Why the kitchen triangle remains an enduring design principle


While in the past kitchens tended to be for cooking only, they’re now also hubs for living and family gatherings. Modern kitchens rival the living room for the amount of time we spend in them. Since it’s such a heavily used space, design is a critical consideration. If you’ve been thinking of designing the kitchen in your new home, the kitchen triangle is a classic design principle that’s still in use today.

So, what is the kitchen triangle and the rationale behind the principle? Is it the best way to design a kitchen or is it an obsolete concept? Here, we answer these questions and look at alternative ways to design functional kitchens.

Kitchen triangles and their rationale

The kitchen triangle was first devised in a late-1940s design study by the University of Illinois School of Architecture. Also known as the working triangle or golden triangle, it’s a straightforward principle: an optimal kitchen layout features a work triangle connecting the fridge, kitchen sink, and stovetops.

You should be able to draw a triangle linking these central three work centres of cooking, chopping/peeling/washing, and storage. No major traffic patterns or blockages like a kitchen island should interrupt the triangle’s workflow.

The rationale behind the work triangle is to keep the three fundamental tasks close to each other to minimise travel distance and effort required for meal preparation. By keeping these three key sections close, you avoid bottlenecks and create an efficient, ergonomic, functional kitchen that’s always a pleasure to use.

Measurements might vary, but as a general rule, each leg of the triangle should be between 1.2 to 2.7 metres. The perimeter of the triangle should measure between 4 metres and 7.9 metres in total.. These measurements ensure the triangle isn’t too compact and cramped or too spread out for an effective workspace. NB: the kitchen triangle is a flexible concept, and you can integrate other design options into the basic principle to match your own needs.

Limitations of the kitchen triangle

For a long time, the kitchen triangle has been the standard by which designers measured good design and functionality. As with any design, the kitchen trangle’s effectiveness as a principle can change as lifestyles and usage patterns change.

Since the concept was first introduced, the way households prepare food has changed. For example, cooking generally used to be the sole responsibility of one person – Mum, who was likely to have been a full-time homemaker. However today, families and couples enjoy preparing meals together.

Moreover, in the 1940s, kitchens were smaller and appliances were large. Today, kitchens feature different appliances and need to accommodate changing cuisine types and preparation processes.

Additionally, modern kitchens are open to the rest of the house, rather than being enclosed spaces dedicated to only meal prep. Families informally congregate in the kitchen throughout the day. The kitchen has now become a far more open space, used for living as well as utilitarian ends like cooking. Given this, the kitchen triangle might no longer best serve the requirements of the household.

Other approaches to kitchen design

The kitchen triangle principle has declined in popularity somewhat, and some designers even consider it irrelevant, although it remains in use. The triangle doesn’t always work with every kitchen, and smaller spaces can find it a challenge to include a spread-out triangle section.

With bigger houses, bigger kitchens, and the kitchen becoming a living area and even partially replacing the living room, design experts are promoting the idea of an updated kitchen triangle. Rather than three work areas, you have self-contained work ‘zones’.

For example, a baking work zone would be located near the oven and have rolling pins, baking sheets, and all other baking accessories. The prep zone would be home to knives, colanders, peelers, the trash, the sink, and other essentials. These standalone preparation zones better complement the growing open-concept kitchen trend than work triangles do. These open kitchens typically also feature island prep stations with bars and prep sinks.

Another alternative design is the galley, linear, or corridor kitchen, which is a long, narrow design suitable for both small and large kitchens. Key service areas are already clustered close to each other, which could negate the need for a triangle-based workflow. Alternatively, it could make incorporating a work triangle effortless depending on how appliances and the sink area are laid out.

Nevertheless, many designers believe the kitchen triangle is still relevant today. Older homes in particular are likely to have triangle designs that work well, and kitchen remodels still successfully apply the principle. You can still use the work triangle as a flexible rule to check how easily people can move between these three main work areas.

The best way to design a kitchen

There’s no single best way to design a kitchen – optimal design should reflect your lifestyle and what you personally want to achieve from your workspace. The classic kitchen triangle, galley, and open-plan kitchen designs can be blueprints or guidelines for your design journey, but the best approach for your household is to explore all design ideas out there, evaluate how your kitchen is used, the traffic flow, and then adapt these design principles to best suit your needs.

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