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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Kitchen Design

Common-sense principles for a green kitchen

Every cook has distinct ideas on what makes a kitchen functional and attractive. If you're designing your own house, you get to call the shots.
Image Credit: Fine Hombuilding - Susan Teare

Every decade, kitchen design becomes more complicated. It’s gotten to the point where some residential designers subcontract the work to a specialist.

If you are a humble owner-builder, do your kitchen preferences even matter anymore? Of course they do. If you’re building a house, you should certainly have a say in matters affecting kitchen design — even if your ideas are different from those of the experts.

The basics

Before we focus on details that make a kitchen green, let’s quickly review the basics.

The oldest kitchen design principle concerns the triangle between the refrigerator, sink, and stove. According to traditional wisdom, you want this so-called “kitchen triangle” to be fairly compact (but not too cramped). Most sources advise that each leg of the triangle should measure between 4 and 9 feet. Ideally, your house design keeps foot traffic away from this triangle. (In other words, the normal path from the living room to the stairway shouldn’t be through the kitchen.)

These days, cooks realize that the kitchen sink serves two functions: food prep and clean-up. Larger kitchens sometimes separate these functions by providing two sink stations — one station (usually near the refrigerator) for food prep, and the other (usually near the dishwasher) for cleanup. If you have this type of kitchen — a good kitchen to have if your family includes two cooks — your triangle has become a quadrangle.

Some families use their microwave oven as often as their range, and these families claim that their microwave deserves status as an important apex in the kitchen geometry. If you agree, then your quadrangle has become a pentagon.

Of course, you’ll need to plan for adequate counter space on the handle side of the refrigerator, on both sides of the range, and on both sides of the sink. If your…

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  1. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #1

    Jack of all trade room...
    In my design business, kitchens have become the all trade room, from a place to cook, to a place to eat, do homework and pay bills, party room, wine tasting room, etc., and it has become usually a big open room incorporated with the Family and Dining rooms. The days of having formal Living and Dining rooms as mostly over, even for the 3,000-5,000 sf houses. The larger homes still do have formal rooms.
    Always think of Universal Design. Having two entries allow folks in walkers and wheelchairs more accessibility. If you can, design a 60" turn around radius or ample "T-turn" at kitchen ends. Choosing floors, cabinets and edges with a contrast in color for folks with eyesight issues, receptacles and switches located at a comfortable height or cabinet front. Pull out drawers, trays, lazy-Susan and shelves, fold-in under-sink doors or open under-counter seated work areas, loop handles for easy grip and pull. Pull-out spray faucets and levered handles.

  2. Brad_S | | #2

    I was just thinking about this topic
    Glad you wrote this. I was just wondering about what's going on in modern kitchen design.

    1st, this was funny: "People who can afford to build a huge 240-square-foot kitchen tend to be the type of people who often order take-out."

    2nd, me too: "I’m in favor of idiosyncratic kitchens."

    3rd, I agree with the article link on countertops. I went round and round with countertop material and settled somewhere I never expected, wood. Easy to maintain with mineral oil and white vinegar. Feels great as a work surface. More modular.

    4th, I'm leaning toward smaller refrigeration too. But, increased freezer space. I don't know what the tradeoff is between energy use and food waste, but freezing can go a long way toward reducing food waste when you buy in bulk (Costco.)

  3. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #3

    Wood countertop
    Nearing the end of my kitchen building project, we contemplated a butcher block island countertop. Instead, as a temporary measure, I sandwiched a few layers of plywood, with prefinished maple on top. I figured it would last a few months and then I'd do the solid top. But 2 1/2 years later, it still looks pretty good. At a hundred bucks a sheet, it's a bargain. I just wrapped solid maple around the perimeter.

    Not sure about huge kitchens, but lots of people with 6 burner, $10k ranges don't cook much☺

    We opted for a smallish fridge, 30" wide, and it's been fine, but we have a separate freezer.

    We don't like upper cabinets. Other than a set of shelves for glasses and plates, I just built a ton of drawers under the countertops. When I was building the 4x8 island, I divided it into three sections. After building two, to hold trash, recycling, pet food, paper goods and spices, I left the middle open. It makes a perfect pass-through/resting place for the dog. She's out of the way, but still close to the action.

    We also have a small pantry, about 3x6, with a pocket door. I'd make it just a bit deeper next time.

  4. morganparis | | #4

    Should go without saying but be sure to locate the cooktop or stove in a sensible relationship with the sink. You really don’t want to have to hike across the kitchen with a pot full of boiling water.

  5. Brad_S | | #5

    "You really don’t want to have to hike across the kitchen with a pot full of boiling water."

    Another reason to like countertop induction. Move the hob next to the sink when cooking pasta.

  6. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #6

    Another option...
    We install wall mounted pot fillers. They are very inexpensive and a lot safer!

  7. Expert Member

    Pot Fillers
    They are great, but you still have to empty the pot once the food is cooked. Maybe we need wall mounted pot drainers?

  8. morganparis | | #8

    Other layout considerations
    Food prep and cleanup are just two of the functions of a well considered kitchen. Storage of dry goods and perishables as well as cooking equipment are equally important of course, but the most often neglected is the social function. Locate the refrigerator where it’s convenient for the cook but also where guests can reach it without interfering with the core work area. If there's room, an island is a great hangout space for guests as well as a do-everything prep space. Consider putting the island on wheels so its position can be adjusted to suit the occasion. It can even be wheeled entirely out of the way if the need arises in the future to make the kitchen more wheelchair friendly. Don’t put a cooktop in the island unless it’s big enough that pot handles don’t stick out into the aisles (another safety issue). Many compact homes don’t have room for a walk-in pantry but a pullout pantry cabinet can accommodate a huge amount of stuff convenient to hand. Above all, consider the long term. With care and forethought you can design a kitchen that is well suited to your current personal needs and idiosyncrasies but will also easily adapt to other users and phases of life.

  9. morganparis | | #9

    Malcom's right.
    Spilling a large pot of cold water is an inconvenience. With a large pot of hot water it can easily mean a trip to the emergency room.
    Brad's suggestion of a movable induction hotplate is a good option to compensate for a kitchen that's not been well laid out in the first place, but kitchens are typically a large investment and while outdated countertops and individual fixtures can be relatively easily upgraded, fixing a bad initial layout often means a complete tear out, the necessity for which as 'green' designers we should do our best to avoid at the outset.

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