The work triangle vs. work center ethos

Anyone even remotely familiar with kitchen design has heard of the famous work triangle… but do you know what it’s about and how it came to be?  More importantly, is it the gospel truth that must be followed to the letter?  What about work centers?  Is that just another way of saying the same thing?

Let’s start with some background.  In the late 1800’s and continuing through the 1920’s,  a man by the name of Frederick Taylor began to look at work flows and manufacturing efficiency from a scientific point of view.  He developed new ways of managing and increasing labor productivity.  This scientific management theory became known as “Taylorism”.

Fast forward to the late 1940’s and the affordable housing shortage brought about by the end of the Second World War and all the soldiers returning home start a family.  It was during this time that the University Of Illinois School Of Architecture devised the “work triangle” for residential kitchen design by applying Taylorist time-motion studies to the problem of kitchen efficiency.

The basic premise was that the main working functions in the kitchen are carried out between cook top, sink, and refrigerator.  These three points would be laid out in a ‘U’ formation, and the imaginary lines between the elements constitute the work triangle.  Each leg of the triangle should be between 4 and 9 feet long, with the sum of the total distance landing between 13 and 26 feet.   The University also gave guidelines for counter tops next to or around each fixture as work space.

For kitchen design, this was a big step forward.  Even in the most affordable houses, the homemaker was insured a tidy and efficient work space.  The work triangle became the main criteria in residential kitchen design from that time forward.  To this day, the work triangle is a great guide to us when we are planning single cook kitchens in smaller homes… the thing is, single cook, smaller kitchens are becoming less and less common.  Let’s think for a moment about why that is.

Those same boys that came back from war and started families also started businesses.  We now call them “the greatest generation” because of the work ethic and drive that they manifested in those years.  America became affluent, and the common family home began to get larger.  In the 1950’s the average house was about 1100 sq. ft. and had two bedrooms and one bath.  Today, the average new home is 2350 sq. ft. and family sizes are actually smaller.

Next, let’s factor in the sexual revolution.  In the 40’s and 50’s many mothers stayed home and raised the children, as Dad went off to work.  Women who did work made considerably less than their male counterparts.  The wife may have worked, but she still was expected to come home and cook the meals mostly by herself.  Of course many people in America still live this way but for most of us, things have changed dramatically.  Women are now the major decision makers when it comes to home purchases and remodeling choices.  Wages are for the most part equalized, and “mom” can bring it home just as well has her husband.

As our family dynamics changed, so did our lifestyle.  Affluence continued, and home design adapted.  In our area, architect Cliff May is credited with the development of the ranch house style and the open floor plan that typify those homes.  The ‘great room” idea became pervasive and kitchens began to open up to the other areas of the home instead of being closed off behind a door.  Grand “estate” type homes became more prevalent, and large dinner parties became more common place.

Enter the “work center” ethos.  Today, having multiple cooks in the kitchen has become the norm and beyond that, the kitchen has become the heart of the home. (By the way, I think that statement is so over used today but I just couldn’t avoid it!)  What I mean is that many tasks that used to occur in other areas now seem to happen in and around the kitchen.  This new order of things has caused designers to leave the work triangle in favor of work center design.

In a kitchen that follows a work center ethos, tasks are looked at somewhat separately and assigned zones around the space not unlike a commercial kitchen.  There are in general four major centers:  Preparation, baking, cooking, and cleanup.  Each zone can function separately from the others, but may overlap in places.  For instance, a preparation zone might require access to the refrigeration, a small sink for washing fruits and vegetables, a large counter for cutting and separating, and a waist receptacle.   The clean up center would have a larger main sink for rinsing and washing dishes, the dishwasher would be next to that, plastic containers for food storage and roll goods for wrapping are nearby, and the refrigerator would be shared with the afore mentioned prep center.

Work center kitchens tend to be larger and many even incorporate other functions previously unrelated to the kitchen.  Often we allow for a desk area complete with charging stations for cell phones and tablet computers.  Homework is now completed in the kitchen because mom and dad are available to answer questions there!

