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Turn a old kitchen into a modern one

If your house predates the Depression, your kitchen probably looks something like this: It's cut up by multiple doorways, has a freestanding range pushed against one wall, no real place for the fridge, and a wee patch of counter on each side of the sink.

But don't blame the architect for these shortcomings. When these kitchens were designed, cooktops, wall ovens and dishwashers—let alone Cuisinarts and yogurt makers—were still years in the future. All an architect really had to accommodate was a freestanding range, a sink with a few feet of drainboard, an icebox and a dishwasher—the two-legged kind.

Planning ideals were also different back then, and kitchen functions were often segregated into several small rooms. A kitchen of the era might be adjoined by a tiny laundry, scullery, mud porch, or breakfast room, or any combination of these. The resulting clutter of walls and doorways usually left very little space for long stretches of countertop.

Today, with the need to include all the foregoing appliances and then some, many of these old kitchens have just about reached their functional limits. But how can they be made more efficient without drastic reconstruction?

The key to making an old kitchen more functional lies in eliminating cross traffic from the "work triangle"—the area bounded by the sink, stove and refrigerator. Take a close look at your kitchen's traffic pattern. Often, you'll find a door leading to the dining room, another into the laundry or other ancillary room and yet another opening onto the hall, all creating a hopelessly crisscrossed traffic path. Often, at least one of these doors is redundant and can be filled in to eliminate one source of cross traffic while allowing for longer stretches of uninterrupted countertop.

Removing walls between the kitchen and other ancillary rooms can also help simplify circulation and free up space for uninterrupted counters. Better yet, if those rooms are at the rear of the house, annexing them to the kitchen may allow you to open up a dramatic view of the back garden—a subtle but effective way to visually expand the room. Space for laundry machines, cabinets or other items displaced by this change can usually be found in a less obtrusive spot.

Once you've eliminated unnecessary traffic routes through the kitchen, you can usually reconfigure the counters in a more practical continuous U- or L-shape. If the remaining doors are unavoidably located at opposite ends of the room, two separate counters can face each other in Pullman fashion.

The sink is usually a good starting point for your layout, since it will almost invariably go along an outside wall, either in front of the existing window or a relocated one. Once the sink's location is fixed, place the refrigerator at one end of the counter or the other. Lastly, you can put the stove anywhere that suits your preferences and the space available. However, always bear in mind the cardinal rule for tuning up cranky old kitchens: Keep cross traffic out of the work triangle.



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