10 Lessons Learned From Building a Kitchen

January 14, 2011

Melanie from Washington recently wrote this to me:

“Hey Kate, I read that when you remodeled your house a few years ago, that you designed and built your kitchen.  We’re in the beginning stages of gutting our very dated kitchen and we’re starting over from scratch!  We’re so excited!!  My question for you is, were there any pitfalls you ran into?  Anything you learned along the way you’d be willing to share?  What should we know about building a kitchen starting from four bare walls?  Help!”

Great question Melanie!  Me and my Mister built our kitchen over five years ago, so to answer Melanie’s question, I had to dig through the archives and pull out all my files to refresh my recollection of the process of building our kitchen from scratch.  It resulted in a mild rash and minor heart palpitations, but I’ve since recovered.

No, I’m kidding.  I absolutely love kitchen design, and loved the entire process of choosing all the details of the one in our own home.  I’m one of those people that if I overheard at the grocery store you were building a new kitchen, I’d butt my ponytail right into the conversation and want to chat all about appliances, countertops and the exact style of door front you’re choosing for your cabinets.  “Really?  Oh, fabulous!”

Building a kitchen from scratch is an enormous task.  Unlike throwing the latest most popular shade of paint on your walls, a kitchen must be a space that can stand the test of time.  My kitchen suits the style of my home, and also my own personal tastes as well.  While there are a few things I wish I’d done differently, for the most part, I really love the floor plan and finishes we continue to live with every day.

Ten Lessons Learned from Building Our Kitchen

cg kates kitchen


#10:  Do your research

I’m talking building codes, cabinet styles, appliances and their wacky measurements, tile, countertops, etc.  Visit home improvement stores, appliance centers, tile shops, and slab yards.  Do extensive research online for information and inspiration.  Touch, feel, and read everything you can your get your hands on, and gather at least three bids from all subcontractors.

reseach mags

Eat, drink, and breathe everything ‘Kitchen Design’ until you can’t stand it anymore.  Then you’ll be ready to make your final choices.

#9)  Have a good lighting plan 

This is my old tattered lighting plan from 2005 that I found earlier today.  You can see there are plans for eight light switches in this kitchen.  Eight.  But they all serve a very specific purpose (task lighting, pantry, over the sink, etc.)

I consulted with a friend who is a lighting designer and also my electrician.  Together we came up with all of these switches, and I’m so glad we put so much thought into it.

lighting plan.bmp

And dimmers!  Put as many switches as you can on dimmers to set any mood in your kitchen from “Time to wake up kids!” to “Dinner party ambiance”.  Trust me.

#8:  Create a work triangle

Since most cooking is done between these three zones, all kitchen designers will tell you it’s important to keep ‘the triangle’ in mind.   You can rotate the points any which way, just make sure there’s a logical connection between the sink, fridge and cooktop/oven.

This is the exact triangle I have in my own kitchen with my sink under the window, my refrigerator to the left and my cooktop/range to the right.


It’s helpful to incorporate your food prep area in between the zones, which is why my center island is one large flat surface!   It’s also helpful to keep the main path of travel away from your work triangle.

#7)  Research all price points

Countertops, appliances, and cabinetry are always an investment, and places where you want to spend good money for good quality, but there are other places where you will find there’s a great degree of variance in price and you can get away with inexpensive choices.  Our knobs and pulls are the perfect example.

kitchen pulls and knobs

The subtly detailed brushed nickel cabinet knobs and pulls I chose (to the left) are from none other than (who would have thought?) Target.  I think I paid maybe $2 dollars a knob and $3 dollars a pull.  But I paid a pretty penny for the Top Knobs appliance pulls on the refrigerator to the right.  They were expensive, but were they ever worth it!  I pull on those babies two dozen times a day, so always think about that when you’re making your final decision on hardware for your kitchen.

Our sinks are another example.  The main sink faucet is Price Pfister ‘Marielle’ off the shelf from Home Depot and the secondary sink is by Rohl.  Both have held up well over time, but I paid much more for the Rohl than the Price Pfister, and in hindsight, I should have gone with a more inexpensive model for the second sink.

kitchen sinks

#6 Storage Storage Storage 

Think about all the places you want to hide your everyday items, like your coffee maker or your toaster.  If you want to tuck them out of sight, create little nooks to do so.  I like to tuck my own toaster, bread bowl, and coffee maker in the nook behind my refrigerator.

kitchen nook


Also consider where you will place all the things you cook with: your spices, utensils and pot holders, then map out where you’d like to store them as well.

oven cabinet storage

Consider where you will store your small appliances and larger roasting pans that you use less frequently.  I hide chaffing dishes and roasting pans in these corner kitchen cabinets, and smaller less used appliances under our breakfast peninsula.

hidden storage

Every kitchen needs extra cabinet space or a pantry to store dry goods.  Large or small, do your best to make space for everything from sugar, flour and cereal, to larger bulk items like paper towels or a collection of cookbooks.  Walk in pantries are always a plus!

pantry walk in


#5 Bells, Whistles and Extras

You know all those high tech gadgets that are constantly coming on the market?  And all those pricey extras that make you oooh and ahhh?  I’m talking your pot fillers, warming drawers, and espresso makers.  All those little extras you make think you want, but may not actually need.

