Every Kitchen Needs an Island
One of the most common design features requested when planning a new kitchen, or updating an older one, is the kitchen island. As the use of the kitchen space has evolved, from meal preparation and clean-up room to the hub of family activity, dining, and entertaining, the overall square footage given to the room has increased. Instead of being an isolated spot created for the drudgery of cooking and cleaning, the modern kitchen is an adjunct to dining spaces and living areas, an integral part of great rooms in expansive open-design homes. The popularity of an added island space has followed the trend towards a larger kitchen.
People put islands into their kitchen plans for a myriad of reasons, the most popular of which is to add an informal dining area into the area. There is sometimes the need for increased storage (can anyone have too much storage space? Is there room for everything you want to stash in your kitchen?), and sometimes the extra countertop space is mandatory. There are cooking islands and clean-up islands, and both can be for the primary or second cook or clean-up helper. There are recycling islands, meal planning islands, and baking islands. Once I designed a kitchen for a musician, who wanted her island shaped like a grand piano with a lowered baking area on one side, seating on another, and prep space with a bar sink where the keys would be. In the center, a raised display area where she kept a huge blue vase filled with white roses and a sculpture.
Do You Have Enough Space
The most important consideration when planning for an island is determining that there is enough room for it. If walkways, working centers, or passage aisles are cramped, the island will become more of a hindrance than an asset. Your kitchen designer, architect, or remodeler will be able to help you with specific recommendations, but a good rule of thumb is to leave a minimum of 42” between countertops (48” is better if one of the opposing spaces is a work area: i.e., sink, range, or refrigerator location. 36” is okay for a passageway into the kitchen space). The space used in the swing of appliance doors is also important to consider. A built-in island will not be a useful asset if it keeps the refrigerator door from opening all the way. In kitchens too small to accept a fixed island, it is worth considering a portable, movable island table. In preparing for an island in a smaller kitchen, it’s a good idea to mark off the planned space with masking tape, or an obstruction of a similar size, and live with the new definition of space created.
The addition of a kitchen island offers an opportunity to add casual seating to the area. Depending on the configuration of the island, the seating area can be lowered to table height (30”) to accommodate standard chairs. The counter overhang at the seating area should be increased to 18” to provide adequate knee room. If you leave the seating area at standard kitchen countertop height (36”), an overhang of 15” will provide comfortable seating for a person perched on a 24” high stool. Sometimes a large island with an uninterrupted countertop at standard kitchen height (again, this depends a lot on the overall configuration of the kitchen space as well as the island) will look like an aircraft carrier deck. Still, that much preparation space can sometimes be what the cook of the house is desiring.
Another seating configuration behind an island space is the use of a raised seating area. Usually, a 42” to 45” high 2×4 wall is built behind the island cabinets. You can cover the wall with sheetrock, or wood panels to match the cabinetry, or perhaps tied in with material used for countertop or backsplash. A 12” overhang at the raised bar is plenty. The use of counter brackets or “corbels” is necessary to support the raised counter deck.
There are several advantages to the raised eating area. In a room where the island acts as a divider between the workspace and an adjoining living or dining space, the raised bar acts as a visual shield against the random clutter accumulated in meal preparation. The guests won’t readily see the mess. In a cooking island, the raised bar separates diners from being seated at the same level as the range top. And the 2×4 wall is a convenient place for the electrician to provide electrical circuits to the island.
Adding in Your Appliances
There’s a lot to consider when properly planning and equipping a cooking island. Is it the primary or secondary cooking space? Is it better to separate the cooking apparatus and go with a cooktop and separate oven, or install a slide-in range (A slide-in is like a free-standing range, but without the backsplash. The controls are frequently on the front of the unit.) Will there be enough room for countertop on both sides, and behind, the cooking surface (for safety as well as a convenience: counter around the range prevents the possibility of someone brushing against the handle of a hot pot or pan on the range top and the potential resulting injury.) And how is the cooking area going to be vented?
Going with a separate cooktop and oven will increase the overall expense of the kitchen remodel. Both the appliances and cabinetry will cost more, but there is more flexibility in a location with built-in appliances. Some people like the idea of getting the oven off the floor and up to a more ergonomically friendly height.
Venting the island cooking area can also be a challenge. The basic choices are to use downdraft ventilation or provide an overhead island hood. Downdraft or “proximity” ventilation can either come as a blower unit integral in the cooking unit or as a separate system mounted to the side or rear of the cooking surface. The ducting of the downdraft system is usually run underneath the floor through a basement or crawl space. When considering either an overhead hood or a downdraft vent system, the capability of running the ductwork to the exterior of the house has to be taken into consideration.
As it has become more common for two cooks to be using the kitchen, a second sink has become more frequently designed into an island top. The amount of space required at a secondary sink application is not the same as at the primary sink; the secondary sink can be set with a little counter on one side (though there should be a minimum of 18” on the other). A second dishwasher near the secondary sink is another option. And consider how the secondary sink will be used, keeping in mind that a small bar sink will be of little use in rinsing plates.
Materials Make a Difference
An advantage of having an island is that it offers the opportunity to add interest and versatility to the kitchen by the use of a variety of countertop materials. No rule says that the same countertop material has to be used throughout the kitchen. Each counter material has a benefit, and each has a drawback. Laminate is inexpensive, durable, and comes in a lot of colors. Laminate can be scratched, is damaged by heat, and most damage is irreparable. Tile is impervious to heat. The tile is hard to clean. Solid surface decks are repairable, nonporous, and offer inconspicuous seams and seemingly endless design options. Solid surface decks can be damaged by heat and will scratch. Granite is impervious to heat and hard to scratch. Granite is porous and requires resealing. It goes on and on.
Each surface has advantages, and the kitchen island offers an opportunity to get creative with counters. Do the sink area with one surface and the island with another. A granite cooking island, a solid surface cleaning island, a butcher block baking island, the island top stands independent of the counters used in the rest of the kitchen.
It is not uncommon for the cabinetry at the island to be finished differently than the rest of the kitchen.
Another way to add a focal point to the island is by lighting. The island space will need to be illuminated: an electrical contractor will work carefully with your plans to set overhead lighting correctly at the island space. But as with the countertop, the island presents a chance to add creativity and a focal point to the kitchen by using lighting over the island, such as an attractive pendant lamp in a kitchen lit by recessed lighting.