The Evolution of the Kitchen

Ever wonder why it took so long for people to enjoy the open lifestyle of today’s kitchens?  Well, in reality, it didn’t!  Sorry, our generation isn’t the first to enjoy open concept living.  Going waaaaay back, we can find evidence that the fire pit was the first notion of open concept living.  Everyone hung out there, cooked, and told stories perhaps.  Okay; post the Neanderthal age, early farmer’s resided open with the farm animals and early American settlers built one room log homes primarily out of the resources and time available, along with the economy of having one fire and the family in one place. While it is a stretch to think there is any correlation because of modern living, it really is about lifestyle. Some of these one room cabins were being constructed in the late 1800’s while the American Victorian era was in full bloom, creating parlors, dining rooms and servant quarters.

What creates bigger and longer trends really depends on what is happening in the times of the trend. We are still experiencing a long term trend of people staying home more.  That love for the security of home, and renovating to enjoy that more, is now being transferred to our post-great recession drive of “experience over quantity”.  For many families, that busy life is not going to get in our way of sharing time with our children and parents because of some of life’s speed bumps like extracurricular activities.  The most desired experience right now is the time with each other.

The first open concept in the modern architectural age came during a great time in our history post WWII.  Look at postmodern ranches in the 50’s with the floor plans of open kitchen and stools at the peninsula. They are extremely close to the plans we are drawing today.  

I was recently visiting my nephew and we went to Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear.  In the attached photo, the stove boasts 2 two types of fuel available, and features any modern housewife in the 20’s and 30’s would love to have.  On one of the little fact sheets is a card that claimed in this era, a house wife worked an average of 40 hours in the kitchen just preparing meals for the family! Maybe that is why the separate kitchen was popular at that time, Mom didn’t have time to talk!

Designing for Your Lifestyle

I was reading a recent poll that was published by a national trade magazine in which designers were asked a series of questions, with what I thought were disappointing statistics. For instance, 3 out of 4 designers surveyed for kitchen designs are using function before form [a design that fits a client’s living and cooking style]. Three out of four??? I think that means that 25% of design professionals are focusing on how something looks without regard to how you would actually use the space– unbelievable! Imagine a beautiful new kitchen that frustrates the end user because there isn’t anywhere to prep a salad. At least you know you have a 75% chance that your designer cares about how a space will be used, LOL. Even if you don’t cook, you may want your designer to know where you’d like to store the take-out and make it easy to clean-up

I believe that a good home, and kitchen, and laundry area, and every other built environment can be designed to work for your lifestyle and also be beautifully designed. Start with lifestyle and infuse ergonomics with a touch of feng shui. 

Your lifestyle is a really important factor in designing you a space and I love to have the conversation with people about their lives because I know that is one of the most important factors in good long term enjoyment of home. I am sure there are more parts to the make-up of “lifestyle” but I think it is knowing the daily routines of the family now while understanding where the family is heading. How old are the children and what type of interests do they have? Who and how many are cooking at home? What type of down time does the family have as a group? And also the true nature of the neighborhood and how they participate in it. One of hundreds of examples would be the difference in 2 families that love to ski; one family owns a ski home so they don’t have a need for easy access and storage for winter items because it will all be up north. The other family goes every other weekend for day trips and would welcome a solution for packing easier, and unpacking when they get home.

Ergonomics in a home environment is about blending the lifestyle with how you want to “be” in your home, as well as how you will move about. In a kitchen or bath, there are more mechanics about process of course. Good ergonomics in whole would allow the occupants to have the space they need when it is time to get together (dining, talking and relaxing), and when they need space (homework, working from home, or reading while the children trash the basement). Two sets of stairs can aide in this if the home is long and linear- especially if the stair isn’t in the center. But two stairs too close to each other can actually impede on ergonomics if the space used has more value than saving a few steps.

Feng Shui is an ancient form of [tongue in cheek] lifestyle meets religion that has a lot of great information about how architecture should cohabitate with nature, and the people using it. Literally translates as “wind-water” according to Wikipedia. One example of good feng shui in a home design that you can move through your home the way a river would run with least resistance, aka:”ergonomics”. With interior design, it is bad feng shui to open a front door, and be able to immediately see the back door. They refer to this as an avenue for your spirit to leave, and offer a solution of placing rice below a red matt to keep your spirit from leaving. I believe the real translation would be that upon entering home, one should feel first embraced by it, and allowed to take in “home” before moving on. If you have ever enjoyed the seat in the corner of a room where you can see everything around you, that is known as the Tiger position. The opposite feeling would be present if a room was oriented with seating facing away from where others are gathering, with no connection or ability to know what is happening behind you. Many of you know why you have your bed facing a certain direction now, and who sleeps closer to the door :)

Peninsula with bad flow                     Before:  Kitchen in Dover had a bad layout for this family’s lifestyle; having to walk around the peninsula through the kitchen to get to the lower level

Kitchen layout with dining

After: Our Dover kitchen remodel changed the layout and moved the staircase, so you no longer have to walk through the kitchen work zone to get to the lower level

Online Shopping for Your Renovation

Shopping online has certainly come a long way. From a design/build perspective, I remember all the brick and mortar fixture and furnishing retailers trying to adapt to online competition. The pros and cons were different then; however, it was really a battle of better service at retail pricing vs. discounted pricing with questionable service policies. A lot has changed in the online environment, and so I thought I would blog about the current use of web orders and what I think works and doesn’t work.

