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How to avoid a kitchen nightmare

1. Got till it's gone
When assessing aesthetics, take the rest of the home into account. "Don't be too quick to remove the old kitchen entirely," says Melbourne architect Andrew Maynard. "Sometimes, a few key changes are all you need." As well as saving time and money, maintaining at least part of your old kitchen means you won't create a stark contrast "between a blinged-up new kitchen and a beautiful old home".

2. Know your enemy
As tempting as it may be, don't defer demolishing an old kitchen until the new one is ready, advises Colin Kippax, of Sydney's A la Carte Design. He recalls the experience of one apartment dweller who didn't count on a downpipe hiding behind existing joinery, in the spot a just-finished $1000-plus chrome carousel was to go. Because the pipe couldn't be moved, the cabinets had to be remade, minus the prized chrome baskets. Ouch.

3. The Bermuda Triangle
Forget the "golden triangle" of kitchen design, dreamed up when kitchens had three points of focus: sink, fridge and stove. Today's kitchens have eight or nine, including the microwave and the coffee machine. Layouts should be dictated by how many people use the space and how they use it. A few pointers: don't place the pantry and the fridge at opposite ends of the room, cautions Kippax, because it generates unnecessary traffic. And don't use your galley kitchen as a corridor. "The cook may turn around with a dish of hot oil and be blindsided by someone behind them."

4. DIY (aka disaster is yours)
Don't design it yourself, says Susan Hasler, national sales director of Freedom Kitchens. "People look at kitchens in magazines and stick in everything they'd like. They have to have all drawers, but they forget they need somewhere to put their food processor." And, odds are, you won't get a kitchen that flows. "You'll often find a fridge stuck in front of you - because that's the only place left." Tall items, such as the fridge and the pantry, should be at the end of a run.

5. Micro mismanagement
Another common mistake is placing the microwave above the fridge, the likely rationale being "we don't use this often, so let's keep it out of the way", but having scalding dishes above eye level is not a smart idea. "It's crazy stuff," says Hasler. Ideally, the microwave shouldn't be more than 130cm above the floor.

6. The big chill
When measuring up, the fridge is often left in the cold. Kippax tells of a manufacturer that changed the external dimensions of a fridge but retained the model number, so the unit didn't fit the cavity. "I have heard of cases when the kitchen has been installed around the fridge and then they can't get it out," says Hasler. "One time, the fridge hadn't been measured at all and ended up in the middle of the kitchen floor." Because the kitchen company on the job had gone into liquidation, the hapless customer, too, stayed in the cold.

7. On the surface
One customer complained to Kippax about scratches on his stainless-steel benchtop, just two days after its installation. "Clients see showrooms and images in magazines, but they don't see the problems," he says. "I told him to live with it for six months and see what he thinks. It's part of the patina." Just about any surface will stain, he adds. "Marble, even black granite. Food acids are unforgiving." Melbourne architect Matt Gibson urges people not to be put off by marble. "Marble is such a beautiful, character-filled natural material that has been used for centuries," he says. "There are treatments to repel most stains. To reseal it is a simple and inexpensive process."

8. Antisocial veneer
"Many people choose their joinery finishes with their heart rather than their head, and they don't treat them with respect," says Kippax. He had clients who paradoxically cleaned their oak furniture with the finest polish and their oak joinery with bleach. Little wonder, then, that the kitchen was developing black spots and peeling - and that the doors had to eventually be replaced. Even polyurethane can scratch and chip. "If you have children," he asks, "is a painted finish what you should be looking at?"

9. Zero tolerance
A kitchen with a difference, in decadent midnight-blue, tripped up one of Hasler's clients. When the home went on the market, would-be owners baulked at the intense colour and the scratches it revealed. "The owners had to rip out the kitchen and replace it - for $20,000-plus," she says. "Often my clients give incredibly detailed descriptions of the appliances they have and where they want them," adds Maynard. "If you design your kitchen with tight tolerances, the moment you change an appliance, you've created a difficult or redundant space."

10. See the light
Highly popular pendant lights look stylish, but are not always practical. A customer wanted a row of pendants in a galley kitchen, says Hasler, but the 60cm-wide cupboard doors hit them every time they opened, so the lights had to be moved. Home owners often fall into the trap of placing the sink directly under the window, says Kippax. That's fine during the day, but after dusk you'll have the light behind you.

11. High ideal
Don't think because you are 200cm tall you need a lofty bench. "I've seen a bench a metre high," says Hasler, "but you just can't work at that. The whole kitchen had to be pulled out." Kippax maintains 92cm-94cm is ideal, but most sinks are too low. For the ultimate comfort test, you should be able to lay the backs of your hands flat on the base of the sink. On the subject of sinks, Gibson says not going big enough is one of the key mistakes in kitchen design. "Big and deep is best, two even better, with an inset drainer better still."

12. Store wars
In the endless quest for storage, island benches have become "bulky blocks that cut off the kitchen from the living spaces," says Maynard. "I try to create light, open island benches with simple racking underneath." He often places them on wheels, a great option for entertaining. Another common mistake is filling every wall with cupboards right up to the ceiling. It not only overpowers the kitchen visually, but for anyone bar King Kong, those top cupboards are virtually useless.

13. Watch the wallet
Concerned about their budget and the up­heaval of laying new tiles, customers often want to retain the old floor. "Yes, the old floor looked fine - with the old kitchen," says Hasler. They end up having to rip it up, even more tricky once the kitchen is installed. Cheap cabinetry, too, is false economy. Source your hinges and other hardware from European manufacturers, she urges, and buy your joinery materials from reputable manufacturers. "If you buy off Bob the Back­yarder, you don't know what you're getting," she says. "You should expect your brand-new kitchen to last 15 years."


This article is from the April 2013 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.


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