Kitchen Remodeling Tips from an Expert

Sarah Susanka, author of the very helpful "Not So Big House" series of books, shares some kitchen remodeling tips.

As a remodeler and woodworker with a strong interest in design and architecture, I was excited to sit down with well known architect and author of the trend setting “Not So Big House” series of books, Sarah Susanka, F.A.I.A.. I was especially interested in talking about one of her latest books, written with co-author Marc Vassallo, entitled “Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live.”

The value of working with a talented and thoughtful architect or designer is often stated in remodeling books, magazines and televisions programs, but the reality is that many homeowners will never get the opportunity to build a custom dream home, that the “best” architects and designers often won’t take just any remodeling project and that many people simply enjoy the challenge and creativity that goes with a do-it-yourself project. Recognizing that many homeowners will opt to fight through the jungle that is a home remodeling project on their own, she’s created a book filled with insightful ideas, tips and before and after photos intended to help you approach your remodeling project the way an architect might.

“I wanted to try to convey the kind of conversations, questions and considerations that an architect might bring up with a client,” Susanka told me in a meeting room at the International Builder's Show in Las Vegas. “I’m hoping to teach a thought process. To recognize that each decision will impact other parts of the house and that the root problem is often not what the homeowner first thought.”

“We’ve organized the book to show that remodeling does not necessarily have to be all or nothing – a big addition or no change.” The book is divided by general room categories – kitchens, baths, bedrooms and shared spaces. Each category is then addressed beginning with simple improvements and working up to large additions.

Talking about her book and ideas was interesting, but when she offered to take a look at the sketches I’d been working on for my own kitchen remodel, how could I say no? In the course of fifteen minutes we had probably applied half a dozen of the concepts in her book to improve my design.

Unfortunately, most people won’t fall into a free design consultation with Sarah Susanka, but she has provided us with a few tips to consider when remodeling your home, and her list for kitchens is below. For more about her latest book as well as her other books go to notsobighouse.com.


1. Borrow Before Building – If the existing kitchen is too cramped, consider borrowing space from adjacent spaces. Often, there is space available in places that get overlooked, such as an oversized living room, a rarely used dining room, a Butler’s pantry or a poorly laid out back entry.

2. Leave Well Enough Alone – Where possible, leave the utility hook-ups where they are, especially if budget is a concern. Limiting the number of utilities to relocate will help keep costs contained.

3. Consolidate Entrances – Attempt to locate all the doorways to the kitchen on one side of the room and eliminate any that are not absolutely necessary. This leaves the rest of the kitchen for continuous countertop and appliance arrangement, while limiting the flow of foot traffic through the work area.

4. Pick Out the Pieces – Not all major appliances come in standard sizes. Select major appliances such as the refrigerator, oven and cook top early in the design process so the evolving plan can be tailored to fit these specific dimensions. The difference of a few inches in any direction can make a design feasible or impossible to implement.

5. Work Triangle Basics – When laying out a kitchen, an imaginary triangle is often used to make the work area more functional and efficient. The path linking the centers of the sink, cook top and refrigerator should not exceed 26 feet. No leg of the triangle should be longer than 9 feet or shorter than 4 feet and no major traffic pattern should intersect it.

6. Bridging the Distance – If the kitchen is more than 12 feet wide, consider adding an island in the center. This can make the kitchen function more efficiently, as well as making it seem larger, even if the island itself is small. Make sure any walkways between cabinetry and island are at least 36 inches wide or the kitchen will feel too cramped – 42 inches is better yet, but not always possible when remodeling.

7. Keep it Flowing – Large appliances and pantry cabinets that extend above the countertop surface can block the flow of the work surface. Place large vertical objects such as the refrigerator or a double oven at the end of a stretch of countertop, rather than in the middle, to maximize usable work surface.

8. Maximize Interaction, Minimize Interruption – A successful kitchen remodeling encourages interaction between household members while minimizing the amount of movement through the space by non-cooks. Eliminate the frustrations of a crowded work space while improving the opportunities to socialize by creating a layout that is open to adjacent spaces but still clearly defined as a separate room. Consider:

  • Creating a sense of shelter as well as a visual screen with a section of raised countertop between the kitchen and an adjacent living area. By making the raised area four to six inches taller you’ll be creating an effective screen from messy work areas.
  • Providing seating for on-lookers that is close to the work area and tall enough that it is easy for cook and on-lookers to see each other.
  • Making sure there is a clear line of sight to the sitting areas beyond the kitchen. This allows conversation to flow freely between the cook and other household members.
  • Locating kitchen appliances that receive regular visits from people other than the cook, such as a microwave or refrigerator, where they are easily accessible without disturbing the work space.