First, there are brand positions that would regulate where the best deal is coming from. One of the hardware lines we sell in house is Top Knobs. They are what I believe is the best value in kitchen and bath hardware with middle to upper middle quality and a policy that no vendor can discount more than 25%. That brand policy makes it a no brainer to by direct from us since the shipping will be the same or less, and we are the direct contact for the purchase. If it needs to be returned, we return it, if something needs service, just call us. When looking certain national brands that you know what you are going to buy, it is easy to price compare- and if it is a porcelain toilet- you probably don’t want to risk getting a cracked one to save $5. Most vendors are sensitive to online pricing and today, there isn’t as big a savings in the end.

Quality can be difficult to understand with certain products because of the image you see online. Lighting is a big challenge for this reason and it isn’t uncommon for a client to return items that looked great in the photo only to receive something that is manufactured poorly or wasn’t accurately depicted. Like other brand items, I know I can expect good quality if I order a Quoizel light online, but I may still want to have it bundled with all the lighting selected from a local retailer since we can get better contractor pricing that keeps the costs in the same as online, with the service we want. The photo below is some hardware recently received that a client ordered online- this was really poor quality- the back of the pull and the knob were hollow. Even though this was going in a space where it didn’t need to be a luxury product, we found a solid knob and pull for the space that ended up costing less.

​​To be fair, online shopping has become a much better experience, I order most of my clothing online to avoid having to go to the store, and if I don’t like it- they have an easy to return process from almost every place I order. If you order a light from Restoration Hardware and don’t like it, they will take it back no questions asked. My first recommendation when buying fixtures and finishes for your renovation is to visit the local retailer, and use the computer for information gathering. If you can’t make it to the store, consult your design professional and let them help with what they know are good and dependable online vendors.

Hollow Drawer Pull

Regulations with Construction, A Personal View

I have worked with many different municipalities in my line of work.  As a design and construction professional, it is part of my job to make sure our projects adhere to local codes and policies, as well as help my clients navigate various requirements with wetlands, zoning and the board of health.  I also love making the most of something as we figure that out and meet our clients’ needs.  I will say that most of the towns I work with are tough, but fair, consistent and transparent.  That is what makes for good policy. Good policy change, when the times change, create an environment where citizens can work together to resolve issues.  Many folks do not pay much attention to the changes that occur in a town department because they don’t see how those changes will affect them until they are before a town board or see areas of the town’s regulations that create some form of distress.  I’ll give you a couple examples of how I think trying to over-regulate can stop growth and backfire.

About 15 years ago; in a local more populated town nearby, “mansionization” was the mantra being misused by a group of folks who didn’t want their neighborhoods to change in any way.  As a person who loved those neighborhoods too, I didn’t like seeing pictorial neighborhoods with like-scaled homes start to become pockmarked with neoclassic oversized homes, it didn’t fit. This led to a tremendous amount of poorly drafted by-law changes in this community.  Every effort was made to stop projects of any size by trying to re-write setback requirements, home sizes, etc.  I remember representing an owner in one of these neighborhoods who wanted a family room and master suite. We were adding 400 SF to a 1,200 SF home in a way that was very respectful to the neighborhood and the architecture (picture below).  The neighbor next door in the 2,500SF colonial hired an attorney (after calling my client a yuppie – true story) to argue that we were “mansionizing”.  For the next several years we had many projects delayed because we would plan a project with the current zoning by-laws and then a petitioned and proposed change by a citizens group would be enforceable even before the Town people could vote on it because they met some threshold of signatures.  It seemed very underhanded to me that a small organized group could put a stop to reasonable projects and that the property owners would have to incur additional design and delay costs.  I believe that the misguided effort only bolstered the chess game about how to get the most house on the lot.  15+ years later, one of my favorite “small home” streets is about 80% full of new homes and I now look forward to when the last homes will be finished so the neighborhood will have achieved a balance.

My town is experiencing a 40B surge with 2 projects about to break ground. (Larger less regulated developments that include affordable housing).  We do need affordable housing, but it isn’t smart growth when you don’t have a master plan that combines the right mix of that, along with some new commercial space or single family homes.  We love our rural feel here in Sherborn and most of us would like to see that stay as close to that as possible.  For better or worse, buildings age, populations rise, and what was once the largest worldwide supplier of apple cider is now has smallest population per acre in the area.  We are actually less commercial than we were 150 years ago!  Right now in Sherborn, if you want to build a couple of homes on a parcel of land, it is likely our local regulations (which are much stricter than the state regulations) will find that the property is unsuitable for 2-4 homes.  We overregulate (or overstep in some cases) to prevent change, which simply invites growth that is more burdensome as it is not anything we can plan for.  In the case when a developer seeks permission to build 3 homes and gets rejected, they can file a 40B in any town that doesn’t meet the minimum affordable housing units and on that same land have imposed upon it a large development that has much less restriction on wetlands, zoning and of course board of health requirements.  In our case, stonewalling to slow the growth is getting us two new, much less difficult to manage, projects.

Another small town election season is upon us. There is always more at stake in these elections than budget overrides when it comes to our local policy. Most New England towns are short on the people capitol as much as we are the financial capitol. We need people that will work hard to help improve our local towns, and make it easier to live and work without losing sight of why we all picked the town we live in.  I believe that we have to stop on focusing on what we cannot do and see how we can keep it beautiful with the things we can do.