Spot Your REAL Kitchen Problems … then use Design to Solve Them in a Mid-sized Remodel

14 min read Make sure you’re solving the RIGHT kitchen problems with your remodel! Let’s talk about common underlying MCM layout issues and solve them at the right scale.

Is your kitchen actually too small or does it just feel too small?  What Kitchen problems are you really trying to solve with your remodel?  Let’s make sure you know the answer!

A crucial step in planning a successful remodel is understanding the scale that you are looking to take on and knowing what kitchen problems you are really trying to solve.   Once you know those two things you can find a solution that works for your budget and home.  

This week, we will be exploring the difference between a level 2 and level 3 kitchen remodel and importance of solving the underlying issue, not just the surface problem.

The difference between a level two and a level three remodel is not necessarily the scale of the finished result or even how well it turns out, but the difference of priority between cost and time. While you’re carrying out one of these two kinds of remodels you’ll feel the difference very distinctly, but once they’re completed, they can both have accomplished the same sort of dramatic, even magical transformation of your home.

Identifying the real layout kitchen problems you need to solve with your remodel often comes down to asking yourself what you don’t like about the kitchen you have … and then calling on your inner three year old to ask ‘but why is ___?” two or three more times.   Have a listen to learn more!

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • Why and when you should lockdown and finalize  the scale of your kitchen remodel [0:45]
  • The logic of picking apart a problem to discover the underlying issues in your home [3:00]
  • Ways of creating the feeling of spaciousness without adding square footage [4:20]
  • Reasons you may need to reduce the number of tasks your kitchen is trying to carry out [7:35]
  • The big benefits of a tiny bump-out addition [9:00]
  • Why you might reduce the pathways to increase circulation [10:05]
  • The unusual issue of a kitchen that is too big [11:35]
  • When to move the kitchen around the house or the house around the kitchen [12:15]
  • Things to consider and goals to have for your kitchen remodel [14:20]

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Resources for Solving Mid-Century Kitchen Problems 

Read the Full Episode Transcript

A crucial step in planning a successful remodel is understanding the scale that you are looking to take on. 

Hey, there, welcome back to MidMod Remodel. This is the show about updating MCM homes, helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast. You’re listening to season five, episode seven.

At the start of this season, I referenced my roadmap to a remodel. The early stages are all about learning your home and finding inspiration for your plans. Last week’s episode, on making the master plan for your whole project, is step eight and that’s followed up by nine: finding your scale; the level of a remodel that you are prepared to take on. Just like last week. This might be something you’ve arrived at only at this point or known pretty much from the beginning. The reason you lock down your level last is because it does depend on how much you want to get done and how you want to do it.

It occurred to me before recording this that you could actually apply the classic designers’ Venn diagram of fast, cheap, and good—please pick two—to the three levels of a remodel. A full-on, all the way, level three, remodel, changing big picture elements of the house and utilizing the assistance and directorship of an experienced general contractor prizes fast and good over cheap. Those big picture remodels are pricey.  

A level two remodel taken on by homeowners and managed in a series of smaller steps or phases that add up to a big transformation over time. Isn’t fast, but it can be cheaper than the big version and still very good. 

It’s pretty harsh to think of level one as prioritizing fast and cheap over good, but that’s one way to think about it. Another is to think that making little DIY tweaks is less costly and takes less time than either of the other two options.

I would still argue that your investment of energy can take the place of the big scale time and still come out to the pretty good quote-unquote in the long-term. That might be where my analysis falls apart, but certainly one way to distinguish between a level two and a level three remodel is not necessarily the scale of the finished result or even how well it turns out, but the difference in the priority between cost and time, while you’re carrying out one of these two kinds of remodels you’ll feel the difference very distinctly, but once they’re completed, they can both have accomplished the same sort of dramatic, even magical transformation of your home. 

That’s why I’m going to use this episode that ostensibly focused on levels two and three remodels, and how to choose yours to talk about the kind of layout solutions you can win for your kitchen by either one of these updates. Before we get started, remember that as always, you’ll find the show notes with links to the references we make an outline of the conversation we’re having on my website at midmod-midwest.com/507.

