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Island kitchens: How to design them

The size, height of the countertop, the appliances, or the distribution of storage help you dispel all your doubts.

The kitchen is one of the most complicated spaces to design in a home, and its planning can bring many headaches. The right side of an island often asks for help on the forum. Although there is no fixed formula for approaching its design, several parameters ensure a good result. Kitchen designers Thomas Ahmann and Steve Justrich advise following these steps, starting with asking yourself these six questions.

What function will it serve? Before you start thinking about practical storage solutions or the type of cooktop you want, you need to decide what the island's primary function will be. Most of them have one part for cooking and one part for eating, but what are you going to give more importance to food preparation, cooking, cleaning, or eating? Or are you going to use it for everything, including schoolwork and socializing? If you want your island to have a sink and small appliances, you'll need more space. If you're going to use it for quick or casual dining, you'll need to give more priority to the seating area.

"The approach of an island highlights several issues that affect the kitchen's overall design and its surrounding space," Ahmann says. "What is relegated to the island completes the flow of circulation and use of the space. The island is not an isolated solution but part of a larger design that affects the entire kitchen, and this is precisely the point to think about. After that, all the details make sense by themselves.

Will you need appliances? If you want to integrate devices into the island, it's a good idea to locate them so that they're convenient to use. "If the main sink is on the island, you'll also need the dishwasher close by and decide whether to install it to the right or left," Justrich explains. If it's going to be for food preparation, you'll need the garbage and recycling area and even the composting area close. On the other hand, how big is your kitchen? If it is large and the refrigerator is not near the island, you may want to install a small auxiliary one under the counter. If it is going to be the area where you will cook, keep in mind that you will need an extractor hood. It is good to make a list of all the equipment you would want for your island in order of priority. It may not be able to accommodate everything, but at least try to make it include your top five goals.

How much space do you have to allocate for storage? This depends mainly on the layout of your kitchen. If you have many cabinets, extra storage on the island may not be a priority. But if it's your primary food prep area, it should include the sink and have enough room for kitchen appliances, including utensils and cutting boards. "Typically, two opposing 60-cm-deep cabinets will cover most of the needs of the bottom of an island," Justrich recounts. "So you have to be careful that this one isn't too big because you'll be left with empty, useless spaces in the middle."

Ahmann considers a width of 90 cm to be the best for an island, although a 60 cm width is sometimes a better fit. The starting length can be around 120 cm, but if it includes the sink, dishwasher, and cooking area, it should be at least 210 cm.

How high should the countertop be? If your island will include a dining area, the first thing to do is to decide how high you want the seating to be. For low stools, the height of the island should be 90 cm, and for high chairs, 110 cm. A bar counter with high stools usually adds flexibility to the design. Thus, the island can have two levels: the lower for the work area and the upper for the tasting stools. The intermediate step is also efficient for placing sockets.

Bars 90 cm high can be used for intermediate seating between the typical bar stool and table chairs. They don't allow as much flexibility in design, but they can be a good choice for defining the eating area well. Ahmann suggests leaving an overhang of at least 30 cm for the bar, although 38 to 45 cm is most comfortable for leg movement.

How will it fit in with the kitchen layout? Kitchens are anything but static. Their dynamic nature demands that all areas be designed with consistency. Ensure the island work zone works well with the countertop directly in front of it. Will it make sense with the rest of the kitchen? Will it complement the work triangle of sink, stove, and refrigerator? Or will you need yet another work zone with a sink?

You also have to make reasonable calculations of the space around it. Ahmann suggests leaving about 90 cm clearance on both sides of the island. Side work areas should be at least 105 cm, although more than 150 cm is usually unnecessary. If you have a bar intended for dining or socializing, they typically face a living or dining room, so it will be the adjacent space that sets the limits.

Do you need a designer? It depends. Islands are the gathering or work center of kitchens, so it's normal to put a lot of thought into them. "Anyone with a good sense of proportion and careful to identify all the uses could figure out an island design well," Ahmann says. "Not everyone is capable, though. A designer or architect can help you, especially when it will serve more than just cooking."

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