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The Work Triangle: Does It Still Work?

The Work Triangle: Does It Still Work?

Kitchen space planners generally have strong views, both pro and
con, about the efficacy of the kitchen ‘work triangle’ as
reflected in the comments of several West Coast designers and
architects.

YES It’s Alive and Well, It’s Functional & It
Works

“We use the work triangle in all our kitchen designs, not only as a
starting point, but also as a checkpoint to make sure the kitchen
is functionally efficient,” proclaims triangle advocate Larry Paul,
AIA, NCARB, of L.A. Paul & Associates, in San Francisco.
“Whether you prepare a meal, warm up leftovers or heat a frozen
entree instead of cooking from scratch, you still use the same four
appliances and fixtures refrigerator, range or cooktop, sink and
dishwasher and they need to be located near one another to
harmonize efficiency.

“For us, the 21-foot-sum triangle works best for average-size
kitchens. That size puts the major appliances and adjacent work
areas within two or three steps of one another, saving time and
energy the perfect example of a time-and-motion study applied to
meal preparation resulting in less steps taken, less energy
expended and less time wasted walked back and forth.”

But in a number of kitchens, the wall oven or microwave is used as
much or more than the range or cooktop. 

How does the typical design triangle work when there are more
than three often-used appliance centers?

According to architect Paul, “For those kitchens, I switch to a
rectangle that includes the additional appliances. The microwave or
wall oven modifies the triangle into a rectangle, and the appliance
center is usually located between the refrigerator and a
sink.”

The National Kitchen & Bath Association’s design guidelines,
established to help design professionals plan spaces that function
well, suggest making the work triangle 26 feet or less in total
length (see Kitchen Plan at right). This is the distance between
the refrigerator, primary cooking center and the primary sink,
measured from the center front of each appliance. No leg of the
triangle should be less than 4 feet or more than nine feet long. If
an island or peninsula blocks the triangle, measure the shortest
walking distance (this distorts the triangle somewhat), as shown.
No leg should intersect an obstacle by more than 12 inches.

“Many larger kitchens require a series of smaller triangles, which
work very well for multi-user kitchens or two-cook families,” says
designer Carolyn Heininge, of Eurostone, in San Leandro, CA and
Portland, OR. “Many of my clients have two-cook kitchens when I
give each cook a separate triangle (see Kitchen Plan, Page 67). The
two triangles can share a leg, but shouldn’t overlap.”

Heininge adds that, “In two-cook kitchens, the refrigerator and
range/cooktop are usually shared hopefully, the new kitchen will
have two separ-
ated sinks.”

Multi-user kitchens need special attention from designers. Knowing
user schedules, preferences, tolerances and needs is critical to a
successful design.
Mary Lou D’Auray, CID, of San Francisco-based Interior Design,
knows that multi-user kitchens need more than three work areas.
“I’ve designed some of my clients’ kitchens with two food
preparation areas and two clean-up zones. For multi-user kitchens,
I depart from the one and only work triangle. Actually, after I
digest all that I’ve learned about my clients’ lifestyles, I
connect the dots I’m probably creating a series of triangles in a
few locations. They might overlap one another here and
there.”

Although the kitchen has evolved to include cooks of different
ages, sexes, sizes and physical abilities, a family’s kitchen
functions may not necessarily fall into a three-point triangle;
other points have been introduced.

“Making modifications to the work triangle does make sense,” says
D’Auray, “But you can’t get away from the basic premise. I’m not
saying that there are only three places a person would work at in
the kitchen, but you have to start with those three places as a
reference point and go from there. I use the work triangle
regularly.”

NO It Doesn’t Work With Today’s
Lifestyles

“The design triangle is inflexible and very confining,” says Callie
McGuire of Duracite, a Benicia, CA-based kitchen countertop
provider. “Home shelter magazines are quick to suggest that
homeowners develop a variety of design triangles, each with the
three main work centers in different places. But that’s unrealistic
in kitchen remodels you don’t move sink, range, and refrigerator
locations around as you would move furniture.”

McGuire feels that the triangle could add value if the kitchen
design included an island with a secondary sink. “Including a
secondary sink creates at least one more triangle, and that makes
the island adaptable to many uses not previously available: a wet
bar location; a flower cutting and arranging area; a safe place to
wash veggies so they won’t get lost in a big sink filled with
dirty/soapy dishes; and a craft area children can enjoy.”

“Focusing on a geometric pattern precludes a designer from asking
the right questions, and doesn’t allow approaching the space with
an open mind,” says Larkspur, CA-based architect Thomas Hood. “It’s
a mistake not to ask how and what kinds of foods clients cook, or
how many people they usually cook for. The work triangle is silent
about clients’ storage needs, or what kinds of small appliances,
knives, or pots and pans they use.”

“Why not include the daily dining function in the kitchen design?”
asks McGuire.
In a comparison similar to the study that originally defined the
work triangle, McGuire evaluated her own motions at mealtime. Her
findings: one trip from the refrigerator to the sink, two from the
refrigerator to the range, three from the range to the sink, two
from the range to the table, nine between the refrigerator and the
table, two from the sink to the table, five from the table to the
refrigerator and seven from the table to the dishwasher.

While this analysis is far from scientific and fails to list the
trips between the oven and the table, or between the dish storage
cabinet and the table, McGuire says, “it does show that our
individual kitchen motions are far too diverse and varied to ever
attempt to place rules of efficiency on travel between just three
working points in the kitchen.”
She says that, while she understands the desire to establish
guidelines for kitchen design, “When these guidelines perform in a
negative manner that compromises designer perception and creative
kitchen design, I believe it’s time to re-evaluate the reason for
the guidelines in the first place.”

YES & NO Sometimes It Works; Other Times It
Doesn’t

“I was perplexed when I was asked if I was a kitchen design
triangle advocate,” says San Francisco architect John A. Schlenke,
AIA.

“I guess I can’t keep the triangle out of my mind when I first
begin a kitchen design, but I’m not often motivated to put it to
work and develop it for the majority of my clients. They’re usually
multi-cook families with varied lifestyles and schedules. And it’s
impossible for me to develop a single design triangle for a
two-parent, two-cook family with a teenager and a pre-teen all home
for dinner at one time imagining their travel patterns would blur
my vision.

“I hardly use work triangles any more, except when a one-cook
client makes it simple by asking for a 30-inch range with a
microwave above it, one sink and one refrigerator. That’s simple
one person and one functional triangle.”

Designer and cabinet supplier C.J. Lowenthal of Gilman Screens
& Kitchens, in Foster City, CA, feels that the work triangle is
“alive and well it works for average-size kitchens without islands.
But in larger kitchens, two or more triangles might need to be
worked into the design.

“Sometimes rules have to broken to meet individual needs,” she
admits. “But that’s when the designer can gather all the
appropriate information, develop it with the client, apply it to
paper and create an effective kitchen design that’s fun for the
whole family to use.”

Editor’s Note: The preceding article appeared in All-Points
Bulletin (July, 1999), a San Francisco-based newsletter for the
home remodeling, repair and real estate industries. Written by
remodeling facilitator Warren Camp, ASHI, this copyright-protected
article has been reprinted by Kitchen & Bath Design News with
permission. Subscription information on All-Points Bulletin can be
obtained by calling (415) 641-1006.

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