Mistakes and Lessons Learned

"An error made is also a lesson learned, so I’m hoping these confessions will help you experience the education without the need for the pain.”

authors Mary Jo Peterson | January 10, 2020

As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “the devil is in the details,” and likely, every designer of note has proven this viewpoint the hard way at least once in his or her career. Because mistakes made translate into lessons learned, this column is breaking that rule of avoiding talking about blunders, and instead, examining them for the purpose of learning from them.

After reaching out to several designers I know and respect, I added to my own list and assembled a sort of top 10 list of mistakes made. After enough time has passed, we seem to be still humiliated, but better able to recognize solutions found, and better approaches to the design challenge so as to avoid the mistake in the first place.

Clearances are the granddaddy of all sources of issues in such a high function area as the kitchen, and deserve the top spots on this list.

  1. Errors relating to the depth of hardware or that of a dishwasher, oven or other appliance door on an inside corner of base cabinetry seem obvious but also easy to overlook or miscalculate. For example, the cabinetry may be ordered before the hardware is selected. Regarding appliances, one slip-up involved a free-standing refrigerator designed to appear cabinet depth adjacent to a returning wall. To allow for a refrigerator door swing greater than 90 degrees, a tall pantry was planned between the refrigerator and the returning wall. All went well until the installation when the refrigerator door swung open only until it hit the hardware on the tall pantry.
  2. Another oversight involved the height of a backsplash being planned at a standard height, only to realize that the client’s beloved coffee maker was higher than the clear space where it was to be placed.
  3. A third example involved a lowered cooktop height, planned for a seated cook (yes, this one is mine) and a beautiful handcrafted copper hood that was also lowered to ensure proper ventilation. It was all good until the kitchen was completed and the standing cook/spouse couldn’t approach the cooktop without a head bump.
  4. Clearances from combustible surfaces to a cooktop are also potential problem areas, as is the clear space around a cooktop to allow for larger pots/pans.
  5. Door swings and clear floor space, and general and work-related circulation are another aspect of design at risk of being overlooked. My first entry into work with then the largest homebuilder in the country was due to issues around the kitchen of a floorplan that was otherwise a favorite. When I was asked to rework the design, my options focused on increasing clear floor space by converting the island to a peninsula and reorienting the layout to separate the work area from the social space within the plan.   

These may seem obvious as stated here, but every one of the designers I consulted for this collection cited an example of one of these errors. To avoid the cost and suffering related to these situations, it is best to complete all the details before the cabinetry is ordered, and to check and double check the size and location of fillers or extended cabinetry sides. In the showroom where I first worked, we had a process that I now see as a luxury and then saw as an annoying delay in the process. Our design/sales manager checked all of our drawings before they went forward, with a process called red-marking. The humiliation of being overheard as he caught any oversights was so much better than having those issues slip through. When possible, it is a wonderful benefit and solution to have a second set of eyes check a design and the related specifications – certainly worth the time it takes.

6. Careful attention to the heights and location of appliances, fixtures and storage is another opportunity for error or success. One of my first kitchen clients was a lovely elderly matriarch whose kitchen included a stacked double oven recessed on an angle in a corner with cabinetry returning on both sides. The problem was that at 5′ tall, she could not actually reach into those ovens once the doors were open. Traditionally, the prevailing option – a tall cabinet with stacked ovens and a warming drawer – places all of the appliances involved outside of the comfort zone of most cooks.  An overthe-range microwave oven spells the same issues. Relying on traditional wall cabinet heights eliminates access to much of the storage they provide. In a number of post-WWII kitchens, the refrigerator was placed in the back hall, perhaps because size made it an obstacle, but in fact this location made food prep inefficient. Today’s kitchens often find the cooktop and sink across from each other, and the impact of this on work flow – especially with multiple cooks – is critical.

While there is much more to be said relating to improved universal access, these examples relate to the heights of things and the relationship among the appliances and work centers. A basic solution is to think inventively and incorporate non-traditional concepts, as is the trend toward mid-height cabinetry with ovens and related appliances designed adjacent to each other, rather than stacked.

7. Appliance/fixture dimensions impact another aspect of a project: that of getting them into the space. In the older cottages of New England, the elevators and apartments of major cities or the painted ladies of San Francisco, memorable issues involve the refrigerator or tall cabinet that doesn’t fit through the expected path into the kitchen because of restrictive hallways, turns, door openings and ceiling heights. In one case, the tall cabinet was raised by a crane and guided into the kitchen space through a third-story window. In another, angling the tall item in and out of doorways along the narrow hallways leading to the kitchen solved the problem, but not easily.

Hindsight dictates that we compare the height of a tall cabinet when tipped, and virtually make that trip into the kitchen before completing the specification. Solutions for those tight squeezes might involve specifying that a tall cabinet or an oversized island be constructed in pieces or on site. Removing doors on appliances can also help. Again, that second set of eyes – this time a project manager – could catch any oversights.

8. Ten pounds in a five-pound bag or over-designing has caused issues such as the rolling cart that could not roll because the casters were so restricted by trim or the desk that is so personalized that there is no longer enough accessible surface for use. One designer cites a client who had a list of appliances and features that simply could not all fit into the space, and even after tightening the wish list, the client ended up using a second oven as a pantry.

This is a tough one, avoided by taking the time to step back from the design process to review design details, again by that second set of eyes when possible. Guiding the clients in prioritizing their wish list, and when a plan has been selected, asking the clients to list where any items will be stored or activities planned, can help.

9. Back in the day, before houses were so tightly constructed and commercial versions of appliances were incorporated into kitchens, ventilation was not so carefully attended to, especially with regard to return air. This example is one of the more painful, from a major California design talent, where a commercial range was planned and the accompanying generously powered ventilation included. All went well until the vent was turned on for the first time, and return air was found in the chimney of the adjacent great room, creating a puff-back that blackened the entire space.

Today building codes are specific with regard to ventilation and return air, and appliance specs have become more detailed. Another good way to ensure this issue is dealt with is to discuss the ventilation with the builder/contractor and to identify the source for return air in plan notes.

10. The popularity of banquettes have generated mistakes involving space for approach and sitting at a table and correctly accommodating cushion thickness and depth. 

To avoid these errors, the table should be specified as a pedestal or with consideration to the location of the legs and the size of the table for clearance in approach and sitting. Recessing the legs and, when space allows, extending the banquette beyond the table dimension, can eliminate the issue. Regarding cushion dimensions, attention to the position of the window/sill can eliminate another problem.

Originally, I thought to include stories from both kitchen and bath design, but there was just too much information. While this is not a complete list, it is a solid collection of gaffes that have been relayed to me, with some reluctance and humor as the pain fades. For some of us, there may be some missteps that are still too awful to recount publicly. Still, an error made is also a lesson learned and likely never forgotten, so I’m hoping these confessions will help you experience the education without the need for the pain. And honestly, who among us can say that we have never experienced such a learning opportunity? ▪

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