So, that’s the long and short of kitchen space planning.  Not all families are the same and so different design principles need to be applied to insure a successful result.  In our business, we are finding ourselves using “work triangle” and “work center” ideas, or sometimes a hybrid combination of both.  These principles are guides for us, but they are not hard and fast.  Design needs remain flexible to the degree that it must also at the end of the day please its user.

Managing Common Remodel Problems

Remodeling your home is expensive, invasive, and difficult…. And that’s if everything goes well!  No matter how you slice it, the process of remodeling is not going to be all that fun.  Still, the rewards are well worth it and the benefits far outweigh the difficulties.  My purpose here is to help you anticipate and manage some of the most common problems that could come up.

First, we need to set the bar.  Construction is not an exact science, and remodeling even less so.  Architects, designers, and contractors all agree that a remodel carries with it some unique challenges.  If you start out knowing that some things will require adjustment you will be better equipped to weather the process and have a positive result.

With that understanding, I have identified some common challenges that you may come across in your remodel.  These are purposefully broad because we don’t know your specific situation.  For each challenge, I have offered ways to avoid, and ways to minimize each problem.

1) Unforeseen conditions

These are things that are uncovered during the course of construction that were unanticipated.  For instance, you might discover mold inside a wall or you may find a deficiency in the original construction… a missing footing or improper electrical work.  These things are all possible, especially in older homes that may have been subject to several remodels and repairs over the years.

To avoid:

Some of these things can be detected up front if the home undergoes a thorough inspection by the contractor.  We often recommend knocking a few holes in the walls in key locations to verify existing structural elements, and minimize unforeseen problems.

To Minimize:

Always figure in a contingency between 5 – 10% of the overall budget.  This way, you’ve planned ahead and no one needs to panic.  Also, it may be possible to delay or defer some of the repairs to a later date.  If you discover something like a roof leak in the beginning of summer, you might be able to wait a couple of months before solving it.

2) Cost Overruns

This is one of the most common complaints in construction.  The good news is that you are in control of many of the reasons why things go over.

To Avoid:

Always select things up front, and total up the bids and prices before you start.  When the contractor gives you an initial bid for work it’s common for them to have allowances in certain categories rather than hard costs.  Some of these allowances are necessary, but others are only there because you haven’t made a selection.  Here’s the rub: Contractors try to guess how much you will spend on a particular item…say door hardware.  They want to give you a good product that they can stand behind, but not one that makes them seem more expensive than the other contractors bidding the work.  So they might provide an allowance for a value brand like Schlage.  It’s a good lock that will hold up well and he can allow $30 per door for that product.  The trouble comes when you go shopping and find a beautiful set from Baldwin that costs $160.  Multiply that difference by the number of doors you have, and you have just blown that allowance item.   Make all your selections up front and avoid most of this all together.

3) Something is not right

“I didn’t expect it to look like that”…. Eight words that will strike fear into any remodeler!  These types of problems arise for various reasons, but you can count on some of this in a project of any scale.

To avoid:

Invest in design.  Having a good design and spending the time to have things drawn out can help uncover hidden misunderstandings.  Drawings are just paper and can be changed with ease.  Insist on complete design drawings… look at the cabinetry from every side, get tile pattern layouts, specify materials locations etc.

To minimize:

Know that almost anything can be reworked.   Here is some sound counsel:  Work to find a solution with everyone’s interests in mind.  Don’t rush to point a finger or assign blame.  You will get the best solutions out of a collaborative effort.   I find that most people are willing to bear some of the costs for things that need to be redone if they feel like others are doing the same, and they are not being rolled under the bus.  Even if you feel like you had no part  in a particular problem, it may be in your  best interests to share in the cost of the solution rather than make an adversary out of someone who may still have quite a bit of work to do on your home.  A Little good will can go a long way.

4) Stress on the home front.

