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Function and Safety Are #1!

While working with a young couple, a serious issue arose about code compliance.

During our first meeting, I was told that the entire extended family enjoys working in the kitchen together. As a designer, I immediately consider what this means when safety, functionality, and overall concept is included. So, in my reply, I cited the aisleway clearances recommended by the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA):

  • The minimum for a one-person access between countertops is 42”;
  • Access increases to a minimum of 48” if multiple people are working in the kitchen simultaneously.

These guidelines allow safe usage of appliances, and unlimited access to everything stored in cabinets.

The homeowners requested a four-foot wide by eight-foot long island. Their kitchen is narrow – only 13′-11” wide, with no room for an addition. Fortunately, the length of the kitchen is generous.

Important Calculation For Island Function & Safety

Back in my office, the first thing I did was to calculate the kitchen island size that would be safe and functional as well as beautiful. Here is my math:

167” (width of the total available space in inches)

– 51” (cabinets and countertops on both sides)

116” (space available in the center of the room)

-84” (two 42” wide aisleways)

32”   (2′-8” available space for the island)

I sent an email with these unfortunate results of my calculations. They were not happy, and repeated the desire for a four-foot wide island. I shared information about the appliances which would be on both sides of the kitchen. Each appliance needs space for accessibility, which I took into consideration as I worked out the numbers above. This is actually one of the many aspects where my years of education and design experience comes in handy. In an NKBA seminar, I learned from Ellen Cheever to show all appliance doors open in my plans. Homeowners can see how much clearance they have between objects. Oven and dishwasher doors can take 24” or more from an aisleway. Refrigerator doors vary from as little as 18” to over 36”, depending on the manufacturer and model.

Although my clients wanted the larger island, we were able to proceed through the logical design steps. With careful planning, I was able to give the homeowners 42” aisleways on both sides of the island. I reduced one partial wall of cabinetry to 12” deep for a wine bar and pantry. The double ovens were placed adjacent to the end of the island.  Someone can now access the oven door head-on, which is normal and safe. It is especially important to provide this head-on access so that a homeowner can cook and access something heavy, like a Thanksgiving turkey, or something awkward, like a casserole or a large sheet of cookies. I allowed an aisleway of 4′-10” along the cooktop wall, from the oven to the main sink on the opposite wall. This area could become seriously congested with multiple users.

NKBA Guidelines for Kitchen Aisleways

I use the guidelines developed by the NKBA as a standard practice in every kitchen (or bathroom) design. I learned them over 25 years ago when preparing for my certification tests. And I still use them because they verify industry standards for safety and function. I have discussed this in articles I’ve written in the past. In “The Kitchen Triangle: A Guideline,” I state that Function and Safety have to be designed into a project from the get-go. Appearance should be determined after everything is deemed to be functional and safe. I later wrote another article, “Kitchen Islands May Not Be Appropriate For Every Home,” in which I share the guidelines for walkways and island design.

Recently, this client requested that I move the island closer to the cooktop, which would eliminate frontal access to the oven. This would require her and other family members to access the oven from the side, tweaking their backs while using the oven. Now, no matter how young and healthy or agile one feels, others using the kitchen (parents, aunts, uncles, etc.) may not have the strength to use the oven without injury if there is no head-on access. Additionally, changing access to the oven can affect the resalability of the home. The kitchen is a huge selling point in any home. So, I was unable to acquiesce to this request. I shared the NKBA Guideline #6 which has graphics to show the intent of the guideline. Here’s the text of this guideline and the code:

Citation: Guidelines and Code

Work Aisle – Recommended: The width of a work aisle should be at least 42” for one cook and at least 48” for multiple cooks. Measure between the counter frontage, tall cabinets, and/or appliances.

Access Standard – Recommended: Kitchen Guideline recommendation meets Access Standard recommendation. See Code References for specific applications.

Code Reference: A clear floor space of at least 30” x 48” should be provided at each kitchen appliance. Clear floor spaces can overlap. (ANSI A 117.1 305.3, 804.6.1)

As a Certified Master Kitchen-Bath Designer, I consider myself an extension of the Building Department, to protect the health, safety, and welfare of homeowners. It’s my duty and responsibility to be familiar with and to comply with all codes. I cannot, and will not, turn my back on these duties and responsibilities for any client. But first, I try to help them understand that I’m not a stubborn bureaucrat, that I have their best interests in my mind and heart. Theodore Roosevelt said it best:

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Yes, I care — a lot! That’s why I am sharing this story to help you understand that professional designers have to balance creativity and code knowledge, while trying to give their clients what the clients want, often within a limited budget. It sure isn’t an easy career path, but I still love it!

Homeowner Tips:

  • You’ve hired a professional designer to help you. Listen to them, and take their recommendations seriously, because they have your best interest as a goal.
  • If the design professional gives a recommendation without a valid reason, ask for the reason. A valid reason IS NOT: “This is the way we always do it.” A valid reason IS: “This is the code,” or “This is based on the NKBA Guidelines for function and safety.”
  • Remember that Function and Safety are the #1 priority in all remodeling, especially bathrooms and kitchens. Appearance can be any color or style after function and safety are verified.

If you’re thinking about remodeling your kitchen (or bathroom), please call me! I care about your health, safety, and welfare, and I want to help you achieve your remodeling goals!