Canadian Contractor

By Christopher Smith   

Four rules for small kitchen design

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Photo courtesy of Woodsmith Construction Inc.

As renovation contractors, I am sure, much like myself, you have all encountered your fair share of small kitchen design challenges. Years of working almost exclusively on smaller, older homes have provided me with plenty of those very challenges. Frustrated by the lack of useful design information for dealing with small kitchens, I took it upon myself to develop a few rules of my own.

While I found that there’s no universal formula for small kitchen design, I was able to develop a set of principles that, when applied thoughtfully, consistently yield both stylish and functional small kitchens. I would like to share with you four of the main ones that have become crucial to successfully navigating my client’s smaller kitchen layouts. They are knowing the traffic flow, placing appliances, lighting, and finally balancing work and seating spaces. All are important so feel free to use them in any order that works best for your design process. The main goal is to consider each of them carefully as you work on your next small kitchen project.

The main challenge in a small kitchen is, unsurprisingly, limited space. Once you have account for essential appliances, what remains can often feel restrictive. Each kitchen, just like each client, is unique and so the only common factor is that with limited space comes trade-offs. I recently heard a great saying, “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” and it applies perfectly to small kitchen design. You won’t be able to get everything to work, so pick your battles based on what your client’s lifestyle needs are. If they like to entertain, then traffic flow and seating spaces might be more of a priority than workspaces.

The limitations of each one are also opportunities for some creativity and innovation. Communication is the key; these principles only work as well as the questions asked of your clients. Let their answers guide your application and the result will be the best kitchen possible.

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Traffic flow: Know where the people go

In many homes, especially those with limited square footage, the kitchen is a central hub. It’s a transit area to other parts of the house or backyard. This dual role as a workspace and a passageway makes managing foot traffic crucial, especially when dealing with small kitchens. Effective design must ensure smooth movement without sacrificing functionality. For example, in a small kitchen, the placement of an island or peninsula can make or break the flow. A common mistake is installing overly large islands that hinder movement. A better approach is to incorporate islands that offer sufficient clearance—at least four feet on the seating side or a minimum of three-and-a-half feet on both sides. This allows for comfortable navigation while maintaining the island’s functional benefits, like additional workspace or storage.

Appliance access: Rethinking the traditional work triangle

Photo courtesy of Woodsmith Construction Inc.

In compact kitchens, the conventional work triangle (sink, stove, refrigerator) often doesn’t apply. In smaller homes, such as those measuring around 16 feet in width, achieving a perfect work triangle is unlikely. With walking distances that are negligible to any part of the kitchen, consider appliance placement in terms of visual symmetry over its relationship to the other appliances. An effective layout might position the sink or cooktop in an island, with the refrigerator and oven centrally aligned on the adjacent walls. This setup not only looks aesthetically pleasing but also supports a practical workflow. The key is to position appliances central to each other in a way that feels natural and convenient for the user, considering how they will move through the space. Whether this forms a straight line, or any other shape is fine, given the distance between them is small. Limited space demands a different approach, one that focuses more on symmetry and visual balance than placement according to some sort of triangle. This approach tends to work far better as it allows you to use the appliance placement to highlight the various lines of the kitchen. The key is proper visual alignment with the other elements of the kitchen.

Lighting: Less is more in small spaces

Lighting in small kitchens requires a delicate balance. Natural light is often limited, and the temptation can be to overcompensate with artificial lighting. The trick is to maximize what natural light is available, perhaps by adding or reallocating windows to get the most sun exposure or by adding a bigger rear entry door. Natural light is your friend, especially in small spaces, so do whatever you can to make the most of it.

When it comes to artificial lighting, less can be more. Today’s lights are powerful, and a small kitchen doesn’t need to be lit like a sports arena. The placement of lights is just as important as the type and intensity. Centring lights, especially pot lights, around the kitchen’s main features—like islands, countertops, and cabinetry—can create a cohesive and functional lighting scheme. One that ties the kitchen to the rest of the floorplan versus detracts from it. Task lighting is also crucial but, in most cases, limited in small kitchens, so try to place your other lighting to also help in that regard. Use your under-cabinet lighting wisely as it serves a duo purpose as task lighting but also can enhance the overall aesthetics of the kitchen. Finally, don’t overlook the importance of dimmers; they allow homeowners to adjust lighting to their preferences and needs.

Balancing work and seating spaces

A small kitchen often serves multiple roles: it’s a place for meal prep, dining, and sometimes even homework or office work. Balancing these needs requires thoughtful planning. Key considerations include ensuring unobstructed counter space for meal preparation and providing ample room around key areas like the sink and stove. Full-height cabinetry is a smart choice in small kitchens. It maximizes storage space, allowing for more open countertop areas. When designing the layout, consider placing the refrigerator and pantry on one side of the kitchen, with base cabinets and upper cabinets on the other, separated by a functional island or peninsula. Incorporating a peninsula at the end of the kitchen can be a clever way to add workspace while also providing additional seating. However, it’s vital to keep traffic flow in mind—this feature should not impede movement through the kitchen.

While these principles provide a good framework for approaching small kitchen design, the true art lies in their application. Good client communication is key to the successful application of these guidelines, without which you will be no further ahead. How these principles relate to your client’s use of the kitchen is what gives you the information you need to ensure the tradeoffs that must be made are done so openly and with the client’s blessing.

Each small kitchen represents an opportunity to create functional, inviting spaces that are also aesthetically pleasing, allowing even the most compact kitchen to still be the heart of a home. There will never be a perfect small kitchen but there can be the best one possible for each client. Hopefully, these guidelines can help you achieve that goal as much as they have me.

Christopher Smith is the owner and founder of Woodsmith Construction Inc, a design and build renovation company that has specialized in working with older homes in the east end of Toronto since 2001. His passion for everything to do with older homes was rooted in his early childhood experiences working on Victorian homes in Cabbagetown with his architect/builder father. He is a Red Seal Carpenter and a BCIN registered designer. Woodsmith Construction has completed a wide range of projects, including full-home renovations, additions, and restorations. 

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