A Beginner’s Guide to Kitchen Design

The practicalities behind designing a kitchen good enough to eat.

Eating is one of our national pastimes – a fact which is currently reflected in the houses we build as well as our increasing waistlines. No longer the cramped galley room tucked at the back of the house, the kitchen is now claiming centre stage and growing to encompass dining and family rooms too.

In some respects this preference for sociable, open-plan living is reminiscent of  medieval hall houses, when the main hall was a place to eat, sleep and party as well as cook on the open fire. The hall was long enough to accommodate a formal table for feasting as far from the entrance as possible in order to impress visitors.

Times changed and the kitchen shrank, or was positioned out of sight ‘below stairs’ and staffed with servants. Now the kitchen is once again venerated as the most important – and expensive – room in the house and demands some serious consideration at the design stage.


Planning a new kitchen carefully is vital, and what better opportunity to get the room you want than by selfbuilding or extending and designing it completely from scratch? Assess your needs: do you enjoy cooking? What shape will the kitchen have, how big is the family that will use it and how often will the room be used? Will you have an informal eating area in your kitchen? The kitchen of a single person who enjoys eating out on a regular basis will obviously look completely different from one belonging to a family who eat their evening meals together.

Plan how much storage space you need for your groceries, cutlery and crockery, which equipment you want to accommodate and how much seating you require. Take time to focus on what you dislike about your current kitchen, such as a lack of workspace, and try to eradicate these problems in the new design.

An efficient layout is paramount, and it can be helpful to mock up the room using graph paper to represent the fixtures and furniture. Alternatively, online virtual kitchen planners, such as www.kitchenplanneronline.com and www.magnet.co.uk, allow you to plan the room layout and position cabinets and appliances, often in 3D. Most kitchen companies offer a free, no-obligation planning service and will be happy to visit your home and discuss your requirements – usually producing a computer-generated design which will help you envisage the overall effect.

This is the one room which will be overflowing with appliances and gadgets so allocating enough space is vital. Utility rooms are ideal for containing much of this clutter, so consider building a separate room with a second sink, where all the ‘behind the scenes’ tasks such as laundry can take place.

The dining room has become a casualty of modern living, with many of us far happier to congregate in a large kitchen to cook, eat, talk and watch television. Unless you hold regular formal dinner parties or will use a separate dining room for other activities, such as a music room or study, it may make sense to dispense with it altogether and use the space to enlarge your multi-purpose kitchen.


When it comes to the shape of the kitchen few selfbuilders choose to build a galley: they are simply too impractical, with little circulation space and, although all of the important areas are close together, storage is often a problem.

Double galleys provide a more practical solution and offer more storage below the worktops. The most important factor is to leave enough space between the two lines of units so that you can bend over to look into your oven without bumping into the cupboards behind you.

The L-shaped kitchen provides adequate work space and storage below the worktop, while walking distances between the main zones will be minimised. Another big advantage of the L-shaped kitchen is that one section of the room will be free to use as a dining area. The main problem with this layout is often the space under the worktop in the corner, with solutions including a rotating carousel unit, diagonal sink or hob.

A U-shaped design will provide plenty of work surface and storage space. It can, however, become a little enclosed if the wall cupboards run all around the room. If this layout is chosen for a bigger room then one of the legs of the U may be used as a breakfast bar, or shortened to open up the circulation space. Place the dishwasher and hob to the centre of a run so that they do not obstruct other units when opened.

Islands are hugely popular, providing a free-standing unit with access on all sides, which can accommodate appliances and even the sink and cooker while also creating an informal seating area. If you position your island hob facing into the room you will be able to cook and talk to guests as the same time, with a raised edge to hide kitchen mess from view if required.

Decide which part of the kitchen area you want to commit to seating and organise your units around it, taking into account views out of the windows. If you spend hours at the kitchen sink then positioning it beneath a window is a sensible – and traditional – consideration.

When it comes to kitchens, efficiency rules. There is no room for error when working with hot pots and pans, so practicality should be at the top of the list. This means that food preparation, sink and cooking must not be too far apart. A rule of thumb is that there must be a piece of worktop between the sink and hob where the food can be prepared.

The proverbial ‘working triangle’ is more than an urban myth – it actually works. Plan the activity areas of cooker/hob, fridge and sink close to one another in a triangle for the perfect working kitchen, and avoid placing the fridge next to the oven as the difference in temperature will affect their efficiency.


Gone are the days when the age of your house dictated what style of kitchen you should fit. Nowadays you are just as likely to see a hi-tech stainless steel creation in a Victorian semi as you are to admire a bespoke traditional kitchen in a modern home.

One of your first decisions will be choosing between fitted units or a free-standing kitchen. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. If you choose a fitted kitchen, you will make the most of your space, as all the difficult corners can be used for storage. You can choose between flat-packed, rigid or custom-built to suit your needs and budget. A fitted kitchen will add value to your home, but you can’t take it with you when you move.

A free-standing or unfitted kitchen offers an individual and informal look which can be mixed with dressers and other furniture to create the ambience you prefer. When you move, you can take your furniture with you and use it again.

The problems of awkward corners and unusual window positions can be eliminated with the help of a good designer, although you will usually pay a premium for a bespoke kitchen.

Solid wood, veneers, laminates and vinyl-wrapped or painted MDF are all popular materials for kitchens, and technological advances mean that durability is no longer a problem. Factory-applied lacquers are also recognised for their hard-wearing advantages and have a shiny finish that is both easy to clean and light-reflective. The lighter species of timbers, such as maple and birch, work very well but so, conversely, do darker walnut and deep cherry.

