Ergonomics is the study and design of equipment and devices that fit the human body and its cognitive abilities. Applied to kitchen layouts, it focuses on creating a smooth, intuitive passage through the space, as well as the most efficient and comfortable cooking environment. Worktops and cabinets are positioned to fit the physicality of the user and the job in hand, provisions and utensils are stored where they are most frequently used, and sinks and appliances are located to encourage logical movement between tasks. Paying attention to sight lines, traffic flow and entry and exit points at the planning stage is paramount. ‘An ergonomically designed kitchen can save an incredible amount of time and energy and generally make life easier,’ says Nicola Holden of Nicola Holden Designs.
FIND YOUR NATURAL FLOW
Kitchen designer and lecturer Johnny Grey has developed an ergonomics-based design concept he calls ‘soft geometry’, which involves using curved cabinetry so that people flow like water around obstacles. ‘Sharp edges alert the body’s fight-and-flight response mechanism, which takes priority over any other activities the brain might be engaged with, such as cooking or socialising,’ he explains. Reducing sharp edges leaves you free to naturally progress through the kitchen uninterrupted. Start by establishing the key entrance and exit points, to keep the working heart of the kitchen away from busy traffic routes. In an open-plan space, think about the smooth passage from A to B at busy times in the day, for example, how to get food safely and quickly from the kitchen area to the table. Make clearing up afterwards a breeze by ensuring the dishwasher and sink are near the dining space. As a rule, soft seating should be furthest from the cooking zone, but it still needs to be easily accessed, without having to squeeze past diners. In the heart of the kitchen, a tighter footprint is required to reduce travel for the chef, but it’s still preferable that two people can pass easily without having to turn sideways. ‘A walkway could go down to 80cm-wide at the absolute minimum, and that would be in a galley-style kitchen, but you’ve got to take into account what’s in the way. For example, where a fridge door opens the walkway will require more space – this point is often the busiest in the kitchen,’ says Richard Moore of Martin Moore & Company.
The demand for larger living spaces has had a major impact on layout. ‘Once, the ‘working triangle’ of the hob, sink and fridge encompassed the entire space. Now it’s often just one corner of a much bigger triangle that includes eating, entertaining, playtime and relaxation,’ explains Richard Davonport. Adding an island is one of the most popular ways to keep the ‘working triangle’ principle intact while also separating the cooking area from the rest of the room. Incorporating a sink and/or hob helps to centralise food preparation, bringing the chef into the action.
Cooking for pleasure has also had an influence on layouts and it’s now common to establish two working triangles. ‘One triangle should allow one user to have full access to the cooking area, fridge and sink without obstructions, and the other should offer the second user access to the sink, fridge and working surface or seating area without having to clash with the first user,’ explains Jamee Kong of DesignSpaceLondon. ‘This ergonomically-sound arrangement allows the chef to work in peace while the second user prepares food, or it simply allows access to the sink and fridge area without disturbing the chef.’
Small kitchens are often considered the most ergonomically efficient due to the proximity of all key elements. A galley layout is preferable. Arranged logically, this layout allows the chef to move up and down the space without wasting a step.
CLOSE TO HAND
While storage is naturally scarce in small kitchens, those with the largest, open-plan rooms are often surprised to find themselves short on cupboard space. There may be more cubic feet, but there is also far more to accommodate. Dining tables and sofas are massive space guzzlers and the removal of dividing walls also reduces the vertical area against which base units and wall cabinets can be fitted. ‘As a result, the trend for living kitchens has forced far more innovative and integral storage options to come to the fore, which is also great for those who can’t go open-plan,’ says Sara Wells of Doca UK. A few possibilities include slimline pull-out larders that promise easy viewing and access within a minimal width, plinth drawers that make use of the space under base units and magic corner fittings that transform corner units. Inside, utensil and pan dividers, plate pegs and spice racks will help to pack everything neatly away.
When seeking maximum ergonomic efficiency, it’s the location of your storage, rather than the amount, that counts. A kitchen is at its operational peak when storage is consigned to specific operational zones. Blum leads the way in storage ergonomics with its Dynamic Space concept, which sub-divides the kitchen into five zones: consumables, non-consumables, cleaning, preparation and cooking. Each of these zones is strategically designed and organised to offer optimum storage and access to commodities, implements, utensils and equipment. Not only are the correct items stored where they are most frequently used, but the most frequently used pan should be in the top drawer rather than bottom to reduce the times you need to bend down.
Personalising the installation heights of worktops and cabinets to precisely fit your body contours can really influence cooking comfort, particularly if you are especially short or tall. Ideally, the preparation surface should be 4-5cm below the elbow height of the main user of the kitchen, which means the ‘industry standard’ height of 90cm may not necessarily prove the most comfortable. ‘There are also benefits to installing different heights according to use,’ says Laurence Pidgeon. ‘For example, the sink should be higher to compensate for the fact that the bottom of the sink, where you are working, is 20cm below worktop level.’ It is also beneficial to have the hob lower than 90cm so that you can see into the pans when cooking. ‘75cm – the standard height for a dining table – is ideal for beating eggs and baking,’ adds Laurence . However, although it is ergonomically preferable to have worksurfaces at different levels, it is not always ideal visually. Junctions between different heights can also cause problems, especially in a small kitchen, where edges are likely to result in things toppling off. ‘It is easier to vary worksurface heights in large kitchens as you can have the island at one height and the run of units along the wall at another, without it jarring visually,’ advises Laurence. ‘By adjusting the height of the plinth by, say, 50mm on the island and the wall units, you can create different work heights but maintain the look of the kitchen as the cabinet doors will have the same dimensions.’
With wall units, the bottom shelf should always be at or below eye level so that you can see right to the back. ‘Place larger items, such as cereals, on the highest shelves, as you can still reach the bottom of the packet, and keep lower shelves for smaller items such as spices. I advise clients to have the tallest wall units possible as they provide the most volume for your money,’ says Laurence. Also consider the depth of worktops versus the length of your arms. Deep worktops offer the potential for extra storage at the back but should be avoided if they still require a stretch to reach. ‘A common depth for worksurfaces is 75cm, but this means that things are set a long way back. I prefer a 60cm deep worksurface that is then raised for the final 15cm to create a handy shelf for keeping spices etc to hand,’ adds Laurence, creating an ergonomically sound kitchen space that will work for any scheme.
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