I find that most of our customers under estimate the amount of stress that a remodel will cause.  Just having workers arrive at your house every morning at 7am can take a toll.  Not to mention all the other inconveniences of the process.  Someone turned the water off… but no one checked to see if you were in the shower at the time!  The Kid’s can’t play in the yard because it’s a construction zone, the dog got out, you ran over a nail in the drive way, and the tile guy just saw you naked.  All of this can add to your stress levels big time.

Also remember that money is flying out of you like never before.   Even though you expect to spend it and you know how much everything costs, it can still be stressful when every time you turn around someone needs a check.  Additionally, you may not be on the exact same page as other family members… Your husband thinks that towel bars should cost $30 and not $300… but he wants a $5000 TV to pop out of a cabinet at the foot of your bed!

To Avoid:

Consider going away for the worst of it.  Even for relatively minor work it might be worth a week away during the demo process.  I know, I know… you want to be around so nothing bad happens.   The thing is, you being there won’t prevent it any way.  Do your homework and only hire people that you trust.  That way you can take a break without worrying that someone is going through your sock drawer when you’re out of town.

To Minimize:

Consider construction start and end times that suit your family.  If having the guys show up at 7:30 rather than 7 is a big help, then ask them if they could adjust their times.

Have a back-up plan.  Let your neighbor know that you are remodeling and ask if you might borrow a guest room shower in the event that yours is suddenly out of commission.  Budget in a little extra for meals away from home… but here’s a trick:  Don’t always go out to a restaurant.  Have a picnic or make BBQ plans with friends.  It will feel more like home and will cost less than making TGI Friday’s your new hang out.

Set up a protocol for funds distribution.  This could a simple plan like saying that you write checks only on Tuesdays, or make sure that all the subs go through your contractor and ask him to bill you every two weeks.

Admittedly this list is far from exhaustive, but I hope it has addressed the most common issues you will face.  If you go into the process with proper planning and realistic expectations you will have a much more pleasant experience all around.  Problems arise for sure, but I’ve yet to see a problem that talented and good natured people couldn’t come together to solve.

Who needs a kitchen designer anyway?

This topic may be a little self-serving by nature, but I still think it warrants some attention.  Our customers often wonder if their project needs a specialized designer… after all, general contractors know a lot about kitchens, as do architects and interior designers.  Do I need all these people and their associated fees in order to have a great project?  These are fair questions, and I will try to do my best to answer them in this and future posts.

Q: When do I need a kitchen designer?

Short answer:  Whenever you run out of ideas and expertise!

Long answer:
I would like to think that we bring value to any kitchen project regardless of scale.

Kitchen design is a very technical and detailed discipline.  Kitchens are often first “engineered” to function and then designed to be beautiful.  It’s in achieving that balance that the kitchen designer earns his or her place at the design table.

I have a background working in architectural offices, and I will be the first to tell you that most architects do a great job of space planning kitchens.  The architect knows exactly how they want the kitchen to relate to the rest of the home… both inside and out.  Architects do a great job on the bones but can tend to lose interest in the nitty gritty.  That is to say that many couldn’t care less where you put your aluminum foil or Tupperware.

Interior designers may or may not have expertise in kitchen design.  They will of course do a wonderful job with the style and colors, and again in my experience, most interior designers are great with space planning.  The area where the interiors person may need some assistance is on the technical side.  Appliances for instance are ever evolving and changing.  It’s a full time job to stay up on all the manufacturers and what they are offering… and not offering anymore.

Of course I am painting with a wide brush when I make these broad generalizations.  Before my comments section explodes with nasty grams, let me assure you that many architects and interior designers have done as many kitchens as I have and with all the expertise in the world.  Never the less, I think the best approach is one that includes as many disciplines as necessary.  I have discovered that our finest projects are those where we have collaborated with other design professionals to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Designers of all varieties sometimes get a bad rap because of the cost of our fees, and the additional costs to the job for our selections.  It’s true that “designer” projects tend to have higher budgets… because we expose our customers to possibilities that they were unaware of.  Special details and materials make a project personal and unique… and more expensive.

In my next post I will provide some guidelines in finding a kitchen designer that will help your project be all it can be…

Stay tuned!