth Razzi – Washington Post