Space exploration

If you’ve never done them before, large open-plan kitchen projects can be a bit daunting. Jo Buckerfield, design director of Your Space Living in Glamorgan, has some useful advice to help first-timers avoid making mistakes

Open-plan kitchens are more popular than ever. As a result, the kitchen designer’s role is changing. We are often presented with an architectural drawing or a half-completed extension. When this happens, we know the design process will be very different.

We have the luxury of a blank canvas, but there are other hurdles waiting to trip us up along the way. The whole process is likely to be much slower than a regular kitchen replacement. There’ll be more consultation time, more collaboration and more coordination of trades people.

It often takes 12 months or more before you get to order the furniture. Even that’s in jeopardy if the budget gets blown along the way. So, before you tackle an open-plan transformation, ask yourself one question – “is this project right for my business?”

I’d love to share some of my thoughts and experiences. My aim here is to start a conversation. I want to inspire more kitchen retailers to tackle the open-plan design and installation. But, with so many potential pitfalls, how do we make sure everyone wins?

I’ve worked on a variety of home extensions over the past decade. I’ve project-managed every aspect of the process. That includes building work and all the associated trades people. I enjoy project-management, because it gives me more control over the process. The management role helps me ensure the whole team is singing from the same hymn sheet.

When it comes to extensions, I always prefer to get involved early. I like to collaborate with the architect from the very beginning. By joining forces, the chances are we’ll get a better end result. I’ve got huge respect for talented architects. They have a tough enough job to do without worrying about where to position the bar stools. Of course, some architects will claim they don’t need a kitchen designer. But those I’ve worked with have welcomed my input and like the idea of handing over the kitchen to a specialist. I’ll make suggestions that might not be so obvious from the wider view. It gives me a real buzz when my design influences the final planning submission.

But life isn’t perfect. Chances are I’ll come in long after the architectural plans have been submitted. The walls are up, the windows and doors are in position and the roof is on. The reason I’m late to the party is because many clients didn’t realise they needed me sooner. This is a problem and it’s an area I need to work on. That means building relationships with local architects and builders. But the timing doesn’t matter. A designer still has a job to do. For me, the job is to make the best of the space I’m given, in line with the client’s needs and desires. It’s no longer kitchen design, it’s spatial design.

Working with a large, empty space requires a different discipline. The options and possibilities are wider and this can be overwhelming. One kitchen designer might solve the puzzle with ease. Another could make a series of design errors that don’t show up until it’s too late.

For example, moving the hob to the kitchen island is a popular design decision in an open-plan layout. This is great, but the issue of extraction becomes far more complicated. It’s not impossible to resolve, but it will be an extra element to plan for.

The temptation to squeeze that little bit of extra profit from a larger space can be hard for some retailers to resist. I’ve seen many kitchens where the designer has added one too many units. It’s worth remembering how simple it is to cram a large space. Just because you have a large wall, it doesn’t mean you have to cover it with expensive cabinets. Homeowners build extensions because they have a desire for more space. Adding too much furniture could leave your client wondering why they bothered.

I’ve seen other projects where the larger space has led the designer to spread things out too much. Ergonomics is a vital part of a large kitchen design. Spreading related appliances all over the room won’t help anyone.

The 1940s concept of the ‘working triangle’ has become a thing of the past. There are too many popular appliances to make it work. But zoning the space is important. Making the kitchen practical, as well as beautiful, will create raving fans of your work. That will lead to people lining up for more of the same.

So what do you do when you have an opportunity to pitch for your first open-plan kitchen project? You’d like to do it, but you lack the experience, the team or the confidence. You could take on the project with the best intentions and find that things don’t work out. That may be from a design issue or any of the other factors that come with a project of this nature. In the past, it might have been easy to walk away from an unsuccessful design, but not anymore. Social media and image sharing won’t let you get away with it.

One recommendation would be to hire specialist design talent on a single-project gig. Interior architects and spatial designers have the skills you’ll need. They can fill any holes in your design team, so that you can deliver the ultimate kitchen for your client.

You should be charging a fee for the design. The ‘free’ design offer is unviable in projects of this nature. You may disagree with me on this, and I do respect that opinion, but there’s no getting away from the extra challenges presented by spatial design.

So… “is this project right for my business?” If you tackle it in the right way, you can bet it will be.

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