Alright, to reiterate, you’re going to be wanting to seek help in your layout plans, at least from other friends and relatives, ideally from a professional. This can get persnickety, but here’s what I think don’t get kitchen layout advice from a cabinet maker do get cabinet advice from a cabinet maker. But when you’re thinking about layout problems, you want to think big and you to try multiple options and weigh them against each other before you commit. 
Here’s another way to think about that. Whether you’re putting and the kitchen and new space, or just substantially overhauling, what you have, this is your chance to make a big shift. Now, if you’ve been doing your homework on this kitchen update of yours, you’ve been asking yourself some key questions about what you really need to get out of your improvements. 

I bet you share some of the common problems with your current kitchen that I’ve heard from my clients again and again, over the years. And this is where it’s important to think really critically about the problems you’ve identified. Make sure you’re solving the underlying issue, not just the surface problem, because here’s the thing. 

Often, if someone tells a well-meaning kitchen store employee that their current kitchen doesn’t have enough counter space, the answer will be to sell them on a set of cabinets that include a lot more square footage of counter. 
Likewise, if someone tells their contractor, my kitchen is too small. The solution will be double the square footage. Now those both sound like simple solutions to the stated problem where it could be weak wrong, and neither the kitchen salesman nor the contractor is wrong for suggesting them but this one-to-one problem to solution is often how projects become large and expensive. If you address the first stated problem, not enough counter space or too small, you can overlook the underlying problem, which may have an easier or less expensive solution. 

For example, often when I hear a client tell me they need more counter space in their kitchen, if I’ve been in the space, I might note that that relates to the fact that most of the counter space they have is paired with wall-hung cabinets, which are awkward to work at when you stand at a counter that has a wall-hung cabinet on top of it, you bend over and bang your forehead. You have less view to the back of the counter. The space feels smaller. You’re more inclined to store semipermanent objects like a coffeemaker, KitchenAid mixer, or handy spices in that space under the overhanging cabinet than you would if you had open, bear counter with well above or windows. So the obvious solution is to add more counter space, but a secondary solution might be simply to remove the wall, hung cabinets, making sure to replace that storage space somewhere else in the kitchen. 

Likewise, when people tell me they don’t have enough storage space in their kitchen, the obvious answer is to make an addition to the house or take another room, then turn it into a pantry. But a more subtle solution is just to pick one wall of the kitchen cabinets, ideally the part with the least desirable counter space right now, and fill it with floor to ceiling, full height, cabinet storage, to make a wall pantry that’s easily accessible and always close to hand.

So here’s the thing let’s play this game with a couple of examples from favorite recent projects of mine. 

For example, if the kitchen is too small, does it mean that actually it’s too closed off from the rest of the house? You might be able to fix that problem without adding any floor space, just by opening up views that connect it with the rest of the space. This can sometimes be the case with an old fashioned galley or even a U shaped kitchen that has been cut off from the of the eating kitchen, by a wall of upper cabinets that separate it too much from that space. 

To solve that problem, you might need to remodel the entire space, or you might simply need to open up some connecting views that connect the kitchen into another area that make it feel bigger. This can also happen when you open up views to the outside, replacing again, those evil wall-hung cabinets with windows that look out into the backyard, or sometimes even just removing wall-hung cabinets from both sides of a galley kitchen can make the space feel larger at your elbow to eyeline rather than, and having to improve the area at your feet space. You can improve the feel of the size of the kitchen. 

One recent project we did had a very small, actually it had been remodeled, but it was an original galley footprint and when we updated the kitchen, we put an addition on the house. We wanted to add a great room that connected well to the backyard, to the back of the house. We could have expanded the kitchen into that area, and it might’ve been an obvious solution to the fact that the client told us their kitchen felt too small. But when we talked about the way that they cooked in it, what we realized was all we needed to do was put an addition on the house with a simple structure, basic, less strict, and no plumbing inside of that addition and open up the entire wall between the existing kitchen space and that new addition so that they could share the feeling of space without sharing extra square footage. 

The desired result of a larger kitchen was achieved with an addition, but with a much less expensive addition—just a simple living room—then adding on a whole new kitchen, every time you’re putting plumbing, either for a kitchen or bathroom into new space, it’s going to be much more expensive per square foot.