I’m here to tell you stick with what you’ll use.  We invested in two fancy shmancy extra appliances that we do actually use: our clear ice maker and our wine/beverage fridge.  Those are really really nice, but are they necessary?  Nah.  Just fun to play with.  Could we live without them?  Surely.

extra appliances

Should you double up the number of dishwashers, sinks, or ovens?  Your call, but I can honestly tell you this.  I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve used two ovens at the same time.  I don’t believe double ovens are necessary in any kitchen unless you do a heck of a lot of baking or entertaining for massive amounts of family or friends.  But double ovens are always a selling point, so consider that too.  If you have a convection microwave, I think you can get away with just a single oven.

double ovens in kitchen

Double sinks are a definite plus, especially when you have more than one person cooking in the kitchen at a time.  Or you need a place to throw your dirty dishtowels.  Or you have little children with grimy hands and your main sink is full of dishes.  Or better still, a place to chill a bottle of great chardonnay for your friends on a summer day.  The latter three reasons are why I love my second sink.

kitchen glass cabinet and sink


#4  Mind Your Transitions 

The devil is in the details, so pay attention to them.  Mind your transitions around your appliances.  Take my range for example, it sticks out beyond the standard cabinet depth as you can see to the left.  To accommodate, we had to add these decorative legs and have the countertops cut to match.

mind transition

Also, pay attention to the space required behind your appliances for plugs, and the clearance needed to open microwave, oven and refrigerator doors.

 #3:  Dedicated Zones

Especially with families, I think it’s essential to have a desk or separate space away from your work triangle and cooking zone that helps you stay organized.  Let’s face it.  The kitchen is the heart of the home and where so much activity takes place, so it’s best to budget some real estate in your kitchen plan for your phone, a calendar, perhaps a laptop, and a place to take messages.  Here’s mine.

open shelves phone center

Above I have open decorative shelves where I store some favorite cookbooks, display a calendar, and a basket for take out menus.  Below is my junk drawer for pens, tape, scissors, etc.  In the lower cabinet is where I store the phone book, my family binder, my favorite recipe binder, and about five dozen copies of Bon Appétit  which I have yet to recycle.

I think it’s also important that people have a place to sit and chat in your kitchen while you cook, and a place to nibble too.  For us, that’s our breakfast peninsula that forms a barrier between the kitchen and family room.


#2 Be Careful What You Wish For

kate kitchen window

And as with any home expansion, unless you can afford an Alice, keep in mind every square inch that you add to your kitchen you also have to clean and maintain.  And I can tell you it takes a bit o’ time to clean mine.  So even though you may think you want a bigger kitchen, remember, just like a big house, bigger ain’t always better cause someone’s got to clean it!

#1  Make Timeless Choices

 Pick cabinetry, countertops and a backsplash that suits your style and your budget, but always keep in mind the passage of time and future buyers.  There are a bazillion combinations to choose from when it comes to cabinetry, countertops and a backsplash.  I chose crema marble with brown veining (instead of the grey found in carrara marble), a white ceramic backsplash, and dark wood countertops for the island and breakfast peninsula.   Almost five years later, I still love the combination.



kitchen backsplash new tile

If you pick timeless cabinetry, appliances, and surfaces that are not too trendy,  you (and any future homeowner) will be grateful.

One final thought:  Although I swoon over all those high end white kitchens in shelter mags, I do not believe that all kitchens should have white cabinets. To the contrary, kitchen cabinets should complement the architecture and style of the home, and also reflect the personal tastes of the homeowner.  In the average contemporary American home, white cabinetry is a safe choice.  However, I happen to be a fan of many different styles of cabinetry, whether painted or stained, open shelves or closed cabinets, or traditional or contemporary design, so I encourage you all (and Melanie too!) to pick what’s right for you and your home.

flowers on mantel


What about you?  Any of you planning to remodel your kitchen?  What’s the one thing you love about your kitchen?  What if anything do you desperately want to change?



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