Glass is also a current trend, and work surfaces, splash-backs and opaque glass doors with integrated lighting can brighten the whole area and add to the contemporary feel, which can be particularly useful in smaller rooms.


If you possess a plan for your new kitchen, obtaining a first fix preparation layout will help you to determine the position of all electrical and plumbing services to the nearest millimetre. As well as reducing installation time, arranging your own first fix should also reduce installation costs.

Wall socket boxes and tails of cable for sockets below worktop height can be positioned where required. Provision should also be made for ceiling and under-cupboard lighting at this stage. Gas and water services may be positioned in readiness for installing the cabinets, as can any waste pipes or extraction holes.

If you are planning to fit the kitchen yourself then you’ll need to become familiar with the laws relating to working with gas appliances or fittings (www.hse.gov.uk/gas/index).
Pipework which passes behind integrated appliances should be installed tight to the wall and at a low level to ensure the integrated appliance doors do not protrude from adjacent cabinet doors.


Granite and marble are still well-liked in the kitchen as hard-wearing and beautiful worktops, but they are also some of the most expensive options and should be fitted by a specialist. Steel is popular for sleek, contemporary designs, but is costly and will scratch. Corian and synthetic stone worktops are also at the top end of the price range, and can be moulded to any shape – including sinks – while tiles add colour to a kitchen but are difficult to keep clean and can be high maintenance as a work surface.

Timber worktops are beautiful but can scratch. The bonus is that, although wood will need regular maintenance – including a yearly coat of oil, it can be sanded down and re-finished to conceal burn marks or stains. Lastly, Formica – the budget choice – is available in a huge selection of colours. Opt for the deeper 38mm variety for a more upmarket finish and take care with hot pans as, once damaged, Formica surfaces are difficult to repair.


The choice of sinks is huge: hygienic stainless steel, traditional ceramic and integral models made from the same material as the worktop in single, double or half bowls with various configurations of drainers. Make sure your chosen sink can comfortably accommodate your largest roasting tray and consider incorporating accessories such as strainer bowls, chopping boards and drainage baskets.

When choosing taps confirm that they match other fixtures and are easy to operate, particularly by young children and the elderly. Check that the taps you want are compatible with the pressure flow of water, and consult a plumber before choosing antique fittings. Pull-out taps with sprays are popular in kitchens, and are flexible when washing up or preparing food. The latest must-have gadget is an instant boiling water tap such as Zip or Quooker, which saves time and eliminates the need for a kettle.


If you are a serious cook or have a large family then you may consider buying a range cooker. Traditional versions, such as Agas, can also heat the home and will take time to warm up and cool down. Apart from being expensive, their main drawback is that they have to be kept running all year round – unless you have the luxury of a secondary cooker, which can be rather impractical.

The new breed of range-style cookers offers the answer. Most models incorporate a variety of different cooking functions and features, but are used solely for cooking and can be switched on and off as required.  Traditionalists will argue that nothing beats the real thing, but a large, stainless steel range can be striking in the right setting.


There is no point having a good looking kitchen if it smells of last night’s dinner and the units are constantly covered in grease. Kitchen ventilation is essential under the building regs and combats the damaging effects of grease and water vapour upon the fabric of a room.

There are basically two types of hood — extractors and recirculating options. Extractor hoods take air through a grease filter and extract it to the outside via ducting. This removes virtually all steam and cooking odours, whilst disposable or washable filters trap airborne grease. Recirculating hoods are not as effective as extractors but may be used when ducting out is impractical.

Integrated cooker hoods are only used in fitted kitchens, are always fitted between wall units and have a door on the front which matches the other kitchen furniture and effectively hides the appliance except when viewed from below. Built-in and canopy hoods are fitted into the base plate of wooden or metal canopies. Chimney hoods and those designed to be situated over an island workstation are usually the most expensive option, but act as a visual centrepiece to the room, whilst retractable kitchen extractors are available which slide out of sight when not in use.

Multiply the volume of your kitchen (length by width by height in metres) by 10 (the minimum number of times per hour the extractor will filter the air) and you will arrive at a figure which gives the minimum extraction rate, expressed as cubic metres per hour (m3/h).


Decide on your budget from the outset and try not to be swayed by glossy advertising – it is perfectly possible to fit a budget kitchen and dress it with expensive taps, worktops and accessories to create a luxury finish. A new kitchen can cost tens of thousands, so decide on the look you want and then think about ways to cut corners. A rule of thumb is never spend more than 10 per cent of the value of your home on your kitchen.

For conversions and new builds. utility room furniture and fitted kitchen furniture are eligible for VAT relief, as are ceramic, stone or timber floors. Basically, if it is deemed part of the fabric of the building then you should be able to reclaim the VAT. It therefore makes sense to prioritise your expenditure on those materials which are eligible for VAT relief and to choose quality and luxury items where possible to make maximum savings.

Kitchen stoves are eligible for VAT relief, although gas and electric cookers are not – unless they are plumbed in to provide hot water. An oil-fired range cooker, such as an Aga, is considered to be a fixture and is, therefore, eligible. A gas or electric range, however, is standard rated unless plumbed in to either the heating or hot water system. Cooker hoods are always eligible for VAT as part of a ventilation system. White goods such as ovens, hobs, integral dishwashers and fridges are not eligible for VAT relief – even if they are permanently built in.