Too small can also be shorthand for too much is going on in the kitchen. If your kitchen is not just a cooking and eating space, but it also serves as the laundry or utility room, the mudroom, the back door or garage door access to your home, then you might not need to make the kitchen bigger. You might just need to take away some of those too many tasks it’s trying to carry out. This was the case in another ranch remodel. A very small kitchen was doing double duty as the main house entrance because the family didn’t use their front door. So by building a small, small addition to the side—a bump out vestibule—that took some of the pressure off the kitchen square footage and let it be just a cooking and eating space. That’s the same thing I did in my own kitchen. I was entering the house through a breezeway with a door that opened straight into the kitchen. It was not the most weather sensitive thing for hot and cold days and it also meant that inside my cooking space, I had a row of muddy boots I’d been to the dog park in and a hanging rack of winter coats. By enclosing that breezeway into a mud room, I was able to create an airlock entry for the bitterest cold days, and also just confined all of the dust and chaos of dog entering to the house into a space outside of the kitchen. My kitchen immediately took a step forward into being a classic, comfortable space to hang out with no added space and it was the simplest possible addition to make.

Now, if someone saying their house is too small in the kitchen area, another thing you might consider for your house, if it’s, for example, just big enough for a traditional L or U shaped kitchen, but you desire an island. An island takes a lot of square footage, a lot of width in a kitchen because you need to have space for the island itself and for two isles of circulation on either side, and then usually at least one wall mounted round of cabinets too. So that’s two feet for the wall based cabinets and a minimum three, ideally three and a half feet for the first row of circulation, two at a minimum for the island, although I like a three or four foot wide island, if possible and then another three for a sort of hallway effect on the far side of the kitchen. If you don’t have that, you need just a few crucial inches. Sometimes a tiny bump-out addition is what you need. And I propose this in a recent project, adding just an 18 inch bump out, mounted off the existing structure. That means it didn’t have to go down to the ground and have its own footing outside, was enough to give them enough space for that extra isle of circulation and add a functional three-foot deep island to a relatively small kitchen.

And that idea of where we walk around the cooking spaces—circulation—that’s another question that can come up in the too small question. If you feel like your kitchen is too small, it might also just mean that there are too many pathways heading through the kitchen and to solve that problem you can remove or relocate doors so that there are certain places where people pass through the space, circulation channels, and certain parts where people stay still and work or sit the work areas. That was something we tried any kitchen that would otherwise have been considered large enough, or even too large. A previous remodel of a big mid-century kitchen dining area had tried to be creative by flipping the, let’s see how to describe it. There is a wall of windows on one side and basically a through line where you want to walk from the master bedroom to the children’s bathrooms along the opposite side of the space from that big wall of windows. But in the nineties remodeled, they put an L of cabinets that interrupted that logical through space. So now you had to walk basically through the working kitchen area to get from your bedroom to the kids’ bedroom in the middle of the night. Not ideal. So we ended up reorienting it so that the kitchen was located against a window wall. And you could walk through a clear pathway along the inside wall of the house. Small change, huge result. It’s going to be a much better use of space.

That kitchen actually comes back to very rarely—the problem in the kitchen can be it’s too big. Admittedly, that feels like a really nice problem to have, but a cavernous kitchen is actually not very pleasant to be in, and you can solve that problem by breaking it up into micro spaces or niches. Ideally you want at least between three and five feet between counter surface and the next counter surface counter an island. You want room to move around for someone who’s standing at the counter, but not a big open area to cross with soapy hands or a load of boiling pasta water. So it can make sense actually, to condense the kitchen area and make room for an eat in space or even a kitchen sofa—someplace to cozy up with a book and hang out with a cook or just take a break while the soup cooks.

One last kitchen problem that tends to come up is you might need to move the kitchen completely if it’s in the wrong part of the house. And when you’re doing a level three remodel, you can, if your kitchen is cut off from the parts of the house, it should relate to, or from the outside views you love best, you might end up moving it somewhere else. Completely. This of course does require the very big remodel budget, but it can pay off one of the first trans remodels I ever did involved a house with an amazing backyard and side yard that could be viewed only from two small back bedrooms. And that house, because of other issues, the owners were already planning to gut so we had some leeway to move spaces around. We didn’t so much move the kitchen in the end as flipping the entire house around it. So then in the end, the living area looked out onto the back and side yards, which was very open to the kitchen, leaving these long views that looked out to trees and a marsh beyond really lovely and a much better social solution because the kitchen opened off on the side to a patio and deck where the family could hang out and cook out. The bedrooms ended up at the front of the house because that was a quiet street. And that was the place where they were actually taking up the least amount of breathing room in the house. One way or another. The solution that you come up with for your kitchen is very personal. So while there are rules of thumb and things that I experienced over and over again, each design solution gets customized to the family that needs it.

