Design Tips for Small Kitchens

small kitchen with teal wall

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Advantages of Small Kitchens

There is a wave of popularity for the small, cottage-style house, aptly called "The Not So Big House" (after a series of books by Sarah Susanka). At the same time and somewhat paradoxically, trends in kitchen design have focused on enormous open-concept spaces. 

Gradually, though, homeowners are beginning to discover the merits of small-space kitchens that are consistent with the overall small-house trends. 

Mint green small Kitchen in a vacation cottage
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Small Is the New Big

Massive, football field-sized kitchens with islands that sometimes seem as large as actual landmasses were in during the 1990s. However, it's becoming clear that bigger kitchens have some serious problems and that small kitchens have some decided advantages: 

  • Efficient design: A tighter work triangle makes for a more ergonomically correct and efficient workspace. In a small kitchen, the key work stations can be accessed by simply turning around, not by walking 10 or 20 feet.
  • Less expense for building materials: Overall costs for building materials are considerably less in a small kitchen, simply because there are smaller quantities necessary. 
  • DIY construction work is more practical: A smaller space using fewer building materials means that the DIY option is more practical with a small kitchen. And you'll find that your kitchen remodeling project can be completed faster, especially if you are doing the work yourself. 
  • High-end materials more affordable: Because you are purchasing less material (e.g., 30 square feet of granite countertop instead of 300 square feet), you can afford to upgrade the quality of materials you use. 
  • Design is easier: Admittedly, this is a "glass half-full" view. With the small kitchen, you have fewer options in terms of design, but this may well turn out to be a good thing. Because of the limited layout and floor plan options, you can give more attention to the selection of materials and fixtures. 
  • Living space is maximized: Because less space is given over to the kitchen, this means that there is more space in your home for the living room, family room, or dining room. Or, you can create entirely new rooms that may not have been possible with a huge kitchen: a small office to the side, sewing room, or a breakfast room.

Strive for a Compact, Sensible Layout

Your range of potential layout designs is limited in a small kitchen. But that's a good thing. For one, by maximizing the functionality of the space, there will be less unused dead space. Open expanses of flooring and high ceilings are great, but they don't help you cook a casserole.

The galley or corridor-style kitchen is the most popular layout for the small kitchen. In this layout, services (dishwater, stove, sink, etc.) are usually clustered within a small area. Storage is reserved for upper and lower cabinets, leaving counter space free for cooking purposes. A galley kitchen can fit in a space as narrow as 8 feet. Yet a well-design galley kitchen is a perfectly practical full-service kitchen. 

Most (but not all) homeowners find the one-wall kitchen layout too tight for their needs. Essentially, this layout is half of a galley kitchen, with less than half of the amount of counter and cabinet space. Also, you'll find that you may need to sacrifice services that are nice but not essential, such as dishwashers. But for homeowners who don't particularly enjoy cooking—or for large numbers of young homeowners who lean toward takeout or restaurant meals over cooking at home—a small, one-wall kitchen may be just the right solution.

More Design Tips for Small Kitchens

Since you don't have the vast, limitless space of a huge kitchen, you need to be a bit more economical in your design when dealing with a compact kitchen. Surprisingly, you won't find it too hard to do.

For one thing, kitchen services already "like" to be close together. Dishwashers need to be near water supply and drain areas (i.e., sinks). Refrigerators with automatic ice makers need a water supply. Kitchen cabinetry tends to be clustered together into cohesive units rather than spread out. So, pulling together a tight kitchen really makes sense from a common sense, practical point of view. 

Tile back splash, ventilation hood and stove in kitchen
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Some other ideas that can help a small kitchen:

  • Realize that kitchen islands are space hogs and are not always as useful as they may appear. Try to craft a kitchen design that doesn't include an island.
  • Push cabinetry all the way to the ceiling. Often, standard kitchen cabinetry has an open space at the top. While this does create a more airy feel, it's a luxury you cannot afford in the small kitchen. After all, would you rather have a dead space or 12 more linear feet of usable shelving?
  • Use glass cabinet doors. The downside of pushing cabinetry up to the ceiling is it can make a kitchen more claustrophobic. Cure this by installing glass cabinet doors. Adding interior lighting to the cabinets can also make a huge difference. 
  • Go for neutral or lighter colors. Darker colors will make the small kitchen feel oppressive and smaller.
  • Opt for larger floor tiles. Counter-intuitive yes, but small flooring tiles make a room feel smaller.