There are a few consistent things that I think about when I’m starting to look at a kitchen layout. The first is proximity. Its important to combine like activities and keep them relatively close together and to separate differential activities. Like we were talking about circulation pathways versus work zones, but you might also break it up into a prep area and a cook area, a cooking area in a dish washing area, a food part of the kitchen and a homework hangout part of the kitchen. A lot of people really enjoy having an eat in style kitchen sometimes even with a booth. Whereas other families prefer to prepare food in one place and then take it to another to consume it again. This is a personal choice that you make for yourself, but it’s nice to sort of think about your baseline preferences in that area.

The next thing that comes to my mind when I’m reconfiguring someone’s kitchen layout is view lines. You want views within the space. I’ve talked so many times already this season about the importance of having a place where you can stand at a counter and make eye contact with another person in the kitchen, whether they’re hanging out with you or helping you cook. That often takes the form of an island or a peninsula. It is not what is done by having a base cabinet with a wall and a wall mounted cabinet hung on it so you turn your back to the room while you work. But those views within the kitchen are of equal importance with views between the kitchen and the rest of the house. Like I’ve been saying earlier, you can make a small kitchen feel bigger by connecting it through as long a view line as you can through the rest of the house. And again, that’s a personal choice. Some people abhor the open kitchen, they can’t stand the sight of any dirty dishes in their sink from anywhere else in the house. But for others, making a big connection between the house is part of making a small house feel larger. And I often find that that’s the case and the last few to consider his views from the kitchen to the outside. Often in a builder grade traditional kitchen, you’ll just have a single window over the kitchen sink. I think actually in many cases, these were required by early code as part of the light and ventilation requirements for a cooking space but they’re also a nice feeling to stand at the sink and look out at the yard, um, either to keep an eye on what’s happening out there or just to feast your eyes on distance. However, it’s not really enough just to have one kitchen window, if there’s really no other way for you to get another window into your kitchen, consider adding a skylight or at least a light tube, but you can even combine a window with a wall hung cabinet. I saw an original mid-century house with its original kitchen a while ago where the place where a normal backsplash tile would be was a ribbon of windows. I love that idea. Another thing you can do is simply remove your wall-hung cabinets, concentrate that storage space in, as I was saying, floor-to-ceiling height cabinets like a pantry somewhere else, and cut a couple of new window openings in your exterior walls.

The other thing I think about when I am planning a sort of from scratch layout remodel is to add space sparingly an ideal inexpensive kitchen remodel keeps the plumbing and electrical parts of the kitchen in exactly or close to their current locations, but still expands on the feeling of space by adding on square footage for things like a breakfast nook, a laundry area, a pantry, or a mudroom, any added space that’s additional to the house. If it’s as simple as possible, that will keep the costs down. But you know, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes the best place for the kitchen is on the other side of the house, the long and the short of what we’ve been talking about all season is how mid-century kitchens often have some pretty irritating layout issues. And if you’re planning to remove and replace most of the fixtures and finishes in your kitchen because of long-term degradation or just simply because they don’t work for you, or if you’re planning to relocate to a whole new space, this is your big chance to make the most of your layout.

If you’re planning a kitchen update and you want to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your time, effort and money, you would really benefit from getting some advice from an expert. Give MidMod Midwest a shout out via our website. We’d love to set up a time to chat with you about your house, or just check out some of our other resources. You can read the show notes for this episode at midmod-midwest.com/507 to grab links I’ve mentioned and see an outline of everything we’ve covered. And if what I’ve been saying this whole season sounds so exciting, but you’re just nowhere near ready for a big picture kitchen update right now: don’t fear. Next week’s episode is all about the little things you can do to make your kitchen more your own either because you know, it needs it and that’s all it needs or because you’re biding your time waiting for big updates to come stay tuned friend.